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Response to The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude

Bob Wadholm, Missouri University, 2013



In The Myth of the Aesthetic Attitude (1964), George Dickie contends that the central ideas behind the theory of
the aesthetic attitude, namely distance and disinterested attitudes, are actually not attitudes, but ways of
speaking of attention or inattention, and that distanced or disinterested attention is a myth (it is mere attention).
Dickie then turns his argument to focus on how these myths affect how attitude theorists misaddress relevance
(they turn it into aesthetic relevance, when it is mere relevance), art criticism (they separate criticism from
aesthetic appreciation, when the difference is merely that of motivation), and morality (they separate moral
concerns from appreciation, when attention to moral concerns can be central to appreciation). It is the second part
of Dickies myth-busting to which we will be attending at present, focusing in on Dickies argument concerning art
criticism.

Attitude theorists like H.S. Langfield distinguish between aesthetic enjoyment (which is emotional) and critical
attitude (which is intellectual assessment of merits) (p. 61). Such theorists make the purpose of the percipient the
determinant of what kind of attitude is taken up (critical or appreciative). Attitude theorists maintain that criticism
is still important to appreciation (it informs and prepares the percipient), but it must occur before appreciation,
lest it interfere with that attitude. Dickie argues that interference between appreciation and criticism is an idea
that derives not from real cases but from attitude theorists previous adherence to the principle that the aesthetic
attitude is one of disinterest. If it is a myth that an attention can be interested or disinterested (as Dickie
contends), the difference between the critic and appreciator is merely that of motivation, not of attention
(attention is attention is attention). Further, criticism does not compete with appreciation for attention or time, as
the attitude theorists suppose, because critical judgments are done in a flash (p. 62). So we might say:

P1: There is no difference between instances of attention (Dickies earlier argument concerning disinterest).
P2: Criticism and appreciation of art are instances of attention to art (all parties would agree).
P3: Criticism and appreciation of art are differentfor instance, they differ in their underlying
motivations/intentions (again, all agree).
P4: Difference in motivation is not difference in attention (Dickies argument concerning distance).
C1: Criticism and appreciation are not different types of attention.

How might the attitude theorist respond? Dickie admits that motivations are different between appreciation
and criticism of art: does this allow for difference of attitude (even if there are no differences in attention)? Dickie
has changed the argument from centering on attitude to centering on attention, but attitude theorists might
respond:

P1: There are such things as attitudes (states of mind or feelings).
P2: An attitude may be intentional (about or toward something).
P3: Criticism and appreciation are in general different types of attitudes (here Dickie might call foul)they
reflect ones frame of mind or emotions.
P4: A person may have an attitude toward art (emotions or a frame of mind when addressing art).
P5: There are differences between art criticism and appreciation: for instance, they differ in their underlying
motivations/intentions (all agree).
C1: The relationship of a critic to art is different from that of a person appreciating art (all agree).
C2: Criticism and appreciation of art are different types of attitudes toward art.

Is this counter-argument successful? I think only if a person can be made to accept that criticism and
appreciation can be characterized in some way as attitudes. Further, attitude theorists might argue that given
the assent to motivational differences, we might assert that those differences must have some difference in
outcomethe outcome is not only what people are attending to, but how they are attending to it (that is, with a
specific attitude).

Dickie, George. (1964, January). The myth of the aesthetic attitude. American Philosophical Quarterly, 1(1), 56-65.