Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Paying (Aesthetic) Attention


Photograph of Bence Nanay

What follows is a guest post by Bence Nanay. Bence 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:

Bugs Bunny holding his palm to his face.
Barrack Obama holding his palm to his face.
A person holding their palm to their face

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:

Painting consisting of coloured rectangles and a single green "X" on the far left of the image.

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!


  1. Agreed! This is a great post! One might think that, as in object recognition and perception generally, the source of guidance for what to attend to in a work is our declarative (and procedural) knowledge of categories of art – that the normative and productive conventions that define categories of art are the source of the artistic salience of the non-aesthetic and aesthetically relevant properties of a work (and their flat out aesthetic ones too).

    Folks might be interested to look at Smith, Levin, and Cutting, “A window on reality: perceiving edited moving images,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 2012: 107-113, for a related way of thinking about film.

    Bill Seeley
    Bates College

  2. Thanks a lot, Bill. Yes, knowledge of categories of art must come into it, but I doubt that that's the full story: knowing that I am looking at a Cezanne may prompt me to attend to certain kinds of features, but it will clearly not determine what I am going to attend to (or what I should be attending to). And I second your recommendation of Smith et al. and all that attentional synchrony stuff (although attentional synchrony measures only one kind of (ie, overt) attention).

  3. Thanks! Of course you are right. However, categorization happens pretty fast on some accounts. It may be that we are using the term in complimentary, but different ways. I'm looking forward to the book!

    Bill Seeley
    Bates College

  4. Thanks Bence, very thought provoking. I wonder about this idea of “relevance” though, because it leaves a question hanging over the difficulty we face in evaluating different kinds of relevance. Relevance, it might be argued, is ends dependent. So, when you say: “Attending to the wrong thing can derail your experience.” we have to ask what the “right thing” is, that has now been derailed by this unexpected or unintended shift of attention. Certainly your reading of the World Cup logo is vital to your argument but it's also clear that this is not the intention of the logo. As with your own reading, a feminist critic might wish to point out that the logo is strongly reminiscent of a engorged phallus that the hands seek to conceal in an attempt to elide the fact that the World Cup is by no means a World Cup. It is no more than a half World Cup.
    Several possible readings apply to the logo and when viewed in relation to different discourses and visual codes these can be extraordinarily revealing but these readings are nonetheless ancillary to the standard reading (unless, by force of attention, they completely subvert the standard reading, as you discuss). Is it not the case then, that, as with language, relevance is determined by social consensus and not by what Karen-Edis Barzman tellingly called “master readings”?

  5. Jim, I fully agree. I said that attending to aesthetically relevant properties makes an aesthetic difference. But of course a wide variety of differences can could as aesthetic difference (difference in terms of which fictional character you're identifying with, difference in terms of aesthetic properties, etc). So I want to allow for a very heterogeneous bunch of aesthetic differences, and, as a result, a very heterogeneous bunch of aesthetically relevant properties.

  6. I like this a lot Bence—the idea of heterogeneity especially. And now suddenly your point: “Maybe it is a better bet to try to focus on ‘aesthetically relevant properties’ rather than ‘aesthetic properties’.” falls into place. Aesthetically relevant properties can and do infect, contaminate, subvert, augment, contribute to and in many ways actually constitute the aesthetic properties of a thing. To that degree this is an attributive theory isn't it? It's about the degree to which aesthetic properties are ascribed to objects rather than actually inhere in them. Do I understand that correctly because it strikes me that I may be misunderstanding your use of the word “properties”? An essentialist for example might want to deny that these attributions are properties and insist instead that the only de facto aesthetic properties are those that do not rely on meaning and association but only on raw non-conceptual affective responses. That seems overly reductive to me but there is an issue, is there not, over the degree to which an attribution qualifies as a property?

  7. Thanks, Jim. I was trying to bypass these grand aesthetic realism vs. antirealism issues – I take it that aesthetically relevant properties are useful in both frameworks…

  8. That was intended to be an icon by the way of a trophy. Thanks anyway.

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