December 23

The Difference Between Emotional Richness and Aesthetic Quality

It is no secret that emotions can provide insight into important values.  However, the emotions are not themselves necessary indicators of certain types of value.  So, for instance, feelings of sadness can oftentimes indicate a loss of value – you cry when a loved one has died.  However, one might get the same feeling upon hearing, incorrectly, that a loved one has died.  In the latter case, the emotion is not a correct indicator of actual loss.  Of course, this involves just a mistake of fact about states of affairs – whether a loved one has died.  But mismatches between emotions and value can take on other forms.

A woman may experience horror upon finding out that the Supreme Court has ruled gay marriage bans unconstitutional.  However, the woman’s emotions are not indicative of a moral loss – quite the opposite, there has been a significant moral win, and yet the woman’s emotions do not track the ethic values at hand.  In this case, the mismatch between the woman’s emotions and the ethical values at stake do not involve a mere mistake of fact.  The source of the mismatch is elsewhere.

Note that in such a case, one might be tempted to re-forge the connection between emotion and value by talk of sincerity.  So, one might say that the aforementioned woman’s emotions don’t track the moral values correctly, because she doesn’t actually sincerely feel sadness at hearing about the Supreme Court ruling.  I think the move is problematic – after all, it’s not clear what the account is then of the woman’s emotions.  Is she faking?  

A better move is to suggest that the woman’s horror does not track the moral value associated with the gay marriage ruling, but it tracks something else, namely her perceptions of moral loss.  So, perhaps her emotional reaction is the result of a perceived loss of a way of life, or the perceived effect on the American family unit.  Of course, these perceptions might themselves be incorrect – no surprise there.  Perhaps, if the American family unit were somehow drastically rendered asunder, that probably would be a significant problem.  But of cousre, gay marriage won’t lead to that.

But the move to perceptions of loss is instructive.  Take the initial illustration – feelings of sadness upon hearing, incorrectly, that a loved one has died.  The emotion here does track the perceived loss of a loved one, even though it doesn’t track an actual loss.

I bring up this detour, taking us through a talk about the emotions and their relationship to varying kinds of value, because it’s instructive for talking about the relationship between emotions and aesthetic value.

As a matter of popular habit, people tend to construe the emotions as being reactions resulting from direct acquaintance with floating objective values out in the world.  This folk belief is applied quite readily onto the realm of music, because people consider music to be acquired by direct acquaintance as well.  You know the music upon listening to it, and the emotions that you experience upon listening to it are the indicator of its aesthetic value.  Not only that, but the intensity of emotion is an indicator of greater aesthetic value.  Or at least this is how it is relayed in cocktail conversation again and again.

Of course, forget that listening to music is not a matter of direct acquaintance and itself involves a good bit of judgment and processing.  Beyond even that, if the prior discussion is any indication, the fact of one’s feeling an emotion is hardly to be considered a good indicator of value at all.  In fact, these two statements are probably related, as mismatches between emotion and aesthetic value may oftentimes be the result of cognitive and processing issues on the part of the listener.  Hence, Saint Saens misunderstands the aesthetic value of Debussy.  An aficionado of bubble-gum pop has difficulty comprehending the advanced chord structures of classical and jazz.  

This is to say, emotional reaction is not a great indicator of aesthetic value.