Aesthetic Disappointment

Aesthetic Disappointment

Russell L. Quacchia


A survey of the literature in philosophical aesthetics reveals no extended studies on aesthetic disappointment. If anything, the topic has no more than a tacit or implicit presence to that of aesthetic satisfaction. Yet we do suffer aesthetic dissatisfactions in the form of disappointment. In this essay I attempt to initiate a discussion of the question, why and under what conditions are we aesthetically disappointed? I identify some of the main ingredients of aesthetic disappointment by examining commonly relevant emotions, the expectation basis of aesthetic appreciation, and the role of adaptive preference formation in the cultivation of personal taste as a means of coping with disappointing experiences. I show that aesthetic disappointment arises when some actual object, scene, or event, upon being perceived, is immediately felt to not live up to the normative ideals of our personal taste, held in the form of pre-dispositional preference expectations.

Key words
aesthetic appreciation; anticipation; cultivation of taste; desire; disappointment; expectation; negative emotions, normative ideals; perfection; preference; taste


1. Introduction

Over its history, the field of philosophical aesthetics has long focused on art as the subject matter of its scope of concern. However, in recent times, Ronald Hepburn suggested that this scope was too narrow and it was necessary to include the aesthetics of nature within its domain.[1] An even more recent significant expansion to the domain includes the aesthetics of everyday life.[2] In the same historical vein, it can be noted that, in axiological terms, philosophical aesthetics has also narrowly focused on positive aesthetic experiences to the virtual neglect of negative experiences.

The reason for this proclivity is not hard to fathom. We are, by nature, overwhelmingly motivated by the desire for satisfying experiences. When it comes to aesthetics, we have a desire for the beautiful as opposed to the ugly.[3]

Consequently, studies in aesthetics have favored experiences marked in their outcome by pleasure, delight, joy, satisfaction, and a sense of gratification and fulfillment. However, the fact is that we undergo unsatisfying or otherwise unwanted aesthetic experiences. To my knowledge, there is no extended study of negative emotions as a form of aesthetic experience. I believe that in order to more fully understand our satisfying aesthetic experiences it is essential to examine and understand our disappointing aesthetic experiences. So, in this essay I develop some of the basic features of our negative responses, especially aesthetic disappointment.

2. Aesthetic appreciation

The topic of this paper concerns our aesthetic appreciation, with a special focus on the negative forms of reactions we often experience. We come to know the sensorial world by means of aesthetic presentations, and we react and operate on the basis of knowledge thus gained. The aesthetic can be characterized, in general, as consisting of the effective press of the conditions of being on our awareness, in the form of sensorial presentations. This cognitive sense of the term ‘aesthetic’ is in contrast to its axiological sense, which consists in the appraisal of the presented phenomena of perceptual experience. The epistemic or cognitive side of experience involves the gaining of information, while the axiological or affective side involves our arriving at a disposition toward that information. Affectively, we can aesthetically appreciate the world for its expressive significances and also its formal qualities, the latter sometimes distinctively in their own right. It is in this way that our aesthetic appreciations can take two forms. We can appreciate formal beauty as a normative end value, in its own right, as something that by its very presence gives us pleasure, delight, joy, and satisfaction. This restricted interest is a disinterested interest, where beauty is appreciated independently of any concern over its objective conditions and expressive import.

Alternatively, we can more inclusively take an interest in expressive beauty, in terms of what aesthetically is expressed and how it is expressed. In this broader appreciative case, we face the dual criteria of aesthetic judgment of the content value that is expressed and the specific aesthetic form by and in which it is so expressed. In their realization, the two criteria may not coincide, leading to an appearance versus reality discrepancy form of negative judgments. To have an aesthetic appreciation inclusive of both formal and expressive beauty is to be fully cognizant of the aesthetic conditions presented in an experience. In the case of formal beauty, appreciated in and of its self, our negative judgments rest on any flawed or fading qualities of its manifestation, whereas in the case of expressive beauty, our negative judgments are about fake or false beauty. True beauty, more specifically true expressive beauty, is ultimately ontologically dependent on the relative good and evil moral status conditions of that which is the focal object of the aesthetic judgment. These basic interest characteristics of our aesthetic appreciations influence the formation of our positive and negative feeling outcomes, the latter to which we now turn.

3. Aesthetic appreciation and negative emotions

There are a myriad of negative emotions not all of which are immediately relevant to our aesthetic appreciations. So, narrowing their scope seems to be in order. Putatively put, to feel dissatisfied, displeased, disappointed, or morally offended appears to represent the core of negative emotional reactions that preeminently occur within the context of our everyday aesthetic appreciations. For the purpose of this essay, the focus will be on these four forms of negative responses as the adopted framework for our discussion. Coming to understand the differences between these negative emotions involves us in a nexus of nuances where subtlety and shades of meaning are linguistically in synonymic and polysemic play.

The feeling of dissatisfaction is the most fundamental and general of our negative responses, as it is the antonym of satisfaction. The positive feeling of satisfaction is associated with feelings of gratification and contentment in relation to being fulfilled, complete and, hence, happy. Its negative opposite, dissatisfaction, suggests the feeling of being ungratified and discontent in relation to being unfulfilled, incomplete and, hence, unhappy. The basic meaning of dissatisfaction is ‘unsettled,’ where the nearest relevant synonyms are those such as anxiety, disquiet, unease, discomfort, irritation, and discontent. The feeling of dissatisfaction is subject to levels of intensity ranging from mild annoyance to strong discontentment. Within the context of aesthetic experiences, the feeling of displeasure plays a prevalent role.

The basic meaning of displeasure is ‘disagreeable,’ where the nearest relevant synonyms are dispelling, dislike, distaste, disrelish, disfavor, and dis-admiration. The feeling of disapproval plays a major role in relation to aesthetic expression. The basic meaning of disapproval is ‘condemnation,’ where the nearest relevant synonyms are those of decry, denounce, deplore, reject, and veto that, in turn, extend into revulsive, disgust, offensive, wrong, inappropriate, loath, abhor, and despise. Disappointment is a special form of reaction, in relation to dissatisfaction. The basic meaning of disappointment is ‘frustration,’ where the nearest relevant synonyms are those such as failure, setback, defeat, obstruction, and hopelessness, extending, in turn, to disheartened, disillusioned, disconcerted, discouraged, and dismayed.

Each of these terms, arrayed in this way with their list of relevant synonyms, reveals a more definite meaning-orientation among them. We can also surmise that the nexus of relations between these four negative feelings are indeed quite complex in nuanced terms, such that all of them can condition each other in certain ways depending upon the specific aesthetic situation. If so, it may be that their interrelationships are best understood in terms of their potential admixtures. A few points might be made in further edification of the relationships between and among them and also directly to aesthetic appreciation itself. The feeling of dissatisfaction, in its basic sense of being unsettled, is a substrate feeling to disappointment, displeasure, and disapproval, where the latter three each have their own special conditions. The feeling of displeasure is especially connected to formal qualities of the objects of our aesthetic appreciation. The feeling of disapproval is especially relevant to the ethical import of the aesthetically expressed content of the objects of our aesthetic appreciations. The meaning of ‘dissatisfaction’ and ‘disappointment’ are not the same, but similar. As already indicated, the two terms are synonyms to each other, distinguished by nuances. One significant difference between the two is the opportunity and amount of control we feel we have over the situation. For example, if we feel dissatisfied with the way a bed appears we can remake it and become satisfied. If we feel dissatisfied with the way a building looks as we pass by it, we have little, if any, control over the situation, a condition of and cause for disappointment.

Disappointments often have an element of irreversibility about them. Most of our aesthetic experiences fall into this latter sort, giving disappointment a key place in our negative aesthetic reactions. Taken together, the cases of disappointment and disapproval serve to bring a transforming level of intensity to the respective cases of dissatisfaction and displeasure, that is to say, the level of dismay and disgust to those, respectively, of discomfort and disfavor. The feeling of disappointment seems to be an augmented version of dissatisfaction implicating our being constrained to do anything about it. In this way, disappointment may be considered a special case of dissatisfaction. The feeling of disapproval seem to be an augmented version of displeasure implicating our being, in some respect, insulted in the sense of ‘offense.’ The presence of offensive content in connection with the expressive aspect of aesthetic forms can give rise to feelings of disapproval.

Disappointment has other distinctive features beyond that stated above that gives it special relevance to the subject of aesthetic appreciation beyond that of dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is closely connected to the feeling of being upset, in the sense of irritation, while disappointment has a closer relationship to the feeling of being let down, in the sense of thwarted. Also, there is a respective difference of underpinnings of deservedness in contrast to hope between satisfaction and disappointment. We generally do not regard positive aesthetic values to be, in expectation terms, entitlements but merely hope that things phenomenally manifest themselves in a pleasant and enjoyable manner. As already noted, the further difference is that, unlike dissatisfaction, feeling disappointment implies that we do not feel that there is all that much we can do about the unfulfilled situation whereas, in the case of dissatisfaction, we can feel that there may be an alternative open to us to change the unfulfilled situation. For example, I arrive at my assigned hotel room only to find it does not have the features I generally expect or perhaps requested. Dissatisfied, I return to the reception desk, stating I found the room unsatisfactory and ask for another room possessed of those expected or requested features. If the clerk finds that she or he has such a room and exchanges it, I become satisfied. On the other hand, if the clerk says there aren’t any other rooms available and goes on to say that the assigned room is the very last available room around because of all the community events, the feeling of disappointment ensues out of frustration of my unfulfilled expectations. This kind of case exemplifies ‘dissatisfaction cum disappointment.’

As an illustration of ‘disappointment cum dissatisfaction’ and also that disappointment generally derives from situations we had hoped for, let’s take the case where I book a voyage on the Celebrity Eclipse mainly because one of its itinerary ports of call is the Monterey Bay and Carmel areas, which I always wanted and hoped to someday visit for it famous beauty. The very day the ship nears Monterey Bay; there is a strong wind inducing very choppy waters such that the Captain announces we cannot deploy the tenders for safely transitioning to shore and therefore must bypass this port of call, defeating all my expectations and leaving me with a sense of great disappointment. This form of disappointment is classically known as an “Oh no!” moment, where the feeling of dissatisfaction seems to proceed from the disappointment as an aftermath affect. It is with these kinds of examples that the relationship between dissatisfaction and disappointment can be seen to suffer from the “chicken and the egg” dilemma, the question being whether or not the experience of dissatisfaction proceeds from that of disappointment, in opposition to disappointment proceeding from felt dissatisfaction.

But there is a tie-breaking condition. Dissatisfaction does not always rise to felt disappointment but disappointments are always dissatisfying. Nevertheless these two feelings do have a certain form of independence illustrated by the following examples: There are cases where I may be dissatisfied without being disappointed; I may be in the process of making soup and I taste it and feel dissatisfied. I make adjustments by adding things to it until I am satisfied. Disappointment is not a factor in cases of this kind unless I become impatiently frustrated. An example of being disappointed over that of dissatisfaction may be the following: I arrive to meet my blind date and find him rather unattractive, lacking in handsome qualities. I immediately feel disappointed in this regard. Dissatisfaction does not seem an apt term in this case especially at the level of being a mere annoyance. A different type of example, an “admixture” sort, may be that, having taken in a dramatic play, I find the story line quite excellent and, in this respect, satisfying but find the staging and acting to be awkward and distracting and, in this respect, rather disappointing. Another suggestive example in this “admixture” of feelings vein is that we can be dissatisfied with the given menu and disappointed with what is not on that menu.

From these remarks certain generalizations seem in order. While disappointment always involves dissatisfaction, dissatisfaction does not always involve disappointment. While aesthetic disappointment always involve displeasure, it does not always involve disapproval. In the context of aesthetic appreciations and negative responses, the feeling of disappointment appears to play a prevalent role over that of dissatisfaction. It is the distinctive features cited above that offer the rationale for assigning disappointment the dominant role over that of dissatisfaction in this essay.[4] The question that arises at this point is; Are there identifiable source conditions that readily evoke the disappointing reactions we experience?

4. The sources of aesthetic disappointment

We have all at one time or another voiced, heard, or read comments in various forms expressing disappointment about what is aesthetically presented and also how it is presented. Of the multitude of ways to be aesthetically disappointed, there are two that appear to be of central significance to us and perhaps underlie most others, namely, “sometimes things are not what they appear to be” and “sometimes things are not what they are expected to be.” These two reactive judgments, being grounded in experience, bear certain suppositions by which to understand something of the nature of our specifically aesthetic disappointments and why we suffer them. Those disappointments having to do with appearance presuppose the distinctive difference between the objective conditions of phenomenal objects as they really are, independent of our experience of them, in contrast to how we perceive them to be. It is to recognize that what appears to us phenomenally is not necessarily equivalent to what is. So the concern is over how things are presented in terms of their epistemological manifestation, in contrast to their ontological reality.

What is at issue in this case is “conformity to fact.” It is a question of fidelity in the relation between knowing and the actual conditions of being. The negative gap in this form of disappointment indicates that our cognition suffers from a discrepancy condition. In contrast, those disappointments related to the subjective condition of expectation presuppose that there are certain norms or rules that do or should condition our own being in addition to the external world. It is to recognize that what is phenomenally presented is not coincident with what we expectantly feel, think, or believe should be the case. So, the concern is over what is presented, in terms of its actual condition, in comparison with an ideal, where the distinctive difference between the objective condition of being and some normative criterion is not being effectively met. What is at issue in this case is that of “conformity to a rule, standard or norm.” The negative gap in this form of disappointment indicates that the object of aesthetic appraisal suffers from, or we ourselves suffer contributing to, an insufficient condition.[5] After all, we can be disappointed in ourselves as well as in other things.

Both the cognitively discrepant-deficiency and the normatively insufficient-deficiency conditions are necessarily connected to circumstantial conditions of being and our response toward them. It is the case that forms cannot exist by themselves apart from those conditions of being of which they are forms of as their conditioning content. This ontologically grounded content constitutes the expressive component of aesthetic impressions conditioning the formal aspect of aesthetic presentations. The expressed content necessarily relies on the formal component as a condition of realization. So, the expressive component of the aesthetic has to do with what is expressed, and the formal component has to do with how that content is expressed. The expectation factor already indicated as underlying our aesthetic appreciations is that which we need to examine next.

5. Aesthetic appreciations as expectation based reactions

Toward understanding the two forms of aesthetic disappointments discussed in the previous section, we turn to an examination of the expectation basis of aesthetic appreciation itself. Given this strategy, we might first summarize that disappointing experiences presuppose some form of expected conditions not met. Expectations presuppose some standard, rule, or norm as the criteria of our judgments. An expectation represents the ideal desirable condition as that sought by us, in contrast to the actual condition of the object. I call the relationship formed by these two components of the evaluation situation the Normative Value Assessment Equation. The ideal side of the equation is that which we choose to treat as the norm system that does the measuring and is embodied in the formation of our preferences. The actual side represents the thing we treat as that which gets measured.[6] As we shall see, the ideal side component represents what we bring to the experiential occasion and the actual side component represents what the object-situation brings to the experiential occasion.

The term ‘disappointment’ acquired its modern usage as the “frustration of expectations” in the late fifteenth century. Alexander Pope sagaciously remarked, In the eighteenth century, “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”[7] The predisposition of expectation underlies the feeling state of disappointment in addition to those of satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Expectation itself has two components, a desire component and an anticipatory component. The former grounds our want-feelings, while the latter grounds our level of hope or confidence over the likelihood of the desired outcome being realized or manifested. The expectation that underlies dissatisfaction is closer to that of something’s probably being the case or will be the case, whereas that underlying disappointment is closer to the expectation that something should or ought to be the case. The feeling of dissatisfaction seems to favor the desire aspect, that is, the want-condition, while that of disappointment is more influenced by the anticipation aspect, that is, the hope for a certain outcome.

So, expectation itself is a form of anticipation. The word ‘anticipation’ derives from the Latin anticipare, literally “to catch beforehand.” Anticipation is a form of prospective belief; a belief that something variously can, could, may, might, likely or probably be the case, and, in its predictive form, must or will be the case. It is a temporal term concerned with the idea that something is to occur in advance of its actual occurrence. Anticipation simpliciter is ubiquitous. Each time we throw the switch, we anticipate that the lights will go on. When we see lightning, we anticipate hearing thunder. If I plant a tomato seed, I anticipate that it will grow and bear fruit. The word ‘expectation’ derives from the Latin expectatio, the exspectare form of which means “to await,” that is, to look for or look out for something in rather specific terms. Expectation is a form of anticipation that takes the further step of indicating what is being expected in terms of value-significant content and not just that something is to occur. Further, expectation, unlike anticipation, holds out that something should be the case, not just that it may or might be the case. For example, flowers at their full blossom stage are expected to be beautiful and pleasing, which is to say that we are predisposed to believe and anticipate that flowers should be beautiful and pleasing. When they are flawed or faded, it leads to disappointment.

There are different scenarios that expectations can take. We can have positive or negative expectations. While we are naturally predisposed to desire and expect satisfaction, we may expect something to lack any satisfaction. In some situations, we may not know what to expect. We can, of course, be unexpectedly satisfied or dissatisfied by a situation, as it relates to the desire aspect of expectation. We may unexpectedly be disappointed due to an unanticipated situation. Either of these latter two situations carries the element of surprise. Assessing whether or not our expectations are met concerns not only the qualitative attribute of the object but also the extent of the realization of that attribute. This extent feature of our expectations involves us with the perfection and imperfection of things. The role that these play in generating aesthetic disappointment will be examined next.

6. Aesthetic disappointment and perfection/imperfection

In his historical study on perfection, Michael Hyde notes not only that perfection implicitly permeates our value practices but also how often beauty has been seen as synonymous with perfection and how too much perfection can be problematic.[8] Ideally, we would prefer to have everything be perfect and every occasion go perfectly. In this respect, we suffer disappointments because the conditions of life we find ourselves in are not at all perfect and far from it. This absence of perfection is the idée fixe of our disappointments. The normative ideas of beauty, good, and truth are subject to degree levels of realization relative to their perfection. So, the idea of perfection always lurks in the background of the expectations we bring to our aesthetic value judgments. So much so, that we readily take beauty to be synonymous with perfection, as Hyde points out. Perfection is descriptive of that which is effectively complete or fulfilled. The idea of perfection is generally characterized as a realization, free from all possible deficiencies and insufficiencies. Expectations, then, can be viewed as concomitantly incorporating our ideal norm of perfection and that of beauty. The ideal norm of perfect beauty, inclusive of its formal and expressive aspects, can be seen as the ultimate realization of a good as the content of the truth, truly manifested in the form of beauty. As any one object of aesthetic experience cognitively approaches the aura of perfect beauty, we become affectively enthralled with awe cum sublimity.[9]

Perfection simpliciter is without comparison, transcendental to all imperfect states. Imperfection presupposes perfection as that compared with which it is judged. The imperfection of an object of appreciation is measured on a gradient scale to be “near to” or “far from” perfection; hence, it is a relative term. Generally, the nearer the object of appreciation is taken to be to perfection, the more we employ the criterion of “near enough is good enough.” In such cases, we overlook certain features of an object that may not quite live up to our perfection level of expectation. For example, while we notice the hand, nose, and eye imperfections caused by damage to the Pieta sculpture, we overlook these and admire it for its near perfection of form, on behalf of its powerful expressiveness. Minor or slight formal imperfections simply do not always stand in the way of enjoyment and admiration of an object the outcome of which is an overall positive judgment.

Perfection and imperfection play a constant and important criteria role in our aesthetic judgments, where holding of too-low or unrealistic, too-high perfection expectations can be problematic. Yuriko Saito addresses this topic, advancing the twin aim to “argue for developing an aesthetic capacity for appreciating imperfection” and “argue against indiscriminate imperfectionism.”[10] While perfection is generally considered a positive state and normative goal, Saito recognizes that there are problematic consequences to perfectionism, since perfection is “an unrealistic expectation that defies the reality of the life world.” Accordingly, Saito turns to appreciating the aesthetic value of imperfect objects, that is, to the need and the way to appreciate imperfection in imperfect objects. She states, “Rather than imposing a predetermined idea of what beauty has to be, we are letting the object in various forms speak to us even if at first it may defy our usual expectations of beauty.” For example, “Wabi aesthetics, with its acceptance and affirmation of imperfection, can be a powerful, effective, and wise strategy for coping with life’s contingencies.” Having made the case for this strategy, Saito states, “My promotion of imperfection does not entail rejection of perfect beauty. Neither do I share some imperfectionist advocates’ elevation of imperfection above perfection.” Instead, “the ideal aesthetics can be interpreted as a judicious juxtaposition of perfection and imperfection, rather than an indiscriminate promotion of everything perfect or everything imperfect.” This acknowledges the co-existence and influence of perfectionism and imperfectionism in our aesthetic appreciations. In observing that “it is critically important to maintain the negative assessment of imperfection, as it may indicate a need for corrective actions” on our part, Saito supports the motivating claim of this paper that an extended examination of the negative aesthetic disappointment experience is required if we are to better understand the value-significances of the aesthetic realm. The levels of perfection or imperfection we hold to are an influential factor, along with our adopted preferences, in making aesthetic assessments. It is to the nature of our preferences that we now turn.

7. Taste and object based preferences

Aesthetic appreciation is a value-laden exercise. What ultimately matters is the experience we have, for it not only delivers our sense of reality but also stimulates our immediate evaluation of it. So, the basic desideratum of aesthetic appreciation is to be found in the facts of our experience. If there is an immediate and compelling component to the aesthetic dispositional reactions we have, they arise from the facts about ourselves and the facts of the particular object at the time of the experiential occasion. As it relates to facts about ourselves, our aesthetic appreciations are greatly influenced by the preferences we have developed and adopted in the course of all of our experiences. Taste is to be distinguished as a component of preferences. Our preferences incorporate a reference to specific objects, while taste brings the normative value orientation to them; that is, taste immediately connects to norms and preferences immediately connect norms to objects. Our preferences are derived from experiences whereby we establish, by means of taste, our values toward the objects of further experiences. These preferences are associated ex post facto as expectations toward the same or similar kinds of objects we come to experience.

So, our preferences possess the form and features of the earlier introduced Normative Value Assessment Equation. They have a dual structure consisting, on the one side, of a normative value component, in the form of the taste we bring to their formation. On the other side are the constitutive properties that objects bring to their formation. Our personal preferences serve as the criterion of judgment, in association with the object currently being aesthetically appraised. Taste itself is grounded in the overarching ideal norm of beauty as that which we desire and feel ought to be the aesthetic case. Our taste represents the substantive content we imaginatively put into, that is, attribute to the formal idea of beauty we intuitively possess. There is no precise and universally accepted definition of beauty, only a long and varied list of qualities that, under the influence of our experiences, we individually incorporate as the criteria content of our overall taste. Our taste is founded on the overarching intrinsic value of beauty represented among the overall network of preferences for individual objects. In the exercise of aesthetic appreciation, we, by means of association, marry the object of experience with our taste in the form of preferences that reflect our likes and dislikes. But the question of whether or not we have overall good, poor, or bad taste is about taste, not preferences tout court. When we consciously pursue the cultivation of our own taste, by means of reflective self-assessment, we seek its overall betterment, the subject to which we now turn.

8. The cultivation of taste-preferences

There appear to be three coping strategies to the experiences we have of aesthetic dissatisfaction inclusive of its various forms of displeasure, disapproval, or disappointment: avoid further contact with the particular object, change the object itself, or change our preferential predisposition toward it. It is often the case that we cannot avoid certain objects that we find unsatisfactory; even less often can we go about changing the object of that dissatisfaction. But we can always attempt to change our taste, that is, the value significant content we consider being truly consistent with the norms of good or beauty. We are prone to thinking that our overall taste and particular preferences do not require critical examination. However, our adopted taste-preferences are not permanently fixed; they are open to adaptive adjustment or what Jon Elster termed, “adaptive preference formation.”[11] Our adapted taste brings our understanding of what normative ideals consist of in their content to the preferences we come to associate with certain kinds of objects of experience. It is in this way that we speak of ourselves as having good, poor, or bad taste in the overall sense. We do not usually describe ourselves as having good, poor, or bad preferences. Nevertheless, any effort to change our taste is to change our preference, for the two terms involves a distinction without separation; they are co-dependent.

The cultivation of our taste-preferences is open to three kinds of adjustment. The coherence of the overall network of adopted preferences we happen to have, the consistency of tastes incorporated in them to the overarching aesthetic ideal norm of beauty, and the correct cognition of the object of aesthetic interest appreciation can all be at issue in the adaption process. In reacting to disappointing or otherwise unsatisfactory aesthetic experiences, we can seek an attitude change by challenging our pre-established taste-preferences. We cannot compel our admirations, pleasures, or satisfactions but we can subsequently change our approach to objects that disappoint us, testing whether the object may be experienced and appreciated in a different way. It can be the case that I am dissatisfied with an object that may have virtues I do not as yet appreciate. There may be another perspective I may take allowing me to perceive the object differently than I have or to take notice of features I have overlooked. Changing preferences in their cognitive aspect influences our sensitivity to noticing things about an object and, in their affective aspect, alters our receptivity to liking or disliking that object. The receptivity aspect is the target of our efforts to change our taste-preferences, and the sensitivity aspect aims at altering our cognition of objects as a consequence.

We form our taste-preferences in two distinct ways: spontaneously, where they are reflexively formed, or in an intentional way, where they are reflectively formed. Both are incorporated in our preferences, where the latter builds upon the former. With spontaneous formations, we discover for ourselves what we like or dislike. In this case, we simply come to be aware of what our taste-preferences happen to be. By contrast, acquired taste involves the step of intentionally activated self-assessment. When we describe something as being an “acquired taste,” we generally mean that initially we do not like or enjoy the thing but gradually we come to like it more when we get to know it better. The effort involves acting as if we like something in order to elicit the response and feeling that will eventually produce the desired experience. When we refer to someone as having “good, poor, or bad taste,” we are addressing, not the taste of any one particular preference but the taste status of the entire network of preferences considered as a whole. To the extent that our taste consistently adheres to and truly represents the aesthetic norm of beauty, we deserve the accolade of possessing good taste. When initiating self-assessments, we are seeking the betterment of our overarching taste; we are in search of acquiring good taste. In undertaking this effort, we are seeking to improve our aesthetic judgments by changing the taste criteria of our preferences by which we make them. We can develop an appreciation for objects whose positive rewards are not immediately obvious to us through making the effort to re-evaluate our relationship to the experienced object. Acquiring taste is an experimental and learning process. We may have to try many times in order to acquire a taste for something we currently dislike. Attempts to acquire taste challenge our perceptual acuity, our ability to adopt appropriate viewpoints or to apply background information, all with the aim of improving our aesthetic appreciations.

The motivations for acquired taste or adaptive preference formation are complex, and some motivations are more genuine and respectable than others. As Kevin Melchionne rightly points out, our willingness to change our taste can be authentic or inauthentic in intent.[12] Acquiring taste allows for the role of self-deception in the development of taste. The difference between authentic and inauthentic acquired taste lies not in the presumed quality of the object in question but in the motivation by which taste preferences change. Non-aesthetic motivations can influence the direction that the change in taste takes. For example, change in taste may simply serve our vanity or be aimed at serving our reputation rather than uncovering qualities not observed initially in the object. It may involve pretending that we like something, in order not to offend someone or simply from a wish not to reveal to others my true preference for something. There are cases of taste acquisition that are simply not genuinely grounded in aesthetic value interest per se, such as the “sour grapes” tactic, when someone puts something in a negative way or makes it out to be unimportant solely because it is seen to be unattainable to them. An example of aesthetic sour grapes is, “I just don’t have the good taste that she has, but it is not important to me anyway.” As Melchionne succinctly puts it, “‘Sour grapes’ is a trick that the mind plays on itself in order to avoid unpleasant mental states.” He further remarks, “acquired taste can take the place of real preferences. We become culture victims whenever our motivations for having a certain taste drive us beyond the reality of our feelings and lead us to assign to ourselves responses and preferences that we just do really have.”[13] Such non-aesthetic disingenuous motivations may well be morally reprehensible.

9. The moral responsibility aspects of aesthetic appreciation

The ethical and aesthetic realms cross paths in two basic ways. The first has to do with the authenticity of the pursuit of the consistency of our personal taste with the impersonal universal norms of the good and the beautiful earlier discussed. The second has to do with how we acknowledge and respect any morally charged content aesthetically expressed by an object. The formal qualities of objects are not in themselves morally charged but, in their expressive role, they serve such content. There are cases where we may be positively impressed with something’s formal qualities but find its content morally repulsive. It is in these situations where we face the potential non-coincidence issue of the dual criteria problem earlier remarked upon. There is the case that we can aesthetically appreciate an object’s formal qualities based on the norm of beauty relatively independently of its expressive content. But if that object, in its expressive role, presents us with an immoral content, the norm of the good is invoked and it diverts us from being aesthetically pleased and satisfied. So the moral dimension can become an inhibiting part of the experience leading to disappointment.

If we find that we like something against our better moral judgment, we are favoring aesthetics over ethics, where in this value-significant sense they ought to be disqualified at least from full admiration. In this moral status connection, non-fictional expressions need to be distinguished from fictional expressions of content, especially in the case of morally charged content. For example, a morally repugnant character may be well expressed in a fictional form, such as a novel or film. In such a case we may admire the excellent depiction of the character while being morally put off by the nature of that character but without real life effects. However, in everyday life circumstances, when we discover that an aesthetically handsome man or beautiful women is possessed of an immoral character, this discovery drives our moral disappointment, for we have morally conditioned preferences that they ought not to be so in real-life circumstance.

10. The structured feature of aesthetic appreciation in summary

What is it about any one object that we like or do not like, that we find aesthetic satisfaction or disappointment in? In structured terms, it is either in the formal qualities of the object or in the expressed content of that object. Our reactions to the formal qualities of an object can be either positively pleasing or negatively disappointing, guided by our judgment of that object’s conformance to the norm of beauty. Aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of the object’s formal qualities is open to being judged for its own sake apart from any interest in its expressive content. Our reactions to the aesthetically expressive content of the object with respect to what is expressed, can be either positively acceptable or negatively rejected, guided by our judgment of that content’s conformance to the norm of good in its non-moral or moral sense. In the case of an object’s morally charged content, it can evoke satisfaction or disapproval. Our reactions relating to how an object’s content is expressed is guided by the norm of beauty, where if the content is well expressed, it evokes pleasure or if poorly expressed, it evokes displeasure, in this case giving to rise to aesthetic disappointment.

11. Conclusion

The experience of aesthetic disappointments lies with the conditions of things in the context of our aesthetic interest appreciations. We are eager for there to be beauty in the world, the absence of which sets us up for aesthetic disappointments. We naturally desire objects, be they entities, events, scenes, or persons, to be attractive and pleasurable in experiencing them. Many of the disappointments and also the satisfactions we ourselves have are not necessarily warranted. We can always ask ourselves whether or not the satisfying or disappointing reactions we have upon the experience of a certain object are justified. Viewing this question within the context of The Normative Value Assessment Equation, we generally cannot alter what an object brings to the experiential occasion. The object’s ontological conditions are what they are. But we can alter what we bring to our aesthetic appreciations. We can do so in terms of re-valuations of our own normative-based taste incorporated in preferences. In this respect, we are responsible for what we bring to the experiential situation, and this is where the development of taste and moral development cross paths. The objective in doing so is to stave off errors of judgment in both regards and the stigma of having poor or bad taste. It is this capacity to cultivate our taste that especially calls out for us to give joint scope to understanding aesthetic disappointment as a necessary complement to understanding satisfying experiences.[14]


Russell L. Quacchia

Russell Quacchia is an architect and a member of the American Society of Aesthetics and the British Society for Aesthetics. He is the author of Julia Morgan, Architect and the Creation of the Asilomar Conference Grounds, and the articles, “Aura, Awe & Wonder: Reflections on their nature and relationship,” Contemporary Aesthetics Vol.14, 2016; “The Aesthetics of Ordinary Everyday Phenomenal Objects,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol.15, 2017.

Published on March 3, 2020.

Cite this article: Russell L. Quacchia, “Aesthetic Disappointment,” Contemporary Aesthetics 18 (2020), accessed date.



[1] This expanded shift in scope was initiated by Ronald W. Hepburn, with his seminal essay, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” in British Analytical Philosophy, ed. Bernard Williams and Alan Montefiore (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966).

[2] See Yuriko Saito, “Aesthetic of the Everyday,” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,, accessed November 13, 2019.

[3] The relationship between beauty and ugliness is fraught with issues. As Gretchen Henderson stated in Quartz, September 15, 2016, “Ugliness has long posed a challenge to aesthetics and taste, and complicated what it means to be beautiful and valued.” For a sense of the issues, see Ronald Moore, “Ugliness,” in Vol. 4 Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, edited by Michael Kelly, 417-421 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[4] Hereinafter, dissatisfaction is considered to be in a subsidiary relationship to disappointment having a tacit level affect.

[5] The term ‘insufficient’ is immediately connected with the negative feeling of unsatisfactory.

[6] At the very basis of this equation is the condition of ‘want,’ in both its senses, that of desire and that of lack of desire. The measuring side represents the desire factor, and the measured side represents the prospective lacking desire factor felt negatively as an unsatisfactory condition. See above, note 5.

[7] A remark made in a letter to John Gay, October 6, 1727. Citation source:

[8] Michael J. Hyde, Perfection: Coming to Terms with Being Human (Baylor University Press, 2010).

[9] For the topics of aura and sublime, see: Russell Quacchia, “The Aesthetic Experiences of Aura, Awe and Wonder: Reflections on their Nature and Relationships,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol.14, (2016).

[10] Yuriko Saito, “The Role of Imperfection in Everyday Aesthetics,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 15, (2017). All quotations are from this article.

[11] John Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[12] Kevin Melchionne, “Acquired Taste,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 5, Section 1, (2007).

[13] Ibid.

[14] This paper has immensely benefitted from the comments of anonymous reviewers for Contemporary Aesthetics, to whom I would like to express my most sincere thanks.