Problems with the aesthetic attention account
Before revisiting Nanay’s three-challenges against content-related views, we must first highlight one crucial issue with N1.
Structural views are usually thought to be vulnerable to the following objection: they provide criteria for aesthetic experience that are at once too restrictive and too liberal (e.g. Carroll, 2001, pp. 49ff; Irvin, 2008; Saito, 2017). Too restrictive, for we might easily conceive a case in which the subject’s attention is, for instance, both object and property-focused. Rebecca is aesthetically mesmerized by the suffering expression of Christ in Grünewald’s Crucifixion from the Isenheim’s altarpiece, i.e. her attention is object focused (the painting) as well property-focused (Christ’s expression). But N1 seems also too liberal. A robber points a knife at Rosalind’s chest, in her anguish she focuses on the knife, but her attention is property-distributed, she does not attend to any specific property of the weapon, but to many of them keeping track of every movement of the blade. This case complies with N1, but ascription of an aesthetic experience to Rosalind seems just downright implausible. But let us not jump too quickly to conclusions, there are two possible responses on behalf of N1.
A trivial response is that, however counterintuitive it may seem, Rebecca is not really enjoying an aesthetic experience, while Rosalind is. This strategy calls into question the cogency of our intuitions, but even if we acknowledge that intuitions are not always good guides for doing philosophy, opting for this tack seems unjustifiably too revisionary.
But there is a second response. Earlier, I hastened to add that Nanay’s account is not meant to provide a necessary condition for enjoying all sorts of aesthetic experience. The obvious assumption here is that aesthetic experiences are variegated and may have little in common, perhaps, not even aesthetic attention. Nanay emphasizes this when he cautiously suggests that aesthetic attention captures a few «telling instances» of aesthetic experience, like the following one described by Proust:
But even this ugliness of faces, which of course were mostly familiar to him seemed something new now that their features—instead of being to him symbols of practical utility in the identification of this or that person who until then had represented merely so many pleasures to be pursued, boredoms to be avoided, or courtesies to be acknowledged—rested in the autonomy of their lines, measurable by aesthetic co-ordinates alone. (Proust, 1913/1981, p. 355).
It is not entirely clear to me what Nanay’s “telling instances” really are, but let us assume, as he suggests, that they are typed by the aesthetic attention pattern, i.e. object-focused and property-distributed. If Nanay purports to account for AtW in terms of aesthetic attention, it obviously follows that both aesthetic looking at the artwork and aesthetic looking at the everyday must be somehow subsumed under the same aesthetic-attention kind. However, Nanay’s remarks make room for aesthetic experiences that do not fit squarely within his own aesthetic attention account. This would allow him to concede that, perhaps, Rebecca’s experience is an aesthetic one, after all. Yet, if one makes such a move, one is implicitly suggesting that aesthetic attention may not be the aesthetic signature we were looking for. Clearly, it cannot be attention alone, for otherwise pretty much every experience would be an aesthetic one. In other words, we are back to the issue of finding the necessary hallmark, what I called the “signature,” that makes some experiences “aesthetic.”
We can gain some fresh insights by reading again Proust’s quotation. Swann finds the faces new because he is paying attention to their aesthetic features for the first time, namely their ugliness (Nanay, 2018, pp. 77–78). It is not that these properties did not fall under Swann’s visual field before, but he was not paying attention to them. Elaborating on his aesthetic attention account, Nanay (2015a, p. 29) refers to an illuminating example: suppose you experience aesthetically a Giacometti’s sculpture. Your attention is focused on the object (the sculpture), and property-distributed to its properties. However, Nanay also adds that on this scenario the subject is «admiring [the sculpture’s] composition» (ivi, my emphasis). In other words, the subject is attentively focusing on the sculpture’s design or formal properties (§2.1). Now, suppose a burglar attacks you (Nanay’s example, again). You quickly scan the environment — pausing on the sculpture — looking for a defence weapon. Your attention changes configuration from object-focused and property-distributed (aesthetic attention) to object-distributed and property-focused. Now you look for objects with the right sort of property that may help you to defend against the assault. What makes this experience not an aesthetic one? Perhaps, the fact that in this case you are not attending to the target’s AED-properties trying to appreciate how the «work works», you focus on aesthetically irrelevant properties. So, here is my conjecture: the aesthetic signature can be identified in the way the percipient mobilizes her attentional resources so as to attentively look at the target’s AED-properties. This conjecture, finds considerable empirical support.
Vogt & Magnussen’s results (2007) have been reproduced by several other studies. Pihko et al. (2011) have found that experts tend to deploy more global (rather than local) viewing strategies than non-experts (Zangmeister et al. 1995). This is expressed in the finding that «laypersons concentrate on the details of the picture, experts also examine the spatial construction while evaluating the esthetics of the painting» (Pihko et al., 2011, p. 8; Kapoula & Lestocart, 2006). Experts tend to attend to the pictures’ compositions that are usually not attended to by laymen. The scanpaths reveal that artists and art experts «view familiar objects to a lesser extent than the layman, with an increased preference for viewing more or less abstract, structural features instead» (Vogt & Magnussen, 2007, p. 98; my emphasis). Francuz et al. (2018) have also found that in deploying more global strategies, experts tended to detect the pictures’ balance and structure, while laymen are more attracted to semantic objects such as faces and their expressiveness, people, and other narrative elements. This in turn is correlated with better, more accurate evaluations of the pictures, lending support to Nodine’s conjecture that «visual structure, attention and judgment of compositional design are intimately related» (1982, p. 52). As Vogt & Magnussen suggest, differences in oculomotor movements in experts and laymen mark their different viewing strategies, i.e. the fact that in virtue of their acquired capacities, experts mobilize their perceptual resources in a way different from laymen. The empirical studies converge thus in emphasizing the importance of structural features, of composition, in short: formal or design properties.
We can extrapolate the following lesson: while artists and art experts attend to a greater degree to the pictures’ AED-properties, laymen tend to fixate and see more often familiar or ordinary items. As I will suggest (§3.3) the difference between laymen and experts is more one of degree, rather than of kind; but the important point is that the alleged empirical evidence for the aesthetic attention view actually provides support for content-related views of aesthetic experiences.
Having shifted the balance of empirical support, we must now revisit Nanay’s challenges against content-related views of aesthetic experience.
Nanay’s three challenges revisited
The first objection was Conservatism:
CONSERVATISM: If we construe AED-properties too narrowly, then it would be difficult to explain aesthetic experience of the everyday.
This is a reasonable concern, but I think its threat is greatly exaggerated. Recently, proponents of everyday aesthetics have called attention to a whole array of aesthetic properties that populate our quotidian lives, such as being pretty, cluttered, drab, dirty, sparkled, shiny, etc.Footnote 8 that have been largely neglected by more conservative philosophers of art (Leddy, 1995, 2005, 2013; Mandoki, 2007; Saito, 2015). Notice also that a more conservative aesthetics is also at odds with many uncontroversial examples of contemporary artworks. This is what Danto drives at, when he draws attention to a work like Rauschenberg’s Bed, which embodies an aesthetics based on properties such as grunge and mess, rather than beauty (2007, pp. 123–124); but the point might be easily generalized to many other contemporary artworks as well (Saito, 2017).
The second challenge was Different Properties:
DIFFERENT PROPERTIES: Suppose that at t1, a subject aesthetically experiences an artwork X. At t2, she aesthetically experiences the everyday Y in virtue of having looked at X aesthetically (AtW), but X and Y have different properties.
Many contemporary artists recruit material from the everyday and turn it into observationally indiscernible artworks from their everyday counterparts (Danto, 1964):
INDISCERNIBILITY: An artwork X appears identical with an everyday item Y, i.e. they are qualitatively indiscernible in their observable properties.
X might be Beuys’ Filzanzug (1970) — a two-piece, coarse grey felt suit —, or Warhol’s Brillo Box (1964), and Y another qualitatively indistinguishable two-piece, coarse grey felt suit, or a Brillo box. Granting that X and Y will differ in their, say, relational properties, and in the fact that only Xs possess the property of “being an artwork,” Indiscernibility shows that at least as far as observable AED-properties are concerned, X and Y can indeed share AED-properties.Footnote 9 Even in less extreme cases, where X and Y significantly differ, and therefore do not instantiate exactly all the same AED-properties, there is no reason to assume that Y can’t instantiate AED-properties. This admits of different degrees. Products of expert designers — think of Sottsass’ Olivetti Valentine typewriter or Chippendale’s chairs —, or the creations of skilful gardeners are obvious AED-properties bearers. Some AED-properties, of course, might obtain by sheer chance in natural or artificial settings, i.e. even when they do not respond to a particular purpose. Ziff vividly makes this point when he said that: «[g]arbage strewn about is apt to be as delicately variegated in hue and value as the subtlest Monet. Discarded beer cans create striking cubist patterns» (quoted from Leddy, 2008). Furthermore, once we acknowledge a broader palette of aesthetic properties, including negative ones like “being smelly” or “being dirty,” (think of Beuys’ Stuhl mit Fett) I see little cause to deny that X and Y might share AED-properties.
The third challenge is No-Property-Change:
NO-PROPERTY-CHANGE: Suppose that at t1, a subject experiences an everyday object Y. At t2, she experiences an artwork X aesthetically, and at t3, she experiences again the very same Y aesthetically (AtW), and none of Y’s relevant properties have changed between t1 and t3.
As we have seen, this poses two challenges. I should anticipate that these challenges pertain to Aesthetic Alteration, and that they will be properly examined in §4. For now, let us observe that — in virtue of its second “attention” requirement — the Content View does have the same resources of Nanay’s attention-based account. Accordingly (first challenge), one could say that at t3 the subject redirects her attention (voluntarily or not) to Y’s AED-properties in virtue of having experienced an artwork aesthetically with similar properties. Thus, on these terms the aesthetic attention view does not offer an explanatory advantage over the Content View. Yet, it is not clear why the subject comes to notice AED-properties at t3, and (second challenge) what is the role of X in bringing about this change. Before I postpone further thoughts on this to §4, however, I would like to pinpoint once again that in so far as both Carroll’s Content View and Nanay’s view refer to attention they are explanatory on a par about this specific issue.
Looking aesthetically: Content plus attention
So far, I have casted doubt on Nanay’s aesthetic attention view, calling into question (i) its empirical support; and (ii) its plausibility as signature of aesthetic experience. Then, I have defended Carroll’s Content View on the ground that (iii) it squares better with the empirical evidence Nanay’s credit to support his own view; (iv) that it is not vulnerable to the shortcomings that Nanay discusses in his three challenges; and (v) that, as it stands, it already makes attention a necessary ingredient of aesthetic experience, thus having the same explanatory advantages of Nanay’s own view without its shortcomings. I hasten to clarify that my defence of Carroll’s Content View does not shield it against Goldman’s charge of “narrowness,” nor is it my intention to do so here.Footnote 10 Perhaps, additional ingredients are required to turn an experience into an aesthetic one.
Given my focus on mainly visually-accessible artworks (and everyday), we have enough to build an account of Aesthetic Looking. The aesthetic literature contains plenty of references to an aesthetic mode of perception (e.g. Levinson, 2016, p. 39; Tomas, 1959). Reflecting on the importance of attention in shaping our perceptual acquaintance with artworks, we can say that, when the subject looks aesthetically at a given target her attention structures «her mental life so that a state of seeing that thing [AED-properties, in our case] is prioritized» (Watzl, 2017, p. 45; cf. also Kalderon, 2018, pp. 163ff). Basing on the foregoing considerations, we can put forth the following:
AESTHETIC LOOKING: A state of looking is an aesthetic one, iff:
Its content disjunctively exhibits at least some AED-properties; and
The subject attends with understanding to such properties (informed attention).
The second clause (b) dictates that attention must be deployed in a way informed by the subject’s relevant background knowledge or understanding, i.e. in terms of «certain strategies and techniques of reception» (Carroll, 2010, p. 104) specific to the category the artwork belongs to (§2.1); as shown by the experimental studies (§3.1).Footnote 11 My account of Aesthetic Looking is easily contrasted with Nanay’s N1, for on his account aesthetic attention only (i.e. object-focused and property-distributed attention) provides the aesthetic signature, whereas the Content View I recommend reinstates the importance of AED-properties as well. Three caveats are in order.
First, my notion of aesthetic looking is target-neutral, but the reader may doubt the application of (b) to the everyday and in general non-art things and scenes. While in the case of artworks informed attention will structure the perceptual process as to grant «priority of processing» (Carrasco et al., 2004) to AED-properties in conformity with the artwork’s purpose, quite often — that is, leaving aside products of design, gardens, etc. — quotidian things and scenes do not have any “purpose,” and may thus simply lack design properties. Think again of Ziff’s case: garbage strewn about may be as delicately variegated as a Monet, but of course this is likely due to sheer chance. In such a case, the subject may simply acknowledge the randomness of such properties, thereby guiding attention accordingly; or she might recruit the strategies and techniques of reception of some specific art-domains, transposing them to the everyday target. One, however, may also come to appreciate the instantiation of AED-properties in relation to the function (if any) of the object (cf. Parsons & Carlson, 2008).Footnote 12
Second, my view might account for the gradualness of such experiences. It seems plausible that two experts may dwell on different aspects (AED-properties) of the same target, for instance because of their differing degrees of understanding of the relevant subject matter; in this case, they will perceptually prioritize different features of the target. It also allows the difference between laymen and experts to be one of degree, rather than kind. Recall the finding that «artistically trained participants view familiar objects to a lesser extent than the laymen, with an increased preference for viewing more or less abstract, structural features» (Vogt & Magnussen, 2007, p. 99; my emphasis). In both cases, in light of contemporary vision science, it is hardly surprising that subjects with different degrees of expertise will tend to look at (and overlook) different features of the target (Schwartz, 1985, p. 712). Nanay (2015a) appropriately cites studies on inattentional blindness as a way of comparison (e.g. Simons and Chabris, 1999). Such studies illustrate that unattended properties or objects of a scene are either non-consciously processed (e.g. Rensink et al., 1997) or do not gain access to systems responsible for cognitive broadcasting (e.g. Block, 2007). We need not take a stance on this controversy here, it suffices to point out that attention to some feature enables cognitive reportability, consequently affecting aesthetic judgment and evaluation (Nodine, 1982).
Finally, one might object that my account only works in conjunction with some version of the rich content view of perceptual experience (Siegel, 2010), i.e. if the reach of perceptual (visual) content includes not only low-level properties such as colors, forms, etc. but also higher level properties as well, such as “being a human”, “being a pine tree”, “being expressionist” etc. (Stokes, 2018). The rich content view would square nicely with my account of Aesthetic Looking, but there are also alternatives. For instance, it seems relatively unproblematic to assume that in many cases the cognitive appraisal of AED-properties will be grounded in distinctive patterns of low-level perceptive properties. Hence, it seems plausible to say that token states of Aesthetic Looking single out the relevant patterns of low-level properties that enable higher-order cognitive categorizations. But notice also that some clearly low-level properties may well play the role of AED-properties, for instance, colours (as when one contemplates a Rothko, or a Yves Klein’s blue) and combination of forms.
Another possible option might be to construe AED-properties in nominalistic terms as the application of predicates. In this sense, one might easily allow for certain entities or scenes to metaphorically possess AED-properties; this obtains when a predicate that belongs to a symbolic realm gets transferred to a different realm (e.g. Goodman, 1976, pp. 68ff), as for instance when we apply the predicate “miserable” (realm: human emotions) to the figure of Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. There is no need to work out the details of these different options, for my purposes, it suffices to say that my account of Aesthetic Looking is flexible enough as to accommodate different options about the reach of perceptual content.