Bence Nanay is Professor of Philosophy and BOF Research Professor at the University of Antwerp and Senior Research Associate at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. He is the author of Between Perception and Action(Oxford University Press, 2013) and editor of Perceiving the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) and he just finished his book on aesthetics, Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception (Oxford University Press, under contract), which is all about the concept of attention in aesthetics. This picture shows him doing depiction research and being fascinated by the way pictures can give us very wise advice…
So, I’ll spoil the 2014 World Cup for you. Not the games, those should be fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. The logo. Which you will see ad nauseam – on flags, World Cup merchandise, in commercials, everywhere.
Here is that logo:
While tempting, I will not talk about the aesthetic qualities of this figure – it seems as good as any logo for any major sport event (remember the epic debate about the London Olympics logo?). What do we have here? Three hands reaching for a ball – forming a shape that looks a little bit like the trophy that one of the teams will take home in a month. All this in the national colors of Brazil. As I say, harmless enough.
But here is something that will change the way you see this logo forever. It looks exactly like a facepalm. What is a facepalm, you ask? Well, this:
If you once see the similarity between the World Cup logo and the facepalm, it is very difficult to see the logo again in a facepalm-free manner. Which is bad enough, provided that you will see it a lot for the next four long weeks. But what goes for the World Cup logo and facepalms also goes for any artwork.
Consider the following early non-figurative painting by Paul Klee from 1915:
Maybe not as vibrant as some of Klee’s later paintings, but a nice Blaue Reiter-y abstract composition.
Now, I’ll reveal the title of the painting. It is Green X above left. And as you can see, there is indeed a small green X-shape on the left hand side of the painting. After reading the title, it is close to impossible not to see the other features of the composition as somehow being connected to that green X on the left. Give it a try:
The green X on the left is where attention is hooked and the rest of the painting is seen as centered around that green X. This is a radical change from our experience before reading the title when our experience of that green X was likely to be quite marginal. This demonstrates nicely the importance of what property of the artworks we pay attention to. Paying attention to an irrelevant property could and would derail our experience.
And once you have attended to a salient property like the green X or the facepalm, it is very difficult not to attend to it ever after. Attending to the wrong thing can derail your experience ever after.
But then the question of attention becomes an extremely important question for anyone interested in the arts, not just for academic philosophers and art historians: for everyone. Suppose that you are sitting in a museum, trying to make sense of the artwork in front of you. What is it that you’re supposed to pay attention to? The artwork in front of you has lots of properties: it was made by an artist who, no doubt, had a lot of things to say about it. Are you supposed to pay attention to those properties of the artwork that the artists found important? Or are you just supposed to pay attention to what they audio-guide tells you to pay attention to?
When we engage with an artwork, we invariably ignore some of its features and focus our attention to others. We ignore the cracks in the paint and focus our attention to other features of the painting’s surface: we abstract away from the cracks. When looking at a Romanesque church that was rebuilt in the Baroque era, we may try to ignore the Baroque elements in order to admire the medieval structure. Again, we are attempting to abstract away from some features of the artwork.
But how do we know what properties of an artwork we should be paying attention to and what properties we should ignore or actively abstract away from? And there is no easy answer or cheap shortcuts here. Here is one strategy: we should ignore all those properties that the artist did not intend us to attend to. The painter, one would think, did not want anyone looking at painting to focus on the cracks in the paint – they were not there when he painted it. Here is another strategy: we should ask what would give us the highest degree of aesthetic experience/pleasure – maybe independently of what the artist intended.
Attention is one of the crucial but almost completely ignored concepts in aesthetics and the philosophy of art. It can be dangerous – see the facepalm logo case –, but it can also be, if allocated in the right way, very rewarding aesthetically. If you are moved by the facepalm and the green X case, you should also agree that we should do more to try to understand what we are attending to and how, when we are engaging with artworks.
But we should also do more to try to understand what kinds of properties are the ones that we should (in some sense of should) attend to: properties that are such that attending to them makes an aesthetic difference. Let’s call properties of this kind ‘aesthetically relevant properties’.
Now, ‘aesthetically relevant properties’ are not ‘aesthetic properties’. The green X is not an aesthetic property, nor is the similarity to facepalm. Aesthetic properties, properties like being beautiful, being graceful, being garish, are taken to be the holy grail of aesthetics – and a pretty elusive holy grail, if we want to be honest. But maybe it is a better bet to try to focus on ‘aesthetically relevant properties’ rather than ‘aesthetic properties’.
One reason why we may want to do this comes from the critical discourse. What do critics do? Or, rather, what are they supposed to do? I would say they draw our attention to aesthetically relevant properties: they point out what properties of the artwork we should be attending to. And this shift of attention can completely alter our overall experience. A critic who merely point out the aesthetic properties of the artwork (how beautiful and graceful it is) is simply not doing her job. If we take the critical discourse seriously (as Frank Sibley did when introducing the concept of aesthetic properties as the ones expressed by adjectives in “critical and evaluative discourse about works of art”), we should be more interested in aesthetically relevant properties and less interested in aesthetic properties (nota bene: we should also be interested in the relation between the two).
My hope is that you’ll think of aesthetically relevant properties and the aesthetic importance of attention each time you see the facepalm logo in the next months. Which is, presumably, a lot!