George Dickie: Bullough and The Concept of Psychical Distance

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  • It's been over half a century since Bullough's notion of Psychical Distance was first advance - GD's contention: there's been a lack of critical engagement with this approach.
  • Distance is (a) psychological attitude taken by the spectator; (b) only part of the aesthetic attitude - distanced objects are out of gear with our personal need and ends our actual self - cutting out of the practical aspects of oneself
  • GD is Concerned with terms - B talks about the negative aspect of distance - inhibtatory - cuts us off from our personal needs and ends the positive aspect of distance is that we're able to engage in ways that wouldn't otherwise be available. The problem, however, is that the positive aspect comes from the negative aspect (B never actually talks about the positive aspect) This brings GD to the conclusion that "aspect" isn't a good choice of term here; he should speak of positive effect instead.
  • Distance - varies - according to the object and to the individual - precondition of an aesthetic attitude
  • But does aesthetic experience really involve being out of gear with our practical reality? Goltshalk didn't believe so - we still, for example, turn a painting to the light and walk around a sculpture - so it's not about so much about detachment. But GD doesn't accept the difference between Goltshalk's view and Bulloughs
  • L.D. Longman identifies two assumptions underpinning Bullough's approach: (both are culturally biased - coming out of Puritan tradition)
  1. People are usually practical.
  2. Aesthetic experience is the antithesis of the practical
  • But actually, the real problem is Bullough's language and his insistence on talking about an "aesthetic self" and a "practical self" - he's not really suggesting a dualism, instead he's talking about the difference between aesthetic and non-aesthetic experience... - aesthetic = non-instrumentalized, the object as an end in itself
  • There's also the problem of making a distinction between a "practical self" and a "scientific self" - surely these things aren't mutually exclusive
  • When B's paper is published, it's often missing the final section - and many critiques are because people haven't read this part
  • Both distance and interest are aspects of an aesthetic attitude - distance itself isn't an aesthetic attitude, instead it's distance from practical concern that's what's important
  • It's not about distance by degrees (though I think this nuance is complicated by our tendency to measure distance) Either one has sufficient distance to have an aesthetic experience or one does not...
  • How to secure distance? Putting it in a frame, making it look like "art" - there are certain conditions are achieved.
An analogy may be drawn between this matter and the way in which nerve synapses work. An electrical potential builds up on a nerve ending and like the appeal of an art object varies through a range of degrees. But just as the electrical impulse will not jump the neural gap or "fire" until a particular potential has been built up, the psychological occurrence of distancing will not happen unless certain conditions obtain. This characteristic of the nerve impulse is called "the all or none principle" which means that the gap is either completely bridged or not at all - it is never bridged a little or a great deal. Similarly, the psychological event of distancing either occurs or does not occur. It does not make sense to speak of variable distancing. (237)
  • Two main topics in B's discussion - (1) psychological event of distancing (2) characteristics of the art object that enable this distancing
  • Critical problem - one can't think of psychical distance here as the same thing as temporal or spatial distance - all very distinct approaches.

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