Thursday, August 27, 2009

Notes on Eduard Hanslick by David Huron

Hanslick is commonly regarded as advocating an intellectualized form of aesthetic pleasure. Hanslick does not deny that listeners may be emotionally moved by listening to music, but he regards such feelings as a by-product of the music's beauty. Good music is beautiful, and in apprehending this beauty the listener may well be deeply moved.

Hanslick regards the purpose of aesthetic beauty to to be the gratification of the listener. ("the beautiful exists for the gratification of an observer") Yet Hanslick argues that beauty is independent of human emotion. ("The beautiful is and remains beautiful though it arouse no emotion whatever".) Moreover, beauty is not just independent of an observer's emotional state, beauty is altogether independent of the observer.

This view contrasts notably with the views of sages throughout the eons who have argued that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." This viewpoint is best illustrated, not by considering differences of opinion among people, but by contrasting the views of humans with other animals. Does a robin not take delight in eating a raw worm? Does the heart of a panda not jump for joy when spying a bamboo forest? Does a fly not regard dung with relish? Most writers have argued that each animal has its own criteria for what constitutes "beauty".

In what sense can we imagine a musical work being "beautiful" without understanding that it is a human notion of "beauty" that grounds this characterization? Hanslick would answer this question by saying that it is not human emotions which tell us what is beautiful, but human imagination -- "the organ of pure contemplation". Indeed, since Hanslick regards beauty as independent of humans, it follows that Hanslick's notion of the imagination is transcendental, and does not rely on the existence of human beings per se.

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