In this paper I identify a new group of aesthetic
norms, which I call norms of cultivation. Judgments of taste are often accompanied by
forecasts or expectations about future aesthetic satisfaction. When we find something beautiful, we expect
to find it beautiful in the future. Forecasting
is at play in all sorts of aesthetically motivated behavior. Yet psychologists have observed an
unreliability in such forecasts. As a
result of forecasting error, what we take as our taste can be an unreliable
guide in our aesthetic lives. Compensating
for the unreliability of taste are norms of cultivation, implicit rules for
engaging objects, such as avoiding overexposure to favored objects or exposure
under unfavorable conditions. Norms of
cultivation help to regularize aesthetic experience, mitigating unreliability
in forecasts, and fostering the ongoing stability and coherence of taste.
aesthetic experience, aesthetic judgment, taste
Judgments of taste are
often accompanied by forecasts, in other words, expectations about future
When we find something beautiful, we
typically expect to find it beautiful in the future. Forecasting is at play in many sorts of
aesthetically motivated behavior, from selecting a movie for online streaming
to purchasing a rare masterpiece at auction.
To the extent that we go about our aesthetic lives with confidence about
where we will obtain satisfaction, we rely on forecasts. Confidence in our forecasts lends a sense of
stability and coherence to taste.
Yet psychologists have
observed that, for a variety of reasons, forecasts are often unreliable. As a result of forecasting error, our
convictions about beauty cannot by themselves guide our aesthetic choices. They cannot ensure a steady flow of
satisfying aesthetic experiences, a crucial though not exclusive goal of our
aesthetic endeavors. Unreliability in
affective forecasting suggests that something may be wrong, or at least
incomplete, in how philosophers have conceived of the authority of taste in our
From a philosophical
perspective, what makes forecasting error intriguing is that it is intrinsic to
experience. Changes in appraisals of or
responses to objects are as natural as the aesthetic appetite itself. We do not need the influence of mood, setting,
or priming to account for the changes in experience that make forecasts unreliable
(although these additional factors lend still more complications).
Despite such unreliability, taste is
commonly held to be a stable set of convictions. This assumption about stability is functional
in our aesthetic planning.
Without some consistency over
time, it is not clear how we would act aesthetically; no matter how
enlightened, our taste would have no practical meaning in our lives. We would be unable to go out in the world and
derive aesthetic satisfaction, have no sense of the next movie to watch or book
to read. Without forecasts, our aesthetic lives would be entirely accidental. Our cultural behavior would be no more than
an aimless wandering in a haze of aesthetic amnesia. For taste to guide our aesthetic
lives, there must be a capacity to forecast.
If it makes sense at all to have a philosophical account of taste, it
makes sense to account for both forecasting and its errors.
To the extent that
judgments of taste are accompanied by forecasts and forecasts are unreliable,
how can taste serve as an influential or reliable guide in aesthetic life? The answer is that there is a difference
between, on the one hand, our convictions and preferences and, on the other,
knowing how to bring about our aesthetic satisfaction. In other words, there is a difference between
taste and the norms of cultivation.
The stability of taste is maintained in the face of affective change
through implicit rules for engaging objects, such as avoiding overexposure to
favored objects or exposure under unfavorable conditions. Norms of
cultivation are crucial for guiding our choices in the aesthetic sphere,
mitigating some kinds of unreliability in forecasting. When norms of cultivation are influential,
individuals are better able to avoid forecasting error and to confirm their
taste in future experience. Norms of
cultivation optimize aesthetic choices. They
compensate for affective change and forecasting error.
In Sections 2 and 3, I
examine aesthetic unreliability through forecasting error. In Section 4, I discuss video-on-demand, or
streaming, where data indicate a significant role for forecasting error. In Section 5, I outline the philosophical
problem posed by affective change. In
Section 6, I propose the norms of cultivation as an explanation for the
coherence and stability of taste in the face of affective change. In Section 7, I discuss the broader
implications of the norms of cultivation for the aesthetic self.
Psychologists observe that
we are skillful at predicting whether events will be, in a
general way, pleasant or unpleasant but that we tend to overestimate the
intensity and duration of the feelings that future events will cause. Even when we know what a future event will
entail, we have difficulty knowing how much satisfaction we will derive from it
and whether the satisfaction will be worth the effort expended to bring it
about. The strongest tendency is to
overestimate the impact of future events.
Consequently, we often engage in events that do not make us as happy as
we thought they would. By the same
token, disappointments in the future do not impact us as negatively as we tend
to fear they will. Failed predictions
are common in, for instance, romance, career choice, and shopping. Likewise, in the aesthetic realm, our
judgments of taste are often accompanied by forecasts. When we find something beautiful, satisfying,
or approve of it, we generally expect to find it beautiful, satisfying or
worthy of approval tomorrow, next week, and in the distant future. However, failed predictions are common in the
aesthetic realm, too.
Forecasts are an empirical
feature of beliefs about satisfaction and suffering. A forecast may or may not accompany a
judgment. It is not “analytic” in the
judgment; the judgment does not entail a forecast in any logical sense. Forecasting can improve with education and
experience, though learning is inhibited by the difficulty of accurately
recalling our past experience. Our
ability to accurately recall past reactions is beset by many of the same biases
that undermine our forecasts. For
instance, in recalling prior events, it is common to exaggerate our reactions
just as we do in anticipation of future events.
Forecasts play a greater
role in some judgments than in others because the assessment of future
satisfaction is more crucial. At an auto
dealership, consideration of the purchase of a luxury car would likely be
strongly colored by a forecast. With
cheaper models available, it would be hard to imagine making a purchase without
the expectation of many years of future satisfaction. The stakes are high because the buyer will be
locking in a certain experience to the exclusion of others. That forecast is crucial to the purchase; the
driver makes a forecast as part of the evaluation. But, leaving the theater after a play that
will not be produced again for many years, a forecast will have little
practical significance and is not likely to be entertained. A forecast is possible, but not necessary.
3. Explanations for unreliable forecasting
There are several
explanations for the unreliability of forecasting. They are non-exclusive and mutually reinforcing. Together, they create considerable headwinds
for the forecaster. These explanations
apply to all sorts of forecasts, including those involving aesthetic objects. Inaccurate forecasts are sometimes caused by
what is termed construal bias, a
failure to frame the future event accurately.
We base our forecast on the memory of a prior event but we misremember
it, focusing overly on the most intense parts, as well as the beginning and
end, at the expense of the overall experience.
Events can be so complex that we fail to
grasp the variety of ways that they could influence us in the future. We also have a tendency to overestimate the
impact of future events.
bias causes us to think of future events in isolation, without assessing
their impact in the context of other factors that might mitigate that impact.
We may fear some future situation, such
as the possible loss of a loved one, because
of the suffering it promises but we may not consider how other aspects of our
lives or how other capacities we have will influence us and foster our
resilience. Strong responses, either
positive or negative, can trigger reactive processes that counteract or
compensate for specific emotions. For
instance, ego depletion caused by anxiety or stress may trigger ego-reinforcing
activities like socializing, shopping, or eating.
Sometimes, the process is far simpler:
as time passes, the event simply fails to preoccupy us as anticipated.
Most significantly, we
underestimate the power of hedonic or affective adaptation. Affective adaptation is the tendency of our
feelings, either positive or negative, to diminish in intensity over time. Affective responses are weakened by
anticipation and strengthened by novelty.
When we are exposed to an object, we
know better what to expect of it in the future; consequently, our future
response will be weaker. Indeed, the
very act of anticipating how we might feel about a certain experience is a way
of becoming accustomed to the experience, a form of adaptation that can reduce
its impact. Familiarity with an event
also reduces its impact because the original event becomes a new baseline for
experience that future experiences must surpass to induce pleasure. Moreover, the very process of making
sense of an experience can drain it of affective power, reducing the
extraordinary to the ordinary.
Affective adaptation is
pervasive. It explains why favorite
meals become boring when consumed too frequently and the greatest of novels do
not usually sustain more than a couple of readings over a lifetime. Hedonic adaptation means that our pleasures
and disappointments are not fixed. They
change over time so that often, but not always, their impact on us diminishes. Affective adaptation explains the famous hedonic treadmill whereby individuals
are compelled to continually seek out new sources of pleasure due to the waning
influence of past sources. It is
important for philosophers to avoid miscasting terms like hedonic treadmill and affective
adaptation in terms of atomistic sensation, isolated events of pleasure and
pain. Instead, psychologists see them in
terms of the individual’s ongoing efforts to sustain positive mood,
self-appraisal, and flourishing. The
hedonic treadmill is a deep-seated human tendency, through which, to one degree
or another, we re-orient ourselves continually to new objects in order to
sustain mood. Mood is range-bound,
existing in a dynamic equilibrium. On a
day-to-day basis, our place in the range may vary but rarely exceed or fall
below it for long. By adapting to
changes in circumstances, we tend to return to our hedonic range. To remain in the upper part of the range, we
must run on the treadmill. Researchers
in well-being consider affective adaption one of the greatest challenges to
remaining on the higher end of one’s hedonic range.
If the hedonic treadmill
exists, then, in so far as our aesthetic lives are motivated by a desire for
better moods and more satisfying experiences, there must also be an aesthetic treadmill. The aesthetic treadmill reflects the tendency
for aesthetic satisfaction to ebb over time, motivating us to seek out new
sources of experience to maintain current levels of aesthetic pleasure. Of course, our aesthetic lives are not
entirely defined by the aesthetic treadmill.
However, we cannot appeal to a
priori theories of aesthetic judgment to settle the question. Psychologists tell us that individuals are
constantly working to bring themselves to the higher end of their hedonic range.
In this paper, I assume that the aesthetic
component of our lives is marked by the same efforts. Even as we run on the treadmill, our
awareness of motivation is often limited.
In this respect, some folks contend with hedonic change better than
others, avoiding ruts of boredom through a predisposition to new experiences. Their curious nature pushes them back to the
top of their hedonic range. Others are
less given to hedonic adaptation, meaning that their treadmill runs slower or
perhaps scarcely moves. They are capable
of maintaining themselves at the higher end of their hedonic range with less
reliance on novelty. In either case, the
judicious use of the aesthetic treadmill reflects a kind of emotional
skillfulness or sensibility, a tacit knowledge of what is required to remain on
the higher end of one’s hedonic range. The
aesthetic treadmill illustrates how, even as forecasts remain unreliable, we
can develop habits that reflect some degree of anticipation of the limited
future utility of current satisfactions.
These habits are often embedded in cultural practices that guide us
toward optimal experiences. In other
words, we program a certain flow of novelty through regular travel, entertainment,
reading, and outings. Each of us
balances novelty and familiarity. Old
pleasures are never entirely defunct. They
can be revived after they lose their original familiarity, allowing us to
return to objects holding canonical places in our taste and lending a cyclical
character to our aesthetic lives.
4. Forecasting error in aesthetic experience
There is probably
something powerfully adaptive for human beings in the tendency toward
exaggerated predictions of future satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
If unreliable affective forecasting is
as common as researchers believe, we should expect to find it influencing the
consumption of art. Errors in affective
forecasting occur with all sorts of choices, from complex ones like marriage to
simple ones like purchases. In a world
of poor forecasting, it would be remarkable if the consumption of culture was
somehow exempt. Art lovers can
underestimate the rapidity of hedonic adaptation to a painting or a song just
as newlyweds can to a sofa set. And,
focal bias can occur when, for instance, we overestimate the long-term impact
of an initial cultural encounter, say, reading a certain novel. We are at risk of failing to see how
subsequent novels relativize the initial experience, creating a broader
perspective and weaker impact for the first novel.
But how common is
forecasting error in aesthetic experience? Error in forecasting is not easy to test for because
it requires ongoing exposure to a controlled stimulus over time. It would be difficult to design an
experimental setting. Nevertheless,
forecasting error is evident in large data sets of cultural behavior such as
video-on-demand (VOD) or streaming. Most
research on VOD is designed to serve the needs of system designers seeking to
render streaming more efficient by anticipating user patterns. The databases may also serve as a compelling
natural experiment for aesthetic behavior.
Among the most widely discussed findings from VOD and
other online shopping data is what has been termed the long tail.
When it comes to the most popular
videos, VOD downloads look much like rental patterns at the now defunct
bricks-and-mortar retailers: at any
moment, there is a narrow list of extremely popular movies with many downloads. But beyond the most popular titles, downloads
fall precipitously, following a Zipf distribution. At the bottom of the curve for VOD, there is
an extremely long tail of many obscure videos that are each accessed just a few
times. The long tail indicates that,
alongside the blockbusters, there exists a broad appetite for out-of-way
options. With negligible storage costs,
video-on-demand permits a deeper inventory than a bricks-and-mortar rental
store. At the same time, monthly
subscription plans mean that viewers are not financially constrained in their
viewing. Consequently, VOD services can
offer a wide variety of obscure titles, each garnering just a few downloads.
Besides the number of downloads, a significant difference
between popular films and those on the long tail lies in the cancel rate, that
is, the rate at which viewers interrupt the download.
In comparing long tail to popular usage,
researchers observe that the cancel rate is significantly higher for popular
films than for obscure ones. Overall cancel rates are remarkably high in VOD; 86% of all sessions are cancelled prior to
completion. Most sessions are cancelled
within the first 10 minutes and more than a third of sessions do not even last
five minutes. In contrast, people walk
out of live performances and movie theaters very rarely. These findings reveal how common
disappointment is in an environment of unconstrained consumption. Instead of an anomaly, it is the rule.
Two ready explanations can be dismissed. The first is that popular films are less
satisfying than obscure films; obscure films do not, in general, receive higher ratings than more popular ones.
Popularity and high ratings go hand in hand, despite the higher cancel
rate. A second
explanation is that viewers of obscure movies are a different group of viewers
with different viewing habits. Evidence
indicates that although there are users with a tendency to watch obscure films,
popular offerings nevertheless constitute the overwhelming majority of their
Like those who restrict themselves to
popular films, these viewers tend to rate popular films higher than obscure
ones. If there is a lurking army of
nerdy cinephiles, they do not seem to reach statistical significance.
Affective forecasting error represents a third
explanation. At any given moment, the
popular movies on a VOD service are usually the ones with recent theatrical
releases. Thus, they are more likely to
have already been seen by the audience. Greater
satisfaction at the initial viewing may account for repeated viewings. But these repeated viewings disappoint at a
higher rate, leading to cancellation: “people
watching the most popular videos are likely to have seen them before, either in
another medium (theater or DVD) or in a prior VOD session. Therefore, they lose interest more easily
during the movie, resulting in shorter session times.”
There are two relevant observations about the cancel rate
phenomenon. First, it illustrates how
hedonic adaptation can play a significant role in aesthetic behavior, at least
when it comes to narratives (it is probably less influential with music). Here, on a fairly large scale, we get a
glimpse of the influence of unreliable affective forecasting in cultural
consumption. Second, even as viewers
cancel repeat viewings at a higher rate than initial viewings, it is important
to observe that most viewers avoid repeat viewings altogether. Wandering out on the long tail, they prefer a
new film at each session, even though they cannot be sure that the new film
will deliver as much pleasure as the films already seen. Intuitively, viewers of new films recognize
that the lower rated film will deliver greater satisfaction on a first viewing
than a better rated film on the second. In
this avoidance of repetition lies an acknowledgement of hedonic adaptation and
the aesthetic treadmill. The cancellation
rate phenomenon does exist: a certain portion of the population is in fact
unaware of hedonic adaptation. At the
same time, by seeking out obscure titles on the “long tail” rather than
watching what they have already seen in the theaters, many people evade hedonic
As an aside, the cancel rate phenomenon also suggests
that the transactional status of an aesthetic experience—that is, the mode of
payment—may be more influential than aestheticians have allowed. When paying “a la carte,” as one does at the theater, or with pay per view, viewers are much less likely to abandon a
session. But when viewers are not paying
for each film separately, dissatisfaction is higher. With remarkably high rates of cancellation
among VOD subscribers, the unconstrained consumption of the subscription model
introduces new questions about aesthetic satisfaction. Does this difference illustrate the power of
the sunk cost bias, that is, the tendency to continue to invest based on the
degree of past investment rather than expected return? Or does direct payment somehow compel us to be
more appreciative, and enjoy the cultural product that we have purchased? The difference between responses to a la carte and subscription based
consumption illustrates how the transactional status of a cultural experience
changes our responses and our behavior. Unconstrained
consumption seems to make us more dissatisfied with any particular offering. The difference suggests that, if cultural
consumers want to remain at the higher end of their hedonic range, they should
exercise caution in situations of unconstrained consumption typical of the age
of the internet. As we shall see,
unconstrained consumption violates a norm of cultivation (avoiding
overexposure) and is likely to erode satisfaction.
5. Forecasting taste
When I make a judgment of
taste, I am making an affect-dependent judgment. Affect dependency means that the appraisal is
colored to some degree with emotion, pleasure, feeling, a psychological
response with which the judgment is entwined.
Among aestheticians, there is some question about the nature of the
affect dependency of aesthetic judgments.
From the beginning of the discipline, philosophers have held that
aesthetic judgments were distinctive in that they were premised on a subjective
feeling. However, the nature of that
feeling has long been a source of difficulty because the role and influence of
feeling is unanswerable on an a priori
basis. Even as aesthetic judgments have an affective dimension, there is no
invariant relationship between affect and judgment.
In light of the richness and complexity of
aesthetic life, one cannot “make an argument” for any particular role for
affect. The influence of affect upon a
judgment can vary by virtue of any number of conditions, such as individual,
setting, artistic intention or genre, cultural background, or kind of affect,
to name just a few. The concept of affect is itself capacious and unwieldy
though without a superior alternative. The
possibilities for the relationship between affect and judgment are daunting,
and there is no way to sort out the complex role of affect in aesthetic
judgments merely by appealing to an a
priori model, as philosophers routinely do.
Nevertheless, in every theory of taste there must be a degree of affect
dependency. Thus, the aesthetician can
neither appeal to an a priori model
nor side-step the problem by claiming that problems of affect, well-documented
by psychologists, have no bearing on aesthetic theory. Aestheticians occupy terrain far more complex
than typically acknowledged.
It is possible to assess
the role of affect in judgment by looking at empirical studies designed to
capture the influence of affect under a variety of conditions. Admittedly, this is a challenging project; it
is an open question as to how applicable contemporary psychological research is
to aesthetic theory. However, I dismiss
out of hand the view that there is nothing to learn from the efforts of the
psychologists. Instead, the intuition
guiding this paper is that the findings have implications for a range of
theories of taste. The challenge for
philosophers is to assess and apply the research appropriately.
Affective responses are
intrinsically unstable over repeated exposures;
they change over time. Nevertheless,
the judgments of taste typically carry a sense of time-independence, that is,
an expectation that the current level of satisfaction is not likely to change
dramatically. As we discussed, this
expectation is rooted in the psychology of beliefs about future affective
states. To one extent or another, there
is a natural, dynamic gap between, on the one hand, our real affective
responses to objects over time and, on the other, our convictions about value.
Individuals tend to
believe that their aesthetic experience is more stable than it really is, for
the impact of an object is likely to change over multiple exposures. Contending with this tension is a significant
aspect of our aesthetic life over time. In
so far as my taste depends on the quality of the affect, must it change as
well? Given the potential for
forecasting error, how do we explain our aesthetic lives over time? In other words, if taste is affect-dependent
but time-invariant, how is it possible? Is
it reasonable to conceive of a well-ordered, richly affective aesthetic life
with stable taste? If so, how?
Call this the problem of
intrasubjective validity. We can
understand this problem through an analogy to the expectation of
intersubjective consensus that has puzzled aestheticians since before Hume and
Kant. A judgment of beauty often comes
with an expectation of intersubjective agreement, a conviction that others
should agree. And, I am included in this intersubjective claim in the future. The classic puzzle of intersubjective
validity is why I should expect other discerning people to find beautiful what
I find beautiful. Likewise, the puzzle
of intrasubjective validity is why I should expect myself to find beautiful in
the future what I find beautiful today.
6. Norms of cultivation
Norms of cultivation help
us to find beautiful in the future what we find beautiful today. Aesthetic experience must be marked with at
least a veneer of stability over time. Otherwise,
as we observed earlier, aesthetic life would not be possible. Norms of cultivation are intuitive rules of
thumb, aptitudes, skills, and tactics that nurture or sustain aesthetic
experience. They afford to our
preferences stability over time that they might otherwise lack. Among the norms of cultivation are avoiding
overexposure, controlling of the setting for experience, and responding to
appetite. It is likely that there are
Rather than compromise
aesthetic experience, norms of cultivation guide us to structure it so as to
maximize the coherence of taste over time, helping us to remain appropriately
connected to ongoing sources of satisfaction.
Norms of cultivation anticipate hedonic change and work to lessen its
impact. They help to regularize our
encounters over time, keep forecasts true, and in so doing help to ensure the
stability of taste.
Reliance on norms of
cultivation is a competency that mitigates the influence of affective
adaptation and other sources of aesthetic disappointment. This competency is often but not necessarily
tacit. Individuals may acquire an
awareness of the cycles of satisfaction and consciously orchestrate their
exposure to aesthetic objects to optimize experience. These norms allow us to frame experience so
as to ensure the sustainability of ongoing sources of satisfaction and secure
new sources of pleasure at an appropriate rate.
They illustrate how our aesthetic choices, though guided in part by
taste, rely on other competencies. By
itself, taste is inadequate for aesthetically satisfying life.
Examples of norms of
1. “Don’t overdo it:” the norm of exposure control
We have observed that
affective adaptation is one of the greatest challenges to ongoing aesthetic
satisfaction. Aesthetic pleasure waxes
and wanes. It is “lumpy” and can “wear
out.” Future satisfaction is not guaranteed by past satisfaction. When exposed to the same aesthetic objects
over time, we tend not have continually confirming experiences. What I like today is not a reliable predictor
what I will like in the future. Indeed, the
very energy with which I pursue a current preference may result in
overexposure, preparing the way for its later waning.
To avoid affective
adaptation, we must control the frequency of our exposure to preferred objects. We keep our experience vital by avoiding
overexposure to any single object, no matter how favored. By itself, taste does not protect us from
affective adaptation. If we blindly
followed our taste, we would not be able to set up the best occasions for
experience on an ongoing basis. On the
contrary, we would soon begin to dislike and disapprove of what our taste
blindly tells us we like and approve of.
But, when we vary our exposure, we intuitively reduce the risk of
hedonic adaptation and increase the likelihood that we “confirm” our taste in
subsequent exposures. To avoid wearing
out current sources of satisfaction, we seek out new ones. There is an intuitive “discipline of
variation,” an enforced rotation of aesthetic objects, or to use Apple’s
terminology, a “shuffle.” It is not an
accident that the shuffle function is among the most popular features in the IPod. It builds upon a natural need for balance
between familiarity and surprise. When
not provided automatically by a machine, the shuffle is a substantive skill
that we must develop. We revisit old
standbys in the context of this ongoing discipline of variation.
Exposure control is
visible at the social level in the regular recycling of styles and artistic
reputations. The sometimes cruel cycles
of artistic fashion are a sign of the norm of exposure control at work. Revivals can be seen as the norm of exposure
control returning to visibility artists or styles from the past made new by
2. “Set the right ambience:” The norm of context control
Works of art—some more
than others—require a certain setting to be appreciated. To optimize experience, the individual must
control the context of the experience as much as the way he or she attends the
object. The setting may include the
physical environment, the time or season, personal energy (for instance,
avoiding fatigue, hunger).
I once had the privilege
of visiting the home of a prominent Philadelphia collector who was eager to
show off a wall sculpture by Donald Judd.
Though on a posh street south of Rittenhouse Square, the collector’s
home was nevertheless a classic Philadelphia row house, and the rooms were
accordingly small. My companion and I
were brought up the stairs and into an ordinary bedroom where, between the wall
and a large bed, we leaned over the Judd and took in its shiny and expensive
surface. Among the other pieces of
furniture in the room, the Judd sculpture seemed to be no more than an
especially austere console, ready for a tray of scotch, tumbler glasses and an
ice bucket. What the collector missed,
of course, was the physical environment for the work. One cannot sit down on the edge of a
king-sized mattress in the small bedroom of an early nineteenth-century
house and expect to appreciate a Donald Judd from the 1970s hanging three feet
from one’s nose. It was simply not the
right ambience for the work.
If you ever worried about
undermining a preference by engaging it under inappropriate conditions, you’ve
dealt with context control. It is best
to look at minimalist art in spare galleries, which enhance the aesthetic of
the work. By the same token, it is
probably not worth ordering take-out gourmet sushi only to eat it slumped
against a wall at the bus terminal. Rather
than taste, it is the norm of context control that leads us to avoid the bus
station and better secure our satisfaction at the sushi bar.
3. “Scratch the right itch:” the norm of fancy
Errors in forecast often
are caused by failing to account for the influence of fancy, in other words, the cycles of curiosity or inclination that
make us more interested and more easily satisfied at one moment than another. Fancy
means our predisposition at any moment to want to have aesthetic experiences of
a certain sort (or not to have them all).
Our aesthetic lives are not spent making aesthetic judgments about
objects that come to us arbitrarily. Instead,
our energy is spent hunting down the objects that we are in the mood to
experience. We do not merely want to
have experience; instead, we are optimizers or satisficers, forsaking what
interests us less in favor what we think might interest us more. Aesthetic competency involves, in part,
having an adequate—though still vague—sense of what we want to experience. If the local theater only has adolescent
blockbusters on its screens, we drive to the next town for the Iranian feature
reviewed on National Public Radio. We
tailor our Netflix queue so that the movies we really want to see are next in
line. We read travel guides and
cookbooks to see what most strikes our fancy.
In these actions, our aesthetic experience is prefaced by an appetite,
hankering, yen, penchant, or itch. Then,
in a kind of happy confirmation bias, we engage in the experiences that we
believe will satisfy our appetite. It is not so much what we like or what we
approve of but what we feel like doing that offers satisfaction. If we are not in the correct frame of
mind, then we may judge a work of art unfavorably without being able to
acknowledge that, in fact, it is the influence of appetite or mood that drives
7. Norms of cultivation as aesthetic
The answer to the question
of how we can expect ourselves to find beautiful tomorrow what we find
beautiful today may, in part, lie in simply accepting that sometimes we will
not be able to secure ongoing, stable, predictable satisfaction from our
preferred aesthetic objects. It is not
reasonable to expect forecasts to always work.
Our aesthetic lives are full of disappointment and confusion. We misinterpret the sources of our
satisfaction and chase the false promises offered by reviews, samples, and
reproductions, wasting time and energy on misguided aesthetic explorations. We are distracted by extraneous stimuli and
primed by the influence of authoritative opinion. We ruin our preferences by overdoing them. We do not take heed of the influence of our
moods. We do not pay enough attention to
setting up the right conditions for experience.
There is a churn in aesthetic life, a swirl of appetite, curiosity, and
familiarity. Sometimes, it adds up to no
more than aimless wandering.
On the other hand, if I
abide by the norms of cultivation, that is to say, if I avoid overexposing
myself to familiar sources of pleasure, take care to engage works within the appropriate
context, and follow my fancy, then chances are better that I will be less
vulnerable to forecasting error. With
more aesthetic success, I will gravitate to the higher end of my hedonic range
and, overall, have a more satisfying aesthetic life. If I disregard the norms of cultivation, I
will undermine my experience by engaging works when I cannot be expected to
really enjoy them. Ineffective at this
self-regulation, I will likely have less than an optimal aesthetic life,
continually confronting boredom or overstimulation without any sense of the
right “recipe” for my disposition.
What we experience as the
stability of taste over time rests in part on the norms of cultivation. The norms of cultivation help to impart
stability to preferences by helping us to encounter works of art under
favorable conditions. Through the norms
of cultivation, we are more likely to encounter aesthetic objects on terms
favorable to satisfaction. To remain at
the higher end of one’s hedonic range (with more satisfaction and more accurate
hedonic forecasts), an individual must build the norms of cultivation into his
or her cultural habits. Norms of
cultivation help to stabilize taste and are the mark of a well-organized and
skillful aesthetic life, that is, a cultivated life. In a vital aesthetic life, norms of
cultivation work alongside taste, tailoring it to optimize experience.
The norms of cultivation
are valuable for this optimization alone.
However, norms of cultivation also play a role in the construction of
personality and character. When we speak
of what it means to be a cultivated person, we mean more than a capacity to
judge and interpret. An aesthetic
personality is composed not just of preferences or convictions. It is not just an aggregation of judgments of
taste. The aesthetic self is also marked
by a certain application of the norms of cultivation. Like our taste, this application of the norms
of cultivation reflects our disposition or sensibility; it characterizes us. For instance, each of us may be predisposed
to a certain pace of new or familiar stimulius,
i.e., the norm of exposure control. This
pace may be as crucial to our aesthetic well-being as any taste convictions we
might harbor. The extent to which we
vary favored aesthetic objects, establish appropriate settings, or follow our
appetite or mood, says as much about who we are as
aesthetic persons as our taste convictions.
In this way, the norms of
cultivation help us to understand what our aesthetic lives add up to over time. Once again, we have to move carefully from
the psychological formulation to the aesthetic one, in this case from the
concept of affective or hedonic regulation to aesthetic regulation. Affective regulation denotes the varied
processes by which individuals seek to control the emotions that they have. It is sometimes called “emotional
intelligence,” a term that which
has entered the popular lexicon in recent years. Affective regulation can involve, for
instance, selecting the kinds of situations we put ourselves in, modifying
them, determining the strength and nature of attention, controlling responses,
and determining our attitudes. Likewise,
the norms of cultivation are a means of aesthetic self-regulation,
through rules for engaging objects.
The main part of what it
takes to be an aesthetically skillful person, a cultivated person, is not so
much the ability to make right judgments about aesthetic objects as the ability
to secure aesthetic regulation through the norms of cultivation. In our aesthetic lives, we are not for the
most part judges seeking to determine whether the works of art that come before
us are good or bad, like a juror in a piano competition. Instead, we are optimizers or satisficers
looking to secure greater aesthetic satisfaction from the objects that we
pursue, in other words, like a browser on Netflix. We seek out the objects that we believe offer
that satisfaction and cast our attitude in the best way to procure it. More hunters than game wardens, we are
looking for experiences that are likely to satisfy our appetite. Aesthetic skill or cultivation is a matter of slanting our exposure and attitudes in
ways that promote this satisfaction. Aesthetic
autonomy amounts above all to the pursuit and gratification of appetite.
To read in aesthetics, one
might infer that our aesthetic lives are on a happy, one-way street of ever
more astute judgment and ever greater aesthetic satisfaction. Our aesthetic lives are all unmitigated
success stories, complicated only by the occasional work of conceptual art. Aesthetic experience is never marked by
ambivalence about our feelings or confusion as to its causes. We are never disappointed by our favorites. We never get bored. After reading in aesthetics, one would have
to conclude that the process of trying to grasp our feelings and apply them to
future aesthetic choices—the whole churning tumult of our enthusiasms—lacks any
complication worthy of theoretical scrutiny.
We simply behold and judge.
Aesthetic theory needs to address the
challenges posed by a more complicated psychology of taste, where modes of
aesthetic attention are mediated not just by cognition, but also by complex
psychological tendencies like forecasting error and hedonic adaptation. Norms of cultivation suggest a more
comprehensive approach to taste and aesthetic experience offers a better
picture of aesthetic life. This approach
may help us to better understand how the aesthetic values play authoritative
roles in the real rhythms of aesthetic life.
Kevin Melchionne is a
painter who writes about aesthetics.
Published March 17, 2015.
 Many thanks to Amy
Baehr, Alan Bowden, Barry Feldman, James Harold, Matthew Kieran, Dominic Lopes,
and the reviewers for this journal for reading and commenting on earlier
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 For a brief
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