Attention to Beauty

In his book, Aesthetics: A Very Short Introduction, Bence Nanay writes, “What all things aesthetic have in common is something very simple: the way you’re exercising your attention” (p.22). To illustrate what he means, Nanay uses as an example the painting The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c.1555 (oil on canvas) by Bruegel, Pieter the Elder (c.1525-69)

The most prominent figure seems to be the one in the foreground plowing with a horse. And you can gaze upon the vastness of the land and sea. Perhaps, this painting feels like an ordinary landscape or seascape. But then, all of a sudden, you realize the title, and then you might finally notice just in front of the ship on the right side, there are legs splashing into the water. Noticing this, as the title would suggest, seems to be part of the way you’re supposed to attend to this painting. Put another way, not seeing these legs would seem to imply you didn’t see all that you were supposed to see in this painting. Further, now that you see it, you are more likely drawn to it. In other words, your experience of this painting, Nanay assumes, is now different than it would have been otherwise.

To further show the importance of attention to your experience of an object or situation, Nanay refers to experiments of “inattentional blindness.” Experiments of these kinds show that when people are focused on one thing, they often fail to see something that would otherwise be obvious. In a famous experiment, two groups of people are dressed in black and white. The people dressed in white are passing a ball to each other, and your job is simply to count the number of times they pass the ball. Meanwhile, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks among the different people, and most people don’t notice the gorilla.

If you were told to watch the video and look for a person in a gorilla suit, most people would easily spot this costumed figure. But one thing Nanay thinks is usually overlooked when discussing this experiment, the subjects are told to count those people in white. Why? Well, the gorilla costume is black. When the focus is on those wearing white, everything else gets blurred in the background. People frequently focus their attention on certain features, at the expense of other features of the object or experience.

The way you attend to objects, performances, or situations can play a significant part in the aesthetic experience you might have. Unfortunately for us, attention is “a limited resource.” To help illustrate, imagine reading a novel for a literature course in college, about which you will also take a test. But your kind professor has given you a guide that highlights some important themes, actions, and characters. For the purpose of a college course, this may serve some greater pedagogical purpose. But you can imagine that some students will focus exclusively on the content of the guide while they read the novel that they may miss other interesting features it. After all, you can only focus on so many things at once.

Nanay draws a distinction between open-ended and fixated attention. As an example, Nanay says that when you are peeling an apple, then the skin is the feature of the apple that has your attention. Perhaps, not for peeling an apple, but fixated attention can be a tad exhausting when we are so focused on something specific.

Open-ended attention, defines Nanay, is reserved for “those ways of attending when we distribute our attention among many features of an object, but not with any specific aim in mind” (p.34). It is a more relaxing kind of attention. Your mind is allowed to wander a little; perhaps, this relates a little to Kant’s notion of the ‘free play’ of the imagination. Open-ended attention takes more time. If you are rushing, then you are less likely to have a significant aesthetic experience. As Nanay explains: “When we have an aesthetic experience, we don’t just attend to the object we see. We also attend to the quality of our experience” (p.38). In sum, we should consider how we attend to objects, if we hope to have better experiences of the aesthetic.

While this post was not intended to be a book review—rather an abridged presentation of his ideas about attention—I would like to say that Bence Nanay’s book serves as an excellent introduction to the field of aesthetics. It is also good to see more books about aesthetics that are not largely (if not exclusively) focused on art. He addresses ideas in aesthetics with a broader scope, which is a virtue of his book.

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