A current controversy in esthetics is about whether there is such a thing as an esthetic attitude. The older traditional estheticians were Modernist in outlook, and believed that there was, but today these estheticians’ theories are being challenged by the Postmodernist estheticians. In his essay, H. Gene Blocker (born 1937) explores this controversy, looking first at the ideas of Modernist estheticians and then at the ideas of Postmodernist estheticians. In addition, he shows how each group of critics feels about censorship of the arts.
The main assumption of the Modernist estheticians is that people can be interested in an art object — or other object — for different reasons. These reasons will determine the person’s point of view and how he or she sees the object.
For example, a person could look at a forest for many different reasons. A logger may look at the forest in terms of how much lumber could be made from harvesting the timber. The owner of the forest could look at the forest in terms of money and wonder how much money could be made from harvesting the timber. An environmentalist could look at the forest as a habitat for wildlife. A family on an outing could look at the forest as a nice place for a short hike and a picnic lunch. A painter could look at the forest as a suitable subject for a landscape. A songwriter such as John Denver could be inspired by the forest to write a song about saving the environment. The different reasons people have for being interested in the forest influence the way they see the forest.
People have various attitudes when looking at the forest, and some of these attitudes can be grouped into the esthetic point of view. This, of course, brings up the question, “What is the esthetic point of view?” The Modernist answer of the older traditional estheticians is that the esthetic attitude is characterized by three things: disinterestedness, detachment, and emotional distance. To look at something esthetically, we look at it for its own sake; we cannot be distracted by thoughts of monetary gain or any other selfish calculations.
When we look at something for its own sake, we are saying that it has intrinsic value: It is valuable in itself, and not for anything that we can get out of it. To look at a forest solely in terms of the money to be gotten from logging is not to look at the forest as having any intrinsic value; instead, the forest is valued only for the money it can bring to the owner. In the case of nature songwriter John Denver, he can look at the forest as having intrinsic value, even if later he does write a best-selling song about the forest.
All of us regard esthetic experiences as possessing intrinsic value. As such, this kind of experience is unusual. Most of the time, we do not experience things esthetically. We merely look at something, but we do not see it esthetically. For example, I am a heavy coffee drinker, but I seldom take a close look at my coffee cup. Most mornings, I merely grab my empty coffee cup and fill it with coffee. (I’m groggy and unable to function well until I’ve had my first 20 cups of the morning. Joke.) But it is possible for me to look at my coffee cup esthetically: It has an esthetically pleasing shape, and on it is printed an esthetically pleasing picture of a hot air balloon floating above a beach.
However, some places encourage people to adopt an esthetic attitude. For example, at an art museum you are encouraged to look at art works. The lighting is focused on the art works so you can see them better, and you are not allowed to shout or engage in loud conversation; in fact, everything in the art museum encourages you to look at but not to interact with (don’t touch the paintings, please!) the art works.
One result of the detachment of the esthetic attitude is that the art work is placed in isolation. The art work is regarded as a self-contained whole and is not directly connected to the rest of the world. For example, at the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the theater is strewn with “corpses,” yet a few minutes later the actors playing the corpses will stand up, then bow to your applause. In the theater — which just like the art museum encourages the esthetic attitude — the audience knows that it is looking at fiction and not at real life. However, the audience engages in a “willing suspension of disbelief” and feels an emotional reaction when Hamlet dies. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls this the “unrealizing” function of esthetic experience.
Because the viewer of the art work is both disinterested and detached, he or she is reflective and contemplative and tends to look at the art work “symbolically.” It is possible to look at a forest in terms of utilitarian considerations — for example, looking only at the money that can be made from cutting down the forest to make lumber. However, one can also look at the forest symbolically; in the forest we see the cycle of nature as trees grow from seeds, mature, then age and die. In addition, we can see how living creatures are related, as birds make their nests in the limbs of the tree and as the leaves that fall from the tree fertilize the earth for other vegetation.
In looking at the forest symbolically, Blocker writes, we see the “paradox of the esthetic attitude.” The forest is something that is concrete, yet it can represent something that is abstract, such as rebirth and renewal — as when a forest grows back in an area where there has been a forest fire.
Blocker also writes that there can be an intense emotional interest in an object of esthetic attention at a symbolic level. For example, no one believes in worshipping the god Dionysus anymore. However, we can still enjoy such plays as Euripides’ Bacchae today. Why? Because of the symbolic level of the play. We look at Dionysus as representing the nonrational forces — the desire for fun and for play — inside us. Euripides’ play shows that these forces must be recognized, for if they are bottled up, they can destroy you.
So far, Blocker has looked at the older traditional estheticians’ theory of esthetic attitude in terms of disinterestedness, detachment, and emotional distance. Now he shows the relationship of this Modernist theory to the current controversy about censorship in the arts.
Today, many people would like to see the arts censored because they think that the way women are portrayed in the arts leads to violence against women. For example, they feel that art works of nude women encourage looking at women as mere objects.
Blocker points out two problems with this attitude:
1) We can ask whether portrayals of nude women really are likely to lead to violence against women. If the older traditional estheticians’ theory of esthetic attitude in terms of disinterestedness, detachment, and emotional distance is correct, the answer is, no.
2) Women do symbolize certain qualities in art. Blocker writes, “Many art works represent women as symbols of fertility, emotion, intuition, nurturing, passivity, weakness.” These qualities may be stereotypes, but nevertheless women continue to be regarded as symbolizing them.
According to the Modernist estheticians, does looking at a painting of a female nude cause sexual desire or arousal? The answer is, no. The esthetic attitude is one of distance, and therefore one merely contemplates the art work. According to the Modernist estheticians, the art work will have only a temporary effect on the viewer — almost always, immediately after seeing an art work, the audience will continue to live the same way and have the same attitudes it did before.
However, according to the Postmodernist estheticians, there is no such thing as an esthetic attitude, and therefore the audience does not distance itself from the art work.
Also according to the Modernist estheticians, the audience is capable of temporarily assuming different attitudes. We can imagine holding different perspectives, without adopting them permanently. Thus, in a play a character may be a Marxist and spout Marxist ideas, yet the audience will hear the ideas, understand the Marxist character’s perspective, but not become Marxists. As Blocker writes, “[M]ost of us can entertain but finally resist many different perspectives.”
However, the Postmodernist estheticians who advocate censorship believe that we are not capable of temporarily holding attitudes. They believe that we are influenced by the ideas we come in contact with. They believe that viewing a sexist art work can make us into sexists.
There is no doubt that we are influenced by the ideas of our culture. The Modernist estheticians believe that popular culture influences us much more than fine arts. After all, we live in a consumer society and are constantly barraged by advertisements. A USAmerican adult who can go through an entire day without spending any money is unusual.
However, the Postmodernist estheticians deny that there is a valid distinction between popular culture and fine arts. We are influenced by all the ideas we come in contact with. Fine art and popular culture are merely different forms of the general culture, and both influence us. According to many Postmodernist estheticians, it is society that determines our values and attitudes. However, according to the Modernist estheticians, we are in control. The Modernist estheticians believe that we can try to understand the ideas of the artist without permanently adopting those ideas, but the Postmodernist estheticians believe that we will be influenced by those ideas whether we want to be influenced or not.
Because the Modernist estheticians believe that we are in control, they resist censorship. Because the Postmodernist estheticians believe that we are not in control, they advocate censorship.
Note: The quotations by Blocker that appear in this essay are from his essay “The Esthetic Attitude.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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