Aesthetic Qualities

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It is generally, although not universally, agreed among philosophers that there is an important distinction to be drawn between the aesthetic qualities of objects, especially art objects, and their nonaesthetic qualities: between being serene, stunning, or grating, and being square, in the key of A-minor, or weighing seven pounds. The concept of an aesthetic quality is a philosophical one, not in general use, but aestheticians appeal to it in clarifying the practice of art criticism, justifying aesthetic judgments, and evaluating artworks.

Historical Background

Both David Hume (1963) and Immanuel Kant (1966) set the stage for this modern distinction in their discussions of aesthetic judgments, judgments regarding the beauty of objects. Both argued that such judgments differ in kind from judgments regarding ordinary perceptual properties. Both held that aesthetic judgments depend on subjective feelings of pleasure and affective responses, but both also sought a universal ground for such judgments. Unlike Francis Hutcheson (1971) before them, they did not find this ground in an objective property (for Hutcheson, unity in variety) that always gives rise to this pleasurable response in qualified observers. Instead, recognizing the normative force of ascriptions of beauty, the demand for agreement in one's ascriptions of this property, they sought a standard in universal subjective grounds of the judgments of qualified critics.

Hume emphasized that only the judgments of fully competent or ideal critics indicate the presence of beauty or aesthetic merit. The property of beauty is similar in this respect to secondary qualities like colors, as analyzed by John Locke. For Locke, the color red is a power in objects, based on objective properties of their surfaces, to cause red sensations in normal observers in normal conditions. For Hume, beauty is similarly a relation between various objective properties and subjective responses, differences being that, as noted, there is no single objective property to be found here, and that qualified observers are rarer and more difficult to define. Such observers must have developed tastes, be knowledgeable of the type of work they are judging and of the historical tradition with which to compare the work, and be sensitive to the sorts of subtle relations on which the beauty of the work might depend. In the end, even such qualified critics might disagree in their comparative aesthetic judgments, Hume recognized.

Kant was both more emphatic than Hume that there are no universal objective grounds for ascriptions of beauty, and was more confident that such judgments should nevertheless be universally shared. For him, there are no principles that connect objective properties with correct ascriptions of beauty. Nevertheless, the pleasure derived from the disinterested perception of form should be universally felt, since common human faculties are involved in such perception. The perception of formal properties elicits a value-laden (pleasurable) response that is common to all disinterested observers and expressed in ascriptions of beauty. Since there is no objective property common to all beautiful objects (no objective concept of beauty), one cannot tell from a description of an object whether it is beautiful. One must experience the pleasure from perception of the object. But in judging an object to be beautiful, one demands the agreement of other observers, unlike in judging mere agreeableness.

The Nature of Aesthetic Qualities: Realism

The contemporary discussion of aesthetic qualities began with Frank Sibley (1959). He first expanded the list of aesthetic qualities from beauty and sublimity to include emotion qualities like being sad or serene, evocative qualities like being powerful or dull, behavioral qualities like being jaunty or sluggish, formal-evaluative qualities like being graceful or tightly knit, and second-order perceptual qualities like being vivid or steely. A major philosophical question resulted from this expansion. What do these qualities have in common that distinguishes them from nonaesthetic qualities? Other questions remain from the discussions of Hume and Kant. What is the nature of these qualities, and how are they related to the nonaesthetic qualities of their objects?

In regard to the first question, some of the properties listed may be ascribed to artworks only metaphorically, but others are ascribed literally. If "sad" here can mean expressive of sadness, and "powerful" can refer to the power to evoke a strong response, then these two properties fall into the latter category.

According to Sibley, perceiving aesthetic properties requires taste. If taste is a special quasi-perceptual faculty different from the ordinary five senses, as his usage sometimes suggests, then its existence and operation becomes mysterious, as do the aesthetic qualities it alone can grasp. If taste refers simply to sensitivity to aesthetic properties, then there is a tight circularity in the definitions that needs to be removed. But appeal to taste here can have two other more plausible functions. First, it can indicate that the perception of all the relevant nonaesthetic properties of an object is not sufficient for the perception of its aesthetic properties. One must perceive nonaesthetic properties to perceive aesthetic qualities, but not vice versa.

Second, since "taste" in one of its senses refers to dispositions to evaluate in certain ways, appeal to taste here can indicate that ascribing aesthetic properties to artworks is always relevant to their evaluation. We justify aesthetic evaluations by pointing to the aesthetic properties of objects. Some of these properties, like being graceful or tightly knit, are typically value-laden in themselves. Others, like being sad, seem not to be. But if artworks not only have such properties, but, as Nelson Goodman (1969) claims, exemplify them, that is, refer to them and tell us something of their nature, then this is of some value. And experiencing such qualities can also be of value by being part of an overall response to an artwork that engages not only the emotions, but the perceptual, imaginative, and cognitive faculties as well.

Thus, we can define aesthetic qualities as those that contribute directly to an object's aesthetic value, positive or negative. Again, there is a circularity here, but it can be removed by defining aesthetic value without appealing to aesthetic qualities, perhaps in terms of the overall engagement of our mental faculties just alluded to. What has aesthetic value, according to this concept, simultaneously challenges and exercises all our mental capacitiesperceptual, imaginative, affective, and cognitive. If the concept of art itself is in turn evaluative, if having aesthetic value in the sense indicated is both necessary and sufficient for being a (fine) artwork, then aesthetic qualities are also definitive of (fine) artworks. Taken in this sense, however, the concept of aesthetic properties has not only been broadened from the initial reference to beauty; it has also been narrowed to the domain of artworks, at least in its primary use.

In regard to the second question on the nature of aesthetic qualities, it is clear that they are relational properties, as Hume and Kant held, involving appreciative responses to the objective or base qualities of objects. These base qualities include structural properties of tones, shapes, and colors; syntactic and semantic properties of literary texts; and relations between these and similar properties in other works. Appeal to these base properties justifies ascriptions of aesthetic qualities, and appeal to these aesthetic qualities in turn justifies overall aesthetic evaluations.

That aesthetic qualities involve subjective responses does not imply that these qualities are not real. Real properties are those that are instantiated independently of observers' beliefs about them and of how they appear to particular observers. Secondary qualities like colors are real in this sense because, even though particular observers can disagree and even though colors can appear other than they are, normal observers in normal conditions can achieve consensus on colors. Such consensus among qualified observers is essential to the reality of such relational properties. A crucial question is whether we would find agreement in the ascription of aesthetic qualities among fully qualified art critics.

The Relation to Base Properties: Relativism

Kant held that there are no principles linking objective properties to beauty, and Sibley held that nonaesthetic properties are never sufficient conditions for aesthetic properties. The lack of such principles is due to the fact that aesthetic qualities are not only relational, but relative in several different senses. First, they are relative to the contexts of the particular objects that instantiate them. A graceful passage in a Mozart piece would not be graceful at all in a piece by Charles Ives. Second, they are relative to differing interpretations of the same work. Iago's "Credo" aria in Giuseppe Verdi's Otello can be interpreted as boisterous and defiant or as sinister and brooding. Third, they are relative to historical context and change with changing historical contexts. The works of Antonio Salieri were heard as graceful before Mozart but as somewhat stilted and awkward after Mozart. Finally, as Hume in the end affirmed but Kant denied, they are relative to differing tastes of different critics. What is poignant to one is maudlin to another; what is striking and powerful to one is garish and grating to another.

That the latter disagreements occur at all levels of actual competence and sophistication indicates that even ideal critics would fail to reach consensus in ascribing aesthetic properties. For every such property, there would be some disagreements among fully qualified critics as to whether some objects had the property in question. And this would occur not only in borderline cases, indicating only vagueness in the concepts of such properties. A paradigm of poignancy for some critics, for example, a Tchaikovsky symphony or Puccini aria, is a paradigm of maudlin sentimentality for others.

It seems, therefore, that we must relativize ascriptions of aesthetic properties to both tastes and contexts (including work, historical, and interpretive contexts). The main problem with doing so is that it then becomes problematic to see opposed ascriptions as really in disagreement and difficult to explain why opposing critics argue for their interpretations and evaluations. Genuine disagreement and argument about the presence of an aesthetic property seem to assume a right answer to the question of whether or not the property is present. But if an artwork is powerful to one critic and not to another, then what are they disagreeing about? In short, the problem for the relativist is to account for the normative force of judgments regarding aesthetic qualities. Even if Kant was too strong in his claim that we demand universal agreement in our aesthetic judgments, surely the practice of critical argument reflects some demand for agreement.

To maintain a realist account of aesthetic qualities in the face of disagreement among fully qualified critics, one might say that an object really has an aesthetic quality only if the quality is experienced by all qualified critics, or, alternatively, that it really has the quality even if it is experienced only by some qualified critics. But the first response leaves artworks with too few aesthetic qualities and makes almost all aesthetic judgments false, while the second response ascribes too many aesthetic qualities, even incompatible ones, to the same objects. Another possibility for the realist is to hold that when critics disagree about the evaluative aesthetic properties they ascribe, there are nevertheless real nonevaluative aesthetic properties that they agree on in perceiving. When, for example, one critic sees a painting as elegant and another as insipid, they nevertheless see the same aesthetic quality underlying these opposed evaluative qualities. But the problem with this response is, first, that it splits the account of aesthetic qualities in two and, second, that it fails to specify what the underlying aesthetic quality might be. The critics seem to react to the base, nonaesthetic formal properties of the painting with different responses.

The relativist account therefore seems preferable. In addition, it explains why we cannot know from an objective description of an object whether it has a given aesthetic quality. We can infer that it does from testimony only if we are certain that the testifier shares our taste. But the relativist must still account for the normativity of aesthetic judgments and how they are justified.

The Justification of Ascriptions of Aesthetic Qualities

Objective base properties justify ascriptions of aesthetic qualities, and these justify overall evaluations. But there are no principles at either level. On the second level, elegance, for example, usually contributes to a positive evaluation. But prose or painting styles can be too elegant for their subject matters, lessening the overall impact of their works. In view of the lack of principles and the relativity of aesthetic qualities to different tastes, how do these justifications work?

Ascriptions of aesthetic qualities are unjustified when based on inattention, bias, lack of knowledge of the formal properties of a work or its historical context, or an unacceptable interpretation. In asserting that an object has an aesthetic quality, one makes an implicit claim that one's judgment is not based on any of these disqualifying factors. This is equivalent to the claim that a fully competent or ideal critic who shares one's taste would respond to the object in the same way, would ascribe the same property to it. Thus, the relation between objective nonaesthetic properties and aesthetic qualities is simply that the former cause fully competent critics with certain tastes to respond in ways expressed by ascriptions of the aesthetic qualities.

Arguments over the presence of aesthetic qualities proceed until it is clear that both parties are fully competent in the circumstances to make the aesthetic judgments they make. Typically, critics proceed by pointing to the objective properties in the given historical context that elicit the responses expressed in their judgments, under the assumption that the other party has for one reason or another missed the relevance of the underlying base properties. But once the relevant base properties have been noted and interpretations agreed on, argument will cease, and the parties will have to accept ultimate differences in taste.

If aesthetic qualities are instantiated relative not only to contexts but, more significantly, to tastes of qualified critics, then two main questions remain. First, when do fully qualified critics share tastes? Can those who do share tastes nevertheless disagree about particular ascriptions of aesthetic qualities? Second, why should the judgments of such critics have normative force for others? If fully qualified or ideal critics who share tastes can disagree in their ascriptions of aesthetic qualities, and if objects have the relational properties that these critics ascribe, then the same problem that relativizing was intended to solve, the ascription of incompatible qualities to the same objects, reappears. When such critics disagree, they therefore have slightly different tastes. But if an ordinary observer who shares tastes with an ideal critic in all other aesthetic judgments disagrees in a particular case, this is a strong (but not infallible) indication that the observer is not making a sound aesthetic judgment, that he is mistaken in ascribing the aesthetic quality to the object. Clarifying argument is then in order. Only when all relevant base properties have been noted and acceptable interpretations agreed on can disagreements be explained away as reflecting different tastes. The object will then be asserted to have the disputed aesthetic qualities only relative to these different tastes.

To turn to the second question, when an ordinary observer disagrees with a fully competent critic who shares his taste, why should he accept the judgment of the critic as correct or normative for him? The answer can only be that such critics experience works more deeplyon cognitive, emotional, imaginative, and perceptual levels simultaneously. The works and their aesthetic qualities, when so appreciated, offer lasting satisfaction.

See also Aesthetic Experience; Aesthetic Judgment; Art, Interpretation of.


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