Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

"Wonder Works: Renovating Romanticism About Art" Jesse Prinz


Jesse Prinz is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. His research focuses on the perceptual, emotional, and cultural foundations of human psychology. He is the author of Furnishing the Mind: Concepts and Their Perceptual Basis (MIT 2002), Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion (Oxford 2004), The Emotional Construction of Morals (Oxford 2007), The Conscious Brain (Oxford 2012), Beyond Human Nature (Penguin 2012), and most recently, the forthcoming Works of Wonder: The Psychology and Ontology of Art (Oxford). Jesse also co-founded (with NYC mixed-media artist Rachel Bernstein) the art blog Art Bouillon. It is an honor and a true pleasure to have Jesse kick off the Guest Blogger Schedule here at Aesthetics for Birds.
Anish Kapoor, Leviathan
Among the many divides one can kind among competing theories of art, none sides wider and more ideologically entrenched than the gulf between experiential theories and various forms of institutionalism.  Experiential theories say that something counts as art in virtue of the kind of experience it affords, such as a distinctive emotional state.  Institutional theories emphasize the context of presentation–to a first approximation, something becomes art on this view when it is placed in a gallery, or the equivalent.  Here I want to suggest, heretically, that the experiential theories are right, but also that they can be reconciled with the institutional approach.

Setting the Stage
Experiential theories have roots in 18th century Empiricist aesthetics, which emphasized emotional responses that are distinctive of art, but these theories also spawned a kind of aesthetic Romanticism, according to which art aspires to sublimity and induces grandiose emotions, such as awe, wonder, and even dread (think of Edmond Burke).  These ideas sound quaint now.   They bring to mind Arthur Schopenhauer’s idea that art is a refuge from the illusory trappings of civilization, or the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, showing a solitary figure alone in the tortured wilderness.  In the 20th century, experiential theories distanced themselves from these excesses, but we find in people like Clive Bell and Monroe Beardsley a residual Romanticism: artworks needs to be experienced to be appreciated, and encounters with artworks awaken special feelings, which are crucial for evaluation and essential to art.
Caspar David Friedrich
The institutional theory was inaugurated in analytic aesthetics by Arthur Danto, and inspired by Andy Warhol, whose Brillo Boxes came down like an executioners axe on abstract expressionism, which had, by then, dominated the New York art scene for decades.  Abstract expressionists, like Romantics, were obsessed with experience.  Though often more expressive than evocative, these brutal canvases (as Clement Greenberg called them), drew attention to the inner life of artists and audience.  Tortured lines (Gorky), free wheeling splatters (Pollack), and meditative repose (Rothko) were all seen an outpourings of the soul, and viewers were invited to join in these varied feelings, annexing themselves from a world that is often “too much with us.”  Pop broke from all that, at put the world (that is, the consumerist obsessions of post-industrial capitalism) into central focus.
Arshile Gorky, Agony
Institutional theories typically ignore emotions and emphasize the intentions of art producers: items become art when someone presents them to an art world public (think of George Dickie here, building on Danto).  In the same corner of logical space, one might put historical and narrative theories (e.g., Jerry Levinson and Noel Carroll), which talk about the intentional act of placing an item in the history of art making.  These theories see the focus on feelings as contingent–a characteristic of certain movements, art makers, and art historical episodes.  They cast doubt on the idea that there are distinctive aesthetic feelings, and ridicule experiential theories as recidivist and preternatural.
Enter Wonder
My own sensibilities are more Pop than Pollack, more conceptual than Canova, more Dada than Delacroix.  I am not drawn to Romanticism in art.  But I’ve come to think that experiential theories, even the Romantic ones, were on to something.  This apprehension began when I started thinking about whether emotions play a role in aesthetic evaluation.  I had been working on moral evaluation and was convinced, on empirical grounds, that sentimental theories moral judgment are right.  What about aesthetic sentimentalism?  Here the view seems even more plausible than in ethics: good works induce feelings of appreciation.  With this as my working assumption, I began to wonder what feelings of appreciation consist in.  Is appreciation an emotion in it’s own right?  A family of emotions?  Or a name for some other emotion, yet to be identified?
Paul McCarthy, inflatable poo
To answer these questions (don’t laugh) I started introspecting a lot while look art art in museums.  I came to the conclusion that appreciation is not always pleasurable (last week, I saw the splendidly disgusting Paul McCarthy show in New York), but it is positively valenced: when we see art we like we are motivated to approach it, to consume it with our senses, and of course, we pay for museum tickets to see it.  So I began looked for positive emotions than need not be pleasurable.  I was also struck by the fact that good art seems captivating.  It attracts our attention.  The best art seems to do so in a way that is almost inexhaustible.  We can see it again and again.  Here I couldn’t help but think about Kant’s notion of free play.  We try to grasp what our senses take in, but can never settle on a fixed assignment of concepts, so intellect and imagination enter into a harmonious and unsettled exchange.  One might express this by saying that good art evokes a sense of perplexity.  Finally, I was stuck by the religiosity of my own art consumption.  I treat artworks that I adore as sacred objects.  To visit a favorite piece feels like a pilgrimage.  It is important for me to see the original, and not just a good copy, and I delight in the fact that a work was created by the hands of an artist I admire.  Put simple, appreciation involves a degree of reverence.
A museum goer views a Kiefer in Berlin
These phenomenological expeditions to museums gave me a clear mandate in my effort to analyze appreciation: I needed to find an emotion that was positively valenced, associated with perplexity, and also reverent in nature.  As an emotion researcher, I could think of only one candidate that fit this job description: wonder.  More accurately, there is a family of terms, such as marvel, bewilderment, and, in intense forms, awe, that seemed apt here, and “wonder” looked like a good term for the family.  I wasn’t so concerned with whether “wonder” has other meanings that extend beyond the three features I mentioned.  I was satisfied that it seemed like a close fit, and happy to stipulate that wonder be understood as encompassing the dimensions just mentioned.
From Appreciation to Art
With this, I began to think of great museums as wonderlands: places where we go to have experiences of extraordinary things, places of worship.  I began to think of great works as works of wonder.  I also decided to write a book with that title, which is now forthcoming with OUP.
The Bilbao Guggenheim
Now all this wonder-talk got off the ground in my quest for a theory of appreciation.  I convinced myself that great works are wondrous.  But, any one versed in recent aesthetics would press the cautionary pause button here and say: we mustn’t confuse a theory of appreciation with a theory of art.  Even if we grant that great art is wondrous (more on this in a minute), what about bad art, which clearly isn’t.  Can wonder really provide us with a theory of art, as Romantics might have thought?
A work from the Museum of Bad Art
Here I’m inclined to climb out even further on this fragile limb.  I happily concede that not all artists aspire to create works of wonder, and even fewer succeed.  But I do think that, when we see objects that bear certain similarities to familiar works (e.g., the paintings and sculptures that we encounter in museums), we recognize that they are the kinds of objects that we should evaluate using the norms that we use in evaluating art.  Here I’ll say nothing about the content of those norms (that’s another chapter), but I have already said something about the output of those norms.  When I work satisfied our norms of evaluation, we appreciate it, and appreciation, I said, is wonder.  If that’s right, then, when we see a painting or sculpture in a museum, we immediate recognize the applicability of norms that, when satisfied, elicit wonder.  Thus, it’s not entirely crazy to suppose that artworks are items that afford the application of norms of wonder.  Artworks are candidates for wonder.  This formulation needs plenty of fine-tuning, but for now it’s enough to see that there is a strategy available for making wonder central to an account of what art is.  This makes me a modern Romantic.
Romanticizing Duchamp
Romanticism is embarrassing.  It sounds hokey and hopeless. It also sounds woefully out of touch with where Western art has been for much of the last century.  There are certainly some contemporary artists who deliberate try to induce something like wonder (think of Anish Kapoor, Ann Hamilton, Carsten Höller, Anselm Kiefer, Ernesto Neto, and Tara Donovan, to name a few).  But much recent art seems far removed from such Romantic ambitions.  I mentioned Pop Art above, but one might also add conceptualism, minimalism, fluxus, superrealism, feminist (and other political) art, and, of course, dada. Duchamp campaigned against retinal art, and, in so doing, also brought experiential theories into ill-repute.  Art, he realized, could be an idea.  Sol Lewitt went on to say that art works need not even be created, much less experienced.  Yoko Ono’s book Grapefruit is a collection of instructions for creating pieces, rather than a collection of plates showing what those pieces look like, and some of these pieces would be impossible to create.  Against the background of these interventions and advents in art history, the wonder account looks, well, silly.
Yoko Ono, examples from Grapefruit
On second thought, the construct of wonder may be more accommodating than it initially appears.  Recall the three dimensions I adduced above: positive valence, perplexity, and reference.  This triad is surely applicable to the art movements just mentioned.  Consider Duchamp.  There is no doubt that his work is positively valenced by art enthusiasts.  People are eager to see his creations in museums, and spend money and energy learning about them.  Duchamp is also a master of perplexity.  Conceptual art resists settled interpretations, and leads to a kind of mental play that would make Kant smile.  Even works that are never created, such as those in Ono’s book, can typically be imagined, and even the effort of trying to imagine something unimaginable can be an exercise of the sensuous imagination.  So art that is not aiming to be retinal (e.g., beautiful or interesting to behold) can still involve a harmonious interaction between imagination and intellect.  Finally, Duchamp’s creations have become objects of veneration.  Duchamp was preoccupied with making copies of his own work, and these copies have come to take on a special significance: viewers care if they are seeing a real authentic fountain (one commissioned by Duchamp) or a copy made with no involvement of the artist.  Ironically, while trying to debunk the cult of authenticity, Duchamp instantiated it, and his active reduplications look now like a fetishistic effort to re-instantiate sacred icons of (post-)modernism.
Marcel Duchamp, Fountain
I will leave it to readers to consider how wonder might be apt for other movements in recent art.  The spiritual compulsivity of minimalism, the technical mastery of superrealism, and even the apotheosis of quotidian objects in Pop.  In this context it’s worth recalling arch-instutionalist Danto’s suggestion that art involves the transfiguration of the commonplace: ordinary things become extraordinary.  If he is right about this, then wonder may be a central aspect of art.  Wonder is an emotion that arises in response to extraordinary things.  It is intensified is those alchemical contexts where value is conferred on something that has been valueless (like paint pigments or clay).
Temples of Wonder 
Institutional approaches also point to another resource that may be conducive to wonder: the museum context. Museums and galleries are places of worship, I mentioned.  We learn to stand before valued objects there, hung on pristine walls, illuminated by spot lights.  We are encouraged to remain silent and to stand at a safe distance, as if venerating reliquary.  This is conducive to wonder.  Seen in this light, institutionalism and experiential theories need not be so remote.  Institutions can train us to seek and have certain kinds of experiences.  Wonder need not issue from some natural instinct, as old Romantics might have had it, but can rather be cultivated.  Wonder may even be a social construct, at least as applied to art.  But, it is a construct that may have been operative in the caves of Lascaux and is still at work, I submit, in contemporary art spaces.
If this is right, then we should call for an armistice between institutional and experiential theories or art. I am not the first to argue for reconciliation.  Gary Iseminger, for example, makes a heroic effort in his book on art, and I’ve even pointed to relevant ideas in Danto.  Danto even calls one of his books Unnatural Wonders, which strikes me as a reasonable synonym for art.  Modern museums emerged from cabinets of curiosity, which blended naturalia and artificialia, showing that both can induce wonder.  Some of this history is traced out in Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s magisterial Wonders and the Order or Nature.  No book has been more inspiring to me in working on this topic.  No reader of this book would think that institutional and experiential approaches are antithetical.  On the contrary, experience–and wonder in particular–is recast as a product of institutionalized socialization.
The Worm Museum, a Cabinet of Curiosity
I am hopeful, therefore, that the wonder account can be extended to many (most? all?) the things we recognize as art.  Hopeful too that it provides an avenue for bringing experiential and institutional theories into alignment.  This latter ambition betrays an anti-Romantic thrust in my experientialism.  Romantics were at war with the manufactured world.  But the disingenuity of  this stance was always manifest.  Romanticism was clearly a product of it’s times: a cultural artifact created by an educated intellectual elite.  The siren call of nature was a tuned and trained by culture.  Likewise, I think culture plays a role in training us to stand before canvas and clay, with dropped jaws, whispering “wow.”
Eve Hesse, Right After
I don’t expect to convince many (any?) philosophers that artworks are works of wonder.  I welcome the usual tide of counter-exampled.  I have convinced myself, of course, but I’d be satisfied if the exercise of entertaining the wonder theory proves profitable in other ways.  Suppose one abandons the quest to find an essence of art and treats theories of art, like art criticism and art itself, as offering ways of seeing.  For me, seeing art through the lens of wonder has been rewarding.  If unconvinced by the proposals advanced here, consider this an invitation to indulge with me in a kind of cultivated Romanticism.

47 thoughts on “"Wonder Works: Renovating Romanticism About Art" Jesse Prinz

  1. Interesting post! I find your view quite plausible. But I'm a bit concerned with your notion of wonder as requiring perplexity. (I'm not sure you intend it as a necessary condition) That seems to suggest a cognitive state of uncertainty or that the work must be “difficult”. That certainly applies to some works. But I think I can appreciate musical works, for instance, without being perplexed. The fascination and feeling of wanting to continue the experience doesn't necessarily require a cognitive state of uncertainty, or so it seems to me.


  2. CHRISTY'S COMMENT: I think there is a need for Jesse to have some further distinction so as to allow for what I think are two important senses of wonderment (high/low, proper/improper, authentic/inauthentic, genuine/ersatz). For example, consider artworks that evoke wonderment in their audiences via the (implicit or explicit) exploitation of some epistemic, cognitive, or conceptual deficiency. I take such works to that extent evoke wonderment only in some cheap or disingenuous manner (much like the “sadness” evoked by the melodrama's manipulative tugging of audience heartstrings or the suspense film resorting to cheap “startle-response” scares to thrill its audience). The wonderment that Jesse is clearly after is that which arises in response to extraordinary things, but what of the putative wonderment that arises for those with extraordinarily deficient epistemic states, discriminative capacities, conceptual frameworks in response to what are  thoroughly ordinary things?

    For example, consider the works of James Turrell: Roden Crater ( and Acton (
    Roden Crater I take to aspire to true, genuine wonderment; Acton, however, I take to aim instead at some cheapened, base, and ultimately uninteresting sense of wonder, namely that which arises for those with certain ignorances or false beliefs in response to simple optic trickery. Insofar as Jesse wants wonderment to play a role in understanding artworks themselves as well as and their evaluative/appreciative norms and surrounding/supporting institutions, that wonderment ought to be of a genuine or proper sort rather than wonderment for which the facilitation or promotion thereof, crudely put, requires either the artworks themselves be made better or their audiences made dumber–after all, for one to experience “child-like wonderment” prima facie entails one be in some important respect “child-like”.  


  3. Thanks, Christy. Very important point, and great examples. There is a Turrell show in NYC with a piece like Acton. I haven't seen the Crater in person, but there's a nice interview with Turrell about it in an episode of Art21. In the book I talk about about a lowbrow case to raise this worry: Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (I quote there from two riotous reviews). My answer in the book, which needs elaboration is that manipulative high-impact works (think of 3D IMAX films) may fail to elicit key a key ingredient, which I refer to in the blog as reverence or veneration. We either fail to view these works with reverence, or the reverence dissipates quickly on reflection. I'm not sure how far this response goes towards solving the problem, but I fully agree emphatically that some distinction between genuine and ersatz is needed here.


  4. Thanks! I've had a hard time articulating the notion of perplexity that I'm after. I agree that doesn't seem like the right word in many cases. It need not be confusion or uncertainty either. It's really closer to interest, but the kind of interest that doesn't presuppose that inquiry will ever come to finality, or settle questions in a way that simply allow one to move on. I've tried various words, but I'm not sure there is one that fits like a glove.


  5. Aixo era y no era..


  6. Jesse, you write: “Wonder is an emotion that arises in response to extraordinary things.” In some cases, you suggest, this extraordinariness can be technical, as in, I gather, reactions like: How did she *do/make* that? In other cases, you suggest, it’s not the technique that inspires wonder. Can you talk a bit more about those cases where the extraordinariness is *not* technical? If it’s intellectual and it’s a visual art object, how does this viewer comprehend this content, such that she feels wonder? What is the role of the artist statement, in these cases, if any?

    You also don’t talk about the artist very much—maybe that’s in another chapter. Does she feel wonder when making the piece? When she finishes it? Not at all?

    I look forward to reading your book.


  7. On a somewhat nitpicky point, Danto really didn't inaugurate the Institutional Theory of Art, in his 1964 piece, which was about the capacity to see something as art. (In any event, Danto is not and never was an Institutionalist.)

    The theory was really first proposed by Terry Diffey in his “Republic of Art,” 1969.


  8. Okay, so now, a more substantive point/question.

    The bulk of your post, here, involves musing upon the effects and experiences which paintings, sculptures, installations, etc., have on us.

    Why does this require any metaphysics of art or, for that matter, a definition of “art”? (Full disclosure: I published a piece in the BJA some years ago, arguing that such a metaphysics/definition is neither needed nor possible.)


  9. CHRISTY'S COMMENT: Daniel, I'm worried that you've asked Jesse a terribly unfair question. After all, Jesse provides a disclaimer at the end that, even should his attempt to understand artworks and art evaluation/appreciation (and the norms thereof) principally in terms of wonder (emotions, experiences, and evocative capacities) ultimately fail, he nonetheless finds it philosophically worthwhile to think about artworks in such terms, namely as works of wonder.

    As a result, your question comes across as asking Jesse not to explain the art-ontological and art-theoretical implications of his wonder account but instead to explain his need to conduct art-ontological and art-theoretic enquiry in the first place. The obvious answer is because he thought doing so would be philosophically fruitful and further thinks the results are such that we'll agree. It seems thoroughly unfair to demand that Jesse further come to the meta-philosophical defense of such enquiry itself (especially when his account ruffles no more meta-philosophical feathers than does any other extant, relevantly similar view.


  10. I really wasn't demanding anything. I am simply curious as to what Dr. Prinz views as the relationship between inquiring into our various experiences of art and the project of providing a metaphysics of art/definition of 'art'. If there is a point underneath this curiosity, it is that I don't see the two projects as significantly related.


  11. I enjoyed this post and agree that wonder is often a central feature of artistic appreciation–though I'm not convinced it is always a feature or usually the primary feature. Art often is wonderful, but I don't believe it's art–or better art–because it's wonderful.

    Have you considered the relation of your category of wonder to the Kantian conception of the sublime rather than his broader notion of free play of the faculties? t I seem to recall the sublime being a kind of breakdown of the ability of this free play to lead to harmony in the face of something too great or incomprehensible. In contrast, the beautiful is the opposite of “perplexity” or “wonder”, related to the appearance of purposiveness: to the sense that something can be comprehended, not that it defies comprehension.

    This seems important because making wonder central to a conception of art might push the category of the beautiful too far from the center. I don't think of beauty as necessarily an object of wonder; instead I think of tranquility, relaxation, ease, softness, the absence of any kind of disturbance.

    I also worry that the prioritizing of wonder over-intellectualizes art, and perhaps reflects a distinctive bias of philosophers when they appreciate artworks. If philosophy begins in wonder, are we imposing philosophical tastes and values by making wonder so important? Ironically, I find the theory most unappealing in its *lack* of romanticism. To wonder is to say: here is a problem to be solved, a puzzled to be unpuzzled, knowledge to be gained. There is perhaps too little art, too little romance, in the attitude of wonder.


  12. CHRISTY COMMENT: Daniel, sorry for the “demand” bit. I saw your question as laying a trap, specifically the one where Jesse replies, “Well, doing so gives us substantive insight into the nature of art-appreciation, art-evaluation, the aims and roles of art-institutions, and even into the nature of artworks themselves” only for you to dramatically respond, “You fool! Those are all virtues to be had only insofar as you've already committed to the philosophically bankrupt art-essentialist enterprise. Mwahahahahahaha!”


  13. I think the wonder or bewilderment that comes from epistemic failure (EF) is phenomenologically much different from this aesthetic wonder that Jesse is after. In EF-wonder, one is struggling to grasp a perceptual norm. In aesthetic wonder we revel in the absence or instability of norms. Affectively, these two senses of wonder are quite different. EF-wonder can be anxiety provoking or worse. In aesthetic wonder one's mood can be various–serene, curious, fascinated, thrilled, etc. But in aesthetic wonder we are often satisfied with the mere appearance of something, without feeling the need to “figure it out”. With EF-wonder the need to “figure it out” is palpable. The manipulative artworks trade on this contrast but the need to grasp a perceptual norm makes veneration difficult.

    I think this might speak to Yan's worry later in the comment thread that wonder is too cognitively demanding and appeals only to philosophers.


  14. No traps here. This is one of my major research areas, so I am interested in it.

    It also happens that Dr. Prinz is teaching in the program where I got my PhD in 1999, which I admit added to my interest as well.


  15. Good. I'm inclined to agree that most and maybe even all artworks are candidate for wonder. But lots of natural things (e.g., the grand canyon) and artificial things (e.g., the entirety of New York City) are candidates for wonder while not being artworks. So I'm sympathetic to Daniel Kaufman's in a prior comment, to separate wonder-ology from the definitional project.


  16. I wonder (pun intended) to what extent “wonder” can be examined by cognitive science (and specifically neuroscience) apart from the examination of positively valenced affect generally. My worry is that the folk concept of “wonder” will collapse into positively valenced affect generally like many other basic emotion terms. I imagine Professor Prinz's forthcoming book will deal with this issue and I look forward to it.


  17. I have to say that I also wonder (!) about the wonderology itself. The formulation that Dr. Prinz offers—extraordinary things are causes of wonder—strikes me as committing a basic mistake of treating something's extraordinariness as distinct from–and a cause of–the wonder that one feels about it. It would seem to me that the very characterization of it as extraordinary is itself the experience of wonder.


  18. CHRISTY COMMENT: P.D. & Daniel, there seems to be sense in which Jesse wants his account to remain flexible and broad enough to allow for wonder-ology either simply to collapse into art-enquiry or at least to stand the outer metaphysical bounds thereof. For example, Iseminger's theory is not a theory about the nature of art being in terms of some aesthetic function (aim, end, role, capacity, experience, etc.) but rather that the nature of the artworld ought to be understood in such terms. I took Jesse to be suggesting (or at least amenable to) a similar sort claim, just one that specifies wonderment at its center. So insofar as Jesse wants to marry experiential and institutional theories under the broad banner of wonderment (and the cultivation thereof), it follows prima facie that no candidate for wonder can be excluded from the artworld. Accordingly, the Grand Canyon's naturalness looks less a reason to think wonder-ology ought to be separated from the definitional project and more a reason to think wonder-ology should double as the metaphysics of art.


  19. I must admit that I don't understand a good part of this.

    With respect to the part I do understand, however, I don't believe there is any way to marry Institutionalism with *any* experientialist definition, and besides, there are the innumerable other problems with *all* the proposed definitions and with the definitional project itself that would have to be overcome.

    As an aside, any account according to which the artworld would be prohibited, “prima facie,” from excluding things like the Grand Canyon as artworks, would constitute a Reductio, as far as I am concerned.


  20. Jesse, thanks for a very interesting post. Your discussion focuses on the visual arts, though it is not hard to imagine treating music, dance, and other performing arts in the same way. (In fact, I think that the case for wonder as the core response to music might be even stronger than it is with visual arts.)

    But is the account intended to include *all* of the arts? Prose literature seems particularly problematic. Of your three features, positive valence is the only one that seems clearly to apply. There is *some* hint of reverence, of course, but it's quite limited. (How many people, other than professional scholars, track down and examine the original manuscripts of their favorite literary works?) And while some great works of literature (e.g., Finnegan's Wake) certainly make readers feel perplexed, many (I would say most) do not. In fact, it is not easy to say whether there is any one characteristic feeling that goes with the admiration one has when reading or remembering a great work of literature.

    In saying this, there's a danger of my sounding like Peter Kivy, who wants to say that most prose literature does not have aesthetic value in the proper sense, and that our experience of literature is not (in the ordinary case) really aesthetic. But that's only one way to go. Another way is to recognize that literature has aesthetic value, but that this value differs in interesting ways from the value that some other arts (particularly visual arts and music) have.

    Regardless, I'm thankful for the post, and for Christy's putting together the blog —


  21. Thanks for setting up this great forum, Christy.

    And thanks for an fun and provocative inaugural post, Jesse.

    I suppose I agree that going to see art is like a pilgrimage – like a trip to see old friends to share old stories. I'll confess I get rattled each time they move the paintings around at MoMA. I miss the bench under the window in front of Rites of Spring (and the bench in the corner alcove in front of the di Chirico's).

    I want to suggest, casually, that the schism between experiential and institutional accounts of art doesn't lie (or at least shouldn't) in attitudes towards the experiential qualities of our engagement with art per se, but rather in the source of their artistic salience, relevance, or value. The artistic salience of the experiential qualities of our engagement with a work are a product the way they are used to articulate the content of the work and their fit with the productive and evaluative conventions defining (practices associated with) the appropriate category of art. If these conventions include a productive role for aesthetic responses, positively or negatively valenced emotional responses (think Vito Acconci or Chris Burden), or etc., then institutional accounts can accommodate them.

    I think this is loosely in line with what Danto had in mind — works are differentiated from their non-art cousins by their placement in a history, in a network of practices and conventions. It's also seems like a good fit to Kendall Walton's story about Categories of Art

    There are at least two significant virtues, among many vices, to this kind of story: it enables us to distinguish sunsets, fancy toasters, and anxious existential fits from artworks without postulating any unique cognitive or phenomenological apparatus; and it enables us to account for a broader, more realistic Wonderama of Art than any experiential account.

    Resolution of perplexity (sounds like interest, attention, reduction of uncertainty, pleasingness, and arousal potential, Berlyne) might emerge with the hedonistic profile of something like a Wundt curve in the process of puzzling through the way a work embodies art salient categorial conventions in simple object recognition, in identifying and interpreting the formal-compositional features diagnostic for the particular content of a work, or in balancing the embodiment of conflicting categorial conventions in interpreting contemporary works.

    I am non-plussed by wonder. One dominant movement in late twentieth century art was an ant-aesthetic art of the ordinary object. Rauschenburg made mundane grey beds and goat tire swings, Jasper Johns painted cast cheap-beer cans to like the originals, Steve Paxton ate a sandwich, Robert Morris' minimalist installation focused our attention on the space in the room (all before Andy Warhol exhibited his beautifully bright and colorful Brillo Boxes – Morris' installation was the same year). We may be in awe of the expressive accomplishment of these compositions, but not because of anything about them (if they are successful) rather because of what we recognize what they artistically convey given the context surrounding their production. Of course sometimes wonder is the appropriate appreciative response. But to reify this local convention as a broad definition of practice may be to flout the distinction between normative and descriptive accounts of artistic practice — which is certainly one of the gems we ought to keep from Morris Weitz. I know these are pretty old examples, but I'm confident we could find more.

    Just a couple of thoughts. I don't think they are inconsistent with Jesse's suggestions about the social construction of wonder. I wonder, though, if the more expert knowledge one gains about artistic conventions the less one relies on wonder to drive their appreciative practices.

    Remind me to tell a funny story some other day about a more compellingly realistic but analytically detached McCarthy-esque installation in NYC in the early 90s.


  22. Hi Jesse,

    (Incoming PhD student in your department here!) I appreciate your reconciliative efforts in seeking a common ground between experiential and institutionalist accounts, and I'm sympathetic to your solution. The distinction you drew between positive valence and hedonic effect in aesthetic response seems particularly important to extend the experiential account to many modern art works which, at first glance, could seem only explicable as art under the institutionalist explanation.

    Like James in the comment above, I'm interested in how the wonder account applies to the performing arts. For example, in dance, there currently exists a sort of cultural divide between two creative approaches, summarized as “uptown” and “downtown” by critics & practitioners (the terms arose from rough geographical correlates within New York City, but have survived extension to other locales). Uptown dance basically encompasses what appears at major theatrical venues. Downtown dance tends to challenge both experiential and institutional explanations of art, opting for naturalistic human movement over that which signals explicit technical training, and altering the typical performer-audience relationship by bringing the two together in common spaces and breaking the fourth wall; given these tendencies, one could say that the minimum condition of downtown dance is to evoke perplexity. Perhaps under the wonder account, a viewer can recognize downtown dance as art if the work manages to meet the other two criteria of positive valence (attracting and maintaining the viewer's attention) and reverence (displaying admirable skill in the performer and/or choreographer). I'll try to run these thoughts by some colleagues in the dance community to see if they concur. I'm aware of but less knowledgable about analogies to the uptown/downtown divide within music and theater, so it's possible that a similar wonder-satisfaction analysis could be applied to those disciplines.

    I'm sure visual art supplies more than enough data to flesh out the wonder account for your upcoming book. Maybe I'll take up the torch on addressing performing arts as works of wonder at some point within my CUNY fellowship. At any rate, I look forward to following your development of this account!


  23. Such is the wonder hypothesis.


  24. Thanks, Steff. Super important questions, and ones that we can all think more about together. I began this project from a viewer's point of view, though I have a background in art making. As an amateur artist, I tend to think the process of creation is less wonder-driven and more varied. But I am very interested in the role of compulsion in aesthetic production, and I suspect that something about the need to create these things that are, in some sense, useless is itself extraordinary in a way that relates to wonder. In places art outside of the practical and that makes it extraordinary. But I have to think more about that.

    I think artist statements are extremely important, and too rarely read (except be review panels and residencies!). But give the artists an opportunity to instruct viewers how to engage the work. WIth conceptual art, the instructions are often necessary. So for example, when we learn that Duchamp's “With Hidden Noise” contains an invisible element that we can never see, it forces us to reflect on the nature of art itself, and on the visible. I think wonder is a very intellectual emotion. We can experience it from seeing waterfalls, of course, but it can also be triggered by what we sometimes call mind-blowing or mind-explanding intellectual exercises. With Hidden Noise is not very interesting to look at, but as soon as we know there is something hidden within it becomes completely fascinating. But it's no a kind of fascination we can put to rest, and it also leads us to think about other things. So it is an expansive fascination. I don't like artspeak in artist statements. What I find most effective are the comments that allow viewers to see that the interest of a work spirals outward with endless possibility. Not sure it that helps.


  25. I'm not sure I'm doing metaphysics or definitions. I'm certainly not given a definition in the sense of a conceptual truth. It's more like a recognition theory, and also a kind of functional analysis: this is what art does. In some sense, it's metaphysics, but only because I think art is a response-dependent kind: it's essence comes from our reactions. I think a lot of definitions go wrong because they are either too normative (formalism), to heterogeneous (disjunctive theories), and too prone to exclude art outside our traditions (institutionalism and historical theories). But it feels like there should be some what to say how art, in general, is identified and marked off from other things. The wonder theory offers one way to do that.


  26. I think it was fair. My disclaimer was a way out of these debates, but I am seriously exploring the idea that wonder is a common denominator in art. So I appreciate any push back on that.


  27. And, blush, I may be guilty as charged… Daniel, didn't know you were an alum. How cool! A growing aesthetics community these days.


  28. Great question. I think, for me, wonder falls between Kant's notion of beauty and his notion of the sublime. The problem with Kant's sublime is he brings it too far back to us, saying that the sublime draws attention to our own intellectual faculties. I think wonder is more outwardly directed. But there may be a reading of Kant where the come very close.

    I do think beauty remains central to a lot of art, but I find wonder there. Your remarks on beauty remind me of Burke, whose beauty seems to be more like what we might call pretty. But we distinguish between pretty and beauty. I have a chapter entertaining the idea that the difference lies in wonder. But I know I won't convince many of this.

    I love the object that my romanticism is not romantic in the end. I don't want to wonder to be overly intellectual. I think it is a place where boundaries between thinking, seeing, and feeling break down. There is a Baconian view on which wonder is an itch to be scratched. I think the romantic view of wonder sees it an a kind of enduring puzzle that we bask in rather than solving. So maybe, as Chrystie suggests, we need to differentiate species of wonder. I want mine to be romantic.


  29. A question dear to my heart. I've been working with a psychologist collaborator, Angelika Seidel, to run experiments relating to wonder. We've developed several scales, which we've now uses a good number of studies that are designed to measure dimensions of wonder. I'm hoping that as this research moves forward, certain physiological symptoms will also come into focus. Adam Smith talks about wonder as a breathless state. We are stopped in our tracks. Interesting, meta-analyses of fMRI studies on aesthetic judgment show both reward centers (nucleus accumbens) and structures associated with fear (insula) active when viewing art. I think wonder may be a blended emotion, but as such we may see tell-tale components when doing empirical work. We've found validity and consistency in how people respond to our scales, and recent work has also been done on awe.


  30. This is all helpful for me to think about. I am wrestling a bit with the question of function here. I think wonder may be a kind of telos for art, but I also don't think that is explicitly realized by artists or the artworld, and I don't know how to reconcile this with a functional orientation. I try to take this in steps; Evaluation is central to the function of art, and wonder turns out to be implicated in evaluation (I think it is the output of positive evaluation). Not sure if that helps.

    I think the artworld can consider the Grand Canyon an artwork, but only be construing it as a “work” — what I call in the book “a production.” It might be a readymade. I can go to Chelsea and say my artwork is the Grand Canyon. Intuitions on whether I turned it into art will hang, I think, on whether it counts as a work. Artworks are works of wonder not just things of wonder.


  31. Hi James, great to hear from you on this. When I first came to this, I wanted to stick with visual art (or fine art, including conceptual art and performance). I ended up arguing that systems of the art may be unified by wonder, but only to some degree. I agree that literature is a hard case, but consider the following intuition. To me poetry is unequivocally an art, literary novels are borderline cases and vary, and ordinary works of fiction are not. I think this ranking could be explained by saying that poetry and very literary works aspire to or tend do induce wonder to a greater degree. We are blown away by great writing, and great writers choose turns of phrase and other stylistic elements that are in some sense perplexing. Why was that word used there? Also, we find perplexing narrative devices: what is going on here. The more a writer strays from this, the weaker my intuition becomes that the writer is an artist. Just a thought. I wouldn't want to push this too far. I do think modern systems of the arts are in part conventional, but those conventions can influence what reactions people have to works.

    On Kivy, it's partially terminological. I define aesthetic in terms of wonder, but but that's really fiat. The term is presumably polysemous and could be precisified in other ways. So, I'm not sure where to come down. I do think the question you raise about whether there is overlap in our responses to art and literature will be very fruitful for me to dwell on some more.


  32. Bill, thanks for the delightful and quotable riches here! As someone who makes art, does philosophy of art, and also cognitive science, I always find your insights on these topics illuminating, and you've given me a lot to think about. You want to find a way to put wonder into the hands of the institutionalizes, and I think your proposal would work. I want to suggest against this, however, that instutitionalists got to the scene too late. Wonder has been part of art-making long before there were institutions dedicated to art, and it is part of art-making across a range of cultures. I think the art world is, to this extent, beholden to wonder, rather than the other way around. This can be seen in the case of the anti-aesthetic artists you mention. Paxton's act was ceremonial and he turned a practical activity into something lofty, Morris's minimalism is spiritual and poetic, Warhol is an alchemist transfiguring the commonplace, likewise for Johns and Rauschenberg. For em wonder is not restricted to being pleasant to look at. It is more linked to special-making and mystification. (Political art may be a harder case for me).

    And this brings me the Berlyne and Wundt. I don't want pleasingness or reduction of uncertainty to be components of wonder. I think wondrous things are not necessarily pleasant, though they are compelling. Puzzling is probably a bad construct for me to use, since it implies resolution, and I don't think wonder orients people towards solving a puzzle. The reverence in wonder ensures that we see wondrous things as greater than ourselves. Lobsters and sunsets don't have this enduring mystery. I think sunsets might, if we can get over the cliche, but they are not works, hence not artworks.

    This doesn't begin to cover everything, but we'll have to sit down one do these days.

    Oh, and I need to hear that story.


  33. Lauren! It means a lot to me that you wrote. Thanks for that. Also, really fantastic comments. You give me a great opportunity to think more about performance, which I have woefully neglected here. I have a lot to learn from you on this. I think your insights about downtown dance are spot on. With traditional ballet, one gets wonder on the cheap: the use of formalized movements and opposed to ordinary movements in perplexing (and some choreography is bewildering), the physical talent is worthy of reference, and the elegance engages our senses. Dance is also tied to ritual in ways that can make a performance take on otherworldly qualities, which are conducive to wonder. WIth some downtown dance, many of these standard techniques are abandoned (though much modern dance retains them). What does one do with a performance that involves a person waling across a room in an ordinary way, in the context of a dance performance. I think you've already gone a long way towards answering this question. But imagine an extreme case where that's all there is to the performance. Some ordinary movements in an ordinary context. Here too, there might be room for wonder. We ask, why are these people doing this and calling it a performance? Perplexity. We state waiting to see something special. Sensory engagement. We applaud the choreography for the creativity of challenging limits of dance. Reverence. SO I think we can get wonder to work in even an extreme case. But I want the account to be falsifiable, so it is important to me that dance be looked at with much more care.

    I look forward to discussing this and sharing ideas much more in the near future.


  34. I argued that artworks have a kind of telos, according to which they can be evaluated in the Spring 2002 JAAC (“Normative Criticism and the Objective Value of Artworks”).

    I must say, however, that over the years, I have grown much more skeptical about theories of art, theories of artistic interpretation, and theories of artistic value. Indeed, I really wonder, along with Susan Sontag, H.L. Mencken, and others, whether theorizing about art really does anyone any good at all.


  35. Daniel, might I ask at which end lies the source of your skepticism about philosophy of art (or at least its capacity to do anyone any good)? Is it with philosophical enquiry itself (or certain approaches/methods thereof) or instead with art as a legitimate, appropriate, or worthwhile subject for philosophical enquiry (or something other or in between)?


  36. I can give a short answer, and then, depending on whether I've got your question right, I could go more in depth.

    1. I do not believe that artworks comprise a class for which any sorts of necessary/sufficient conditions can be given. At best, one might offer a kind of Wittgensteinian, “family-resemblances” account, which doesn't leave much room for philosophical work, in the ontological arena.

    2. I agree with Sibley that aesthetic properties are entirely particular in character, which means that no philosophical account can really be given of them either. There are no “recipes” that consist of non-aesthetic properties, such that an aesthetic property can then be predicted or even anticipated. Again, not much room for philosophy.

    3. Contrary to my own earlier views, I no longer believe that there are any rules, canons, or even loosely associated characteristics that could provide us with an account of artistic value.

    4. As a general matter, I believe that our engagement with art belongs almost entirely to the “sensibility” side of our nature, rather than the intellectual, and that our experience of it is highly particularized. These are the dimensions of life that philosophy has never had much of interest to say about and for which its tools—rational investigation, generalization, and analysis–have never been well suited.


  37. Funny, I think that artist's statements are completely useless. Indeed, I'm with Sontag, in “Against Interpretation” that when artists impute meanings to their own works and worse, try to tell others how to experience them, makes nothing but a rubbish of them.


  38. perplexity seems to be easier to understand than wonder because you see it as implying uncertainty. I am not sure if it does though. but it is different than wonder. probably the best way to verify your attitude toward a piece of art is by looking at a piece of art that you really like.
    that amazes you. it amazes you and you wonder in front of it because you have never seen anything like that before and maybe also because you can not do the same. it is alien but you are able to recognize its value. Also, maybe not all people can experience the same in front of the same piece of art. A valid question would be why not all works of art by great masters provide us with the same amount of perplexity? It seems that different people respond to different pieces of artworks. I am not so sure I understand either what Jesse really means, but I have also experienced amazement in front of a piece of art that I greatly appreciated.


  39. Steff Rocknak:
    I find your observations quite interesting.
    The wonder that can arise toward the technicality of an extraordinary piece of art and the wonder that arises from a piece of art that lacks technicality or the technical aspect is less important?

    But what is important is what they both need to be extraordinary as their appearance to make us wonder. As not being boring, ordinary, known.

    But what do you mean by this: “If it’s intellectual and it’s a visual art object, how does this viewer comprehend this content, such that she feels wonder?”
    I assume that the viewer experiences wonder instantly. I would rather think that than the opposite.
    Is it somehow clear that once you experience wonder you also understand the artwork that you see?

    and what do you mean by being intellectual? The process of viewing the artwork?

    I think the role of the artist is very important. Never should be underestimated this aspect. They are not complete idiots that make non-artists wonder, aren't they?


  40. you think wonder is often a feature of artistic appreciation but not that is a primary feature?

    what is a primary feature of artistic appreciation then?

    why do you think a wonderful artwork is not better than a non – wonderful artwork if you think it is wonderful and it amazes you?
    why it amazes you, in the first place?
    You called it art though, so it must pass some criteria to be considered art, no? and then it can be wonderful or not, but it is art, to begin with.

    I am very interested in the role played by beauty in art.
    I think it is necessary or it might just be plain perfect to have sane reasons to eliminate it.


  41. I understand that you see beauty as part of most artworks, to begin with.

    You also make a distinction between beauty and pretty.
    A better understanding of what beauty means would be useful.

    Uncertainty is not something that wonder implies.
    Neither pleasingness.
    Wonder does not orient people toward solving a puzzle. It might be mysterious though? But I do not want to know more as being content with what I am seeing?

    what is certain:
    when we wonder, we do see wondrous things as greater than ourselves.
    why is this useful? To see something greater than ourselves?
    or is it the sheer certainty that there are wondrous things which are greater than ourselves that our minds surrender, as simple as that?

    so, wonder is not about uncertainty, neither about solving or wanting to solve a puzzle, neither about pleasingness.
    it must be about being happy.

    you also mentioned at some point that “The best art seems to do so in a way that is almost inexhaustible. We can see it again and again.”
    I tend to think that it is not inexhautible. I think you see it again and again and again until you can get enough of it.
    The wonder attitude toward that artwork might end when you get bored with the artwork. Could you be puzzled in that moment by the fact that you were so wondrously attracted by that artwork? Are you less rational when you are in a wonder state of art appreciation ?
    If you do not have this propensity of wondering in front of an artwork, will you be less capable of appreciating an artwork at its true value?


  42. you believe that all artworks are candidate for wonder. In general.
    In particular, no one can have a wonder appreciation toward all artworks, assuming they are produced by great artists. Only toward some of them.
    Also an artwork is produced by an artist, not by anyone or by nature.

    You also said that lots of natural things and artificial things can also produce wonder. I am not sure what is the difference between an artificial thing and an artwork.
    Is it the same wonder as when viewing an artwork? when seeing the grand canyon, for instance, and viewing an artwork?


  43. no wonder art is the land of everything is possible nowadays.
    good or bad. which is good, I assume.
    but I do not believe the artist is without any rules or guidance when searching/creating artworks. I do not think it makes sense or that it is possible.


  44. I am also curious to know if an artist can lie in an artwork. Or if it is possible for them to lie in artworks. You need a reason for this, but is this all?
    I do not know, it is just an idea.
    They can hide, that is certain, but it is not the same.
    You do not want to reveal everything because people get bored with your artwork and move away to something else.

    But it is not just that the viewer feels wonder in front of the artist's artwork, the artist himself can feel wonder.


  45. I had/have the same attitude toward Romanticism. That they were onto something.
    That in order to create amazing things, you have to believe in amazing things and cultivate that. I wonder how productive is this attitude among artists. Will they all become capable of creating great artworks because of cultivating this sort of attitude? Probably not.

    You mentioned that you are not a fan of Delacroix. I actually liked Delacroix very much, although his influence from Rubens is so obvious. But I did not know that straight away. Still a great painter.

    My view regarding Romanticism is not settled, I am strongly against it and also in favor for it. Just the idea of doing it all, of innovation to your wildest imagination is a seductive idea for anyone. You can not resist it. Also a bit childish and without strong rational foundations?
    But we all like to be this way, just that it is not all that possible.

    Chopin, for instance, seems very romantic when you first listen. Too sweet to bear. But after listening him, you realize that there is nothing romantic about his music. Quite the opposite.
    Or so it seemed to me.

    I also like George Sand. Her style is not pretentious, and comes natural. I like the way she depicts life from the countryside, like she actually understood it.


  46. Incredibly interesting and indepth article, and some fascinating imagery, I never knew there was an inflatable poo installation!


  47. Hi Bill,

    Why do you think expertize about artistic conventions would diminish reliance on wonder when we engage with the piece? I would think the opposite to be true. I would also predict that greater artistic skill would increase wonder during the production process.

    Angelika Seidel


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