Art and Bewilderment

British Journal of Aesthetics 56 (2):131-147 (2016)
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In this paper, I seek to defend the proposition that bewilderment can contribute to the interest we take in artworks. Taking inspiration from Alois Riegl’s underdeveloped explanation of why his contemporaries valued some historically distant artworks higher than recent art, I interpret the historical case of the European audiences’ fascination with the Fayum mummy portraits as involving such a bewilderment. I distinguish the claim about effective bewilderment from the thesis that aesthetic meaning resists discursive understanding and seek to establish that bewilderment can figure positively in art appreciation, drawing on Richard Wollheim’s argument—developed in engaging Sigmund Freud’s essays on art—that posing obstacles to our understanding can actually contribute considerably to art’s effect: it prolongs and intensifies our engagement with the work. Riegl’s observation that some historically distant artworks have an especially strong effect is thus explained in terms of their anachronism: the effect is caused by the difficulties experienced in making sense of their contemporary look and their distant origin.
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