The arts surround every aspect of everyday life: the radio offers music of all kinds; most people have paintings on their walls, and indeed, their wallpaper is often chosen for its artistic effect; the skyline in big cities is dominated by its architecture; dancing is very popular on TV; successful TV dramas are viewed by millions; and despite predictions, books are still purchased – novels, biographies, histories and poetry. Yet if people are asked to say what the arts are, how they are to be defined, they are usually stuck for an answer.
Nevertheless, we all have some idea of what we expect from the arts. For example, when some well-known arts event takes place, say the Turner Prize, we commonly hear criticisms: 'That's not art' or 'That's just playgroup art'. There are hundreds of book groups around the country and they all contain literary experts: 'The style was poor' or 'The plot was just a cliché'. As for new music: 'It was just noise'. Some of these reactions may be prefaced by, or at least have the unexpressed thought: 'I'm just an ordinary punter but I know what I like'.
On the other hand, there is a sizeable and usually influential group, who praise the arts if or because they depart from more common expectations. Terms used by this group would be 'challenging', or 'breaking new ground'.
But these common reactions are concerned with what is thought to be good or bad in the arts. They don't tell us what the arts are, what makes some activity an art, or what constitutes an artistic experience. In other words, they don't suggest a definition of art.
Dictionaries reflect a wide range of ways in which the word 'art' is used. In particular, dictionaries connect art with skills of various kinds. But skill could hardly be a sufficient condition of the activities we call 'the arts', for there are many skills which we would not include in the arts, such as rock-climbing.
More worrying, it is doubtful if skill is nowadays even a necessary condition of an art. I recall meeting a composer who told me that he had avoided studying harmony or counterpoint or orchestration because skill in these, he said, would interfere with his creativity. And nowadays, computers can generate random patterns of colours or words or musical sounds which some people consider to be art.
Other possible criteria which might be suggested for what the arts have in common are not convincing. For example, it might be said that the arts generate an experience of beauty. But many artworks are ugly and are intended to be such, or they are disturbing or thought-provoking rather than beautiful. And 'giving pleasure' is neither necessary nor sufficient. As I said, some examples of the arts, for example, some books or paintings are disturbing and are not intended to give pleasure. But if providing pleasure is not a necessary condition of an art, it is certainly not a sufficient condition. Many human activities provide pleasure – having a country walk on a bright morning – but they are not arts.
Perhaps the approach I have been trying is the wrong one. If we consider the ever-increasing range of activities nowadays included in 'the arts' it is unlikely we shall find anything they have in common. It seems a lost cause to try to isolate features which computer-generated arts have and are also possessed by a portrait by Rembrandt, a quartet by Mozart or a play by Shakespeare. Another approach might be to consider, not what 'the arts' might have in common, but rather whether there are any common features which characterise the manner in which we view the objects we describe as 'arts' or 'artworks'.
Essential to this approach is the suggestion that what makes something an artwork is that we adopt a certain attitude towards it. I shall argue that it is our attitude to something that turns it into an artwork. I shall call the attitude an 'aesthetic attitude'. What are the features of this attitude?
It can be contrasted with our more common practical attitudes. Practical attitudes are the ones we adopt when we have specific aims, such as drawing up a shopping list, checking the weather or answering the phone... When we look at the world with what I am calling a 'practical attitude', we are looking beyond the things we are seeing or listening to and considering how they contribute to some further goal we might have. For example, when we listen to the weather forecast we might have a range of possible further goals in mind, cutting the grass, going for a walk…
By contrast, an aesthetic attitude is one we adopt when we are looking at or listening to something with no further goal in mind. Philosophers in the 18th century who wrote on aesthetics – such as our own Francis Hutcheson – used words such as 'disinterested' to describe the aesthetic attitude. The idea is that we put aside our everyday practical concerns and social interactions – we become 'distanced' from them. If we detach ourselves from practical concerns we can enjoy, just for their own sake, the colours, shapes, sounds, rhythms of what we are perceiving. We are taken out of ourselves and enjoy whatever it is – a sunset, a symphony, dancing, a cluster of spring flowers, a poem, a painting of a Highland funeral, or some leaves blowing in the wind – just for their own sake.
It is possible and necessary to characterise the aesthetic response in slightly more detail. It is disinterested, but it is not just a matter of gazing or listening blankly. The response requires some focus or concentrated attention on certain aspects of what we are contemplating or listening to. These aspects are roughly of two kinds.
First, there are what some philosophers have called the 'formal qualities' of the experience. The idea of 'formal qualities' has a long history. It starts with Aristotle's argument in his Poetics
that a good drama must have a beginning, a middle and an end. To which we might comment: Yes, but not necessarily in that order! Coleridge develops Aristotle's idea by suggesting that a work of art has its own 'organic unity', that it develops according to its own internal structure. The structure can be anything from a Bach fugue to the repeated chorus in a folk song.
But, second, we can appreciate something aesthetically, even if it has minimal formal qualities, provided the object has a certain 'content' – striking colours, harmonies, vastness, delicacy, associations evocative of traditions, and so on. It can be aesthetic even if it is personal. Consider what the taste of a madeleine did for Proust!
Am I making the radical, perhaps counter-intuitive, suggestion that we are all artists because it is we who adopt the aesthetic attitude? Yes and no! 'Yes' in the sense that it is our gaze, our attentive attitude, which turns Rembrandt's painting of an old woman into an artistic experience; whereas the auctioneer's gaze turns it into a few million quid. 'No' in the sense that some works by means of their formal qualities and striking content are more likely than others to invite and create an aesthetic attitude: Sunflowers
or Der Rosenkavalier
, for example. But that approach must be tempered by the thought that even if the object of the attitude is common place – 'just a little thing' such as 'four ducks in a pond' – an aesthetic response can be, as Wordsworth suggests, 'too deep for tears'.
Moreover, certain venues or preliminaries are conducive to the adoption of an aesthetic attitude. For example, the ambience of a gallery or a concert hall can invite us to adopt an aesthetic attitude. Older readers will remember what I still think of as the Cosmo (Glasgow Film Theatre to the rest of you). Before the film began our ears weren't shattered with advertisements. Rather, an aesthetic mood or attitude was created by a performance of some music chosen to prepare us for the forthcoming film. That, and then the slowly darkening lights, were ideal ways to create the mood for an aesthetic experience, such as viewing Un Coeur en Hiver
, or Jean de Florette
, or Jazz on a Summer's Day
. Happy Memories!
Of course, you might also go to the Glasgow Film Theatre as a place where you could hold hands with your partner. That too could be a worthwhile experience.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow