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Aesthetic Interactionism and My Brilliant Friend

Héctor J. Pérez
p. 16-26

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to explore the interaction between aesthetic properties and cognitive value in serial television. This study is based on a survey focused specifically on one television series: the second season of My Brilliant Friend, created by Saverio Costanzo. The survey was designed with the aim of getting respondents to express their perceptions of the relationship between the aesthetic qualities of the series and their assessment of it in cognitive terms. The responses obtained in the survey offer a clear answer to the key question of concern for this article. The vast majority of respondents (more than 90% in almost all cases) believe that aesthetic and cognitive qualities mutually influence one another. Additionally the qualitative results invite us to further explore interactionism conceptually: the cognitive content is taken as a criterion for evaluating the season’s aesthetic value overall, suggesting a link between meaning and narrative form.

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Introduction

  • 1 This study is part of a research project developed between 2019 and 2022, funded by the Spanish Gov (...)
  • 2 McIver Lopes 2005.
  • 3 See Kieran 2005.
  • 4 See Alcaraz 2018.
  • 5 Stolnitz 1992.
  • 6 Oatley 2016.
  • 7 Gerrig 1993 and Green 2004. On the other hand, some authors link persuasion with the aesthetic qual (...)

1The aim of this paper is to explore the interaction between aesthetic properties and cognitive value in serial television.1 It is based on the premise that there is a complex, two-way relationship between the aesthetic properties of a work and the cognitive value we attribute to it. My vision of the cognitive content of what a series (or any work of art) offers to the viewers is broad, and encompasses both the knowledge it can provide regarding the narrative world that the series represents, as well as the knowledge that the viewer can consider contributions of an aesthetic nature, for example about the narrative, and photographic, and editing techniques employed. Usually, there has been a greater tendency to assume that when we value the content of a work in cognitive terms, this somehow influences our aesthetic evaluation of that work. This perspective has investigated how works of art are considered in cognitive terms, for example, when they offer a new meaning to moral dilemmas that allow us to understand them in a more nuanced way, and how this evaluation affects the aesthetic assessment, favouring a positive appreciation, or intensifying it.2 This is a position endorsed by theories of ethicism in art.3 In our project we explore the opposite option, namely, how the aesthetic qualities of a work can increase the cognitive value that the viewer attaches to it.4 This relationship is complex because it involves aspects that require reflection or discussion, the most important one being the attribution of a cognitive value to fiction. The discussion on this point may well be affected by one’s view of aesthetic interactionism. For example, those who believe that fiction merely offers us a version of reality that is not in any way enriching may immediately lose interest. In my case, I do not share the views of Stoltnitz, or of literary anti-cognitivism, which holds that the literary fictional medium is a downright distraction from genuine cognitive gain.5 On the contrary, I believe that fiction can influence us by enlightening us about issues that are not dealt with by any discipline of knowledge, such as questions of a social or existential nature, especially with respect to human relationships. Many examples can be found in art to support the idea of fiction as a social simulation, as so often expressed by Keith Oatley in his writings,6 as well as the idea that fiction is a very persuasive medium.7 The narrative arts continue to evolve, creating and refining effective tools and techniques to represent important aspects of our experience and relate them to our real-life experience of temporality, especially in longer narrative forms such as television series. For many artists, the desire to convey significant experiences is a key motivation for the creative process.

2This idea forms the basis of one of my main working hypotheses for this research project: the aim of creative action is often to achieve a deeper and richer representation of the cognitive content to which we attribute value in our aesthetic appreciation of an artistic work.

3One way to test this hypothesis is to turn the analysis onto oneself with the following question: Have I ever felt that an aesthetic property or a set of aesthetic properties may have given rise to an enlightening experience that I consider valuable? I have already been able to confirm this personally on several occasions, but I was also interested in expanding the hypothesis by using a system that would allow me to contrast my own experience with those of other people. Thus, part of this research project involved developing this question into a survey in order to obtain empirical data on the experiences of a large group of spectators.

1. A survey on the relationship between cognitive value and aesthetic properties

4This study is thus based on a survey, which, in the interests of obtaining more precise data (while acknowledging the limitation that this implies), focused specifically on one television series: the second season of My Brilliant Friend, created by Saverio Costanzo. This season was broadcast free-to-air in the winter of 2020 on RAI in Italy, and it was also distributed internationally on HBO’s streaming platform. Its first two episodes were also exhibited in film theatres. This series was chosen for study because of its remarkable aesthetic qualities, combined with valuable content in cognitive terms, the two key aspects whose relationship is the focus of this study. Along with these criteria, I also found it to be a significant series in terms of the specific qualities of television narrative, at least those that are of interest for the purpose of our study: the multiplot structure, and an extended temporality that allows for a specific narrative design, oriented towards a final climax. Both these elements were already evident in the first season of this series, which led to its consideration as a firm candidate for the first object of analysis in the project, and the survey respondents’ answers have very clearly confirmed their presence in the second season.

  • 8 I owe the design of the survey to an in-depth discussion with colleagues working on the research pr (...)

5The survey was designed with the aim of getting respondents to express their perceptions of the relationship between the aesthetic qualities of the series and their assessment of it in cognitive terms. Many questions were answered by choosing from a series of predetermined options, although open-ended answers were also included.8 The intention was to give special importance to this approach, which is why the survey begins with an open question that serves to orient much of what follows. This question reads: “Can you name the moment (event or situation) that you found the most beautiful and/or worthy of interest in the last episode (episodes 7 and 8) of L’amica geniale, season 2? (We mean “beautiful” in the sense of the beauty of the images, actors’ performances, dialogue, and music. By “worthy of interest” we mean your interest in themes such as friendship, love, violence, learning and gaining independence, etc.). Please describe very briefly what happens to the characters in the moment you selected.”

6Respondents were then asked the follow-up question: “Why did you choose that moment?”. To answer it, they could choose one of three options:

  1. For its beauty (e.g., I appreciate the visuals, actors’ performances, dialogue, music, or other artistic aspects).

  2. For the interest of the topics it covers (e.g., I appreciate the fact that it is about friendship, love, violence, learning and gaining independence, etc. at the time).

  3. For both its beauty and the interest of the topics covered.”

7These three options are also very important for the survey because the respondents will be directed to a different list of questions depending on the answer they give to this question.

8In all cases, the key questions are related to the relationship between cognitive value and aesthetic properties. Thus, all respondents had to answer the question: “Do you think that artistic aspects (images, landscapes, sets, costumes, actors’ performances, music and dialogues) contribute significantly to make the moment you mentioned more interesting?”.

9The level of specificity that survey subjects could express was also tested with the following question: “Could you specify what artistic aspects you think made the moment you mentioned more interesting?”.

10The survey also sought to explore the degree of convergence in the perceptions of different elements that can provoke aesthetic appreciation, as well as those that determine the attribution of cognitive value, by asking questions like this: “The moment you mentioned is “beautiful” (because of the images, actors’ performances, sets, scenery, costumes, music, dialogue);

What did you appreciate the most? (You can choose more than one option)

The images (photography, landscapes and/or sets, and/or costumes)

The actors’ performances

The music

The dialogues

Other (please specify)”

11Finally, the following key question was asked in order to draw out the perceptions of the viewers themselves regarding the interaction between aesthetic and cognitive value:

“Do you think your interest in the topics covered in the moment makes you appreciate it more?”.

  • 9 I am grateful for the generous help of my colleagues at the University of Bologna, Elena Farinacci (...)

12Once the survey was designed, it was distributed throughout Italy, mainly among university students, but subsequently on social media platforms of all kinds, via the specialised platform SurveyMonkey, during the month after the premiere of the second season of My Brilliant Friend.”9

2. A Humanistic approach to data results

  • 10 More specifically, the definition of this term provided by Murray Smith 2017.

13Despite the fact that the survey was designed with the support of two experts in social science methodologies and that the survey platform itself provides a very efficient system of statistical analysis that we have used for other similar surveys in our project that have adopted a mainly quantitative approach, for this analysis I apply quite a different strategy. Although reference will be made to the data obtained, the focus of the study here is more in line with approaches typically taken in aesthetics, the discipline that occupies this publication. It is thus especially concerned with reflecting on the consequences, in conceptual terms, of some of the survey results. Although this section includes a general overview of the results obtained, the intention of this is simply to serve to contextualise the reflections that conclude the article. These reflections are drawn from the results of the surveys themselves, especially the more qualitative section involving the use of open questions. This focus on qualitative questions is not meant to imply a dismissal of the quantitative dimension of the survey. Consistent with my general position on the ideal relationship between humanistic and scientific disciplines, I believe that the assurance offered by numerical data can serve as an impetus or stimulus for activities more commonly associated with philosophy, such as reflection aimed at refining or clarifying a concept. This analysis may thus be considered a kind of vindication of what is called aesthetic naturalism.10

14As noted above, this study proposes a system for comparing individuals with different degrees of perception of the reasons for their choice of the most significant moment, be it the moment’s beauty (in the terms specified), the thematic interest associated with its cognitive value, or both. Accordingly, what follows is a brief overview of the data obtained, divided into three blocks according to the options chosen to answer this question.

Block 1

15The smallest number of survey respondents identified beauty as the reason for their choice of a moment in the second season: only 48, compared to 93 who chose a moment for its interest and 122 who chose it for both its interest and its beauty.

16Among the artistic elements indicated as most appreciated, actors’ performances were prominent, chosen by 69.77% of the participants, followed by images with 58.14% (referring to their photographic dimension, as well as their content, landscapes, interiors, costumes or other elements dependent on the art direction). The remaining elements proposed in the questionnaire also had significant rates of appreciation: the dialogues with 41.86% and the music with 37.21%.

17The proportion of respondents in this group who identified the subject matter of the moment they chose as interesting was very high: 80.95% totally agreed, 9.52% expressed partial agreement, and only one of the 42 respondents to this question expressed partial disagreement.

18There was a general appreciation of most of the seven possible themes of interest, although “learning and gaining independence” and “the growth or maturation of the protagonists” stood out, in both cases with 62.79%.

19Regarding the perception of the interaction between aesthetics and cognitive value, the vast majority of respondents considered artistic aspects to have an influence on the interest of the subject matter (97.67%).

20Among respondents who answered the question leading them to select the influential artistic aspects in this interaction, there was a very clear correlation with the most appreciated artistic elements. Actors’ performances continued to stand out, chosen by 61.36% of the participants, followed by images, with 50.00%. This correlation supports the widespread perception of the influence of artistic aspects on the subject matter, providing more precise data on the reality of this perception.

Block 2

21This section briefly examines the block of respondents who indicated cognitive value as the main reason for the choice of their moment. Nearly twice as many respondents (93 in all) put thematic interest above the beauty of the moment.

22Perceptions in this group of the beauty of the moment chosen was high: 55.17% totally agreed, 22.99% partially agreed, and around 15% expressed either partial (9.29%) or total (6.90%) disagreement. Among the artistic elements indicated as most appreciated, actors’ performances rated the highest, chosen by 70.45% of the participants, followed by dialogues with 46.59% and images with 45.45%. Images were thus ranked 15 points lower than in the previous block, as was music, which was more than 17% lower. Compared to the previous block, it seems that the dominant elements were those associated with the characters, who serve as a vector that communicates greater density of information.

23A clear majority of respondents considered the interest of the theme of the chosen moment to be influential in the appreciation of its beauty (87.50%), although in this block the perception of the interaction between aesthetic properties and cognitive value seems to be lower than in the previous one.

Block 3

24This section briefly examines the block of respondents who pointed to both aesthetic value and cognitive interest as the main reasons for the choice of their favourite scene of the season. This was the answer chosen by the largest number of respondents: a total of 122 out of 267.

25Among the artistic elements indicated as most appreciated, actors’ performances ranked highest, chosen by 76.99% of the participants, followed by images, with 69.91%, dialogues with 46.02% and finally music with 33.63%. Compared to the first two blocks, the aspect that differs the most is images, which is more than 10 points higher than in block 1 and more than 25 higher than block 2, while actors’ performances are around 5 points higher than the other two blocks. Overall, these aspects are more highly valued as elements of greater importance.

26Perceptions in this group of the beauty of the moment chosen were very high: 68.75% totally agreed, 23.21% partially agreed, and 3.57% totally disagreed. The perception of the interest of the topics covered was also very high in this group, with 76.99% totally agreeing, 13.27% partially agreeing, and 5.31% expressing total disagreement.

27In relation to the reciprocal influence between cognitive appraisal and aesthetic appreciation, 92.92% responded positively that the subjects addressed influenced the appreciation of beauty. A very similar figure of respondents agreed that aspects linked to artistic beauty contributed to making it very interesting.

28As for the choice of artistic elements that may have contributed to make the chosen moment more interesting, like block 1, actors’ performances ranked the highest, chosen by 65.18% of the participants, followed by images with 52.6% (always referring to their photographic dimension, as well as to their content, landscapes, interiors, costumes or other elements depending on the art direction).

3. The overall quantitative results of the survey and their relationship to qualitative aspects

29Viewed as a whole, the responses obtained in the survey offer a clear answer to the key question of concern for this article. The vast majority of respondents (more than 90% in almost all cases) believe that aesthetic and cognitive qualities mutually influence one another. This finding is interesting in itself, and it is even more so if we consider it alongside the most important qualitative results, i.e. those obtained from the open part of the survey, which included the following question: “Can you name the moment (event or situation) that you found the most beautiful and/or worthy of interest in the last episode (episodes 7 and 8) of My Brilliant Friend, season 2? (We mean “beautiful” in the sense of the beauty of the images, actors’ performances, dialogue, and music. By “worthy of interest” we mean your interest in themes such as friendship, love, violence, learning and gaining independence, etc.). Please describe very briefly what happens to the characters in the moment you selected.”

30A striking aspect of the answers to this question is the high degree of convergence in the choice of scene. By far the most widely chosen was the scene of the final meeting between the two friends in the series, Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace), which occurs in the 16th and final episode of the second season, entitled La Fata blu (The Blue Fairy). In this scene, Lenu goes to the sausage factory where Lila works to meet her again after years of no contact between the two friends, and to bring her the story (a little book written by Lila in her childhood) that gives the episode its title. Among the group of those who responded by choosing a moment for both beauty and interest, the number of those who chose that scene was 55 out of 122 (45%). Among the group of those who responded choosing a moment for their interest, the number of those who chose that scene was 35, out of a total of 93 (37%). Finally, among the group of those who responded choosing a moment for its beauty, the number of those who chose that scene was 17, out of a total of 48 (36.5%).

31Overall, 107 out of a total of 253 respondents have chosen the same scene in which Lenu visits her friend Lila in the sausage factory.

32This scene is very consistent with the dominant response among respondents who identify a beautiful and interesting moment in any of the three possible answers at the beginning of the survey. It can be considered beautiful because it is a moment with different outstanding aesthetic properties, especially the acting performance, which, as shown above, ranks highly in all surveys, but also other aspects such as staging and photography. In fact, the scene of the reunion has a very interesting prelude: Lenu has gone to an area of Naples where Lila has been living incognito since leaving her husband; Lenu discovers that her friend is working in a sausage factory, and she goes there to look for her, although she does not know the exact section of the factory she works in. While Lenu asks different workers about Lila’s whereabouts, we see a long series of shots that show details of the inhospitable nature of the place. The dominant aesthetic qualities of Lenu’s journey are highlighted by the considerable trouble that must have gone into recreating the sausage factory, with dozens of workers and meat processing machinery. This investment of resources has a narrative objective: to show the bleak conditions of her best friend’s life, and to express the contrast of two lives that have gone in very different directions.

  • 11 See Van de Mosselaer 2020.

33It is not surprising that respondents have valued the actors’ performances above all other aesthetic features. The reunion between the two women, after several episodes in which they have not seen each other and their lives have taken divergent paths, probably generated a good deal of anticipation as the season drew toward its conclusion. One of the questions that may intrigue the viewer the most is how Lila will react to her friend’s visit and to the course her life has taken since they last met. The performances are probably among the most expressively refined of the season, with subtle nuances conveying a sense of Lila’s gradually increasing emotional transparency toward her friend. While at one moment, she seems almost dazed and inexpressive, her eyes and gestures begin to hint at her joy as she recovers the expressive exuberance that we have seen in her many times in past episodes. The climax of the meeting between the two, the embrace, is one of the moments most frequently mentioned by respondents. The choice of this scene may be the product of a fulfilled narrative desire, that of the two “best friends” being reunited, which is a premise on which the continuity of the narrative relies.11

34The climax of the encounter, a moment without any particularly extensive or rich dialogue between the two, is when Lila, after saying goodbye to Lenu, throws the small copy of The Blue Fairy into the fire as if it were a worthless object, an action that Lenu sees from a distance. This action is the one most frequently mentioned by survey respondents.

  • 12 Caroll 2012: 162.

35The large number of respondents who considered the whole encounter between the two friends to be a beautiful moment raises the question of whether its perceived beauty lies in something else apart from the acting performances and other aesthetic qualities. The beauty or, so to speak, artistic value of that moment may be explained in purely narrative terms, because of what it tells rather than how it tells it. But can aesthetic value be attributed to the content of a narrative? Would this not be trespassing upon the terrain that Noël Carroll referred to when he warned us of the difficulties of separating substance and form?12 Could the fact itself of a turning point at which two lives take significantly divergent paths be appreciated from an artistic point of view? These questions invite us to explore interactionism conceptually from a different perspective than the one we have been taking in our research project, where most of our efforts have been oriented toward explaining how aesthetic properties can contribute to the identification of a cognitive significance that can be positively valued by viewers.

  • 13 On the concept of mental model and its application to TV serials see Saerys-Foy and Magliano 2021.

36This is a case of aesthetic appreciation of a strategic event in the narrative structure, shaped by a series of experiences over the course of the season that have added to our understanding of the story. It is a climactic moment in the narrative that informs viewers’ aesthetic assessment of the whole series: the end of the season where a main plot development reveals a consequence of the divergence of two plotlines, a paradigmatic case of “plot interaction.” The crucial point here is therefore to consider the extent to which this ending matches cognitively with the understanding developed by viewers throughout the preceding episodes, with the mental models that they have been building and that they may now be able to fit into an overall sense of the plotlines they describe.13 If the viewer considers that it makes sense that these two plotlines should now be marked by the events of that scene, especially Lila’s gesture of destroying a shared memory that has special significance in Lenu’s current life because she wants to be a writer.

  • 14 I have explored the cognitive and emotional richness in interaction that this type of climatic even (...)

37The assessment of whether an event like this coherently closes a series and facilitates the definition of a new mental model that can give meaning to a plotline seems to have a value here as a basic criterion for an act of aesthetic appreciation of the narrative. Indeed, given the strategic nature of the event in question, the cognitive content is taken as a criterion for evaluating the season’s aesthetic value overall, suggesting a link between meaning and narrative form. This appreciation of a structurally important moment is one of the most complex phenomena that can occur in the aesthetic experience of a series.14 But the fact that many viewers have chosen it can hardly be accidental; rather, it is proof of a sensitivity towards the importance of the cognitive factor in interaction with the aesthetic factor that characterises the narration. The sole purpose here is to offer a complementary reflection on how aesthetic factors may play a determining role in the evaluation of the cognitive. The careful combination of narrative content with a certain cognitive value adds an emotional dimension whose interaction with the viewer’s appreciation that still needs to be investigated. Nevertheless, it seems clear that cognitive meaning is the criterion that marks a positively valued narrative structure, and the general consensus that the cognitive and the artistic should be valued in equal parts suggest that this is an element that may need to be taken into account in aesthetic interactionism.

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Bibliografia

Alcaraz León, M.J. 2018, Aesthetics makes nothing happen? The role of aesthetic properties in the constitution of non-aesthetic value, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 76, 1: 21-31.

Bandirali, L., Terrone, E. 2021, Concept TV. An Aesthetics of Television Series, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

Carroll, N. 2012, Philosophy of Art. A Contemporary Introduction, New York, Routledge.

Gerrig, R.J. 1993, Experiencing Narrative Worlds. On the Psychological Activities of Reading, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Green, M.C. 2004, Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism, “Discourse Processes”, 38: 247-266.

Green, M.C., Brock, T.C. 2000, The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives, “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology”, 79, 5: 701-721.

Kieran, M. 2005, Revealing Art, New York, Routledge.

McIver Lopes, D. 2005, Sight and Sensibility: Evaluating Pictures, New York, Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press.

Oatley, K. 2016, Fiction: simulation of social worlds, “Trends in cognitive sciences”, 20, 8: 618-628.

Pérez, H.J. 2022, Aesthetics of the narrative climax in contemporary TV serials, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 80, 2: 214-223.

Saerys-Foy, J.E., Magliano, J.P. 2021, From shots to storyworlds: The cognitive processes supporting the comprehension of serialized television, in T. Nannicelli, H.J. Pérez (eds), Cognition, Emotion, and Aesthetics in Contemporary Serial Television, New York, Routledge: 97-116.

Smith, M. 2017, Film, Art, and the Third Culture. A Naturalized Aesthetics of Film, New York, Oxford University Press.

Stolnitz, J. 1992, On the cognitive triviality of art, “British Journal of Aesthetics”, 32, 3: 191-200.

Van de Mosselaer, N. 2020, Imaginative desires and interactive fiction: On wanting to shoot fictional zombies, “The British Journal of Aesthetics”, 60, 3: 241-251.

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Note

1 This study is part of a research project developed between 2019 and 2022, funded by the Spanish Government under the title “Interactions between cognitive value and aesthetic properties in contemporary serials” (RTI2018-096596-B-I00).

2 McIver Lopes 2005.

3 See Kieran 2005.

4 See Alcaraz 2018.

5 Stolnitz 1992.

6 Oatley 2016.

7 Gerrig 1993 and Green 2004. On the other hand, some authors link persuasion with the aesthetic qualities of the narratives, since this combination occurs especially in those that are well-produced and of high quality, Green and Brock 2000.

8 I owe the design of the survey to an in-depth discussion with colleagues working on the research project: Jesús Jiménez Varea, Víctor Hernández Santaolalla, and Alberto Hermida Congosto.

9 I am grateful for the generous help of my colleagues at the University of Bologna, Elena Farinacci and Claudio Bisoni, who also participated in the translation of the survey into Italian.

10 More specifically, the definition of this term provided by Murray Smith 2017.

11 See Van de Mosselaer 2020.

12 Caroll 2012: 162.

13 On the concept of mental model and its application to TV serials see Saerys-Foy and Magliano 2021.

14 I have explored the cognitive and emotional richness in interaction that this type of climatic events can elicit, see Héctor J. Pérez 2022, and this kind of interaction can be confirmed in the case we are looking at, although it would be a seasonal variant of the climax, which corresponds very well with the characterization offered by Bandirali and Terrone 2021 in the chapter called The Super-Knotty Rope.

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Notizia bibliografica

Héctor J. Pérez, «Aesthetic Interactionism and My Brilliant Friend»Rivista di estetica, 83 | 2023, 16-26.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Héctor J. Pérez, «Aesthetic Interactionism and My Brilliant Friend»Rivista di estetica [Online], 83 | 2023, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 25 mai 2024. URL: http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/estetica/9158; DOI: https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/estetica.9158

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