Aesthetic Attributes in Wine
Canary Wine and Beyond
As regards the agreeable everyone acknowledges that his judgment, which he bases on a private feeling and by which he says that he likes some object, is by the same token confined to his own person. Hence, if he says that canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: It is agreeable to me.
The point being made in the passage about Canary wine has to do with the distinction between a judgment of something sensually ‘agreeable’ (what we call hedonic pleasure elsewhere) and a specifically aesthetic judgment of taste (which, if successful, will yield aesthetic pleasure). The former is straightforwardly subjective, having a validity that does not extend beyond the individual, while the latter is inter-subjective. Canary wine was not just any randomly chosen example, however, but a wine of considerable distinction during this period. Thus, Kant’s choice of example in his analysis rules out in advance the following objection: While most wines involve judgments of sensual preference, there may be some fine wines that can be aesthetic. The root of Kant’s analysis lies, not surprisingly, in his treatment of the senses, which can be found in the Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View .
We can, Kant says there, “agree” with a longstanding philosophical tradition in claiming that while touch, hearing and sight are “more objective than subjective,” taste and smell are the opposite. 3 By this Kant means that the latter two senses are connected more to the enjoyment (or its opposite), than to the cognition of an object. What we get from taste and smell is an immediate liking or aversion. Neither can give rise to cognition without a contribution from one of the ‘more objective’ senses; for example, through smell and sight together, we can identify what it is that produces the objectionable odor. 4 The implication is that smell and taste, as ‘chemical’ senses are passive – Kant even treats a bad smell in a crowded room as “interfering with individual freedom.” 5 Not surprisingly, Kant is most willing to sacrifice smell and taste, especially the former which “does not pay us to cultivate” or “refine.” Whatever pleasure it gives is fleeting, and in any case most of the time its product is displeasure, since its primary purpose in human affairs concerns basic survival: Smells alert us to things that cannot be eaten. Interestingly, we should note in passing, Kant does not claim that smell cannot be cultivated. Taste is a step above smell, 6 for it at least contributes to “companionship in eating,” while at the other end of the spectrum of importance, deafness (unless compensated for by lip-reading) is the loneliest defect of sense. Now, the notion that smell and taste are “more subjective” is most immediately pertinent to the Canary wine passage, since what is at stake there is the universality of judgments. If a sense was necessarily subjective, then judgments concerning smell or taste would exhibit an irreducible variety amongst people. However, it is the notion of those senses being essentially non-cognitive that is the decisive point when it comes to the problem of aesthetic judgment.
Cognition, for Kant, means those mental acts which employ concepts of the understanding in combination with some intuition, and which are thus capable of knowledge of something. Intuitions of taste and smell not giving rise to cognition thus means there are no empirical concepts derived solely from this source, 7 nor can concepts be employed with respect to taste or smell sensations without assistance. Aesthetic judgment, for Kant, involves the harmony of the faculties – and one of these faculties is the understanding. Aesthetic experience, then, although not determinate with respect to any concept, is nevertheless closely related to cognition. Accordingly, Kant’s emphasis is famously on form. Even color, for Kant, plays a role in the aesthetic only insofar as it serves form. Smell and taste, because as we saw above lacked any immediate relation to cognition, could not even serve form. So, objects such as wine, which we imagine Kant thought were apprehended exclusively through smell and taste, are not possible objects of aesthetic judgment in Kant’s view.
We need not, of course, agree with the tradition to which Kant alludes in his Anthropology . Even were we to accept that the senses of smell and taste are in a certain sense ‘more’ subjective – that is to say, raise particular difficulties for cognition (in Kant’s sense of that word) and are statistically less reliable – they are certainly not simply subjective, and they can produce cognition. True, wine may be a vague object, and wine experience may be more vulnerable to various kinds of pitfalls (such as the magnum trick), than visual experience. However, none of these features prevents competent tasters, following established practices, being able to form , apply and communicate concepts concerning types of taste and smell elements, with a significant degree of reliability. Moreover, even if Kant’s point about the senses of taste and smell not being able to employ concepts without guidance from the other senses is true, that guidance is generally available. Experiments and tricks that set out a situation of deception aside, the practices of wine appreciation for example do make good use of color and temperature – and thus the senses of sight and heat. Blind tastings are not, literally, blind. This is not to mention the considerable cultural competency that comes into play as soon as the label is seen. Kant, then, was simply wrong in his analysis of the senses of taste and smell – and with him a long philosophical tradition that dates back at least to Plato. The exclusion of objects of smell and taste from the aesthetic is built upon false premises. This means that we are, as it were, authorized to use other ideas and analyses from Kant’s account of aesthetics, in order to build up our model of the aesthetic appreciation of wine. And this we have done.
Wine, the Analogy with Art, and Expression
Throughout this section, we have been trying not to confuse wine with art. Wine is not art, and most commentators are agreed on this subject. So much so, in fact, that Tim Crane feels empowered to play devil’s advocate. He rehearses all the standard arguments that wine is not art, only to dismiss them all. But then, at the end, he endorses the standard view, against all his own previous argumentation. In the background to such a tour de force there is very likely something of the same problem George Dickie has with definitions of art, and thus also with some versions of the institution theory which claim that the concept of art can be defined through certain processes and decisions, and not with particular attributes of objects or experiences
.There is an intermediate position, however, that is both more attractive and more defensible, namely that wine can make aesthetic experiences possible. We endorse such as view, as do Crane 14 and Cain Todd. 15 However, since the most widely discussed source of aesthetic experiences is art, we are returned to a variation of the original problem. Now, though, the problem looks like this: Wine is not art, but it might be revealing to think of it on an analogy with art, insofar as both can be thought of as the object of aesthetic experiences. How valuable, or how misleading, is such an analogy?
Todd takes it quite far indeed, specifically in his discussion of wine as an artifact, the product of intentional activity on the part of the maker. Todd is trying to build an expressive account of wines. He thus needs to claim – again, on the analogy with art and art experience – that the vintner’s decisions “can be detected as expressive properties in the wine itself.” We think his arguments here don’t take him as far as he wants to go, and that on the whole the analogy with art is a wild goose chase. By far the majority of vintners do not think of themselves on the model of an artist, but are rather just trying to make the best wine they can, given the constraints of a particular vintage, trying to make a living doing it, and perhaps trying to allow something (for example, the specific qualities of their vineyards) to shine through the wine. In any case, it is hard to claim that the vintner can intend and succeed with anything more precise than ‘the best possible wine given what I have to work with.’ Of course, what they have to ‘work with’ is not just anything, but often – particularly in many European wine producing countries – constrained by laws and regulations. Many vintners want their wines to reveal the essence of Pinot or Syrah, their meso-climate, terroir , or the traditions of viticulture to which they belong. “Great wines are often made by modest people, who claim merely to work in the service of their vineyard – though in my experience, this is mostly a pious pretence. A great many crucial decisions, in fact, hinge on precise human intervention.” These decisions are intentions, certainly, and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. Vintners’ decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts, which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling, and the like. First of all, being a Pinot Noir, or having a certain place and time of origin, is something the wine is . These are not contents or messages.
Moreover, there is no necessary connection between the decision to do this, that or the other, and the result. Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint, and the most important factor beyond the vintner’s control is the weather. Try as they might, few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage. Some of the best wines have been made by vintners who are talented and experienced but who have not carried out their work in the vineyard or the cellar with aesthetic concepts like ‘harmony,’ ‘character’ or ‘finesse’ in mind. Does the absence of aesthetically relevant intentions here prevent the wine being great? Clearly not. To be sure, some Champagne houses, for example, have a ‘house style’ and thus the chief wine maker has to intend to achieve it through the blending of a number of base wines and reserve wine 20 in making the House’s ‘signature’ wine. Also, there are a few makers 21 of wine ingredients (e.g. cultured yeasts supposed to give a particular character to the wine), who thereby may assist a wine maker in producing a wine matching his or her intention, and the vintner may decide, for instance, to prevent the malolactic fermentation so as to give the wine a sharper acidity. However, the number of factors influencing the character of the finished product is considerable and a great many of those are entirely or in part governed by factors beyond the vintner’s control. The vintner at best tries to steer a course through knowledge of the past, the wines made and how they turned out, and then also the unique character of any vintage.
The difference between a vintner and a painter is not just that the painter has greater freedom. A vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art, for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features. It is arguable that this idea still dominates the discourse of contemporary arts and letters in one form or another. Rather, the vintner is more akin to the famous image of the Renaissance sculptor who carves away at the marble in order to release the form that lies within it. There is skill and vision in such activity, but the artist – the one who could be said to intend this or that – is ‘nature’ or ‘God.’ The vintner, then, like Socrates, is a midwife. Guided by knowledge, skill and tradition, he or she has the intention to release the possibilities that lie in the grape, perhaps insofar as the grape was grown in a particular place or in a particular way. Thus, something like ‘authenticity’ – to release what lies dormant and to do so without unnecessary subtraction or addition – may be the furthest any intention may go. And that is not quite enough for Todd to build his ambitious argument about expressivity and even emotion 22 in wine. The main reason Todd’s attempts to move wine closer to art through the notion of expressivity fails, is that the wineworld does not appreciate wines for their expressivity of the vintners’ decisions. Wines are not, in fact, valued for this.
The prospect of perfect wines turned out to be less welcome than one might have expected, and the intentions of the scientist wine makers of the future to make wines with predictable and dependable expressive properties was not entirely welcome. Thus, in what follows we shall try to disconnect art and aesthetics, and avoid as far as possible relying even upon the analogy with art.
We began this discussion by conceding that aesthetic experiences have been primarily associated with art objects. This may be generally true, but is by no means necessary. Art may serve purposes that have little to do with aesthetic experiences and aesthetic attributes, but which have a great deal to do with the value we attach to the art object, and which in overlooking we seriously misunderstand that object. Moreover, many branches of art, music and literary criticism over the past hundred years have seen little need for, or even positively distrust, the aesthetic. For example, the work may express a strong political, moral or social message, or it may serve to help a viewer to see some aspect of their world in a fresh way. One does not, it seems, have to take up an aesthetic project in order to appreciate these aspects of a work. However, our most astonishing experiences with art occur when the aesthetic is the gateway or the vehicle for other meanings, such that various projects mutually reinforce one another.
Now, as we know, we can take up other perfectly valid projects with respect to a wine, and these may have a great deal to do with the value we attach to it. Let us use ‘fine wine’ 24 as a shorthand for that class of wine that a competent taster would expect to exhibit some aesthetic success. Fine wine as a category is jealous, so to speak, and demands appreciation . None of these other projects constitutes an essential way of ‘relating to’ such wine. From the point of view of the aesthetic project, someone who drank fine wine just because it was impressively expensive would be a snob; someone who drank a fine wine just because it was made with an unusual technique would be a mere collector of novelties; and so forth. These projects are not impossible, of course, but seem to be missing something important.
We would include in this category also climate, the husbanding of the vines, wine-making strategies and decisions, and the tradition of viticulture that informs all of the above. Thus, it is sensible to speak of terroir both with reference to Burgundy where the ‘identity’ of the wine is usually linked to a specific site, as well as in reference to Bordeaux where the ‘identity’ of the wine is a property – most often a château. One may thus perhaps speak meaningfully of terroir even in cases where, for example, the grapes are sourced from other growers or locations.
Determining a terroir is not just a trivial matter even though it may be independent of the aesthetic project. Of course, I may smell the Pinot character of a wine, whether it is a fine wine or a poor one. I may through its taste infer certain wine-making decisions, and perhaps even taste the distinctive trace of a particular soil even in a middling wine. The terroir project, therefore, is not exclusive to fine wines even though better wines tend to have a much clearer imprint both of varietal and site than do ‘lesser wines,’ and lower yields may be part of the explanation for this tendency. However, independently of yield, truly great wines often have a ‘transparency’ in their taste profile allowing the imprint of their origin to show through particularly clearly. We thus argue that what is important about the soil (or the way the vines are handled, the wine-making decisions, the traditions) is not this or that taste element being present in the wine. Rather, what is important is that, handled with skill, knowledge and not a little luck, terroir can be the origin of something great. Terroir , in other words, only becomes significant because aesthetically successful wines can come from it. Terroir then is not just a collection of soil, climate or cultural factors, but those factors insofar as by way of them an aesthetic experience becomes possible. It is not just any aesthetically successful wine, though, but one that is so while also being a clear object for a project of terroir . It is successful in a way that is also ‘authentic’ to its terroir . The two projects mutually reinforce one another. In such a wine, the aesthetic success of the wine reveals itself as an extraordinary possibility that belongs to, for example, the soil of its origin. That is, if a wine is in any significant way ‘authentic’ to its origins, it is so on the back of its aesthetic success and not the other way around.
Art may have the effect of permitting a viewer to see familiar things in a new way. Now, to be sure, the ‘conversion experience’ many have with a special wine, and which we have discussed earlier, has important features in common with this effect of some artworks. However the ‘conversion experience’ is precisely aesthetic (rather than a purpose that might be distinct from the aesthetic) and also inward looking, having to do with wine and the experience of wine. One had not conceived of the possibility that a liquid could provide experiences like these, and henceforth comes to see the phenomenon of which it is an instance in a new light. It would appear to be the case also that this effect has no discernible “added value” – unlike coming to see human nature as essentially fragile after reading Dostoyevsky, or feeling for the World War I dead after reading Erich Maria Remarque. Rather, it is autotelic in the way described originally by Shaftesbury, Hume and Kant. It is a value in and for itself.
Such a conclusion, though, threatens to raise the spectre of triviality again. If all we are talking about in the experience of wine is a little nip of aesthetic pleasure at its internal properties, then we seem close to Kant’s account of the merely tasteful – Kant’s examples are elegant tableware, or the fine writing of a moral treatise. 25 Wine is not the only, or perhaps even the most important, aesthetic object there is, but that does not entail that it is trivial. We must not misunderstand the autotelic. The reason Kant denigrates the merely tasteful is because it is merely a ‘vehicle’ for something else, without any meaning of its own. One of the reasons Todd pursues expressivity, we surmise, is to answer the charge of triviality by discovering the meaning or content of wine experience. We sympathize with the attempt, but argue that expressivity is the wrong solution. Instead, we have offered a notion of authenticity. The aesthetically successful wine can gather to itself history, tradition, soil, climate and excellence of technique. Moreover, while wine experience may not be ‘rich’ in the expressive sense, like a symphony, it may not be any the less complex. So, in a domain other than sight or sound, we find a highly complex object that requires no less work of memory, imagination and perceptual acuity. The aesthetic appreciation of wine thus does expand the possibilities of human sensation and thought – it enables us to pursue the cognitive and aesthetic possibilities of the proximal senses. It thus again comes to have considerable value by way of the autotelic aesthetic experience. Further, the aesthetic appreciation of wine has value by way of sociability. Any wine, or even a rum punch, can help along a party. However, sharing a special or fine wine forms a different kind of community, one that would otherwise be inaccessible. There is value to being a part of an aesthetic community; this is an important aspect of human life and of wellbeing.
These are some of the very values used to damn wine experience. However, on reflection they turn out to be – once we look beyond the prejudices built up over a long but rather narrow tradition of art and aesthetics – positive values, opening new avenues of aesthetic experience that have long been neglected within the Western tradition. The continuity between more narrowly conceived aesthetic values and broader cultural values needs to be further explored before we move on to investigate the aesthetic character of wine.
In this context John Dewey is a useful reference point for us in that not only will we find much to agree with in his account, but he also approaches the problems from outside the main concerns of recent aesthetics, and thus gives us a refreshingly different perspective. For that reason, we will find that the challenge of his work requires us to make clearer, and refine, several of our key ideas.
In apparent contrast to our understanding of aesthetic attributes and experiences as distinctive, Dewey argues for their essential continuity with other forms of experience. Aesthetic experiences are like maxima in the condensation or distillation of those elements of meaning and value that are also found, diluted or fragmented, in everyday experiences. This is because both everyday experiences and aesthetic experiences belong to and in some way reflect a whole, organized, historical way of life. One outcome of Dewey’s perspective is a highly democratized aesthetics: Such experiences are not the privilege of the few, and art (being one source of such experiences) is not something esoteric, isolated from life, and at home only in museums. Now, we have certainly not argued that aesthetic experiences transport one to a completely new, magical world, and we, like Dewey, also want to avoid aesthetics being the sole province of art. The words that we have been using to describe some of the aesthetic attributes most common in fine wines – such as ‘harmony’ or ‘elegance’ – are not words that are meaningful only in aesthetic contexts. Two people can find their views in harmony; an argument can be elegant. Of course, this does not mean that the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic meanings are the same, but it does suggest that there are analogies that critical rhetoric can and does make full use of in attempting to reframe perception. Moreover, as we have discussed, wines can fail or only partially succeed in giving rise to desirable aesthetic attributes. 27 For example, certain features of a wine can be subtle or delicate, but others not, leading to a wine that is only partially successful from an aesthetic point of view. This suggests again that an aesthetic experience is not a magic and instantaneous transportation from one ordinary world to another that is completely separate from it – some sort of fleeting contact with ‘nirvana.’
We have throughout emphasized the practice of aesthetics – the background knowledge, know-how, physical situations and actions – that form the enabling conditions of aesthetic experience. They serve to show a measure of continuity between, on the one hand, ‘ordinary’ experiences and activities – that are, in and of themselves, not aesthetic or producing the aesthetic. The thought experiment about wine reproduction suggested that wine is a ‘rich object,’ valued not just for what is strictly speaking within it, but for the relations it maintains with what lies beyond it. It could even be maintained that our thought experiment showed that the appreciation of wine cannot be meaningful in isolation from its wider practice.
If there is disagreement between Dewey and our application of Sibley, perhaps it hinges on the Kantian notion of rule-based conditions. Following Kant, Sibley emphasizes the fact that aesthetic concepts do not have determining or rule-governed conditions for their application: “there are no non-aesthetic features which serve in any circumstances as logically sufficient conditions for applying aesthetic terms.” 28 On Dewey’s terms, though, it might seem quite perverse to insist that an aesthetic experience employs its concepts in a fashion logically distinct from any other experience. To be sure, this rejection of non-aesthetic conditions might lead to a skepticism concerning the possibility of talking meaningfully about aesthetic experiences. However, given that the possibility of communication was one of Kant’s explicit concerns, Sibley is surely right to draw attention to the process of critical rhetoric. The critic is able to point to non-aesthetic features of the object in order to aid another to see the object as also having aesthetic features. We can, after all, discuss and perhaps even come to an agreement about works of art and about wines.
Despite his emphasis on continuity, Dewey does claim that there is a three-way difference between firstly an aesthetic experience, secondly an experience and finally the more ordinary fragmented course of our lives. ‘An experience’ is characterized as a process of living brought to fulfillment. For example, finishing the making of some object, or bringing an argument to completion. ‘An experience’ has something of the aesthetic to it (its wholeness), but it is not yet an aesthetic experience. So what is the distinguishing feature? According to Dewey, one is that ‘an experience’ is situated in a context of our interests and purposes, and that its final outcome is thus one that has separable value and can be taken into another sphere of activity. The result of making might be a tool, which is then used for some other purpose; the outcome of the argument might be a proposition that forms the starting point of the next argument. An aesthetic experience, on the other hand, must be detached from specific interests, and thus it cannot have ‘a result.’ The last sentence of a novel is not a product that can be detached from the novel. To be sure, a friendly game of tennis may not have a separable outcome. We may even agree to abandon the game half-way through the second set without either of us thinking it is left incomplete. However, it certainly is organized by a set of pre-existing purposes. We concur with this analysis. However, Dewey’s mistake is not to add to his discussion that it is this horizon of interests and purposes that gives the activity its ‘wholeness.’ Unless I know what I am making and what it will be used for, or what game I am playing and what I want from the game, I won’t know when I am done . In other words, those interests and purposes are what (according to Dewey) make it possible for it to be akin to the aesthetic. In the case of the aesthetic experience, however, lacking this local context of purposes and interests, the criteria for the completion of the activity cannot be founded upon a set of determinate rules. The horizon of purposes and interests may be regulative, for example, rather than determining – but cannot be simply absent. Instead, saying what Dewey does not, these ‘rules’ are referred back to the founding values of the wider aesthetic community. So, Dewey’s position ends up being substantially similar to Sibley’s: that is, despite the continuity between more everyday experiences and the aesthetic, concepts concerning this or that everyday activity could not serve as conditions of the latter. What our discussion of Dewey here has brought out is that the cultural context of the aesthetic might be said to serve as its conditions of being aesthetic.
However the relationship between art and aesthetics is resolved, if ever it is, there remains the problem of the ‘privileged.’ To Dewey’s democratic instincts, and his sense of the inter-relatedness of all branches of experience and life, cultural snobbery embodied a false and dangerous theory of art. Now, those who appreciate wine are indeed ‘privileged.’ Privileged because of the rarity and price of the objects of appreciation, the fact that their appreciation terminates them, and because repeated experience is the only way to build aesthetic competency. Dewey’s position, however, may be more subtle than we have made it appear so far.
Aesthetic experiences are distillations of wider meaning and value, and can therefore only occur following an acquaintance with those meanings and values. Such experiences make manifest and celebrate the values of an organized, historical community. Dewey’s most commonly employed example is the art and culture of ancient Greece. 31 Being in a position to appreciate and understand the Parthenon as an Ancient Greek required that one had fully and maturely internalized the values of the social institutions of Athens; being able to appreciate it now requires, at the very least, a great deal of sophisticated knowledge. Thus, it happens to be the case that relatively few people today can experience the Parthenon as aesthetic in anything but a vague way, for example by analogy with more culturally familiar buildings, or as a set of iconic shapes.
However, our reasons for that position are not that wine experiences are transcendent and separate from everyday life, and still less snobbish or economic. What seems right in Dewey – what we just called his ‘democratic instinct’ – should not be understood as meaning that specialist competency is not needed, but rather that such competencies can be acquired by anyone able and willing to put in the required effort, and that such competencies emerge within wider contextual features of a shared historical community.
With such competencies, the Parthenon can be an aesthetic experience, and this means that something else is seen in it, other than iconic familiarity. Let us now explore this new ‘experiencing’ more fully.
Seeing As and Seeing In
Most recently, philosophers have tended to turn their backs on aesthetic experience as a central problem, but Richard Wollheim is an important exception. However, our reason here for turning to Wollheim is that he criticizes the famous Wittgensteinian analysis of ‘seeing as’ – one of the standard models used to analyze the new type of experiencing mentioned above – in order to modify it fundamentally. 33 The aesthetic experience is instead characterized as ‘seeing in,’ a mode of perception which is simultaneously a perception of the object qua physical, sensed object and of what is in some way represented in the object.
However, we did not there discuss why it is to be preferred to the better-known notion of seeing as. Wollheim insists that seeing in is a distinct type of perception, and that it is not naïve but relies upon contextually informed competencies in order that we could anticipate the represented. Now, the seeing as paradigm has the two objects of perception (duck or rabbit) in an exclusive either/or relation. This means that the perceiver cannot attend to both the represented, and the representing, although the perceiver can switch back and forth between the two modes. But the materiality of the representing medium – the lack of simple phenomenological transparency through the stuff that is paint, for example, or likewise through the physical activity of painting – is one of the key facets of twentieth-century art theory. Analogous analyses of the ‘materiality’ of language inform recent literary theory. Moreover, it is essential to our account of wine experience. We have stressed that, in sensing the wine as ‘harmonious,’ for example, one does not simply stop sensing all those aspects revealed through cultural and practical competencies. At most, the meaning of those aspects changes insofar as they are now understood to be the medium of that harmony. They do not change identity, but they do change character.
Another significant difference between seeing as and seeing in is that in the account of seeing as, the transformation from seeing something as X to seeing it as Y is typically very quick, akin to a sudden unveiling, and thus similar to the discovery that the drawing you saw as a duck can also be a rabbit – or the other way round. This certainly captures a not uncommon experience of ‘getting’ a work of art, just as one ‘gets’ a joke or suddenly finds the solution to a crossword puzzle clue. Although the lack of this feature is sometimes evoked as a weakness of Wollheim’s seeing in, 35 we argue that the puzzle-like experience and its solution, although common enough, do not seem essential to aesthetic experiences. For example, it does not capture the ‘dwelling with’ the work, essential to the Kantian account of aesthetic experience, and along with Tim Crane we have supported that this is also the case with wine experience.
Moreover, the rapid new perception of seeing as is at odds with the account of aesthetic attributes that we have been providing, since the attributes – what is seen in the work – may be and generally are multiple and related to an array of perceptual elements. In wine, the ‘judgment’ aspect is not something that happens either suddenly or at the end of a period of time, but it extends across the period of the experience.
Attributes are thus not located ‘in’ this or that taste, strictly speaking, but ‘across’ the tastes. With wine, the widespread publication of tasting notes based on 20 seconds of interaction with the wine has had the effect of blinding many writers and commentators to this fact.
Thus, even in those cases where the experience has that character of puzzle-solving, it is misleading simply to identify that particular moment with the aesthetic experience as a whole. A third and final reason why Wollheim’s account is preferable to the seeing as account is that the represented can be of a different kind of thing. The drawing of the duck and the drawing of the rabbit are both drawings – in actual fact the same lines. Wollheim’s key example of seeing in is that what is seen in a painting can be an action . We have insisted that aesthetic attributes are founded on but not found among the perceptual elements of the experience, nor are they simply another perceptual element. They are emergent. Similarly, if one suggests that something like terroir is found through the wine, then clearly that is a dramatically different type of thing, and requires a model of experience more akin to Wollheim’s seeing in.
Wollheim’s seeing in can be augmented by an account of Wittgenstein’s view of critical rhetoric, which we think comes close to describing the way critical rhetoric operates with regard to wine. Wittgenstein points out that critical rhetoric is not about inductive or deductive reasoning because of the all important element of experience – critical reasoning does not aim at a proven conclusion about the object of experience, but a different experience of the object. It is concerned with directing attention and suggesting frames of reference for assigning significance to elements of experience. Wittgenstein’s well-known use of the duck/rabbit figure, with its switching between seeing the figure as a rabbit or as a duck, may have blinded many commentators to his account of critical reasoning. The latter induces subtle shiftings in the perception of the aesthetic object. The sudden shift, like the duck/rabbit figure, is not at all typical. Critical rhetoric is descriptive and gestural, and it operates by drawing attention to things and by placing things side by side. Changes happen more gropingly and by degree, and there are not just a limited number of ways the object of criticism can be.
As we said initially, this general outline of critical rhetoric clearly has its counterpart in guided perception about wine. The latter, we have claimed, is a crucial aspect of wine appreciation and the development of practical as well as cultural competence. Appreciation is not only open to this kind of critical rhetoric – it requires it in order to furnish the competencies. This is relevant in the case of building aesthetic competence. The only way a fellow wine taster or an expert can persuade you of a particular take on a wine (beyond a merely verbal agreement) is by changing your experience of it. If successful, you cannot go back to the manner in which you conceived of it before, which makes the perception of the aesthetic object much more like seeing figures in initially confusing and seemingly chaotic blotches, like the figures reproduced in Rowe’s article, rather than the back-and-forth switching suggested by the duck/rabbit figure. First you see nothing except just black blotches on a white background, but when the eyes and the moustache of a man have been pointed out to you, your perception changes for good. You can, even with your best efforts, no longer avoid seeing it. 43 Rowe is certainly not writing about wine appreciation, but he could have been when he says that
Critical reasoning … deals with immediate experience, knowledge by acquaintance, and if it changes that experience in the appropriate way then it has been successful. The critic is concerned to tell you how to see : to point out patterns, to draw your attention to features that allow patterns to emerge, and to render coherent what looks arbitrary, disordered and inexplicable.
Wittgenstein points out that activity rather than adjectives is the major part of appreciation – a useful reminder given that it is tempting to focus on the identifiable words used to describe experiences to the exclusion of the activities to which they belong. In Lectures and Conversations Wittgenstein explains how he came to read a particular poet in a new way:
When I read his poems in this new way, I said “Ah-ha, now I know why he did this.” I had read this kind of stuff and been moderately bored, but when I read it in this particular way, intensely, I smiled, said: “This is grand ,” etc. But I might not have said anything. … When I read these poems I made gestures and facial expressions which were what would be called gestures of approval. But the important thing was that I read the poems entirely differently, more intensely, and said to others: “Look! This is how they should be read.” Aesthetic adjectives played hardly any role.
We are reminded that “critical discussion does not issue in a proposition … but in an experience which may be described in a proposition.” Appreciation is irreducibly the activity of experiencing something in something, which is so well captured also by our favored quotation from Cavell about the ultimately experiential basis of aesthetic judgment. If critical rhetoric does not issue in an activity of appreciation and in a change in experience, it is empty or powerless.
Both the projects of neutral description and of aesthetic evaluation carry an assumption of normativity. That is to say, the intentional object is posited as originally ‘out there’ in the public domain, for anyone with the relevant competencies and following the relevant practices to perceive. If I ‘get’ the smell of lychee syrup on the wine’s nose, then I report this in a way directly analogous to if I had said the wine was red – that is to say, as if the smell belonged to the wine in a manner independent of my accomplished nose.
Likewise for ‘harmonious.’ Thus, the perceptual guidance of others also functions in the case of my learning analytical tasting in a way analogous to the case of my learning aesthetic competency. There is a difference, though.
Thus they have a certain ideality with respect to other perceptual elements upon which they are founded. As attributes of the wine, they are second-order attributes.
Equally importantly, aesthetic attributes have no definite place in the sensory ‘space’ of the wine experience. This latter feature is at least because they are relational, taking into account both a set of elements, and also the whole of the experience of which these elements are parts.
The harmony or finesse of a wine is not simply on the tongue or in the nose, nor is it at the beginning or the end of the experience. Likewise, these and other aesthetic attributes are not located anywhere on the arcs that radiate out from the center on Ann Noble’s wheel of wine aromas. That is, aesthetic attributes are not elements straightforwardly located on one or other of the dimensions of tasting. Grammatically, they are adjectives; but to think of them as descriptions would be to miss something vital.
This vagueness with respect to the descriptive dimensions of wine tasting is what makes perceptual guidance in the case of the aesthetic project analogous to guidance concerning straightforward description, but also quite different. The person learning to identify taste or smell elements has a set of benchmarks and sensory ‘spaces’ by means of which the instructor can indicate the elements ostensively. These include broad descriptions such as sweetness, spice, smoke; and locations such as ‘attack,’ ‘mid palate’ or ‘finish.’ As one learns, the benchmarks become more numerous and precise, and my ability to employ them more accomplished. But someone trying to help another ‘see’ something aesthetically, or to acquire aesthetic competency, can not resort to benchmarks so easily. To be sure, it is absurd to meaningfully employ the aesthetic concept ‘harmonious’ without either a sense of what elements participate in this harmony (apprehended through practical competencies), or why it should be important that it is these elements that are involved in harmony (cultural competency). Nevertheless, the capacity to form aesthetic judgments is not reducible to these first two forms of competency. We have called the additional competency ‘aesthetic.’ It is essential, then, to be able to identify important or relevant taste and smell elements, that then (within an aesthetic project) come to be in harmony with each other and with respect to the whole. So, in aesthetic perceptual guidance, the ‘guide’ probably begins by pointing out some set of smell or taste elements, because those must certainly be involved in the wine’s being harmonious; but this will not on its own be sufficient.
However, in addition, if the novice taster has competency from previous experiences from other aesthetic domains, this may ease the emergence of aesthetic attributes. This competency will involve awareness as to what ‘harmony’ means aesthetically. The aesthetic project, from the beginning, posits its intentional object as the kind of object that might exhibit aesthetic attributes. This awareness may pertain initially to a quite different aesthetic domain (e.g. music or painting). I acquire this from experience, but it ultimately embodies prior cultural knowledge concerning aesthetic attributes. It is thus akin to Dewey’s notion of the historical community as a ‘whole’; the subject who experiences aesthetically is never entirely naïve.
We thus find that the discussion of aesthetic perceptual guidance has again led us to think of wine aesthetics contextually rather than just formally. We suggest, then, that the competent wine taster needs to be understood as a ‘rich subject,’ who stands as a kind of interface between the broad contextual factors surrounding and enabling the experience, and the wine ‘itself’ – the content and significance of which need unfolding.
The Institutional Theories
The character of critical rhetoric is something we consider to be indicative of an aesthetic practice. In our attempt here to say why a project of wine appreciation is aesthetic, and why it matters that it is, we have so far shown that wine appreciation is not subjective in the Kantian sense, and that we can use Kantian concepts of the aesthetic in our account. Our critical discussion of Todd’s expressivist account ruled expression out as important within wine aesthetics; but it did lead us to an interesting discussion involving authenticity, terroir and their relation to the aesthetic. Dewey showed that aesthetic experience is not completely divorced from other experiences and indeed depends upon a relation to a cultural context and competencies with respect to it.
What art is and what the aesthetic is are questions that have been in close proximity in the intellectual landscape for obvious reasons, but the institutional theories have mainly been employed to sort out problems relating to defining what art is. Even though wine is not art, there are features of some of these theories that will help us develop our account of wine appreciation.
Institutional definitions of art come in two main forms: the procedural and the functional. 50 Procedural definitions, which have been most to the fore, try to answer the question of how we go about deciding whether or not a particular work is art. Institutional theories of the functional variety, on the other hand, focus on the purpose artworks serve. Clearly our approach has most in common with this latter kind of institutional theory. Philosophers we will be paying particular attention to include Arthur Danto, who discusses the history and circulation of public definitions of art; George Dickie, who argues against there being any special type of aesthetic attention; 52 Gary Iseminger, whose accounts of aesthetic function and experience resonate with ours; and last but not least Stein Haugom Olsen and Peter Lamarque, whose accounts of the practice of appreciation have been an inspiration for us.
George Dickie claims that beginning with the experience of individual instances, and trying to define the aesthetic in that manner, is hopeless. An aesthetic experience is simply one that pays attention to an artwork, so experience ceases to be a useful tool for defining art. Rather, he employs the history and actions of a loose institution – the historical, theoretical and institutional context that Arthur Danto called ‘the artworld’ 55 – to serve as a means of defining what is and what isn’t art. In this way he can avoid using either the features of the art object qua object, or some supposedly distinctive aesthetic experience. There is, thus, nothing about the work of art in and of itself that makes it art. Its ‘arthood’ is not just there in the work as a property ready to be noticed. An object may be art, rather, if it belongs to a history of art and of theories about art, and if it is situated within institutions that make concrete this history. This, clearly, makes Dickie’s institutional theory of art a procedural theory: it is all about finding means of deciding whether or not an object might be art.
In Art and Value , Dickie discusses a now famous argument raised against his aesthetic theory by Richard Wollheim. 56 The argument pivots on the question of whether those within the artworld must know what they are doing when they confer upon something the status of an artwork. If they do, then they must be doing so by reference to an account of and ultimately a general definition of what an artwork is, and thus the institutional theory – the point of which is to avoid definitions like this – is invalid. If they do not know what they are doing, then why should anyone take their judgments seriously? Dickie’s response to Wollheim is revealing: ‘Knowing what they are doing’ is far from having a general definition of art. The artist, for example, could be outraged by some recent political event and trying to intervene in or otherwise comment upon it. Moreover, let us accept that serving a project of political commitment, for example, serves an artist as ‘knowing what they are doing.’ There will be a corresponding knowledge of that fact which would be relevant to critical evaluation. From this it follows that the aesthetic project, and thus aesthetic experience, while being different from is also compatible with, and often mixed with, other projects. The institutions of art are not simply a kind of mindless bureaucratic framework, but a set of practices and histories. That is to say, ‘knowing what they are doing’ is not equivalent to having access to a definition. 57 For our purposes, this is an important observation because it reinforces our treatment of the competencies that lead into wine appreciation, where ‘knowing that’ (our ‘cultural’ competencies) is not the same as ‘knowing how’ (our ‘practical’ competencies). Being competent to employ an aesthetic project is not tantamount to being able to offer a definition of fine wine. Indeed, we suspect that aesthetic projects are often not even recognised explicitly. Our view is that critics have actively pursued aesthetic projects with wine for centuries. Because of the various prejudices against objects of the proximal senses, objects of craft, and objects to which there does not correspond an ‘artist,’ the close correlation of critical activity with wine to critical activity with art remained unrecognized. That is why Hume and Kant, for example, found wine appreciation such an obvious source of analogies.
One reason for discussing institutional theories is that they appear to raise two difficulties for our account. First of all, in talking of aesthetic attributes we would seem to be offering a definition of the content of an aesthetic experience in isolation from the artworld or the institution of art. Second, a superficial survey of our work thus far might suggest that we are close to employing the old concept of an aesthetic attitude – a type of mental activity unique to aesthetic contemplation – even though our discussion of aesthetic competency should have cleared up any such mistake. This notion has been roundly criticized from the institutionalist perspective. Clearly, though, we do not employ a notion of aesthetic attitude as anything like a kind of passive contemplation, which is partly shown just by our emphasis on the activities involved in aesthetic appreciation, and their importance in directing attention and bringing relevant knowledge and experience to bear on wine. This is not just a change of terminology since the concept of appreciation no longer carries either the passivity, or any of the other disadvantages, associated with the aesthetic attitude. Our discussion of aesthetic competency above came to the conclusion that the activity and competence of the subject are necessary for aesthetic attributes to emerge.
Part of our reply to the first difficulty has also been given in discussing Dewey. We agreed that aesthetic experiences and their contents could not be separated from wider issues of culture. The attempt to discuss aesthetic experiences, likewise, need not treat those experiences as being in isolation from their context. Indeed, we have argued that cultural context, broadly speaking, is a necessary condition of aesthetic experience. However, this does not address the whole of the first difficulty; there is still the issue of what it is that makes one set of attributes or experiences aesthetic, but not another set. Can the aesthetic attributes be identified or even defined without recourse to those that are apparent in the arts? So far in this section we have argued that the use of many of the same aesthetic concepts in wine appreciation as in the appreciation of music, pictorial art and literature indicates that wine appreciation can be an aesthetic practice. But can Sibley’s ostensive definitions of aesthetic concepts in his seminal article be conceived independently of their occurrence in the arts? The competencies associated with different domains of aesthetic experience clearly overlap and perhaps even borrow from one another. An individual capable of appreciating harmony in a particular period of painting might, ceteris paribus , have something of a ‘head start’ in following critical rhetoric to the appreciation of harmony in wine. Defining an aesthetic experience within an institutional theory may be rather straightforward: As we noted above, it means simply the experience of something that has independently been offered up by the artworld for consideration. Experiences of art can, in this way, be labeled aesthetic by virtue of the conceptual relationship traditionally established between art and the aesthetic. No such simple relationship with art exists for wine. We believe we have good reasons to identify, an aesthetic project with wine supported by a practice, but in justifying the claim that this project is aesthetic in character we cannot, as we have seen, appeal to wine being an artform.
Attention, Attitude and Appreciation
The second difficulty raised by the proceduralist version of the institutional theory revolved around the notion of aesthetic attention. We have preferred to describe the local conditions for aesthetic experience on the part of the subject in terms of ‘practices’ within ‘projects,’ and to term aesthetic attention to wine as ‘appreciation.’ The term ‘practices’ captures primarily the activities or procedures that competent experiencers undertake; the term ‘project’ designates the overall coordination of these towards some aim. One might think that ‘aesthetic attitude’ is, in our terminology, more akin to a project. But this is not so clear cut. Some practices, for example, function so as to ensure concentration or disinterestedness, and these are features generally ascribed to aesthetic attention. Our point here is that some aspects that previous aesthetics might have thought of as ‘mental’ – aspects of conscious attention – are institutionalized in the form of procedures. For the sake of thoroughness, Dickie also has to eliminate the aesthetic attitude from his proceduralist institutional theory as a ground from which a theory of art could be developed. From the point of view of the institutional theory of art, whether something is a work of art is not determined by the nature or content of the experiences. Thus, if the aesthetic attitude is interpreted so as to describe or be part of a particular type of experience, then it falls prey to the arguments Dickie used against aesthetic experience as relevant to the theory of art. And, again, the object’s status as art is also not determined by anything about the work of art itself as a physical object. Thus, if the aesthetic attitude is a particular type of attention devoted to some physical quality of the object, then it falls prey to Dickie’s objections to any definitional theory of art objects.
These versions of the aesthetic attitude, then, are easy for the committed institutional theorist to deal with. There are, however, some other possibilities concerning aesthetic attitude. Of particular interest for us, there is the attitude as a set of preparations for aesthetic experiences, such that attributes can emerge . This sense of attitude chimes more closely with the notion of appreciation and with our conception of aesthetic experience as well. Are any of Dickie’s arguments relevant to such an interpretation? It turns out that answering this question provides a useful discussion of the nature of appreciation.
The key move Dickie makes is to distinguish between the intention I have in giving the object my attention, and the actions I perform – namely, the act of paying attention. Most of his arguments take the following form: This or that intention may help or hinder me in paying attention to the object, but does not change the nature of that attention. For example, a theatergoer might attend a performance of a new play, but pay attention to it as a political commentary on working-class life in contemporary Detroit. A traditional aesthetic attitude theorist might suggest that this viewer is not being ‘disinterested,’ and thus not paying attention to the play in the proper aesthetic manner. Dickie argues that this is not a different kind of attention; rather, this viewer is not paying attention to the play at all. Our arguments, suggest that this is mistaken. There are any number of possible projects, and to each corresponds an intentional object. This particular intentional object is what, in the ordinary sense of the word, I pay ‘attention’ to. For example, if I have a sip of wine in my mouth, I am probably attending to it in so far as it exhibits certain relevant taste, smell and tactile properties; I am not particularly interested in other properties, such as temperature, color or volume. Likewise, such as the descriptive or evaluative. Suddenly, one major problem with Dickie’s argument becomes obvious: Which project and thus intentional object is the proper one? That is, to what feature(s) of the play is it essential that I pay attention if I am paying proper attention to it? The only way of answering that question is to provide a definition either of a work of art or of aesthetic attention – precisely what Dickie has devoted his career to avoiding. In Dickie’s classic paper this problem becomes manifest in his discussion of an example raised by Eliseo Vivas. Reading a poem as “diagnostic evidence of its author’s neuroses,” he argues, concerning one of Vivas’ discussions, is reading it for ‘information’ about its author, but not reading the poem . The argument relies upon an unstated distinction between what is essential to a poem qua poem, and what social or historical connections the poem might contingently bear. We happily agree that the aesthetic project is distinctive, but do not agree that it must be pursued in isolation from others.
But there is another problem with Dickie’s key distinction. My intention or interest does not and cannot affect the nature of my attention, he maintains. There is only one kind of attention. However, what we have shown is that the project not only acts as a filter such that certain features of the object do or do not get noticed, but that the project affects the meaning of these features. While the notion of ‘paying attention’ corresponds nicely with the former, it does not with the latter. Experienced features thus accumulate towards different kinds of objects and motivate different behaviors . The playwright, watching a dress rehearsal of his or her play, is paying attention but within a project that means he or she is not merely passively receiving experiences, but being motivated to contemplate rewrites. The intentional object would be something we could call ‘the play as it could be.’ A vintner tasting a young wine from the barrel is paying attention, but within a project of wine making such that he or she is not a passive consumer, but someone who still has time to change the course of the wine’s development. Calling all of these ‘attention’ in the same sense would surely be missing precisely what is significant about these acts. The notion of appreciation, in contrast – providing it includes an account of practices and projects – does capture what is significant about such examples. We conclude, therefore, that the project does not just initiate, but spans and affects the acts of attention within it. The aesthetic project, then, is that set of competencies, practices and ‘attitudes’ that make it possible for me to pay a particular type of attention to a particular object, namely an object that can exhibit emergent aesthetic attributes.
Aesthetic Attributes and Experiences
Our account of the aesthetic takes seriously both that it is a particular type of experience, and that the experience is characterized by the emergence of aesthetic attributes. The latter, highly contested, notion will be our next port of call. Talking in terms of aesthetic attributes necessarily brings with it the notion of aesthetic experience since aesthetic attributes are experienced and not just inferred. Further, insofar as aesthetic attributes are emergent with respect to other types of attributes, then aesthetic experiences will in some way be different from other types of experiences. In aesthetics, attributes, qualities or properties that are claimed to be of a particular sort – i.e. aesthetic – have been taken to require some sort of modification in the perceiver in order for these to be perceived. The aesthetic attitude, characterized in different ways by different philosophers but usually comprising some sort of disinterestedness or interest in the object or the experience for its own sake alone, has traditionally been taken to be the modification required for the perception of aesthetic attributes. If your main concern is defining the aesthetic, the attributes and the attitudes appear in some way to be linked in a circle – one presupposing the other: Only if you attend aesthetically to the object will you be able to perceive aesthetic attributes, and the aesthetic attributes are what characterize the experiences as aesthetic experiences rather than some other kinds of experiences.
If one wants to define art, or define any other aspect of what we may call ‘the aesthetic’ with the help of ‘aesthetic experience,’ the absence of any clear demarcation from other experiences may be a problem. We are, however, not at all concerned with defining art. We are not even trying to define wine. We are concerned with distinguishing an aesthetic project with application to wine, and theories that either use or challenge the concepts of aesthetic attributes and aesthetic experience are therefore of major interest to us. Our aim has been and remains to describe and understand more fully a practice or set of practices that appear to be similar to practices in the arts. We are not trying to define once and for all ‘the aesthetic,’ but in our account, if both attributes and experiences occur only within a context that we have described in terms of ‘practices’ and ‘projects,’ then these two must again be in some basic way different from other types of practices or projects. These projects with regard to wine, music and art have a wide range of similarities, including how judgments are defended and supported – as well as how other aspects of critical rhetoric operate.
Many of the problems with regard to the concept of aesthetic experience are relevant to our discussions. First, even among philosophers who are happy with the notion of there being something we might call aesthetic experiences, it is far from universally accepted that such experiences are in some way discontinuous with other types of experience. Given that most of us know quite well what an experience is, the crucial question will be how ‘the aesthetic’ is understood. Second, there is a highly influential tradition in aesthetics that argues that beginning one’s enquiries into art and aesthetics with aesthetic experience as some privileged, inner experience is entirely mistaken.
Aesthetic Experience: What Is It?
There are several different theories or approaches to what makes an experience aesthetic. Noël Carroll provides a nice taxonomy of such approaches: the epistemic, the affect-oriented, the axiological and the content-oriented approaches. 66 The epistemic approach, working from the very origins of aesthetics in the writings of Gottlieb Baumgarten, insists that aesthetic experiences be experiences first-hand and not based just on a report of the object. This is also closely connected with aesthetic judgments being singular, since the ground of aesthetic judgments are the experiences I have, not the knowledge I have of the kind of object they derive from. Some of the problems with this approach 67 arise because of the developments in art since Duchamp, but these developments have little or no relevance to our specific inquiry into the aesthetics of wine. With regard to wine, it is essential for an experience of wine to be an aesthetic experience that it is of the wine directly and not through any kind of intermediary. One may meaningfully discuss, assess and judge conceptual art – where perceptual variations are irrelevant – without first-hand sensory experience, and literature is not encountered by the senses in the way that music, paintings or, indeed, wine is. Carroll claims that the appreciation of the form of an artwork is the paradigmatic example of an aesthetic experience, 68 and because art can now be judged independently of having an experience of the work, aesthetic experience cannot be defined in the way required by the epistemic approach. One may, however, argue that with the developments in art since Duchamp one should disengage art and aesthetics.
The problem with Carroll’s critique of epistemic aesthetics, perhaps, is that it assumes a sharp distinction between concepts and sensory experiences, which is very much a Kantian theme. There are two aspects to this assumption: first, that concepts are ‘passive’ or neutral, while sensations can force responses (e.g. pleasure and pain); second, that this neutrality also means that concepts and their relations cannot produce sensations or other affects. However, the former is clearly false: We know that concepts motivate thought and that they force us to imagine or call up memories. The second aspect is no less false: There is the sensation and indeed also an emotional affect that follows from conceptual categories contradicted, twisted, reframed or placed into new relations. This, we argue, is how conceptual art works: through the sensory and affective power of the action of concepts and of conceptual relations. It is not the case, then, that a piece of conceptual art exists ‘in person’ somewhere, and can be reported; rather, the report is the artwork. Something similar is true of a novel, of course; it may not matter if Cervantes’ manuscript has been lost so long as we have exact copies of it. In this way, as in so many others, the wineworld is inherently conservative: There couldn’t be a conceptual wine. However, the reason for this is not because conceptual art does not function through affects. Nor is the reason that concepts (very broadly speaking) are not important in the appreciation of all aesthetic objects. In our contextualist approach, it is true that some of the concepts that we hold concerning the wine may become part of the aesthetic experience, even though one cannot judge a wine aesthetically without directly engaging one’s senses with it. To perceive a wine for what it is requires competencies and the desirable as well as typical qualities of a type of wine are part of this.
Were we to taste a Barolo that was sweet, unctuous, linear and with clear tones of honey and fruitcake – we would, as competent tasters, probably spit it out even though it would have been fine if it were a Sauternes. This is why concepts and categories are part of the aesthetic experience.
Engaging one’s feelings, however, is entirely optional and far from necessary as far as wine appreciation is concerned, but the affect-oriented account of aesthetic experience holds that what sets aesthetic experience apart from other experiences is a feeling of ‘disinterested pleasure.’ This comes from a long line of influential thinkers in aesthetics, from Lord Shaftesbury via Immanuel Kant. Central to this tradition was the view that aesthetic experience was an emotional and cognitive state where both self and society had no relevance, that it was a kind of art- or nature-induced nirvana.
Our active and culturally informed subject does not fit well with this tradition, and for all its historical importance it fails to do justice both to the wide range of responses we would want to regard as aesthetic, and to the variety of objects and phenomena from which they can be derived. Neither do we want to rule out displeasure as an aesthetic response, since the concept of ‘aesthetic experience’ should be descriptive of a class of experiences and not conflated with judgments of merit. This view, of the aesthetic being “pleasure in the exercise of sensibility for its own sake,” 71 also risks conflating aesthetic experience and aesthetic judgment of the positive kind. If only pleasurable, delightful and – as it were – ‘otherworldly’ experiences are aesthetic ones, then ‘aesthetic experience’ is not descriptive, but more or less synonymous with ‘delightful’ or ‘wonderful.’ Then, aesthetic experience cannot admit of gradation in terms of the value we accord it. An experience of a badly played piece of music can still be an aesthetic experience, even though it is not of the desired or intended kind. Not only is the life of most wine enthusiasts or wine aesthetes spent encountering flawed or sub-optimal exemplars of wine, these experiences are enabling aesthetic judgments also of those wines that are deemed to be delightful or praiseworthy in other ways. To reserve the term ‘aesthetic experience’ for the latter kind would thus be self-defeating for our approach to wine appreciation.
We have so far discussed two of Carroll’s typology of theories, the epistemic and the affect-oriented, but with the importance we have accorded to projects, and the view that wine appreciation is an aesthetic project, the axiological approach would appear to be close to our way of thinking. What makes experiences aesthetic, in this version, is that they are valued for their own sake only – they are autotelic. At least, this is a necessary condition – though perhaps not a sufficient one. However, we have just claimed that aesthetic experiences need not be pleasurable, and it would be stretching it to require that we value the bad ones for their own sake only, not just for the sake of providing us with a background for truly appreciating the wonderful ones. More importantly, we have also suggested that contextual features might be part of the experience. It already led us, which there we defined in terms of its autotelic value. Thus, whatever initial plausibility the axiological account may have quickly dissipates with the contextualist implications of our approach. In addition to this, Carroll rightly points out 72 that this ‘classic’ definition of the aesthetic is uninformative since it provides no guidance about how to go about having an aesthetic experience. Defining the aesthetic in negative terms – for instance disinterest without determinate concept –may help us to avoid mistakes, but it says very little to identify and characterize the aesthetic.
Carroll’s favored definition of aesthetic experience is a content-oriented account. He defines it through a disjunctive set of sufficient conditions “for categorizing aesthetic experiences of artworks.” We’re not interested in the ‘artworks’ aspect of this, but it is interesting to discuss it all the same:
A specimen of experience is aesthetic if it involves the apprehension/comprehension by an informed subject in the ways mandated (by the tradition, the object, and/or the artist) of the formal structures, aesthetic and/or expressive properties of the object, and/or the emergence of those features from the base properties of the work and/or the manner in which those features interact with each other and/or address the cognitive, perceptual, emotive and/or imaginative powers of the subject.
The last part of Carroll’s definition may appear to be redundant given that for emergence to happen then the subject’s faculties must already have been ‘addressed.’ Leaving this quibble aside, there are several features of this ‘content-oriented’ definition of aesthetic experience that chime in well with themes we have emphasized and will continue to emphasize in this section. One such is the activity of the perceiving subject, as well as the required competencies of the same (‘informed subject’ in Carroll’s terminology). Aesthetic experience is not something that just happens to a de-personalized subject devoid of prior knowledge and relevant experience. It is when relevant knowledge and experience are applied to the object’s properties that aesthetic attributes may emerge – and emergence is one other part of this definition that is central to our understanding of the aesthetic appreciation of wine.
A definition of what makes an experience aesthetic that includes the notion of emergence may be accused of introducing terms that are no less in need of clarification that what was supposed to be defined. It is in the nature of the aesthetic, we believe, that there is an irreducibly experiential element that is unlikely to be identified except through experience and the development of aesthetic competency through guided perception. That “[i]t is essential to making an aesthetic judgment that at some point we be prepared to say in its support: don’t you see, don’t you hear, don’t you dig” 74 – and this means that, if critical rhetoric as described above fails, there are no further argumentative strategies. This may be the case with regard to aesthetic judgments – the context of Cavell’s remark – but it may equally well be valid with regard to the definition of aesthetic experience and aesthetic attributes: They emerge, given the quality of the object of experience and the well-directed competencies of the subject. We can guide others towards aesthetic experiences with all the communicative capacity we can muster, but never make others have them.
The procedural variety of institutional theories led us into an examination of the aesthetic attitude and then aesthetic experience and thereby a clarification and defence of our contextualist approach. There is another side to institutional theory, though. Functionalist theories are a sub-group, one might say, of the institutional theories of art. These theories define art or some branch of art such as literature in terms of what art aims to achieve – or the ‘function’ of art, or as Stephen Davies puts it: “The functionalist believes that, necessarily, an artwork performs a function or functions (usually, that of providing a rewarding aesthetic experience) distinctive to art.” 75 As stated, the aim is usually taken to be to provide some sort of aesthetic experience, and this we also take to be the main aim of the aesthetic project with wine. It is in the interest of clarifying how our account of the aesthetic appreciation of wine fits in with various theories and approaches in contemporary aesthetics that we now turn to functionalist definitions of art, and of particular interest to us is the institutional theory of Stein Haugom Olsen and Peter Lamarque. The reason for this is that their identification of literature as an aesthetic practice is through what is actively done with the text by the reader.
While art may be the most obvious source of aesthetic experiences, significantly this connection need not be straightforward even for established artforms like literature. Literary works, as we know, have to be construed from the basic words and sentences of the text. Olsen’s functionalist institutional theory of literature has argued that there is nothing automatic in literary works being read as literature. He claims that literary works may be read just for entertainment, mined for historical information – and subjected to any number of other projects. 77 None of these projects is aesthetic, however, but his theory does imply that other approaches to literature do not constitute genuine and legitimate criticism – only that they do not constitute understanding the text as a literary work; a work of art. So far, then, apparently akin to Dickie. Olsen argues further that what is interesting and important about literature only emerges through aesthetic appreciation. It is when textual features are “identified as aesthetic features through the application of interpretative descriptions” that the text can be appreciated aesthetically. This operation will appear natural to trained readers, but involve sophisticated operations that are part of the practice of literary appreciation. There is, therefore, a way to “understand a literary work qua literary work … The ability to apply a concept ‘literary work’ is a matter of knowing how ; it is a skill which is part of a practice.” This does not mean that the reader has a theory about what a literary work is, and if such a theory is held or expressed it may even contradict what the reader does with the literary work. The understanding is made manifest in practice, and this can only happen if everyone, from author to reader, implicitly understands literature as having an aesthetic purpose. The manner in which the reader makes sense of the literary work, through aesthetic appreciation, serves to fulfill this purpose. Olsen is presenting the conventions that would allow literature to be appreciated aesthetically. It is this that makes Olsen’s institutional theory of literature fit Davies’s definition of the functional theories.
As we have just seen, what Olsen calls ‘appreciation’ is a know-how , a way of knowing one’s way in the conventions of literature as art, and these constitute literature as an institution. This is ‘institutional’ in a quite different way from theories of the proceduralist variety like Dickie’s in that the shared conventions act as constitutive rules and define literature as art. The shared conventions make possible a kind of communication in literature that goes beyond the merely narrative, going beyond this level to warrant symbolic and thematic inferences and interpretations. “The nature of the aesthetic intention and the corresponding response which is its target are conventionally determined … The fact that a reader looks for a way to divide a text into segments which he can relate in a pattern is a criterion that he considers the text a literary one.” 82 There is thus a mode of dealing with the literary work that is at the heart of the literary institution, and which also defines it as an aesthetic practice. A particular frame of mind, an aesthetic attitude, is not sufficient and is perhaps not even necessary – the actions define the practice. ‘Appreciation’ is the modern equivalent of ‘aesthetic attitude,’ as Gary Iseminger points out, and claims that “its central place in the account of aesthetic communication is the chief justification for calling it aesthetic communication.” 83 In a meta-perspective article where Peter Lamarque explores the roots of his and Olsen’s conception of literature in Wittgenstein’s concept of game, he writes that “[a] mere text or string of sentences cannot count as a literary work independent of the practice which defines the work-role and assigns texts to that role in particular instances.” 84 But ‘practice’ should not be conceived of in loose sociopolitical terms. Rather, the concept is “more austere and differently focused.” 85 He quotes Olsen: “Literature … is a social practice in a stricter sense; i.e. a practice whose existence depends both on a background of concepts and conventions which create the possibility of identifying literary works and provide a framework for appreciation … If literature is such an institution then aesthetic judgement must be understood as defined by the practice and apart from the practice aesthetic judgements are impossible.” 86
As we have seen from the quotations above, Olsen and Lamarque are very strict and austere in their exclusiveness, and Olsen writes as if aesthetic judgments are impossible without the institution that constitutes them. In “Defining a literary work” he goes so far as to claim that “apart from the institution or practice of literature there would be no literary works, no artistic features, no artistic unity or design, no structural elements, or any other such features we recognize as having to do with the aesthetic nature of the literary work.” 87 We should remember that Olsen wants to define literature, whereas our concern here is to clarify the relationship between different accounts of the aesthetic and our conception of an aesthetic project with wine. Nevertheless, we should point out again here that the conversion experience with wine is a reminder not to get too firm, as it were, in defining the institutional aspects of the aesthetic practice of wine appreciation, but neither should it become so loose as to obscure what is aesthetic about it. There is no reason to think that conversion experiences do not happen to readers of literature, prior to their being trained in and adopting the practices of literature.
Likewise, one may want to suggest that there may have been qualities in some works that prior to, and thus independently of, the literary institution could be recognized and valued, and that then came to be the starting point of the institution with its conventions and expectations. These, historically, might have been borrowed from other loosely aesthetic domains. Thus, early in the history of the academic study of literature, one finds architectural and musical analogies employed, and also the application of notions from earlier literary forms (drama and poetry) to the more recent (the novel).
The conversion experience with wine is a common feature of in the autobiography of wine enthusiasts. We have exemplified it through Jancis Robinson’s account. 89 Such experiences appear to show that one may indeed partake of the delights of a fine wine without any knowledge of an aesthetic practice of wine appreciation. Of course, Robinson’s account is written a couple of decades after the event, and in the intervening years she became one of the world’s foremost authorities on wine, but this is her memory: “each mouthful entranced me, even if I found it impossible to describe. I doubt whether we even tried to discuss the wine other than to grunt and drool.” 90 Robinson describes an experience that is enchanting and, at the time and for the two people involved, largely impenetrable by descriptive or other terms, including the aesthetic. Wine, as well as the arts – like music and sculpture – can provide this ‘proto-aesthetic’ experience. Of course, we may say that the behavior – grunting and drooling – is all we need in the way of aesthetic response, but this would confine the realm of the aesthetic to largely visceral responses. 91 However much Robinson and her friend agreed in their drooling and grunting, they did not form, apply or communicate aesthetic concepts. We have shown that even such an experience is not entirely naïve; some level of competencies, including the aesthetic, were probably in play, possibly borrowed from other aesthetic domains.
We’ll call such experiences as Robinson’s ‘proto-aesthetic.’
To be sure, this aesthetic project may be ‘forced upon’ the perceiver – provided the perceiver is no absolute novice to wine – but in general the act of appreciation is undertaken on purpose. The initial awakening to the possibilities of aesthetic attention amount more to a kind of ‘bridging’ experience – a glimpse into a range of possible experiences hitherto unknown. We think there is a gradation, and not a conceptual abyss, between these ‘proto-aesthetic’ experiences and those that one with the help of knowledge, experience and reflection can form judgments about and be able to articulate and defend in communication with others. A ‘wow!’ experience may be needed – when the qualities of objects force themselves on us (bottom-up salience) 92 – to explain the origins of a new aesthetic domain, or at least to explain the origin of an individual’s interest in a previously unknown domain. The proto-experience functions on the basis of strained analogies with other aesthetic domains, but happens without the subject’s capacity to reflect on, clarify, formulate or debate these.
Consider the following analogy: A twelve year old might feel romantic love for the first time, and know that it is something different from other feelings he or she has felt, but not be able to analyze or discuss this feeling. He or she will have some knowledge by description of romantic love from books or movies, and plenty of knowledge by acquaintance with other feelings, and this suffices to recognize the fledgling experience as something different and exceptional. Consequently, we must be careful not to make the full set of competencies absolutely necessary conditions for aesthetic experiences of wine. The conversion experience is not fully aesthetic, and does not require a full set of aesthetic competencies. We have, above, identified some criteria for rating an experience as aesthetic and for aesthetic attributes to emerge, and these include an active subject with the relevant competencies. So rather than being a specific and definite new way of perceiving the object, the conversion experience is more like an opening up of a wealth of new possibilities for the relevant kinds of object. When a child receives a large Lego set for Christmas, much of the pleasure lies not in the possibility of this or that specific building project, but in the prospect of seemingly endless possibilities. Words like “wow” or “great” suffice as preliminary markers of this new vista. The individual conversion experiences are thus examples of how aesthetic practices came to be established. These make individuals want to acquire the competencies to attend to art and to wines with the appropriate background.
Functionalist theories are identified as such because of the way they define art or a kind of art such as literature. This, as we have shown, is not our concern here. It is, rather, to relate our conception of wine as an aesthetic practice to current aesthetics and to explain what we mean by aesthetic competence. The main contribution from functionalist theories to our endeavor is the emphasis on the manifestation of aesthetic competence through application and practice. Aesthetic appreciation is an activity, and it is through this activity that aesthetic competence makes itself manifest. However, we wanted to explain how the development of aesthetic competence may happen and have thus introduced the idea of a ‘proto-aesthetic’ experience.
The Necessity of Aesthetic Competency
Nevertheless, few aesthetic theorists claim that the appreciation of art is easy or happens naturally. Instead, education, training and/or institutional protocols are required. The functionalist theorists we have just discussed make such acquired abilities an absolute prerequisite. We have written at length about competencies and practices. On the other hand, it is a fairly widespread misconception among those not well acquainted with fine wines that they are easy to enjoy. Château Lafite of Pauillac in Bordeaux remains one of the most expensive wines in the world, and in the 1855 classification of Bordeaux châteaux it was, due to its price, top of the list. This wine is not, however, easy to understand and appreciate; its qualities are not immediately apparent to anyone without the proper background. When a wine neophyte tries to get to know a region, there will usually be some wines and appellations that offer up their properties and qualities in a more accessible way than do others. With regard to Bordeaux, many a neophyte has found the meaty, firm and robust style of some typical examples from the communes Haut-Medoc, Saint-Estephe and Pauillac easy to understand. Châteaux that exemplify this style are Montrose and Latour. 95 The styles and qualities of appellations like Saint-Julien and Margaux are different, being more lively, transparent, fresh and elegant – and the châteaux Ducru Beaucaillou and Palmer exemplify this. Despite the similarities between left-bank wines, the first kind of style cannot be used as a norm for the latter kind of wines, and vice versa. The different styles – and these are only a typology of two extremes within the very top tier of Bordeaux, of course – must be appreciated on their own terms, with each wine following its own calling.
On the left bank of the Gironde, there is one commune that is difficult to ‘get’ for most neophytes: Pessac-Léognan. The wines from this appellation do not have the meaty structure of the northern Medoc wines, but neither do they show the lithe aromatic elegance of the most seductive southern Medocs. What they do have, however, is a unique aromatic freshness, a balancing acidity and a fineness of structure. They do not impress by their weight or power, nor by their suppleness or airy elegance. Rather, they make their mark by the detailed and complex interplay between their fruit, acidity and the qualities of their tannins. Château Lafite has similarities with the best wines from PessacLéognan, but primarily in its reticence. Lafite does not have the power of Château Latour or the meaty fruitiness of Château Mouton-Rothschild. As a young wine it is tight, encapsulated and rather slender – with all the vintage deviations that have to be factored into this characterization. Lafite develops very slowly even in weak vintages. Most wine neophytes will take a long time in getting to know and appreciate the hard-to-get qualities of Château Lafite, and will find it hard to credit the adulation from English wine writers who experienced pre-phylloxera Lafite such as Warner Allen. Only after extended experience, and maybe after getting to know monumental vintages like 1948 and 1959, will one be able to claim with authority that Bordeaux does not get any better than this.
These examples, and many others, go to show that wine appreciation is not about ‘simple’ sensory delight but about knowledge, training and application. Will have shown this for cultural and practical competency.
The Lafite example, shows, we think that what constitutes wine as an aesthetic practice is not what makes wine lovely, it is what makes the experiences of wine communicate with others, and allow directed attention to seek out those features that make aesthetic attributes manifest in the wine one is attending to. This means that we define ‘the aesthetic’ as something other than just sensory delight, and that the aesthetic practice of wine appreciation necessarily involves communicable aesthetic concepts that can also be justified through perceptual guidance. Aesthetic properties emerge, and one often finds that it is difficult to write tasting notes on the best wines. There is nothing that ‘jumps out,’ so to speak, and one goes directly for the aesthetic vocabulary. Rather than the fruits, stones and tactile elements of standard tasting notes, the wine presents itself, to those who have the background to receive it, in harmony, complexity and refinement. Furthermore, we have found it to be the case that some of the most superlative wines we have had the fortune to come across have appeared as a kind of liquid contradiction in terms. They have been broad yet focused, rich yet elegant and fresh, and all the while transparent, intense and in harmony. 97 The coming together of apparent opposites in the aesthetic spectrum of emerging attributes is not in itself an attribute, yet part of the experience which makes it a richer one.
Emergence may appear rather mysterious to sceptics – those who have not had experiences of the kind referred to here, or at least not in encounters with wine, and our insistence on having the cultural and practical competencies in place for these to emerge has probably done nothing to lessen scepticism. It is a challenge to account for emergence in metaphysical terms, but the general problem of the emergence of attributes is at least shared with other aesthetic disciplines and we can rely on others – like Sibley 98 – to share the burden. The properties appear to be properties of the object, but cannot be found there in the way that scents, tastes or tactile properties can. They depend somehow on properties we can ascertain as being present in the wine, but the relationship between aesthetic attributes and elements of the wine is not one governed by rules or principles.
If we were giving a metaphysical account of emergence, we would be employing the notion of a complex system; that is, a system that as a whole exhibits a new property or new relationship of properties, at a higher integrative level. The problem is that the ‘system’ that we are talking about (the experience of wine) is ‘complex’ in a number of different ways. It is not, for example, self-contained, but rather is already dependent upon prior experiences and knowledge. As we have repeatedly said, the experience of wine is not naïve. Likewise, it involves the work of more than two senses, plus cognitive operations like memory, imagination, pattern recognition and so forth. Attractive as the idea might seem initially, simply to import some complex systems theory into such a situation would probably end up being far more speculative than the original issue.
An interesting phenomenon in this regard is that often it is much easier to arrive at the aesthetic attributes and an aesthetic evaluation of the wine as a whole than at a satisfactorily precise description of the sensory elements. In other words, if you will, the whole comes before the parts. This shows us again that descriptive and aesthetic projects are different, and likewise the competencies needed for them. Moreover, it shows us that the latter project does not necessarily depend upon fulfilment of the former. However, when we come to employ critical rhetoric to communicate our discoveries, especially to a fellow taster who is not yet ‘getting’ it, it is normally the case that we need to use a descriptive account to gesture towards the emergent aesthetic properties. So often the critic makes up his or her mind first, and then through analysis works out the foundation for the judgement.
Sometimes at least the taster leaps ahead to the aesthetic whole without first articulating the wine descriptively. All projects ‘leap ahead’ to their intentional objects, though. This happens differently depending upon the project. The project of analytic description, for example, is most cautious, intending the object only as the complete account of what is sensed. An identificatory project, though, will likely move backwards and forwards several times, forming hypotheses about the wine as a whole, and then returning to the ‘evidence’ in order to test those hypotheses.
However, in both cases, the whole is not greater than the parts. For the descriptive project, the intentional object just is the wine as fulfilled by discretely identified sensory elements. For the identificatory project, the intentional object just is the wine insofar as its sensed elements add up to a unique position within the types, regions, produces and vintages of the wineworld. Similar claims can be made about the project of evaluating a wine as to its market and price point, or even the pure project of judging terroir , which experiences the whole wine insofar as its elements bear witness to land, climate or traditions. What is different about the aesthetic project is that its ‘leaping ahead’ happens by way of intermediate intentional objects. The whole object is not just the total description of it, or even this description matched up against other kinds of knowledge. Rather, the whole object – the wine as aesthetically successful or not – is more than its parts. Or, expressing this point differently, there are no set of rules by which we can determine whether a given set of sensory elements entails the wine will exhibit aesthetic attributes.
The ‘formalist’ or ‘autotelic’ account of aesthetics is an over-simplification, though it might be useful to draw attention to certain features. Even the ‘protoaesthetic’ experience does not happen without certain assumptions, though they may not be explicit, focused or highly developed. The above discussion of institutional theories of art led us to debate how strictly the background competencies need to be embodied formal institutional procedures (this was Olsen’s view of the academic study of literature), but it did not lead us to discount such a background. It is because the norms and practices of the wineworld are from the beginning brought to bear that something emerges in wine experience that was not already there. Thus, it is our claim that if aesthetic experience is a complex system within which certain features emerge, this is because the ‘system’ in question is not to be narrowly drawn. It is not just the discrete experiences of a taster. Rather, the ‘system’ comprises these experiences insofar as they are already informed by cultural, practical and aesthetic competencies. In other words, the system is the way that the wineworld comes to have me as its representative, here and now.
Only in this way can the aesthetic attributes that emerge be communicable, meaning also available to critical rhetoric. To be sure, my simple liking of something, such as having a food taste, is probably also not naïve. That is, it is probably not a liking or hating of something that can be explained by the sensations I have here and now. Such a response would be ‘subjective’ in a pure sense. My personal history with such objects – for example, whether in my family, growing up, we ate anchovies – is embodied in my habits and predilections. Nevertheless, it remains a merely personal liking, and critical rhetoric has no power to convince. No amount of convincing changes my background. Because aesthetic experience is from the beginning informed by inter-subjectively held cultural norms and practices, it becomes possible to employ such resources and discuss or debate our evaluations.
Sensory attributes are coordinated in a project towards an intentional object, which was ideal at least in the sense that it could not be experienced all at once: the wine as described, as identified, and so on. That is, each sensory element that I discerned had as its meaning its being an aspect of the gradually revealed intentional object. In the emergence of aesthetic attributes, a modification of my intentionality occurs. 99 Every level of the experience alters. First of all, the meaning of sensory elements changes. They are now found to be, in their relations to each other or to the whole, ‘finessed,’ ‘harmonious’ or what have you. Likewise, the intentional object changes. Not only is it further fulfilled (it has further revealed itself), but it now is decisively aesthetic (even if other projects are also in play). If we had deliberately taken up an aesthetic project, we had done so in the hope that the wine would respond. Now, the risk has paid off – or, alternatively, we find the wine a failure. Emergence of aesthetic properties in wine, however, is a phenomenon that goes beyond being just a kind of ‘delivery mechanism’ for attributes. The surprise of the experience of the emergence of aesthetic attributes (even with wines where one may be led to expect it), and the sense of privilege of being here when that emergence takes place, with a wine that could only ever be ephemeral, are part and parcel of what is valued about the whole experience.
Aesthetic attributes emerge as intermediate intentional objects. They do so ‘across’ or ‘through’ the various elements of my sensory experience, while being ideal with respect to them, in the sense that, as we have argued previously, ‘finesse’ is not a straightforward descriptive sensory element. The attributes, as intermediate intentional objects, also carry as their meaning being an ‘aspect’ of the fulfillment of the whole intentional object. Here, too, the whole may be greater than the parts. Aesthetic attributes may disagree: Certain aspects of the wine may be beautifully finessed, but some other aspect distressingly out of balance. Moreover, it is entirely possible for us to find a series of positively valenced emergent properties in the wine, but for these to not quite ‘work’ with respect to the wine as a whole. The flaw here lies in the relation among the attributes and to the whole: The wine, we might say, lacks ‘unity.’ Thus, the overall aesthetic success or failure of the object is itself emergent with respect to aesthetic attributes. In other words, the wine as aesthetic object is also not ‘just’ the sum of its aesthetic attributes.
Let us suggest, as a first and provisional definition, that the aesthetic competency is this: that ability, understood to be additional to cultural and practical competencies, possessed by the subject in virtue of which aesthetic attributes might emerge in an experience. For any single wine that is deemed to be elegant, harmonious, complex or whatever, the ‘straightforward’ perceptual qualities of the wine serve to ground those judgments for the single wine – or it is to these one may first turn in order to guide the fellow taster to apprehend the attributes you are experiencing. These perceptual qualities do not exhaust the meaning of these attributes, however. We have argued already that aesthetic attributes are ‘emergent’ with respect to perceptual elements. However, the emergent properties are unique in that they appear here and now and from this wine, but they are not unique in the sense that this single wine is the only wine that can be characterized as harmonious, elegant, profound and so on. It is this fact which leads us to further reflections on aesthetic competency.
In any single wine, as one appreciates its qualities, the emergence from its elements of taste – some of which can be named and enumerated – of aesthetic attributes defines these attributes for this particular wine. It is these elements that are found to be harmonious etc. Aesthetic emergence is thus singular – as aesthetic judgements are. However, the practice element in the aesthetic practice of wine appreciation means that even though the ‘meaning’ of any single attribute of this wine could only be found here in the wine’s perceptual elements (inasmuch as the attributes are founded upon these elements), the ‘meaning’ of the aesthetic attribute draws on all previous applications and experiences of it – perhaps even from beyond the experience of wine. Thus, when discussing the wine, attention may be drawn to just how this particular wine contributes to the understanding of ‘elegant’ or ‘complex,’ and to just how this is brought about in this wine. The wine is an instance of such attributes, and deepens our understanding of these aesthetic attributes for other wines – and even beyond wine appreciation to other aesthetic domains and practices. We will try to explain what this means and what it implies.
After all, what is harmony? Is it the interplay of perceptual elements here in this wine and only here, or also in other wines? If the former, the term has no meaning outside the singular experience, and aesthetic judgments are really profoundly subjective. If not, harmony must also apply to other wines we judge to be harmonious. But, is it found there in exactly the same way ? Clearly not, and yet each instance is still harmonious. For each instance, my understanding of harmony deepens, but it remains harmony. Continued experience enables a richer understanding of the aesthetic attribute harmony – for example, the various ways harmony is achieved in different styles or types of wine – and improves my capacity to perceptively guide others. What is meant by harmony in wine is a harmony emerging from taste, smell and other types of elements (e.g. mouthfeel). Harmony found in a Port is different from that found in a Riesling Kabinett. However, the arising of the attribute of harmony does not blot out everything else. This is why it is a seeing in rather than a seeing as, as we discussed above. Rather, the harmony is in the sugars, acidity, mouthfeel and so on of the Port. Seeing in means that each instance must be different, because articulated through the specific perceptual properties present at the time. The aesthetic attribute is an intermediate intentional object. Because of the peculiar logic of aesthetic attributes, which belong to singular judgments without objective criteria for determination of their emergence, but are also instances of a type, the competency for recognizing them must frequently employ an overlapping and borrowing of exemplars and types across aesthetic domains. As we noted above, someone capable of aesthetic judgment within one aesthetic domain is, ceteris paribus , better equipped to do the same in a different domain than a person with no aesthetic competencies. This remains true, although the advantage is probably quantitatively different, if the domains in question are painting and wine, or two types of wine.
Our initial definition of the aesthetic competency needs the addendum that it brings my experience of other aesthetic phenomena to bear on the singular situation of aesthetic judgment. Primarily, these experiences will be of relevantly similar wines. Thus, the acquisition of aesthetic competency involves previous experience of wine exemplars and near misses.
However, it may also require experience from across the range of wines and even outside wine, especially if I am to have the resources to deal aesthetically with new and unfamiliar wines. I need to know, to some degree at least, what aesthetic harmony means – in terms of the know-how of applying it in judgment and of communicating about it. This understanding will be based on what it means quite generally for my broad aesthetic community (i.e. including aesthetic culture outside of the wineworld), what it might mean within the domain of wine, and then finally what it means for this or that type of wine. Aesthetic competency thus includes, perhaps primarily, a practical competency all its own. It is acquired in ways akin to what we have called practical competency: consistent practices, repetition, comparison, perceptual guidance. There is perhaps also a cultural component to aesthetic competence that covers which aesthetic attributes are desirable in different kinds of wine and regions of origin. A Chablis is meant to be racy and elegant, while an Alsace Gewurztraminer counts rich and aromatic among its desirable characteristics. What counts as harmony in one of these types of wine is very differently constituted from what counts as harmony in the other, and this knowledge is not exclusively practical in origin but contains – we think – a strong element of cultural knowledge as well. To judge any one of them harmonious – or to judge what contributes to their overall aesthetic success, a kind of cultural competency is also required. If this is the case, and given that such knowledge is only relevant, or indeed even makes sense, with respect to aesthetic experiences, we include it as part of aesthetic competency.
Finally, there is the matter of communicability.
Broad aesthetic norms and exemplars are communicated through various institutions and educational processes which, unless they are instances of rote learning, are forms of perceptual guidance. Within wine, my previous experiences of exemplars which are not already familiar to me will be instances of guided perception, whether my guide is present in person, or only in the form of tasting notes online, or in a book or magazine. After I become familiar with a certain type of wine, guided perception may still be important, since wine tasting is generally a social activity, involving discussion among enthusiasts, one of whom is likely to have noticed something, or found a way to describe what we all noticed, which I find helpful. Aesthetic competency is born of communication, and it tends to issue in communication. As a competent taster, I may serve as perceptual guide to others, testing and reinforcing the shared judgments with my peers, or even sustaining my community through training initiates. Even if I do not socialize in this way, even my own private tasting notes and ultimately my explicit memories are instances of communication; they are, for all practical purposes, instances of guided perception addressed to a later me.
Since we have raised the topic of the acquisition of aesthetic competency, it is clear that one person can be more competent than another. What does this mean? In general, we would expect greater competency to correlate with more extensive experience, particularly of exemplars of fine wine. Greater competence will manifest itself in obvious and familiar ways: greater reliability of judgment (i.e. the individual’s judgment will agree more often with the majority of other independent and generally competent opinions), and a range of expertise that extends across several types of wine. A higher level of competency is likely also to impact upon the ability to perceptually guide others, and in general communicate intelligibly about wine. We have here discussed the manner in which aesthetic competency is required, and in what way it makes emergence possible. Among those in an aesthetic community, let us call a high level of competency ‘expertise.’