Parsons, Ch 3, Formalism



2.      Types of normative standards for aesthetics

         a.      (1) Anything goes

         b.      (2) One correct/appropriate way to appreciate

         c.      (3) There are a plurality of better/worse ways to appreciate (perhaps some are plain wrong/inappropriate/incorrect?)

3.      What rejecting post modernism (=PM)/anything goes approach involves

         a.      Rejecting idea that all ways of thinking about nature for purpose of aes app are equally valid

         b.      Parson then claims (mistakenly) that rejecting PM involves the idea that in order for aes appreciation to be appropriate, one must conceptualize nature in the correct way

                   i.       But rejecting anything goes does not entail one correct way only better and worse ways to appreciate



5.      Formalism definition

         a.      The correct way to think about nature for aesthetic purposes is as a perceptual array of pure lines, shapes and colors--purely formally (as pure form)


6.      Fred appreciation of night sky best

         a.      Formalism thinks Fred’s appreciation of night sky as pleasing pattern formed by innumerable spots of light is the more appropriate or correct one

         b.      Fred delights in the stars simply as pleasing visual patterns; arrays of line, shape and color and nothing more

         c.      Penny (thinks of stars as mythological characters) and Sam (stars are vast cosmic structure) capture less of genuine aes character of night sky than does Fred

7.      Fred is not thinking much, he’s just looking in comparison to rich thought component others bring

8.      Formalist goal of aes appreciation

         a.      Not to maximize aes enjoyment (as PM view thinks)

         b.      Bring a smaller, more austere thought component to our appreciation rather than richer one

                   i.       Formalism believes that a richer and more sophisticated thought component results in less appropriate appreciation

         c.      Attentive act of just looking


9.      Disinterested (=DI) defense of formalism

10.    DI justifies limiting our aes appreciation to line, shapes, color

         a.      Goal of DI to detach from desires and enjoy object for own sake, rather than for benefits to us

         b.      By emptying our head of thoughts about object and what it might be good for

                   i.       We enjoy perceptual appearance of object for own sake and not any practical benefit it brings us

         c.      Delight springs solely from perceptual appearance, as that is the only thing we are thinking about

         d.      Mind best equipped to aes appreciate nature when vacant and unemployed, unclutter by thoughts about the object


11.    Formalism in art appreciation rejects representation, emotion, thoughts

         a.      If we allow shapes/patterns of painting to get us to think about characters and events (what it represents), to have emotions and ideas, we prevent ourselves from appreciating it aesthetically

         b.      Representation, emotions, thoughts irrelevant to aes appreciation

         c.      Focus on pure form alone

12.    Nature example: Instead of seeing fields and cottages view landscape as pure form, lines, colors


13.    Formalism and PM diametrically opposed

         a.      Instead of embracing wide variety of thoughts, should avoid those thoughts and focus only on perceptual appearance itself, lines, colors, shapes



15.    Formalism and scenic viewpoint/picture postcards/snapping photos

         a.      Formalist approach represented today in important of the practice of appreciating nature via scenic look off and picture postcard and the snap shot

16.    Scenic look off

         a.      Presents nature’s forms (lines, shapes colors) in optimal configuration and with a minimum of distraction

         b.      Allows viewer to compose surrounding landscape into a balanced picture

         c.      Turns nature into a giant three dimensional painting laid out for our enjoyment

         d.      Nature should be appreciated like a big picture/painting

                   i.       By treating nature more like a picture it helps us focus solely on pure form

17.    Picture postcard

         a.      Captures the carefully orchestrated arrangements of lines, shapes and colors that the scenic look off allows us to experience

         b.      Tourist’s ideal of aes excellence in nature

         c.      A kind of formalist appreciation of nature



19.    One: Illuminates and explains (and justifies!) what people actually do in aes appreciation nature

         a.      Standard tourist practice of stopping at scenic look off, snapping a photo, and buying the picture postcard image at gift shop

                   i.       Makes perfect sense given formalism

         b.      Little thought: Most tourists aes appreciate nature w/o bringing much thought to what they appreciate

                   i.       Motorist who pulls off and takes a quick look not likely to be thinking much about what he sees

                   ii.      Plaques conveying historical and scientific information will not be relevant to aes character of scene (says formalism)

20.    Two: Explains nature appreciation as an escape from stress of life

         a.      Rejuvenation, relaxation and renewal of gazing at stars or watching waves role in

         b.      Attend solely to their forms and leave behind our thoughts and distractions and worries

         c.      Aes appreciation “lifts us above the stream of life” and go into the realm of pure aesthetics

         d.      “Childlike wonder” at the world around us

         e.      Is formalism committed to idea samll child’s appreciation of nature is as appropriate (e.g., rich, full, deep, worthwhile) as an adult’s? If no though is required, then would seem answer is yes

21.    Three: Helps explain how art often expands and enriches our aes appreciation of nature

         a.      As with picturesque in 18th century

         b.      Formalist say this is what we should expect, because goal of artist is to produce pleasing form

         c.      Artist learned which combination of lines, shapes and colors most please the eye

         d.      So artist best equipped to help us identify pleasing form in nature

         e.      Formalist says should appreciate nature as work of art, as large out-of-doors painting or sculpture

22.    Four (NH): Formalism makes nature appreciation and art appreciation similar in one important respect

         a.      Intentions of artists are irrelevant to art appreciation

         b.      No intentions behind nature

         c.      So fact that art is an intentional creation by an artists and nature is not is not any reason for appreciating them differently


23.    Formalism answers two important objections to PM view

24.    Five: Responds to analogy with art argument (treat aes of art/nature same unless some reason for difference)

         a.      PM allows anything goes (all appreciation is equally valid) in nature appreciation, but this is implausible with art, so get disanalogy

         b.      Formalism says some nature appreciations is more appropriate than others (as with art) so parallelism holds

25.    Six: Avoids ethical criticism of PM that it makes aes appreciation of nature useless in debates over env preservation

         a.      If no better or worse aes responses to nature then no point in appealing to aes in env policy disputes

         b.      Formalism allows better and worse

                   i.       Need to app in terms of form

                   ii.      Also some forms more aes pleasing than others

                            (1)    One says horse aes excellent, another says aes poor and if horse really does have pleasing form then one is right and other is wrong

26.    Seven: Formalism also is useful in policy debates because one can quantify landscapes in terms of the degree to which they present pleasing forms

         a.      Reduces aes to visual elements that can be quantified

                   i.       Use photos to measure visual parameters of natural scenes

                   ii.      Geometric techniques applied to measure formal elements

                            (1)    Curvature of lines, diversity of shapes, graduations of color

                   iii.     Quantify them and calculate numerical value of aes value of landscape

                   iv.     Questions: From where take picture? How to weight different formal features in determining overall visual quality?

         b.      Such “landscape assessment” actually takes place!

         c.      If formalism is correct than general idea of quantifying nature’s aes value is sound

         d.      If can get such numbers, then aes value of nature need not be regarded as nebulous subjective affair it seems to be under PM view

                   i.       Matter of measurable facts to which one can appeal in debates over env policy

27.    Question: One can measure extent of diversity, symmetry, color changes and so on

         a.      But how does this translate into aes value?

         b.      One could use empirical approach and simply find out which arrays of lines, colors, shapes people in fact preferred.

         c.      But why assume that what people in fact prefer is what is of aesthetic value?



29.    Aesthetic qualities of objects go beyond pure form

         a.      If all one does is look, one misses works true aes qualities

30.    Form is often relatively unimportant to an aesthetic object

         a.      What is more important is the meaning of those forms in light of artist’s intentions or art theory

31.    Red squares example

         a.      Red squares painted by different people one is Kierkegaard’s mood another is a religious painting depicting enlightenment

         b.      Although forms are identical, very different paintings (one psychological portrait that is not serene, one a religious painting that is serene)

32.    More examples where aes character of work depends on more than pure form

         a.      Maya Lin’s Vietnam’s Veterans Memorial, Andre Serrano’s Crucifix in Blood and Urine (“Piss Christ)

         b.      Aes character of Duchamp’s fountain is not in its pure form (gleaming curved whiteness) which is also had by an identical toilet in the warehouse

         c.      Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper


33.    Formal appreciation of art or nature fails to appreciate the artwork or the natural object and instead appreciates perceptual impressions of them

         a.      To appreciate the object themselves, some thought is necessary

34.    Basic flaw in formalism is it treat landscapes as gigantic arrays of lines shapes and colors when actually much more than this

         a.      Valley is not just assemblages of formal elements

         b.      To appreciate it as such is to distort is aes qualities

         c.      Hepburn’s leaf would not be a symbol of transience of life, but a small fluttering reddish-born material object and no more.


35.    Ethical criticism: Failure to respect nature by failing to appreciate it on own terms

         a.      Treating mountain as array of lines/colors fails to appreciate it on own terms because it is not simply lines/colors/shapes

         b.      Manifests a disregard for natural things


36.    Formalism’s ability to quantify is not a virtue because it does not quantify the full/true aesthetic value of the object

         a.      Only quantifying one dimension of aesthetic object and the object is much more than that

         b.      Absurd to quantify art’s value in same way: Imagine mathematically quantifying the formal features of an artwork and claiming we were capturing the objective value of the artwork with that number


37.    Can resolve disputes even if can’t quantify

         a.      Lack of ability to quantify art’s or nature’s aes value does not rule out the possibility of resolving disputes about their aes value

         b.      In art, we do this via art critics who bring to bear knowledge of art history and genres

         c.      This thought component allows for more correct or appropriate appreciation of art

         d.      What plays similar role for nature? Perhaps natural science?

Questions on Parson’s Ch 3: Formalism


1.      What is a “normative standard” for aesthetic appreciation? What are three different possibilities here? If one rejects PM’s anything goes, does that mean one must accept the idea that there is one correct way to aesthetically appreciate?

2.      Explain the formalist approach to nature appreciation. What role does thought play in this type of appreciation? What role do emotions and representations play?

3.      Why does Parsons think formalism and PM are “diametrically opposed?”

4.      What is the relation between formalism and the contemporary practice of appreciating nature via scenic look off, picture postcard, and camera snap shot?

5.      Why might it be thought that formalism in the aes appreciation of nature might be particularly useful for aesthetic preservationism? (Hint: quantifying beauty)

6.      Provide some examples where the formal appreciation of art misses what is central to those art objects.

7.      Does the formal appreciation of nature miss what is central to nature appreciation? Does formalist appreciation of nature appreciate nature for what it is? Why might the formalist appreciation of nature be accused of failing to respect nature?

8.      Is it important to aesthetically appreciate something for what it is rather than for what it is not?