Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What is the value of disinterested perception?

Immanuel Kant was famous for advocating disinterestedness in order to achieve aesthetic perception.  However in recent years this idea has been challenged.  Notably, Arnold Berleant in "Aesthetics without Purpose" takes on Kant directly in his criticism of disinterestedness.  However, there have also been some recent defenders of disinterestedness.  One such defender is Theodore Gracyk in his article "A Different Plea for Disinterest." (Aesthetics:  A Reader in Philosophy of Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown, Boston:  Prentice Hall, 2011).  Gracyk's basic argument is that disinterested attention can work together with interested attention, that it is not an either/or proposition.  As he puts it "DA secures attention to subject matter, but in a way that integrates DA with IA." (449)  His area of specific study is popular music.  He notes that in popular music "the music is designed to reward listening through DA, that is, apart from our grasp of the song's subject matter."  (Peggy Brand first developed the idea of toggling between DA and IA in her article "Disinterestedness and Political Art," n. paradoxa online issue no. 8 and 9 Nov. 1998 and Feb. 99.  Her views were the inspiration for Gracyk's.)  But Berleant complains that Kant's idea of disinterestedness rests "on Kant's distinction between objective and subjective sensation, and on excluding the aesthetic from all but humans" and that this involves "imposing external strictures on experience." (150-151)  Berleant is certainly right that function often plays an important role in our aesthetic appreciation of art.  However, Kant himself recognized this with his idea that there is such a thing as dependent beauty, and that architecture is an example of this.  Architecture clearly can be, or rather, must be, seen both in a disinterested way and in an interested way.  When we perceive in a disinterested way we do not have to think as much (or at all) about function....but we cannot do that for very long with architecture, since buildings must serve a function.  On my view the best way to view architecture is to toggle (following Brand and Gracyk) between DA and IA.  I grant that overemphasis placed on disinterested attention is guilty of all of the charges Berleant levels against disinterestedness as a concept.  But once disinterestedness is restrained and balanced against IA it is found to be of the greatest importance, and this is consistent with Kant's best insights into aesthetics.  It is not at all clear how giving credit to disinterestedness as a necessary moment in full and rich aesthetic experience makes the aesthetic "subservient to rationalistic and system-generated preconceptions" as Berleant would argue.  (151)  Nor is it required to see humans as radically different from animals in order to give disinterestedness this role.  Disinterestedness allows us to bracket issues of existence, morality, and knowledge, in perceiving an aesthetic object, thus allowing us to break away from certain prejudices and to see things in a fresh way. 

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