Aesthetic Attention and Fascination

by Dwight Furrow

Why do we value successful art works, symphonies, and good bottles of wine? One answer is that they give us an experience that lesser works or merely useful objects cannot provide—an aesthetic experience. But how does an aesthetic experience differ from an ordinary experience? This is one of the central questions in philosophical aesthetics but one that has resisted a clear answer.  Although we are all familiar with paradigm cases of aesthetic experience—being overwhelmed by beauty, music that thrills, waves of delight provoked by dialogue in a play, a wine that inspires awe—attempts to precisely define “aesthetic experience” by showing what all such experiences have in common have been less than successful.

The best-known definition of aesthetic experience remains Immanuel Kant’s view that a genuine, aesthetic experience requires disinterested attention, a suspension of any personal interest one might have in the aesthetic object so we might experience it free from the distractions of desire. But perhaps Kant’s view is so well known because of the fusillade of objections launched at it over the past several centuries. It is peculiar to argue that what is distinctive about aesthetic experience is the absence of any desire to find the object appealing or satisfying.

Others have tried to define aesthetic experience in terms of the kind of properties apprehended in such an experience such as beauty, elegance, or unity. But objects that lack such properties can induce an aesthetic experience. Furthermore, the apprehension of a property is not a sufficient condition for having an aesthetic experience. We can recognize beauty or unity in an object without having a moving or distinctive experience at all, especially if one is tired, bored or preoccupied with a task. In the contemporary art world, any kind of object can be a work of art. Thus, an infinitely disparate list of properties can at least potentially provoke an aesthetic experience. It is unlikely that a definition that appeals to such a list of properties would be successful.

Formalist critics in the mid-20th century tried to solve this problem by specifying that only formal properties or design features of an object could generate a genuine aesthetic experience. But it’s hard to take seriously the view that the content or meaning of a work of art plays no role in our aesthetic appreciation of it. Surely it matters that Van Gogh’s Peasant Woman is about a peasant woman. In light of these failed attempts at definition, it is no wonder that some theorists have abandoned the idea of “the aesthetic” as being unhelpful in understanding art appreciation.

The problem might be manageable if aesthetic experience was confined to the art gallery or the symphony hall. But we can have aesthetic experiences of ordinary objects in ordinary contexts—dappled sunlight streaming through a stand of birch trees, an exquisitely prepared meal, or a TV show that leaves one haunted by a character or conversation. An aesthetic experience can arrive when we least expect it, when preoccupied with a practical task. A mechanic might savor the hum of a well-tuned engine, a carpenter might admire a well-hung door, not only as an indicator of a job well done, but as a perceptual experience that gives pleasure. Wine is an especially good example of an aesthetic experience stimulated by an ordinary object because wine is experienced in everyday contexts. As I noted in a previous post, wine is almost always consumed when other activities are ongoing and some attention must be diverted from the wine—at dinner, during engaged conversations with friends, while reading or watching TV or at celebrations. Whatever an aesthetic experience of wine is, it will admit of degrees and must be blended with and accompany a variety of other everyday experiences that may or may not be aesthetic.

Given this embeddedness in everyday contexts and the failures in defining aesthetic experience in terms of particular kinds of objects or properties, a more promising approach would be to define aesthetic experience in terms of the kind of attention we give to an object or scene. Anything can be the source of an aesthetic experience depending on how we attend to it. Perhaps Kant was on the right track in focusing on the kind of attention we give an object but needed a more nuanced concept than “disinterestedness” to describe it.

Philosopher Bence Nanay, in Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception, has helpfully argued that we can distinguish most paradigm cases of aesthetic experience from non-aesthetic experiences by specifying the scope of attentional focus characteristic of former. He uses a classic distinction in the philosophy of perception to make his case—the distinction between distributed and focused attention.”…in the case of some paradigmatic instances of aesthetic experience, we attend in a distributed and at the same time focused manner: our attention is focused on one perceptual object, but it is distributed among a large number of this object’s properties” (13).

An “object” for Nanay  is “a sensory individual” by which he means any entity “we attribute properties to”. [61] My coffee cup is a sensory individual but so is the landscape I see out my window or the concert I attended last night since I can attribute properties to any of these. Nanay then describes four possible kinds of attention:

1.       “Distributed with regards to objects and focused with regards to properties.” For instance, when searching for a face in a crowd of people my attention will range over many people but will be focused on only the properties of the face I’m looking for.

2.       “Distributed with regards to objects and distributed with regards to properties.” While listening to a boring lecture my attention will wander over many objects and many properties.

3.       “Focused with regard to objects and focused with regard to properties.” This is the kind of attention most practical tasks require. A mechanic working on an engine will be focused on one object—the engine or a particular part of the engine—and a narrow range of properties that are implicated in the repair.

4.       Focused with regards to objects and distributed with regards to properties” (24).

Nanay argues that (4) is the distinctive kind of attention we exercise in aesthetic experience. When viewing a painting or piece of music I focus on the art object, but every feature of that object at least potentially matters and so my attention is distributed across every relevant feature I can find. This is in contrast to the kind of attention described in (3) where a practical concern with an object narrows the scope of properties to which one pays attention.

This is a useful picture of aesthetic experience because any object or collection of qualities can qualify if we attend to them in the right way. Furthermore, attention can be flexibly altered to conform to what a situation requires. The degree of focus and how it is distributed can be dialed up or dialed back depending on circumstances. Nanay’s view explains how, at a dinner party with many distractions, I can sometimes have an aesthetic experience of a wine by directing my attention properly. Everyday objects are thus firmly in the realm of aesthetic objects when our attention is properly directed.

One implication of Nanay’s account is that although Kant was wrong to reject functional objects as aesthetic objects he was right to argue that an excessively narrow focus on function or practical interest would not be aesthetic. Functional objects can be aesthetic objects when our attention is properly distributed over a wide range of properties. However, if I focus narrowly on an object’s monetary, practical, or sentimental value to the exclusion of a wider range of its other properties my experience would not be aesthetic.

As useful as Nanay’s account is, I think there are two kinds of counter examples that are important to address.  The first I mentioned above. A mechanic who takes time to enjoy the hum of the well-tuned engine he is working on, not as evidence of a job well done, but as a source of sensory enjoyment is having an aesthetic experience. Yet the attentional focus is on a single perceptual object, the engine, but a narrow range of the engine’s properties—the hum of the engine. Appreciation of the way a single color in a painting interacts with light would have a similar narrow distribution of attention.  These would seem to be a case of (3) rather than (4) in Nanay’s schema. They raise an important issue that Nanay doesn’t explicitly address. Attentional focus is a matter of degree—we can dial it up and down as warranted by the object and our interest in it. Thus, these categories of attentional focus are not discreet, rigidly bounded categories.  “In the wild” so to speak, outside the need to categorize them philosophically, these categories of attention can bleed into one another. The mechanic enjoying the hum of his engine is carrying something of the phenomenology and open sensitivity of (4) into the intentional focus of (3). But then the question becomes how we maintain that phenomenology with such a narrow focus.

The second counter example is more serious and shows why Nanay’s account of perceptual attention may not provide a sufficient condition for aesthetic attention. I will use the example of wine tasting but any form of art criticism would provide a meaningful example. Wine tasters tasked with providing a comprehensive description and evaluation of a wine must be intensely focused on a single object, the wine, but openly searching for a wide variety of properties. This would seem to be a clear case of Nanay’s fourth category that he argues is properly aesthetic. Yet a wine critic intensely focused on providing an accurate description and evaluation of the wine he is sipping may not be having an aesthetic experience. One can recognize and tick off features of the wine without experiencing them as meaningful or eliciting the powerful responses—enjoyment, awe, fascination, disgust, contempt—that we associate with paradigm aesthetic experiences. In other words, the intense focus on an object distributed with regard to properties is compatible with a flat affect that seems unlike the paradigm cases of aesthetic experience.

Nanay in fact grants this. “It has happened to many of us that although we have entered a museum with the specific intention of having an aesthetic experience of a specific artwork, it just didn’t happen. We stand in front of it and we fail to experience it in an aesthetic manner…” (16) I’m not quite sure what he means here. He may mean that because of fatigue, distraction, or the wrong mood I may not be able to hold my attention on a sufficient number of properties to attain the “wow” factor that is typical of aesthetic attention. Be that as it may I am arguing a somewhat different point. Despite the wine critic’s adequately distributed mode of attention on many properties, she still might not achieve aesthetic attention. This suggests that something more than focused, distributed attention is required for that attention to be aesthetic.

What might that something more be? In the phenomenology of aesthetic attention there is often a sense that one is giving in to the object. My will is relaxing so that I’m maximally sensitive to what the wine, painting, or piece of music has to offer. I’m not suspending my interest in the object as Kant would have it; I’m surrendering to a kind of affective infection generated by the object. The object is not just a bearer of properties; it is expressing those properties. Part of aesthetic attention is feeling the force of that expression, feeling its urgency. There is an affective, receptive dimension to aesthetic attention that is dependent not only on the scope of attention but its sensitivity to the force and fullness of the object’s expressiveness.

This is what the mechanic enjoying the hum of his engine brings to what would otherwise be a narrow, practical focus on repairing the car; it is what a wine critic can experience in addition to his accurate appraisal of the properties of the wine. One is not necessarily responding emotionally to the object, but one is attending to its “glow” or allure, our attention is rapt, fascinated, drawn in by the power of the object’s expression.

Such sensitivity and fascination are matters of degree. But I doubt that attention is aesthetic without some minimal level of this fascination. Aesthetic attention is not only a matter of how attention is distributed but a matter of sustaining a kind of open sympathy for the object of attention—a willingness to allow one’s feelings to resonate with the object. Perhaps we should call it “resonant attention”.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution