On Criticality and the Aesthetic Attitude

The aesthetic attitude is an idea within aesthetics that is characterized as being psychical distance or disinterestedness in an artistic object. The interests of the self break down, and the object is attended to disinterestedly, as something in itself and for its own sake. This allows for emotional enjoyment and appreciation–the goal of the aesthetic attitude.

In The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude (1964), George Dickie contends that the central ideas behind the theory of the aesthetic attitude, namely “distance” and “disinterested” attitudes, are actually not attitudes, but ways of speaking of attention or inattention, and that distanced or disinterested attention is a myth (it is mere attention). Dickie then turns his argument to focus on how these myths affect how attitude theorists misaddress relevance (they turn it into aesthetic relevance, when it is mere relevance), art criticism (they separate criticism from aesthetic appreciation, when the difference is merely that of motivation), and morality (they separate moral concerns from appreciation, when attention to moral concerns can be central to appreciation). It is the second part of Dickie’s myth-busting to which I will be attending at present, focusing in on Dickie’s argument concerning art criticism.

Attitude theorists like H.S. Langfield distinguish between aesthetic enjoyment (which is emotional) and critical attitude (which is intellectual assessment of merits) (p. 61). Such theorists make the purpose of the percipient (the person perceiving) the determinant of what kind of attitude is taken up (critical or appreciative). Attitude theorists maintain that criticism is still important to appreciation (it informs and prepares the percipient), but it must occur before appreciation, lest it interfere with that attitude. Dickie argues that interference between appreciation and criticism is an idea that derives not from real cases but from attitude theorists’ previous adherence to the principle that the aesthetic attitude is one of disinterest. If it is a myth that an attention can be interested or disinterested (as Dickie contends), the difference between the critic and appreciator is merely that of motivation, not of attention (attention is attention is attention). Further, criticism does not compete with appreciation for attention or time, as the attitude theorists suppose, because critical judgments are “done in a flash” (p. 62). So we might say:

P1 (Premise 1): There is no difference between instances of attention (Dickie’s earlier argument concerning “disinterest”).
P2: Criticism and appreciation of art are instances of attention to art (all parties would agree).
P3: Criticism and appreciation of art are different — for instance, they differ in their underlying motivations/intentions (again, all agree).
P4: Difference in motivation is not difference in attention (Dickie’s argument concerning “distance”).
Conclusion: Criticism and appreciation are not different types of attention.

How might the attitude theorist respond? Dickie admits that motivations are different between appreciation and criticism of art: does this allow for difference of attitude (even if there are no differences in attention)? Dickie has changed the argument from centering on attitude to centering on attention, but attitude theorists might rebutt:

P1: There are such things as attitudes (states of mind or feelings).
P2: An attitude may be intentional (about or toward something).
P3: Criticism and appreciation are in general different types of attitudes (here Dickie might call “foul”) — they reflect one’s frame of mind or emotions.
P4: A person may have an attitude toward art (emotions or a frame of mind when addressing art).
P5: There are differences between art criticism and appreciation: for instance, they differ in their underlying motivations/intentions (all agree).
C1: The relationship of a critic to art is different from that of a person appreciating art (all agree).
C2: Criticism and appreciation of art are different types of attitudes toward art.

Is this counter-argument successful? I think only if a person can be made to accept that criticism and appreciation can be characterized in some way as “attitudes”. Further, attitude theorists might argue that given the assent to motivational differences, we might assert that those differences must have some difference in outcome — the outcome is not only what people are attending to, but how they are attending to it (that is, with a specific attitude).

So can a person both appreciate and critique art simultaneously? Have I ever been emotionally moved by reading one of my students’ writings while in the midst of evaluating it? Yes. Did I stop evaluation as I appreciated? No! The appreciation became part of my evaluation and valuation of the object to which I was attending. Similarly, I appreciate good design, but that design is only seen to be “good” by me in the midst of critique (though perhaps not usually critique of the formal variety). Criticality and appreciation, though variously motivated, may occur side-by-side and be parts of one another.

These real life experiences of appreciation and criticism, to me, hold more weight for me personally than the arguments proposed by Dickie. In the end, as an epistemological constructivist, I would agree that the aesthetic attitude is a myth, because it is a man-made socially constructed artifice, but so is philosophy itself and the endeavor to understand in certain ways and using specific methods. The mythiness does not thereby destroy the truthiness however. And I tend to feel there is a sense in which the aesthetic attitude of art appreciation is not mere attention, nor is it to be confused with criticality, but it is also not at odds with that criticality by necessity. Criticality and appreciation should not be seen as negatives and positives, nor as reason versus emotion, but as holistic experience of and intentionality towards art.

Dickie, George. (1964, January). The myth of the aesthetic attitude. American Philosophical Quarterly, 1(1), 56-65.


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