Monday, September 28, 2015

What is the aesthetic attitude? Stolnitz revisited.

It is common for readers in a discipline, even sophisticated ones, to dismiss writers and thinkers popular at one time by way of labeling them.  Then when you sit down and actually read something by that person carefully the position turns out often to be much more complex and nuanced than one would expect.  Carolyn Korsmeyer's Aesthetics:  The Big Questions contains a selection from Jerome Stolnitz's Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, A Critical Introduction (1960) which defends and develops his own version of the aesthetic attitude.  The selection is followed by  Marcia Muelder Eaton's "Locating the Aesthetic," which came from her Aesthetics and the Good Life (1989).  It is easy to dismiss Stolnitz as a formalist uninterested in subject-matter and become an advocate of Eaton's contextualism.  But now, almost a quarter of a century after the contextualist revolution --- now that contextualism is our dominant form of critical practice, and has been for a long time -- it might be worthwhile to reread Stolnitz with a kinder and even more sympathetic eye, if for nothing else but to just gain some perspective.  I already tried to do that in my book, The Extraordinary in the Ordinary:  The Aesthetics of Everyday Life (2012) and in my previous article “Practical George and Aesthete Jerome Meet the Aesthetic Object,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy, 28:1 (1990) 37-53.  In the book I say: 

"One can look at an everyday streetscape from a disinterested perspective, focusing on sensuous and design features, and then switch to a perspective that takes into account history and context. One can follow Stolnitz in isolating the object from the flow of experience and from its interrelations with other things, and then toggle [I adopt this idea from Peggy Brand] to a non-isolated form of perception.  I have been arguing that taking the aesthetic attitude is taking an attitude that allows objects, environments or events to have aura.  Although either disinterestedness or interested perception alone might do this, toggling between interested and disinterested perception is more likely to heighten significance. The toggling approach may be applied to all types of aesthetics:  of art, of nature and of everyday life."  (198)  I still endorse this view.

So what more can we get out of Stolnitz.  Much of the selection in Korsmeyer's book is an attempt both to enrich our notion of what goes on with the aesthetic attitude and also to overcome some prejudice against the notion.  [True scholarship would look at Stolnitz's book as a whole, and also his entire life's writing.  But hey this is a blog.]  Let's assume for the moment that Stolnitz is right that our ordinary practical attitude towards things is such that we only perceive things in a partial way.  After all, it would be "stupid and wasteful to become absorbed in the object itself" under normal circumstances.  There is no value, for example, in absorbing ourselves in the aesthetic features of a stop sign:  we need to just know when to stop or go.  So the perception of things under practical conditions is "limited and fragmented."  It is sufficient just to identify the thing, something we do habitually, as when we choose a pen over a paper clip to write with.  As Stolnitz puts it, we "read the label" rather than look at the thing itself.  But when we pay attention to the thing itself for the sake of enjoying the way it looks or sounds [or...add the other senses] then we are taking the aesthetic attitude. This happens for example in attending to a play or even when we glance aesthetically at our surroundings while on vacation.

Stolnitz's definition of aesthetic attitude is "disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone."  The rest of the selection attempts to explain the concepts in the definition. [Unfortunately Stolnitz does not explain "for its own sake alone":  what exactly is the "sake" of a landscape seen from a car?] 

The key here is that the aesthetic attitude is needed for having an aesthetic experience.  Stolnitz stresses that we are not taking an aesthetic attitude when we have a cognitive interest, as in that taken by a sociologist or a historian, or when our interest is in judging, as in that of an art critic.  This last point is somewhat surprising since Kant, who had also promoted the idea disinterested perception, had associated it strongly with critical judgment.  So, in a sense, Stolnitz's version of disinterestedness is even more purified than Kant's.  He further elaborates that the aesthetic attitude "isolates" the object insofar as it focuses on the look or the sound, and it is not seen, therefore, in the fragmented manner characteristic of practical perception.   The inference seems odd, but the idea is noteworthy:  that aesthetic perception is specifically not fragmented. 

Stolnitz further stresses that the aesthetic experience is not "un-interested" but in fact is "intensely absorbed."  This leads into the notion of "sympathetic" which has to do with preparation for the aesthetic experience.  The aesthetic attitude is sympathetic in that we "prepare ourselves to respond to the object" in order to "relish its individual quality."  He talks about this as accepting the object "on its own terms."  What this means is never made clear, as mentioned above, although he elaborates it in terms of "being receptive" to what the object has to offer perceptually, and inhibiting unsympathetic responses, for example of the sort we would have to a novel that does not accord with our way of thinking. So we are to "follow the lead of the object and respond in concert with it." This seems interestingly in accord with the recent school of object-centered theory that I discussed in a recent post. 

Stolnitz tries to explain this point further by talking of a sonnet by Milton written as a protest, but which now seems remote from us in terms of the "heated questions of religion and politics" involved. To be sympathetic to the work is to "give it a chance" to show what about it would be interesting to perception.   

Stolnitz also warns us that we should not see aesthetic attention is a matter of just looking or of a blank stare but rather something like, or understood in terms of, what happens when we listen to a "rhythmically exciting piece of music" where we are absorbed by the "energy and movement" or when we find ourselves sitting on the edge of our chair:  it is not passive.  

The key notion is "coming alive."  Stolnitz writes:  "In taking the aesthetic attitude, we want to make the value of the object come fully alive in our experience."  This requires that we prepare our selves to respond in terms of imagination and emotion.  It is not just that we attend to the object but how intensely we attend to the object.  We only attend aesthetically when we are wholly absorbed. And this is attended by activity.  An example of this is keeping in time with the music by moving one's foot, or responding in a muscular way sympathetically to a sculpture.  

Arnold Berleant has been a long-time critic of the aesthetic attitude and yet it is therefore ironic that he shares with Stolnitz an interest in this kind of activity:  it is clear that what Berleant attacks is not really what Stolnitz believes, that Stolnitz's notion of the aesthetic attitude is much richer than what we find in traditional attacks on it, for instance in the famous attack by George Dickie.  Like Berleant, Stolnitz stresses that we experience a cathedral actively through walking through it. 

Stolnitz goes further and, drawing from Hume, stresses that in acting in regard to the object we savor it fully only when we focus on its "complex and subtle details."  Like Frank Sibley, he stresses the role of the "able teacher" in being able to make a work of art "vital and engaging" by way of showing us things to which we might have been insensitive.  

This comment is followed in the reading by a sentence that should be a surprise to Stolnitz's critics.  The sentence states that this kind of awareness often requires "knowledge about allusions or symbols which occur in the work" as well as possibly "training in the art form."  So that which is external is not necessarily excluded from attention to the object's intrinsic features, a point he surprisingly shares with Marcia Eaton.  

I mentioned his reliance on Hume.  However this should not be oversimplified.  For Stolnitz, there is a specific purpose for "discriminating attention."  For Hume, that seems just to allow us to reconcile judgments or to condemn others.  But for Stolnitz, the matter is more object-centered:  it is for the work to come alive to us.  Again, he explains this in terms of listening to a symphony where keeping the themes in mind, following the development, appreciating the dynamic of their interrelations, contributes to an experience that has "greater richness and unity."  So it seems that aesthetic attitude is an attitude that has as its end product an experience of greater richness and unity based on understanding structure, among other things.

In conclusion, for Stolnitz the aesthetic attitude is not just a blank or passive stare, but rather is setting oneself in preparation for aesthetic experience (i.e. being fully absorbed in the object of perception), that preparation involving giving the object a chance to reveal its individual quality worthy of appreciation, treating it in a non-fragmentary way, learning about allusions and other background considerations, physically engaging with the object in appropriate ways, and generally doing whatever is necessary to bring the object alive in experience.  His description of listening to a symphony is paradigmatic of what this involves:  one has to attune oneself to dynamic interrelations that give rise to greater richness and unity.  Finally, this attitude can be applied to anything whatever, even a landscape seen from a car.     

Dickie is often said to have definitely refuted Stolnitz, but given my description of Stolnitz's view above, that hardly seem plausible. Dickie's view is that there is only one kind of attention, and either one attends to the properties or not.  My specific criticism of Dickie is to be found in the above-mentioned article, however I might mention here that Dickie's is an overly spare notion of the structure of consciousness.  He thinks that differences in motive simply cause the critic, the philistine and the aesthete to focus on different properties in the aesthetic object.  Properties are treated as static attributes of the thing in question.  I think that there really is a profound difference between the kind of fragmented viewing Stolnitz calls "practical" and the rich and complex form of experience I have just described, an experience that requires some training, some preparation.  If one approaches something with this preparation and has the appropriate aesthetic experience then one can be said to have had the appropriate attitude.  Attending to something in such a way as to give it a chance and to bring it alive is very different from attending to it in such a way as to track its properties:  tracking properties is really just another way to look at something as having certain appropriate labels, which is precisely the form of perception which Stolnitz sought to wean us from. 

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