Visual Art and the Aesthetic …

Despite my previously saying that I have no real interest in visual art — specifically, paintings and sculptures — as I’ve thought about it further I think that perhaps the main reason that visual art is so commonly used as examples is that it really reflects the closest thing we have to a pure aesthetic experience.

Many people think that in order to appreciate or understand the aesthetic value of something, you have to pretty much engage with it directly.  You are interacting with the, say, art object directly, with a minimum of interference from other objects.  Ideally, you’d be interacting only with the aesthetic properties, and the entertainment you feel — I’m not using the term “pleasure” deliberately because it may have some issues — when observing the object should be tied as closely as possible to the aesthetic properties.  In short, as little as possible should be coming from non-aesthetic properties (whatever that means).

But if you look at music, movies and TV shows, the overall entertainment can be derived from things other than the aesthetic properties.  All of these can tell a story, which surely is not in and of itself aesthetic.  All of them may try to make you laugh, and just tell jokes (for music, see Moxy Fruvous and Weird Al Yankovic for that).  For movies, TV shows and books, in general the main source of entertainment is supposed to be the story; the aesthetic is most often subordinate to that.  For music, it’s more complicated, as it very much can try to provide entertainment in other ways but doesn’t have to.

But there generally isn’t a story in a painting, or in a sculpture.  There may be a story behind it, or even one that’s supposed to be in it, but in general all you have is an image.  It’s not usually trying to make you laugh unless it is a comic strip relying on visual humour.  Painting and sculpture, as art, generally tend to focus on aesthetic properties, and so when you enjoy a painting you really are enjoying — most of the time — its aesthetic properties and qualities.  It, generally, is as pure an aesthetic enjoyment as we can possibly get.

Now, things like conceptual art and even some modern art may stretch that a bit, asking that the viewer get entertainment from invoking concepts or story or something other than the aesthetic properties.  But it seems to me that while these may be overall more entertaining than some purely aesthetic works, they are not more entertaining aesthetically, as enjoying learning about and invoking/understanding concepts is not in and of itself an aesthetic enjoyment, or else reading an essay would be aesthetic (making aesthetic, to my mind, a pointless category).

Perhaps, then, this might explain my ambivalence towards visual art.  With only the aesthetic, my enjoyment is lessened.  I may well be able to hit some cases where the aesthetic impresses me — as is the case with music — but in general it doesn’t.  So, with things like music, books, movies and TV shows the alternative entertainments can make me enjoy it even if the aesthetic eludes me, which is not the case with visual art.

Armchair philosophy at its best, no [grin]?

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