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Perceptual Wisdom at the Crossroads: Where Practical Aesthetics Meets Practical Ethics

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Perceptual Wisdom at the Crossroads: Where Practical Aesthetics Meets Practical Ethics

Patricia Trentacoste

For Philosophy Club Presentation: 11/23/09

“… I’m not saying art is valueless. It can lead you to God. It doesn’t lead no where. It leads you this-a-way or that-a-way. Some music is sick. It’s made by sick people for sick people, there’s a whole industry that caters to people’s sickness. We’re all sick, but whatever it is you can be healed and made well and set straight. If I can’t do that with my music I’d just as soon be on a boat… or hiking through the woods” (Bob Dylan, live interview, CBC radio 89.9, some time in spring, 2009).
Introduction: I like this quote by Dylan because, philosopher or not, he has hit upon several key themes in aesthetics I plan to talk about today: art has value; it can lead you to the sublime or sicken the soul; it can be commodified and commercialized; it can heal. (As for Dylan, if he can’t do the latter, apparently he’d rather take a hike….)


What I plan to discuss with you today is a bit of a tautological hypothesis but one worth unpacking: Practical Aesthetic Competence is crucial if not necessary for being moral. But first, some background. Within the philosophy of aesthetics there is no monolithic theory about what aesthetics is other than to define it as the study of art, art theory, art criticism, taste, beauty, and/or the sublime. For that matter, there is no unified theory about what art is, or what counts as good art, or what the function of art is for humankind. Instead there are disputes and paradoxes. (See pages 4-5 for a glimpse into the philosophical canon of aesthetics.) Even so, most theories of aesthetics do fall into one of two camps, aestheticism or instrumentalism.

  1. Aestheticism is a school of thought that claims artists and their works, ‘beauty,’ and art theory are under no obligation to celebrate anything other than self-expression and art itself. Its motto is: Art for art’s sake! Accordingly, aesthetics does not and should not play a role in uplifting humanity with either its content or its form. [See Wilde Oscar, The Critic As Artist (1925), and “The Flowers of Evil” by Charles Baudelaire (1857). Marilyn Manson in modern times deliberately presented himself as a moral reprobate seeking to deliver anti-morality shock art in order to effect strong emotions, including revulsion, in his audiences and critics. Later when he had his first son, he said he wouldn’t want him to see his father’s act.

  2. Instrumentalism on the other hand claims that art directly or indirectly plays a practical role in the human condition for better or worse, and that good art in some manner uplifts humanity by way of its themes, emotional effects, subjects, instantiations of beauty and goodness, (whatever these turn out to be), its methodology, medium, and style. [See Dewey (1934); Beardsley (1958); Goodman, 1968, Schiller (1794-95).]

So------either art is free of and from political content and moral significance or it serves those ends.

See slides of artworks.

See slide of Trentacoste family dinner
Two Questions: Can ordinary, mundane, non-‘artistic’ happenings and configurations not expressly created for purposes of provoking aesthetic experiences, be artificially treated as aesthetic experiences? Yes.

Are there grounds for deliberately blurring the putative distinctions between the aesthetic and non-aesthetic for purposes of investigating the ontology of the beautiful, the good, the profane and the detrimental? Yes

My hypothesis: Practical Aesthetic Competence is crucial if not necessary for being moral.
Proposed df., practical aesthetic competence (PAC)

Heightened attention to the sounds, sights, colors, textures, smells, feelings, attitudes and so on that constitute actual scenarios as well as an attempt to grasp the configuration’s harmony or disharmony, and the rhythm and fit within its components (Trentacoste, 2005, 2007).


  1. Perceptual negligence causes unwanted, unnecessary, deeply regretted, and unintended suffering: Examples of perceptual negligence or practical aesthetic incompetence:

The wrong leg is amputated by mistake (‘wrong site surgery cases’)

a soldier is shot by his or her own squadron (what the army calls a lack of situational awareness)

 a pilot, confused by a fog-trapped horizon ignores readings from his/her instrument panel and crashes an airplane (spatial disorientation)

 a ‘plain looking’ person receives a lesser job, lesser pay, or lesser treatment in court than a ‘good looking’ person, (a psychological phenomenon called “lookism”)

 an artist pays a print-maker for a brochure of her artwork only to receive an ink-muddied distortion of the original and a denial of the difference in quality (small claims court arguments about ‘philistinism’); a caregiver fails to detect shortness of breath in the voice pattern of a patient, etc.

  1. Merely comprehending moral principles and possessing scruples won’t be enough to minimize the risk of causing unwarranted suffering in cases where there’s a failure to notice what’s actually going on. This is especially so when responsible parties have the opportunity and/or professional duty to pay attention to the details of their immediate contexts, properly weigh their significance, and act accordingly.

See remainder of slides.

  1. Being moral-ethical-good-virtuous calls for perceptual competence on a practical level. We cannot rectify what we cannot hear, see, taste, smell, touch, or sensorially process. Humans gather information about their immediate surroundings through their senses and capacities to sort the salient details from the insignificant and form proper gestalts of the whole. Mechanical or perfunctory or lackadaisical perceiving done out of habit will not accomplish this. Wise perceiving (morally enlightened perceiving?) requires not only the cultivation and refinement of one’s sensory faculties, but some apprehension of the bigger picture, particularly its harmonious and non-harmonious potentialities.

  1. Such sensibilities are aesthetic dispositions, not in the formal sense of beauty or art appreciation, but in the practical sense of qualitative analysis because they encourage and enable a perceptual gestalt regarding the meaning and significance of the event at hand.

  1. For these reasons, perceptual error and obligations to remedy perceptual error become practical considerations for practical ethics

  1. Thus, the cultivation of practical aesthetic competence, (PAC), is crucial if not necessary for being moral.

Qualifier: This thesis is intended to be an argument for a zero tolerance stance toward human error. Nor is it a rationale for blaming, shaming, shunning or punishing misperceivers. Whether or not the perceptually negligent are morally blameworthy or criminally prosecutable is an empirical matter that must be assessed on a case by case basis. Instead, the present thesis prefers a remedial stance, dedicated to the reduction and prevention of perceptual error where possible, over a heavy-handed retributive or litigious social response. i

Second Argument: There are philosophical justifications for deliberately albeit temporarily blurring the putative distinctions between formal and practical aesthetics:

  1. ‘Non-aesthetic’ configurations present themselves as narratives with form and content, rich optical data, auditory patterns of reverberation, timber and pitch, textural dimension, olfactory markers, and flavors, parts and wholes, grounds and figures, degrees of completeness, harmony and symmetry.

  1. Once a configuration’s meaning, fit, and degree of harmony or disharmony are comprehended, a range of subjective emotional responses emerges, analogously to the way evaluations arise in museum and concert settings, anywhere art and “beauty” are enjoyed. In either case they are perceived according to the evolutionary dictates of human biology and neurology.

  1. Nature tends to select or favor organisms with heritable traits that help them adapt to their environments in fitness-producing ways. It is widely accepted that this adaptation “plasticity” allows organisms to live long enough to reproduce, increase their numbers and transmit genes to offspring.

  1. Evolutionary accounts generally agree that the persistent human predilections for ‘beauty’ and ‘harmony’ in modern times are actually vestiges of ancestral adaptive genotypic mechanisms (Denis Dutton)

  2. Consequently, at the primary level of perception, the biology beneath aesthetic and ‘non-aesthetic’ sensory experience is, for all practical purposes, the same.

  • Consider our intense response to the aesthetic marker of color: The ability to detect young, red-tinged nutritious leaves against a backdrop of older less nutritious green leaves gave our ancestors an advantage over fellow humans whose rods and cones did not exaggerate the difference between red and green. We can conjecture that those with less sensitivity to red may have been more likely to eat poisonous or bad fruit, thus less likely than those who didn’t to pass on their genes. In actuality the distinction between red and green on the visual spectrum is quite subtle, yet we humans perceive the color shades as complements—opposites (Johnston, 1999).

  • Before noise is interpreted as music it is encoded as sound (Levitin 2007); before a sculpture is interpreted as art it is grasped as a three dimensional filler of defined space with scale and texture, and so on (Langer 1953).

  • Treating aesthetic perception as though it is a rarefied faculty of refined appreciation reserved only for objects created for that purpose, ignores the underlying biology of perception itself.

6. Therefore, PAC increases the likelihood that any resultant judgments, including those with

moral content, would be better informed than in the absence of such data; thus any moral

beliefs about the actual fact would in principle be more ‘justified’.

What does the ‘Canon’ say? History of Aesthetics

  • Plato argues that art merely imitates reality and badly at that, thus it should be heavily censored. It’s potential to corrupt the virtues of its creators and the polis is too great. (The Ion and Republic) Non-Instrumentalism (N.I)

  • Aristotle on the other hand argues that artworks, particularly tragic plays, act cathartically on the audience who, risk-free in a darkened play house, can witness the rise and fall of a tragic hero and learn important personal lessons about virtue. (Poetics 382-322 B.C.E.) Instrumentalism (I)

  • David ­­­­­­­Hume argues that moral judgments are morel like pronouncements of aesthetic taste than exclusive products of rationality, since they too are subjectively ‘felt-assessments’ primarily incited by pro or con feelings about factual matters which are themselves morally neutral. In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1777). (I)

  • Conversely, Kant argues that perceivers of beauty and the sublime inevitably form pure non-cognitive, disinterested, yet subjective, private, emotional and sensual judgments of taste. Objects of aesthetic perception are unique in that they don’t necessarily provide bodily pleasure or agreeableness or moral inspiration; thus unlike the products of the categorical imperative and synthetic-apriori reasoning, judgments of taste do no heavy moral or epistemic lifting. And yet… psychologically, when we proclaim beauty (in a rose or woman’s face) we have the unshakable conviction that our opinion of taste would elicit objective, rational, detached, consensus from anyone else who also beheld the object of our admiration. He famously calls this paradox the Antimony of taste (The Third Critique (1790). (NI)

  • G.W. Hegel argues that art is the sensuous embodiment of the idea and that the power of art to move humanity forward to its ultimate potential is superseded only by philosophy itself . Aesthetics as a philosophical discipline deals primarily with the content and form of particular works of art and neither can be removed via detached rational criticism or intellectual analysis without losing the other. (“Lectures on Aesthetics”; or “Philosophy of Fine Art” (1832), (I).

  • Leo Tolstoy criticizes limitations to creativity and aesthetic inspiration produced by self-preserving ruling class standards which marginalize the literature and values of the ‘lesser classes’. (What is Art? 1896) (I)

  • In the same era, Marx and Engels favor ‘realism’ for different political reasons. Aesthetics as a practical science, they argue, cannot dispense with the material conditions from whence art and culture spring. The artist works on ‘reality’ with special methods and techniques, transforming, dissolving, reordering elements of life into concrete images that convey his or her thought and feeling (See David Walsh, 2008).

  • John Dewey, the American pragmatists argues that there is an aesthetic component to all experiences which run their course to fulfillment and are controlled through “immediately felt relations of order and fulfillment” (Art as Experience, 1934)

  • Monroe Beardsley suggests several traits which make some objects of perception and contemplation inherently valuable and account for the aesthetic experience had by their audiences. 1. they relieve tension and quiet destructive impulses; 2. they resolve lesser conflicts within the self and help to create an integration, or harmony; 3. they refines perception and discrimination, and 4. they develop the imagination and the ability to put oneself in the place of others. (Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 2nd ed. 1981). (I)

  • Elaine Scarry offers a way to link the aesthetic experience, particularly attentiveness to ‘beauty’ to practical real world moral discernment and the “pliancy and lability of consciousness” required for education. On Beauty and Being Just, (1999) (I)

  • Carolyn Korsmeyer enumerates a variety of ‘revolutionary’ stances taken by artists and theorists toward rules of formalism and fine arts identification on the grounds that the rules reflect and reify the tastes of the dominant culture brokers of given times and places. Consequently, the interests and pastimes of the less empowered (often the artists themselves) are devalued in the process. The culinary arts, for example, long relegated to the domestic realm of women and servants, was excluded from favored artistic status on the grounds that cookery constituted ‘craftwork’ and thus no fine arts’ genius and outcomes. Art made by women was conceived of as too private, too individualistic, emotive, sensual, or too folk-art- ish to be taken seriously. (Gender and Aesthetics 2004). (I and NI)

Thank you!

i (Currently, one in every 99.1 American adults is incarcerated in national or local prisons (Liptak, 2008). “1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study Says”, Adam Liptak, New York Times, February 28, 2008.

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