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  • Context Building and Educating Imaginative Engagement
  • David E. W. Fenner (bio)


In my experience—with students, colleagues, friends, myself—I find that most people view aesthetic objects and art objects (which sometimes overlap but not always) through a variety of "lenses": subjectively located, psychologically based perspectives or "contexts" through which the object is viewed, considered, appreciated, and many times even criticized. I believe that many times the depth and richness of aesthetic reward depends on the perspective through which the subject attends to an object or event. While a part of aesthetic perspectival context is objective—such as the physical conditions surrounding and history concerning the aesthetic object—the majority of it is subjective, and I want to take another step and say that the majority is psychological.1 Aesthetic attenders bring to aesthetic experiences thick sets of background beliefs, personal associations, taste preferences, attitudes, and values—and this is not to mention the more temporal items like how they feel on the day or whether they are attending alongside friends, relatives, or colleagues. Hundreds of psychological factors result in differences in aesthetic experience; this is most likely true of all experiences, but it is even more the case in aesthetic experience and those kinds of experiences that set the occasions for attenders to think, feel, consider, spend time with, introspect, and be in a relationship—subject and object—that is distinct from the ordinary and the routine.

Attenders can employ a single lens or multiple ones. It is entirely possible to attend in the absence of the employment of any lens—a purely disinterested or purely formalist perspective would be such a thing—but the vast majority of aesthetic attenders bring with them layers of lenses through which they naturally, nontheoretically (which is not to say noncognitively) view objects. On different occasions, given particular objects and particular subjects, the subject may view an aesthetic object from an art historical [End Page 109] perspective (whether or not the object is an art object); a moral perspective; a cultural, political, or national perspective; a social, class, race, ethnic, or gender perspective; a religious or spiritual point of view; an emotional point of view; a point of view colored by personal associations, personal history, personal identification, personal preference; and on and on.2 Sometimes the employment of lenses is distracting, and sometimes the experience is less than positive given such employment. But (1) many times—I want to say most times—the employment of such lenses results in a richer and more meaningful experience, and (2) it is the natural stance. Adopting a noncontextualized perspective requires conscious volitional effort. Seeing through particular psychological lenses is the default.

I want to focus in this paper on a kind of perspective, a kind of psychological context, that has not been much discussed: I will call it aesthetic engagement preparation. Essentially, this has to do with the level of readiness that the subject possesses for engaging with particular objects aesthetically. To engage in a way that will provide a good return on her investment of attention, the subject must be open to the object, must be comfortable with the objective context, must be ready to enter into a relationship with the object—a relationship that may be psychologically associational in all sorts of ways (affectively, cognitively, and so forth)—and must be ready to employ a range of lenses, like the ones described above, to get the most out of her experience. Again, those who advocate noncontextualized (disinterested or formalist) approaches—Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Addison, Kant, Schopenhauer, Wilde, Whistler, Wimsatt, Greenberg, Brooks, Wolfflin, Bell, Moore, Bullough, Hanslick, Ortega y Gassett, Fry, Hampshire, Stolnitz, and Zangwill, just to name a few—will find aesthetic engagement preparation not only unnecessary but counterproductive. However, given its efficacy for enhancing actual aesthetic experience, I take this as a sign that these noncontextualists may have been on the wrong path. But of course this is an empirical question, and certainly there are cases—though rare, I claim—where employment of aesthetic lenses results in a less positive experience than otherwise.

What I will try to do in this paper is to demonstrate (1) the scope of aesthetic engagement preparation on...


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