"Aesthetic Agency? The Authority Approach"
Engagements with aesthetic value pervade human life. We choose to wear these shoes because they beautifully match the dress; we travel to Petra on account of its beauty, or we love Michaela Cole’s TV show, I May Destroy You, as powerful and deep. Such aesthetic engagements are not merely ubiquitous in human life, but also sometimes momentous, often formative or transformative; crucial for who we are. Everywhere you look, our aesthetic engagements appear to be as significant to our lives as human beings as our theoretical inquiries and practical pursuits, so much so that a life without any aesthetic engagements seems not worth living. But is there anything worthy of the name aesthetic agency? It’d be curious if there weren’t such a thing since agency seems to be at the heart of the human—that which places human beings in the preview of the normative notions of responsibility, praise, blame, criticism, and reactive attitudes—and aesthetic value seems to be a crucial dimension of our humanity
Nevertheless, until very recently, there has been virtually no discussion of aesthetic agency. In this paper, I propose that the scarcity of discussions about aesthetic agency until recently is likely explained by the fact that aesthetics has traditionally focused not on action, but on appreciation, while the standard approach to agency in philosophy identifies ‘agency’ with the will, and, more specifically, with the capacity for intentional action. However, I argue, first, that this identification is unfortunate since it fails to do justice to the fact that we standardly attribute beliefs, and conative and affective attitudes that aren’t formed ‘at will,’ including aesthetic appreciation, to people’s agency. We often criticize ourselves and our fellow beings when our (or their) beliefs, emotions, and desires are inapt, and take ourselves and others to be responsible for them. The Practical Approach to agency, which identifies agency with the will, is unfaithful to this phenomenon that shapes our emotional and conative life. Fortunately, I argue further, we need not abide by this Practical Approach, but can develop an alternative: the Authority Approach to rational agency, which does justice to the widespread practice of rationally assessing, reactively responding to, and holding people responsible for non-voluntary attitudes, particularly, I show, for affective attitudes. This is very good news for aesthetics since, I argue additionally, any account of aesthetic agency that accepts the Practical Approach, and focuses on aesthetic actions fails to provide a genuine notion of aesthetic agency. This is because we have no handle on what counts as aesthetic actions independently of these actions’ relation to appreciation: I show that actions are “aesthetic” only derivatively insofar as they center around those that merit (dis)appreciation, understood as an affective, albeit, rational attitude. For this reason, I conclude, we have genuine aesthetic agency only if we can exercise agency in acts of the rational-affective capacity for appreciation, which differs from the will. The Authority Approach allows us to explain how we exercise agency in aesthetically appreciating beauty and art, thus equipping us with a genuine conception of aesthetic agency.
The paper fits the theme of the conference in several ways. First, it focuses on aesthetic appreciation, which, I argue, is a kind of rational feeling: an affective yet rationally responsive attitude. Second, the paper distinguishes between aesthetic appreciation and exercises of the will, like intention and action, and by so doing, points to a difference between aesthetic appreciation and so-called practical stances on the world. Yet, its main argument is that aesthetic appreciation, like other emotions (and beliefs and desires) is no less an exercise of agency than these practical stances are. I argue that human beings are responsible for their acts of aesthetic appreciation (and emotions, beliefs, and desires), not only for practical stances, and are subject to praise, criticism and reactive attitudes on behalf of such affective (and conative, and doxastic) attitudes. If that’s true, then aesthetic appreciation is not disinterested in at least one of the central ways in which this term has been understood (mainly in the 20th century). On the view I defend in the paper, aesthetic appreciation is not characterized by what many 20th century disinterest theorists take it to be characterized by, namely, by a “Felt Freedom. A sense of release from the dominance of some antecedent concerns about past and future” (Monroe Beardsley, The Aesthetic Point of View, p. 288). Rather, though affective, aesthetic appreciation, like other emotions, is an exercise of human agency, for which we are responsible, as well as open to praise, criticism, and reactive attitudes. Aesthetic appreciation is not independent from our everyday concerns, but is a feeling, which, like practical stances and many emotions, is at the center of our normative comportments, responsibilities, concerns, and attachments to one another.