Empirical Aesthetics
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In the Garden of Art. An Essay in Empirical Aesthetics.

leerstelleHans-Dieter Gelfert, Im Garten der Kunst. Versuch einer empirischen Ästhetik (In the Garden of Art. An Essay in Empirical Aesthetics). Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1998.

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The book tackles three questions:

  • What distinguishes art from non-art?
  • What distinguishes the greater from the lesser work of art?
  • What does art do in the recipient?

After a brief summary of aesthetic theory from Plato to the present it begins with an analysis of aesthetic pleasure, its causes, its working and its anthropological function. The book then suggests an explanatory model based on neurology and information theory. On this basis it defines the two characteristic forms of aesthetic pleasure produced by art as 'stilled expectancy' and 'ritualised gratification', the former corresponding to Kant's 'disinterested pleasure', the latter to Aristotle's catharsis. These two modes distinguish art from its three most powerful rivals, namely advertising, sports and pornography. Whereas advertising stimulates 'unstilled' expectancy, sports and pornography produce 'unritualised' gratification. According to the book's working definition, art is the class of objects that are (1) perceivable by the senses, (2) purposeless, (3) fully formalised, (4) illusionary and (5) provided with a je ne sais quoi. In successive chapters the book then goes on to discuss the fine arts, music and poetry in the light of these theoretical premises. The last chapter is dedicated to the state of postmodern art, the characterstics of which are the refusal of the 'stilled' and the 'cathartic' forms of aesthetic pleasure, and also of the traditional concept of artistic perfection. The je ne sais quoi that formerly was brought about in the vertical dimension by excellence is now achieved horizontally by the uniqueness of a gimmick. This seems to be the radical conclusion drawn from democracy. The tragic thing, however, is that art by trying to be democratic has lost its public and has turned into an even more exclusive game of a cultural elite.

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