Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Aesthetic Objects

We just had a mini-debate about what should have been included in my list of Ten Best Compositions of the 20th Century. I admit that sometimes I put up a list because it is the traditional way of attracting traffic on the web! But I think that these kinds of things can also be useful exercises because they encourage us to evaluate and be critical. In a world where all the Big Narratives are about Diversity, Inclusiveness and Equality, it is precisely the critical and evaluative functions of our minds that are neglected.

At The Music Salon, the kind of evaluation we are usually doing is aesthetic valuation or criticism. That is, statements about aesthetic objects, so it is a good idea to talk a little bit about what an aesthetic object is. My guide for this discussion is the excellent book by Munroe C. Beardsley I have referred to before: Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism.

Psychological definitions: these ways of defining an aesthetic object refer to them as objects deliberately produced by human beings, moreover, for aesthetic motives like self-expression. The problem with this kind of definition is that we still have to define "aesthetic object" independently of its psychological conditions, otherwise we could not identify those psychological conditions that are involved in the production of aesthetic objects (as opposed to other kinds of objects). Further, there is the problem of, say, ancient cave art. We have no idea of the psychological conditions that produced them. The same applies to religious art which may or may not have any aesthetic motives involved.

Instead of examining the psychological motives, we might instead look at the effects of an aesthetic object. We might say that a perceptual object is not an aesthetic object unless it produces a certain kind of experience. We might distinguish the effects of aesthetic objects from mere entertainment in this way. But here we run into the same problem that is illustrated by putting the problem in the form of this question: "What psychological states and processes are generally, or universally, found in responses to aesthetic objects?" Again, we have to define aesthetic object independently of its psychological effects to avoid begging the question.

Yet another problem is the need to avoid the normative element. If you are defining an aesthetic object in terms of its aesthetic effect, which has an underlying element of valuation (meaning an aesthetic effect is assumed to be "good"), then it is hard to talk about worthless aesthetic objects!

Another way of defining an aesthetic object is in terms of our attitude toward it. We could call this the "aesthetic attitude." You might, for example, regard an apple from various perspectives: its economic value, its nutritional value, or its qualities of appearance and taste. In the latter case you are taking more of an aesthetic attitude. Or you could be reading a book like Darwin's Origin of Species and following his theory of evolution and the evidence he assembles. But if you are reading it more for the clarity and force of his prose, that would be an aesthetic attitude--you are paying attention more to the literary values of the work. This definition is relational. Anything can be regarded as an aesthetic object, though some kinds of things are more likely to be approached with an aesthetic attitude. The advantage of this kind of definition is that it is very broad. Perhaps too broad, as while we might choose to read Aristotle's Metaphysics for its poetic charm, it is not very satisfactory to do so!

The above notes and commentary are derived from Beardsley, pp. 58 - 62. Let's stop here for today and listen to some music. This is a little tune, premiered in 1896, by Richard Strauss titled Also Sprach Zarathustra, based on the book by Friedrich Nietzsche. Gustavo Dudamel conducts the Berlin Philharmonic:

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