Art and Aesthetic Experience

So far we have skimmed through the essential theories of art that deal with the qualities of the work and its relation to the artist. From another angle, we could simply say that art is something which is created with the intention to produce aesthetic experience. We could argue that there is something special about the experience which art offers, and that we should call anything art, which offers and is intended to offer that experience.

That intention to afford aesthetic experience need not be primary: it may coexist with, say, religious or political intentions, But the notion of intention separates art from nature, a problem that occurred with our consideration of significant form in the formalist theory.

Again, this seems a probable scenario, provided we can agree what an aesthetic experience is. We cannot say that it is the experience of art, for then our theory would be circular. Given that we may be able to successfully argue that magical performance affords this kind of experience, let us consider a couple of versions of what aesthetic experiencc might be. We shall think of them as the content-orientated account and the affect-orientated account.

The first, content-orientated account, deals with the properties of a work, which can be sorted under the headings of unity (coherence), diversity and intensity. Attending to these properties amounts to an aesthetic experience of a work. In effect, this account says what the aesthetic experience "contains." While this may ofien describe our experience of an artwork, it does not seem to relate to the appreciation of magic, unless one is a fellow magician attending to the technical aspects of another's performance. This is because the magical experience is not about attending to and considering aspects of a performance in a detached maimer, rather it is about the raw, emotional involvement of an audience in a certain type of theatrical experience. It is not about standing back and appreciating qualities of the effect.

What of the affect-orientated account? This describes the type of experience which aesthetic experience is, rather than saying what it should contain. It describes it classically as being "marked by the disinterested and sympathetic attention and contemplation of any object of awareness whatsoever for its own sake alone." Disinterested attention means that we do not have other motives in attending to the work, and do not ask if it is morally correct: rather we attend to it on its own terms. Sympathetic attention means allowing oneself to play by the artwork's rules: such as accepting in an opera that people might sing the same lines over and over again to each other or that someone might fall immediately in love with a woman of such elephantine stature. Contemplation, interestingly for magic, is an active exercise of the mind to bring together possibly conflicting stimuli to form a coherent whole. However, it is necessary that this type of attention and contemplation exist for its own enjoyment, rather like the enjoyment of playing a chess match regardless of who wins.

I am not convinced that this describes the experience of magic, but does it hold as a reliable means of conferring art status? Well, no it doesn't. Dealing with the content-orientated account, there are works which purposefully avoid the aesthetic properties of unity, diversity and intensity, such as Warhol's eight-hour shot of the Empire State Building called Empire. It draws our attention instead to presuppositions we have about film: it has a quite different agenda from eliciting the classic aesthetic response. As regards the affect- orientated account, it is the case that plenty of artworks may have an aim to rouse an audience to protest or to change aspects of their lives. This is clearly opposed to the idea of disinterested contemplation. And our demonic figures mentioned earlier, designed to ward off danger, were not made with the intention of producing that type of contemplation. The type of artwork known as a 'readymade,' such as Duchamp's Fountain, which is simply a urinal on display, has an ironic quality about it, which renders it provocative of aesthetic experience because it is displayed as art, not vice-versa. TIt absolutely turns the aesthetic definition of art on its head.

In that way, this account of aesthetic experience is too narrow to stand as a means of conferring art status.. but in other ways it is too broad. I delight in those complicated Jules-Vernian espresso machines which one sees in the belier department stores, with their exciting array of chrome knobs and levers which would almost entice me to spend the three-quarter of a million pounds on one, were it not for the fact that for me, strong coffee leads to a bumpy ride and occasional derailment on the tummy-train to bottom-land. I can appreciate these sparkling wonders of design with all that disinterested and sympathetic contemplation and attention, but coffee machines, mass-produced and sold in stores, are not art.

Besides, it is clear that the experience of a spectator of a magic effect that might be art is not going to be as detached as the aesthetic definition demands, unless that spectator is a fellow magician merely admiring technique. But even then, it is surely rare that he will be watching with no other motivation than to marvel at and consider the artistry of the performer. And it is not just the case with magic that the response of the viewer will not be restricted to an aesthetic one. Art may provoke any number of cognitive, emotional and moral experiences: to restrict the experience of art to an aesthetic one is missing too much. Unable to stand as a conclusive definition of art, we need not be concerned that magic does not provoke this kind of response.

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