Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 1st ed., 1958; 2d ed., 1981.
10. Aesthetic Value
I have found it impossible (though not for want of trying) to find a way of avoiding commitment to a concept of aesthetic value. The general theory of value remains in an unsatisfactory state; and aesthetic value in particular presents various unsettled questions. But, as in the first edition, I find myself always driven back to the idea that in calling an artwork a good one -- or a good poem or good choreography -- we must be ascribing some form of (nonmoral) value to it, and that this must be a distinctive and special form, properly labelled "aesthetic." Moreover, it seems evident, once we take this step, that this value must consist in, or essentially include, a potentiality to afford experiences of some especially interesting and desirable sort. So I have, over the years, tried different ways of formulating an adequate concept of aesthetic value along these lines. Setting aside the more general and basic problems about value as such, and assuming that there is such a thing and that we can sometimes know when objects or events or states of affairs have value, we can narrow our focus here to the species that concerns us. And we may say that "the aesthetic value of anything is its capacity to impart -- through cognition of it -- a marked aesthetic character to experience" ("In Defense of Aesthetic Value") -- on the necessary presupposition that such a character is itself worth having, i.e., valuable. "And to say that X has greater aesthetic value than Y is to say that X has the capacity to afford an experience that is more valuable, on account of its more marked aesthetic character, than any experience that Y has the capacity to afford" -- assuming, again, that such a character is good.
The analysis of aesthetic value just sketched is not without its difficulties, at least some of which ought to be acknowledged. Jerome Stolnitz, who defends well what he calls an "objective relativist" account
of aesthetic value that is in its most fundamental respects close to mine (see Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism, Chapter 15), notes some of the problems in verifying the presence of a capacity. I think he makes the task more difficult by confounding capacity-assertions with predictions, and I would rather not call the basic position he and I share a "relativistic" one, since it does not entail that the aesthetic value of a painting is relative to the viewer or some class of viewers. Once we distinguish the aesthetic capacity of the painting (how much it is capable of giving those who are able to appreciate it fully) from the capacities of the viewers (who may vary enormously in their ability to appreciate it), we eliminate many common confusions. There are problems about abnormal situations in which a person may seem to be getting more out of a painting than it has in it (see "The Aesthetic Point of View"); but I think these can be avoided by a proper understanding of the phrase "through the cognition of it," inserted in my definition, which rules out not only failures to apprehend the painting but misapprehensions of it. For example, among the problems noted by Joel Kupperman ("Aesthetic Value") -- though he is discussing G. E. Moore's definition of beauty -- is that if we wish to define aesthetic value in terms of the art-receiver's experience, we may get into great difficulties in saying what constitutes a "proper" experience of the work, for it is in terms of such experiences that the value is presumably to be rated. My hope is that such problems can be resolved by the requirement of the receiver's cognitive grasp of what is actually in the work.
Michael Slote ("The Rationality of Aesthetic Value Judgments") also holds that aesthetic value is a dispositional property (of which I consider capacities to be one species), but he treats it as a tendency. (Even brittleness and flexibility, as well as his other examples, can be analyzed either as capacities or as tendencies, and it makes a difference how we consider them for different purposes or occasions.) He notes that aesthetic value might be definable without specifying the conditions under which (including the features given which) the painting will in fact provide art experience of marked aesthetic character -- but this is just the difference between a tendency and a capacity: and it seems to me that it is capacities that a critic is in a position to estimate, not tendencies (which require much more empirical knowledge). When the critic gives reasons, pointing out features of the painting that enable it to be aesthetically appreciated, that confer aesthetic value upon it, he needs no statistical generalizations about what proportion of what sample of the population will in fact appreciate the painting (in order to infer a tendency), but only how in certain kinds of paintings certain features can help to increase unity, complexity, or intensity of positive regional qualities -- on the justifiable assumption (see below) that such increases will enable the painting to give more, aesthetically, to those who can take advantage of it.
The concept of aesthetic experience (which was used in the first edition to define aesthetic value) has suffered various vicissitudes in the past
decades; although some of the debate has refined and clarified it, much of the debate has engendered skeptical doubts about whether there is such a thing (or whether such a concept can be rendered usable in aesthetic theory). For example, George Dickie ("Beardsley's Phantom Aesthetic Experience") subjected the concept to a sharp critique, which I answered with a further defense ("Aesthetic Experience Regained"). He, in turn (in Art and the Aesthetic, Chapter 8), has launched a further argument. Perhaps the most serious issue concerns my view that we can characterize aesthetic experience in terms of certain properties of experience, or of an experience, as such -- notably unity, including especially the dimension of coherence (as well as completeness). Unity is important to my theory because I hold that it is a merit in artworks, and hence a positive criterion of criticism, because it enables the artwork to afford a unified experience, and thus to have aesthetic value (since unity in an experience is part of what makes it an aesthetic experience). Dickie has several penetrating criticisms that deserve considerable discussion. For example, in my idea of a unified experience the percepts are integrated with affects of various kinds, but Dickie is inclined to think that many artworks do not arouse affects at all: some abstract paintings "can be taken in, as it were, at a glance"; no "expectations" or emotions" are aroused. My reply, in outline, would be that all pattern-perception involves active seeking and searching, however rapid, and in the time it takes for a full apprehension even of a fairly simple abstract pattern there is indeed room for affect, for comparisons and contrasts of parts, for discovery of inward fittingness, for the emergence of human regional qualities.
But I see now that aesthetic experience is too narrow a basis on which to construct a concept of aesthetic value. I do not object at all to saying that experiences of some duration, marked throughout or pervasively by aesthetic character, are aesthetic experiences. But I also admit fairly fleeting or persistent but low-keyed experiences -- such as might involve a glance at a natural or urban prospect -- in which there is a decided sudden lift of experiential level in an aesthetic way, and I think there is increased coherence, though not the kind of development of demands and fulfillments characteristic of the classic Deweyan phenomenon he called
"having an experience." For most purposes, in reference to artworks and their aesthetic value, we can still talk of aesthetic experiences.
It may be useful to note how the concept of aesthetic experience relates to the concept of aesthetic attitude, which, despite GeorgeDickie's continuing attack on it (see Art and the Aesthetic, Chapters 2-5), is still sometimes invoked. Dickie makes much of his distinction between
"theories of taste" and "aesthetic-attitude theories." In their "strong" form, the latter involve the notion that anything can be transformed into an aesthetic object (a source of aesthetic satisfaction) by taking a certain attitude toward it. I have been much persuaded by his arguments against such views. However, sometimes the term "aesthetic attitude" refers to an ingredient in aesthetic experience, a psychological relation (between the
art-recipient and the artwork) characteristic of that experience; and this may be a harmless way of speaking, provided confusion is avoided. In this context, the aesthetic attitude is often characterized as involving "disinterested attention" and "psychical distance" -- both of which have been severely and effectively criticized, though perhaps not totally destroyed, by Dickie. I think distance or detachment -- withdrawal from practical engagement -- in some form, although hard to describe accurate ly and safely, is a factor in the aesthetic character.
But what is the aesthetic character? My present inclination is to think of it in terms of a set of features we find characteristic of successful encounters with artworks (and also some natural and technological objects), features that are criteria of the aesthetic in experience, that help to make; experience (however short) aesthetic, and when several of them are combined guarantee that experience is aesthetic, although even if one or two are lacking in a particular case, the experience can still be aesthetic. To summarize what no doubt calls for detailed explanation (see final essay in The Aesthetic Point of View), experience has a marked aesthetic character when it has some of the following features, including the first one: attention firmly fixed on a perceptual or intentional object; a feeling of freedom from concerns about matters outside that object; notable affect that is detached from practical ends; the sense of exercising powers of discovery; and integration of the self and of its experiences. Such a description of the aesthetic character comports with the conclusions of others: for example, the illuminating phenomenological analysis by M. J. Zenzen ("A Ground for Aesthetic Experience").
Recent critics have raised important questions. Kingsley Price ("What Makes an Experience Aesthetic?") distinguishes aesthetic experience by the nature of its object (as I tried, in another way, in "The Discrimination of Aesthetic Enjoyment"). But he mistakenly attributes to me an effort to isolate a "pure" aesthetic experience, apart from its object, whereas I consider the perceived phenomenally objective features of tha object as part, although only a part, of the content that is unified in tha experience. Joel Kupperman ("Art and Aesthetic Experience") quotes one of my proposed definitions of aesthetic experience ("Aesthetic Experience Regained") -- that it involves having "the greater part of" one's "mental activity . . . unified and made pleasurable by being tied to the form and qualities of a sensuously presented or imaginatively intended object on which" one's "primary attention is concentrated." This he considers too broad "since it could apply to a sexual experience as well as an aesthetic experience." Perhaps my references to "mental activity" and "attention" were insufficiently stressed, or perhaps they sound too Cartesian; but I think of aesthetic experience (as in the first criterion above) as requiring a kind of absorption in form and quality, a giving-in to their force, that precludes much overt physical interaction with the environment.
Jerome Stolnitz ("The Artistic Values in Aesthetic Experience") has advanced a strong claim of a different kind: that aesthetic experience includes (but I have excluded) a recognition and enjoyment of "artistic values" -- e.g., admirable skill and virtuosity, deftness, adroitness, and economy of action. His excellent argument -- directed against my treatment of skill, for example, as strictly a property of the artist, not of his work, and hence not germane to evaluations of the work -- shows how skill can be regarded as an experienceable feature of artworks, and thus can "make a difference to aesthetic experience" and aesthetic value. When judgments of skill are carefully guarded, in Stolnitz's way, they do not lead away from the work to biographical inquiry, but become part of the expressiveness of the work.
Finally, it must be noted that if the difficulties in the concepts of aesthetic value and aesthetic experience which we have reviewed in this section remain intractible. the alternative seems to be to reject both concepts and build aesthetic theory without them. Although such an attempt has been initiated by Nelson Goodman (Languages of Art, Chapter 6, and Ways of Worldmaking, Chapters 6 and 7), it is too early to be sure how successful it will be. Goodman dispenses with aesthetic value entirely in favor of a very general concept of cognitive value, or contributiveness to knowledge and understanding; "right rendering" in art becomes a general cognitive category, of which truth in certain fields of endeavor is a special case; artworks get their value from entering into the activities by which we grasp and at the same time remake our world or worlds, and this being their "primary function," they are to be judged by their success in carrying it out. This strong, tempting, and radical view does not seem able to account satisfactorily for the practice of art critics, the reasons they give in support of their judgments (see "Languages of Art and Art Criticism"), and it is not yet clear how all artworks can be treated as symbols, as this theory requires (see "In Defense of Aesthetic Value" and Sections 3 and 5 above). But at present it seems to be the most fully-developed alternative to a theory of art that includes a theory of aesthetic value.
- Beardsley, M. C.
- "Aesthetic Experience Regained." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 28 (1969).
- "The Aesthetic Point of View." Metaphilosophy 1 (1970).
- The Aesthetic Point of View. Ed. Donald Callen and Michael Wreen. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
- "Aesthetic Theory and Educational Theory." In Ralph Smith, ed., Aesthetic Concepts and Education. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
- "Beauty and Aesthetic Value." Journal of Philosophy 59 (1962).
- "The Discrimination of Aesthetic Enjoyment." British Journal of Aesthetics 3 (1963).
- "In Defense of Aesthetic Value." Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 52 (August 1979).
- "Languages of Art and Art Criticism." Erkenntnis 12 (1978).
- Dickie, George.
- Art and the Aesthetic. Ithaca: Cornell University Pr 1974.
- "Beardsley's Phantom Aesthetic Experience." Journal of Philosophy 62 (1965).
- Goodman, Nelson.
- Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2d ed., 1
- Ways of Worldmaking. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978.
- Kupperman, Joel J.
- "Aesthetic Value." American Philosophical Quarterly
- Price, Kingsley.
- "What Makes an Experience Aesthetic?" British Journal of Aesthetics 19 (1979).
- Slote, Michael A.
- "The Rationality of Aesthetic Value Judgments." Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971).
- Stolnitz, Jerome.
- Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art Criticism. Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1960.
- "The Artistic Values in Aesthetic Experience." Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 32 (1973).
- Zenzen, M. J.
- "A Ground for Aesthetic Experience." Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 34 (1976).
Note: I am most grateful to Donald Callen and Michael Wreen for many valuable criticisms and suggestions, in revising this essay.