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.
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.
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.
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.
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 of 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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.