Aesthetic Emotions and the Ethics of Authenticity

By Thomas, Seth Joshua | Philosophy Today, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Aesthetic Emotions and the Ethics of Authenticity


Thomas, Seth Joshua, Philosophy Today


Aesthetics has generated thorny and contentious problems for philosophy going back to its earliest roots in ancient Greek culture. Plato held little esteem for art, since in his mind it stands at two removes from reality, being the imitation of the visible world, which is itself an imitation of the world of the Forms. Moreover, insofar as art tends to arouse the emotions - or at least the wrong ones - it was irrational and to be repudiated. His pupil, Aristotle, took a somewhat more sensible approach, seeing art, especially tragic performances (and likely comic ones as well, though we possess only small fragments of his writings on this topic) as useful in training the public how to correctly engage emotions, an essential element in his ethical theory. The role of emotions has been of special interest in aesthetics even up to the contemporary era. In one of the more influential aesthetic theories of the last century, and still heavily anthologized today, Clive Bell offered that what distinguished the perception of true artworks is that they elicit from perceivers a particular kind of emotion namely, the aesthetic emotion, as he called it.1 Without denying that emotions regularly, perhaps always, play some role in our interactions with works of art, Bell's critics have noted that his theory failed to give any satisfactory account of just what an aesthetic emotion itself is, what, aside from being elicited by an artwork, made an emotion aesthetic such that it could be truly distinguished from "regular" emotions.2

Bell's basic hypothesis is in fact slightly more involved, founded on two reciprocal claims; on the one hand, as just mentioned, all and only works of art provoke an "aesthetic emotion"; no two works will produce an identical emotion, but the emotions any two true artworks do produce will be aesthetic not "ordinary" - whatever that would be by contrast.3 In other words, aestiietic emotion is a completely new breed of emotion, wholly different in kind from die ordinary emotions of the dayto-day. Bell does not have in mind that some ordinary emotions are occasionally experienced as having an aesthetic quality; he is clear to state that aesthetic emotions have nothing whatsoever to do with the emotions of everyday Ufe, they neither percolate up from daily concerns nor redirect us to back to that life.4 On the other hand, Bell speculated further that if it were possible to examine all such works which provoke an aesthetic emotion, it would be possible to determine at least a single common element which each and every work possessed that could account for the provocation of this alleged aesthetic emotion in the viewer. That single common element Bell called "significant form," and he held it to be present in any work of visual art in which the lines, shapes, colors, textures, and so on were so related as to embody significant form and thus rouse one's aesthetic emotions. Thus only works that provoke aesthetic emotions by embodying significant form count as true works of art.

But despite the prima facie objectivity of this latter criterion it is ultimately reducible to the subject's idiosyncratic dispositions. Subjectivism of this sort has perennially plagued aesthetics. Bell recognized his vulnerability to such criticism, stating that, "it may be objected that I am making aesthetics a purely subjective business, since my only data are personal experiences of a particular emotion . . . that the objects that provoke this emotion vary with each individual, and that therefore a system of aesthetics can have no objective validity."5 As the first section of this essay will show, Bell's response to this charge is to come down with both feet firmly on the side of subjectivity, and in so doing not only does he not explain the relation between the elements of the work and the purported objective presence of significant form, he also fails to account both for how it is that the subject comes to recognize it in those cases, and how the subject then gets from that moment of consciousness to the moment of the alleged aesthetic emotion. …

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