The Aesthetic Attitude

This is a work in progress.  A paper first written for a graduate seminar class in 2011 and later revised for presentation at the 2012 Uehiro Philosophy Conference.  This is the third version, and I am currently revising it for publication in 2014.

Aesthetic Attitude: Full Attention Not Needed

            As a branch of philosophy, Jerome Stolnitz understands that any particular view within aesthetics is not necessarily going to provide us with an objectively true set of answers.  Rather, he recognizes that the discipline is a competitive exchange of ideas, each of which can serve to advance our understanding of the concepts at play[i].  In light of this, Stolnitz puts forth his own unique account of how we ought to position ourselves, with regard to background knowledge and external information, in order to truly grasp the aesthetic value of any piece of art.  This view can serve as one important voice in the discussion of what kind of information and how much of that same information ought to be taken into account when evaluating the aesthetic value of a piece of art.  That is to say, does the fact that the Mona Lisa was painted in the 16th century rather than in the 18th century have any bearing on the aesthetic value of the painting?  Or does the fact that Jay-Z was raised in New York give his music more aesthetic value than it would have if he had been raised in Miami?  If there is a difference, and if these differences are relevant, or irrelevant, then why is that the case?  Jerome Stolnitz attempts to shed some light on these kinds of questions, and differentiate what kinds of information are relevant and which kinds of information are irrelevant in making such judgements.  In his book Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, Jerome Stolnitz aims to describe our aesthetic perception of the world by means of our aesthetic attitude towards it.  That is to say, we can only take in the aesthetic value of an object if our attitude toward it is in the appropriate state.  The version of the aesthetic attitude, as Stolnitz presents it, has not been received without its share of criticisms and comparisons.  Often tied in with other accounts of the aesthetic attitude that seem to take direction from Kant’s account of reflective judgment[ii], including Edward Bullough’s account of physical distance, and Vincent Thomas’ distinction between appearance and reality, Stolnitz’s account of the aesthetic attitude is the focus of George Dickie’s article “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories Fail: The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude.”[iii]  In this particular article, Dickie refers to the entire concept of the aesthetic attitude as a “myth…[that] is no longer useful and in fact misleads aesthetic theory.”[iv]  The aesthetic attitude, as the name suggests, is an approach to the way that we look at things when we want to do so from an aesthetic standpoint.  It differs from our general, passive, non-aesthetic observation and awareness of the world in that, as Stolnitz claims, we generally see objects of the world in terms of their potential or actual usefulness.[v]  When examining objects aesthetically, however, we must do so with an aesthetic attitude, which Stolnitz defines as “disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of the object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone.”[vi]  The aim of taking on this attitude is to be able to separate ourselves from our previous knowledge or preconceived notions regarding the object of our attention.  That is to say, we ought to focus on the object itself rather than the information regarding it.  Creating such a separation between ourselves and our background knowledge will allow us to appreciate the object not in terms of its use from a practical standpoint, but in terms of its aesthetic merit.  We must be open to receive the qualities of the object in an aesthetic manner, and not simply dwell on the emotions that it evokes within us, the memories that it conjures up, or some other characteristic that is not directly contained within the object itself, for all of these things will only serve to alter and ultimately inhibit us from enjoying the object aesthetically.  Included with Stolnitz’s account of aesthetic attention is the notion that in order to appreciate an object aesthetically, we must give it our full attention.  I will go on to discuss this portion of Stolnitz’s view in more detail throughout this essay, as I go on to explain why I do not think that it is the case that we ought necessarily to give our full attention to some object in order to appreciate it on aesthetic terms, and that there are certain cases in which it is precisely our lack of attention that allows us to recognize the aesthetic merits of particular objects.

Stolnitz begins by providing an account of how we perceive the world through our senses, discussing the importance of aesthetic value itself, as well as offering an account of why he feels that aesthetic awareness is significant and worthy of discussion and further thought.  For the purposes of this paper, none of the above will be addressed at great length.  This paper will focus on a very important aspect of Stolnitz’s account of aesthetic attitude that he refers to as aesthetic relevance.  The notion of aesthetic relevance ties in very closely with the aspect of Stolnitz’s view mentioned earlier, that the object of our attention needs to be given our full attention, in that it sets out for us exactly what it is that we can direct our attention towards if we hope to appreciate an object aesthetically, or perhaps more importantly, what we cannot direct our attention towards if we hope to appreciate an object aesthetically.  Aesthetic relevance refers to the relevance of all of the ideas, emotions and knowledge about or pertaining to the object of our aesthetic attention.  This is not to be confused with knowledge that can be gained through the object, rather, it is knowledge that is already within us before we ever come in contact with the object in question.  That is to say, this knowledge exists completely independently of and prior to the subject’s encounter with the object of aesthetic attention.  Some examples of what this kind of historical knowledge can refer to, if we are to limit our discussion to works of art, include things such as the nationality of the artist, the cost of the material used to produce the object, what influenced the production of this particular piece or work, how this piece of work has influenced other artists in the past, and so on.  Often, it is the case that our perception and overall attitude towards a particular object will be largely determined by our background knowledge and experiences of the past, and this is precisely the thing from which Stolnitz wants us to disconnect when we attempt to engage with something aesthetically.  These ideas will hinder our ability to view the object in itself, and prevent us from viewing the aesthetic value of the object, since we will be more focused on things related to the ideas that we already had within us and perhaps cause us to slip back into our natural tendency of viewing the object in terms of practical use.  If we are not able to create some distance between us and our background knowledge, then our engagement with the object will always reflect some shades of judgement based on factors that have been imported by us, which are irrelevant to the piece itself.

Stolnitz does, however, acknowledge that not all background knowledge is necessarily detrimental to the aesthetic process, and that there are cases in which our attention to this background knowledge can be valuable.  Stolnitz notes three cases in which knowledge is not necessarily aesthetically irrelevant, and may actually enhance the aesthetic value of the object of our attention.  Background knowledge can prove to be aesthetically relevant under the conditions that (1) this knowledge does not damage the aesthetic attention toward the object, if (2) it has to do with the overall meaning of the work of art, and (3) when it enhances the overall aesthetic experience of the object.[vii][viii]  Stolnitz demonstrates that external factors can enhance the aesthetic value of certain objects by citing a psychological study performed by Edward Bullough.  This study sought to investigate the ways in which people respond aesthetically when exposed to different colors that are accompanied by certain emotions or memories that are linked to the observer’s past.[ix]  Furthermore, the study sought to determine whether or not all associations could reasonably be deemed illegitimate with regard to aesthetic experience.[x]  The results of the study were able to show that while some external factors drew attention away from the object itself, resulting in the subject’s inability to aesthetically perceive the color, there were also a series of external factors that, if given the observer’s attention, complimented the aesthetic value of the object itself.  These findings make the case that, as Stolnitz argues, not all external factors to the object are necessarily disruptive of its aesthetic being.[xi]  Complimentary to that point, the study was able to show that there are (though they may be rare) cases in which external factors could be used in conjunction with a particular object in order to aid in the perception of the aesthetic value of the object being viewed.  In other words, it is possible to have a secondary object that does not completely draw the attention of the observer to the point that it detracts from another object, but acts to compliment whatever aesthetic features happen to be of concern in its counterpart.

If it is the case that our background knowledge does not fall within one of the three categories discussed by Stolnitz that would allow it to be deemed aesthetically relevant and consequently render it something to which we are able to give our attention, then it is predictably determined to be irrelevant information.   If the information is determined to be irrelevant, in that it does not contribute to the aesthetic value of the object in question, then the object of our attention must be admired independently from that background knowledge and all other things, physical and non-physical, internal and external.  In order to view the work aesthetically, we must become totally engaged with the object and disregard any external thoughts pertaining to use, explanation, potential, or any other sort of criterion by which we may be tempted to judge it.  Stolnitz goes on to point out that many, if not all, of the facts regarding the object that we possess are not embodied within the aesthetic object itself.[xii]  As such, if we are trying to view a piece aesthetically, we cannot import and apply anything, or more specifically, give attention to anything, that is not in the nature of the object already.  Importing such external characteristics that are not already within the work of art simply results in various levels focus being drawn away from the piece of art itself and onto the external, imported characteristics.  This, in turn, may result in drawing attention away from the intended aesthetic characteristics of the piece.

A central problem with Stolnitz’s accounts of aesthetic attention and aesthetic relevance is that, in most cases, it is required that we focus our attention exclusively and fully on the object in question in order to appreciate its aesthetic value.  It does not seem to me that it would be entirely implausible to view an object peripherally and still appreciate its aesthetic value, if not fully, at least partially.  Furthermore, it seems as if Stolnitz thinks that every object, or at least every work of art, holds a certain level of aesthetic value.  This raises the question of whether aesthetic value is merely something that is either possessed or lacked by an object, or if it can be perceived as on a continuum, with some objects more aesthetically valuable than others.  If the latter is true, then it would not be absurd to think that it could be possible that we would be able to appreciate the aesthetic value of a particular object without giving it our full attention.  We can imagine a situation in which a very highly respected art critic is spending the day in an art gallery with his family, enjoying the many paintings around him, when out of the corner of his eye he catches a glimpse of the most amazing painting he has ever seen.   He pauses for a moment without movement, to simply take in the aesthetic value of the painting from his current position.  To him, this painting in this moment holds a very high degree of aesthetic value, and while he is not able to identify all of the minute details of the painting, such as a wide variety of the fine lines, some of the subtle changes in color, or the overall theme of what is being depicted in the painting, he is able to get a general sense of how the bold shapes and lines interact with each other, and how some of the vivid colors complement one another.  Following that moment, he turns to fully give his acute, critical attention to the painting in hopes of truly uncovering what it is about this painting that makes it so radiant and alluring, and to dissect the more subtle aspects of the painting that he had surely missed from his previous position, but finds that it is no longer as aesthetically pleasing as it was when it was merely in his peripheral vision.  Given all of his attention, recognizing the fine lines and subtle uses of color, the painting is still a wonderful piece, but it now seems to be missing something, as if something has been lost in the simple addition of attention.  For fear that he has lost the aesthetic value that was once there, the critic turns back to his previous position so that the painting is once again in his peripheral vision and presented to him in a more general sense, and once again, he is in awe of the aesthetic value of the painting as all of the aesthetic value that he had previously enjoyed from that same position came rushing back.

In the case of this critic in the art gallery, it does not appear to be the case the observer is missing something, or that a focus on irrelevant background knowledge has rendered him incapable of truly seeing that aesthetic value in the painting, rather, that it is through the deliberate act of not giving the piece his total attention that the aesthetic value of it becomes clear, or even present.  We can further imagine that it is not the case that he is focusing on some other painting or lighting that somehow compliments the painting in question, rather that it simply appears to him to hold more aesthetic value when it is not given his full attention than when it is.  To be absolutely sure that it is not the case that there happens to be complimentary factors present within the environment of the painting in question, we can further imagine that there is no surrounding environment to focus on, it is simply darkness, or whiteness, or some arbitrary color and nothing else.  Stolnitz could of course argue that whatever color happens to be in the surrounding environment still serves as complimentary to the painting in question, in that now the scope of the work of art is simply broader than was initially thought.  That is to say, the aesthetic value is not solely within the painting, but within the entire environment of the background color of the walls that the painting is sitting on, the bench slightly to the left of the painting, the other people in the gallery, and so on.  Stolnitz could argue that all of these things immediately surrounding the painting combine to comprise the object of our aesthetic attention, and that attributing the aesthetic value solely to the painting would be a mistake.  On this account, the aesthetic value would be held within the entire perceptual range of the observer rather than in one individual piece, and that what we are really finding aesthetic value in is the entirety of the area rather than limited to just one aspect of the room which we mistakenly think ought to hold the aesthetic value.

I think that we may be able to address this possible objection from Stolnitz by adding several more details to the situation in which our fictional art critic happens to find himself.  Now, not only is he in the same room in the same art gallery experiencing the aesthetic value of one particular work of art while giving it only a minute portion of his attention, just as before, but now we can also imagine that the environment in which the painting is kept is constantly changing.  Everything in the room is changing not only instantaneously, but arbitrarily as well.  The furniture, the paint color on the walls, the people coming and going, the soft music playing, the pieces of art surrounding the painting in question, all of it is constantly changing.  The only things that remain static are the art critic and the painting in question.  In this case would it still be plausible for Stolnitz to say that the aesthetic value that we perceive is really in the sum total of all of the things around us rather than in the painting, which itself only warrants a minimal degree of our attention?  I think that this proves to be a case in which the explanation that Stolnitz gives, of the aesthetic value being held within our entire perceptual field rather than contained in a single painting that happens to fall within that perceptual field, does not hold.  This is largely due to the arbitrary nature of the variations taking place within the room, for there seems to be something counterintuitive to ascribing aesthetic value to a work of art that has been composed in an arbitrary manner.

It could be plausible that some of the instantiations of the ever-changing background carry with them some level of aesthetic value, but it surely could not be said that all of them do.  It could be the case that, at certain times, the art critic is mistakenly attributing aesthetic value of the entire situation solely to the painting, but this too would provide a problem for Stolnitz and his requirement for full attention in order to appreciate aesthetic value.  If it is the case that there happens to be an instance of aesthetic value that is held within one of the randomly and arbitrarily changing environments, it would seem that Stolnitz could argue that this aesthetic value found within the perceptual field could be mistakenly attributed solely to the unchanging painting.  But again, this reply from Stolnitz would not hold because this situation would just be a case in which aesthetic value of an object would be perceived by the observer without giving that object his full attention, in that the environment (which is the object in this case) is so rapidly changing that it does not allow for one to fully focus his attention on it.  With the speed of the changes of the environment, it would simply be impossible to be able to give it our full attention so as to fully appreciate the aesthetic value, as prescribed by Stolnitz.  What the critic would be experiencing is a fleeting sense of aesthetic value, one on which he cannot really reflect upon because just as soon as it was there, it has now vanished, and if there is any aesthetic value that the critic feels he has, with regard to the room, it would be the aesthetic value of the idea of the room in his mind or the memory of a past composition, which are either largely fabricated or by or held within himself, in that there was not nearly enough time to construct a complete and accurate rendering of the room.  Having come and gone so quickly, it does not seem as if this particular instance of aesthetic value could be expanded to cover one particular static painting within that ever-changing environment.  Perhaps this could be the reason why we would not generally be able to claim that the background in various scenes of various movies carry with them any level of aesthetic value, since the focus on them is often just made in passing, not giving us enough time to adequately appreciate it.  Of course, this seems to be a question saved for another time though.  So, if Stolnitz is to claim, in this situation, that the aesthetic value of the entire situation has been wrongly attributed to the peripheral painting, then this would commit him to the idea that full attention is not necessary to perceive aesthetic value because there is no way that an adequate amount of attention could have been paid to the rapidly-changing environment so as to justify Stolnitz’s requirement for full attention.

A second way to address the amended example with regard to the possible objection from Stolnitz is to say that while it is possible that there are certain instances in which the environment as a whole serves as an object with aesthetic value, if the environment is constantly changing, then it cannot be the case that every variation of the environment holds aesthetic value.  I don’t see any reason that Stolnitz would refute this point, because it seems very plausible that there would be cases in which the environment of the painting could be viewed altogether as aesthetically valuable in itself or complimentary to the painting, but there would certainly be even a minimal number of cases in which the environment would contribute absolutely no aesthetic value.  Again, in this paper I am not concerned with what features constitute the presence or degree of aesthetic value, as I am solely concerned with whether or not it is present in these different hypothetical situations.  If Stolnitz does accept that there will be certain environments that have a high level of aesthetic value, some environments that have a low level of aesthetic value, and some environments that have absolutely no aesthetic value, then it would have to follow that our art critic’s perception of the aesthetic value within the painting would have to be in constant flux, in tune with the constant flux of the aesthetic value of each different environment.  If the aesthetic value of the environment was incorrectly attributed to the painting, then the critic would have to know or feel the difference in aesthetic value of the painting, but he does not.  The aesthetic value of the painting remains constant despite the changes of everything else around it.  Because of that, it cannot possibly be the case that the critic is confusing the aesthetic value of the room with the aesthetic value of the painting, because while the room is constantly being arbitrarily changed, the only things that remain static are the painting, the critic, and the level of aesthetic value that is being perceived by the critic.  As such, Stolnitz still does not seem to be able to account for the case described in our hypothetical situation.

On Stolnitz’s account of how we ought to recognize aesthetic value, it does not seem that we are able to take into account works of art which are intended to serve as “background art” or those that simply appear to maintain their highest degree of aesthetic value when not given full attention.  Perhaps at this point, the scope of the artwork would simply broaden to include any and everything that is taking our attention away from the piece in question, ultimately creating one large piece containing many other pieces within it, all helping to enhance the aesthetic value of one.  However, I am not sure that this is a very common goal employed by artists or that it is even plausible, especially if we import it into an example such as the one we have been discussing.  In the case with the ever-changing room, it would be possible to claim that it is not solely the painting that is the work of art, rather it is the whole environment in which the painting is found that is the work of art (we have touched on something very close to this idea in the previous paragraph).  While we could reasonably say that each variation of the room is its own individual exemplification of a work of art, it would not be reasonable to say that each variation would be equally as aesthetically valuable as the last.  As such, if we are to return to our discussion of the single painting again, the aesthetic value of that painting would too have to fluctuate just as the aesthetic value of the overall perceptual field changes, but this is not the case in the thought experiment.  And if it is the case that each variant holds the same level of aesthetic value, and the only thing common in each variant is the painting, then could we not say that it is the painting that determines the aesthetic value?  And if so, can we just essentially eliminate everything else and simply view the aesthetic value as being contained wholly within that painting?  It seems that these could be interesting questions that would also pose problems for Stolnitz, but ones that are best left for another time.

In order to maintain a portion of his account of aesthetic attention, perhaps Stolnitz needs to re-examine how he describes the need to devote our full attention to a given piece of work in order to appreciate its true aesthetic value.  As we have seen, there do seem to be cases in which an individual can appreciate the aesthetic value of a piece of art without giving it his full attention.  Furthermore, as we have seen, there may be cases in which the lack of full attention enhances the aesthetic value of a certain work of art.  As such, we have seen that there is a key flaw in Stolnitz’s requirement of full attention that is included within his overall account of aesthetic attention.


[i] Jerome Stolnitz, “Introduction,” in Aesthetics, ed. Jerome Stolnitz (New York, NY: Collier-Macmillan, 1965), 1-20.

[ii] “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified February 13, 2013, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-aesthetics/

[iii] George Dickie, “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories Fail: The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude,” in Aesthetics: A Critical Anthology, ed. George Dickie, Richard Sclafani and Ronald Roblin (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), 342-55.

[iv] Dickie, “All Aesthetic Attitude Theories,” 342.

[v] Jerome Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticisms: A Critical Introduction (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 33.

[vi] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 35.

[vii] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 55.

[viii] This is another aspect where the Kant’s influence of distinguishing between judgments of taste and judgements of beauty can be seen.  A distinction between an object’s aesthetic value and that same object’s instrumental value.  “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology.”

[ix] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[x] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[xi] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 54.

[xii] Stolnitz, Aesthetics and Philosophy, 53.

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