It is absurd to suppose that purpose is not present because we do not observe the agent deliberating. Aristotle (Physics, Book II)
A good style should show no sign of effort.
Somerset Maugham (1938/2007:p. __)
Successful expert action, as I argued in the previous chapter, typically involves effort. Nonetheless, such action may appear effortless. And although we may praise the effort, what we truly prize, what truly gives use pleasure, is the effortlessness. Yet just what are we appreciating when we admire a dancer’s effortless technique, precision, or presence? Why is it that when the renowned Alicia Markova “finished her effortless variation, with the turn of its final phrase rounded off meticulously to the fraction of a beat, it is no wonder that the house burst into applause almost as an automatic reaction” (Martin, 1941: p. 15)? Effortless bodily movement, effortless speech or writing, even effortless objects affect us in a way that one naturally thinks of as aesthetic. But what makes effortlessness aesthetically valuable? We may praise effort, but if aesthetic effortlessness is not to be in instance of the just-do-it principle, I need to argue that the effortless performance that we prize is ompatible with the performer exerting a great deal of effort.
The concept of aesthetic effortlessness is rarely discussed in academic circles today, particularly in analytic philosophy. Moreover, in the art world, effortlessness, though still highly valued by some, has generally gone the way of the two related qualities of beauty and grace, with many contemporary artists more interested in creating works that are provocative, powerful, beleaguered, or shocking, than in creating works that are effortless. The choreography of Pina Bausch, for example, is certainly aesthetically valuable; but it is valuable because it expresses frustration, alienation, brutality, and pain – not because it expresses effortlessness.
Though perhaps unpopular in academic circles today, it cannot be denied that effortlessness captures us, and its aesthetic appeal seems to be more immediate, more bodily, and less cerebral than our interest in the conceptually-charged work of artists such as Pina Bausch. Moreover, the idea of effortlessness has drawn the attention of many great thinkers in the past. To look at just a few examples, the ancient Chinese Daoist thinkers Laozi and Zhuangzi exalted effortless action, or wu-wei (literally translated as “no trying”), in both the artisan and the political leader. The Italian Renaissance theorist Baldassare Castiglione’s (1528/1975) Book of the Courtier inspired the artists of his day to, as he puts it, “practice in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless” (p. 67). And, arguably, one aspect of what Kant meant when he said that “the fine arts must not seem purposeful, although they are purposeful,” or, as he explains, that “fine art must be able to be considered as nature” (1790/2007: p. __), is, in part, that fine art must appear to be merely a product of nature, that is, it must appear to be effortless.
To mention one more historical period during which the concept of effortlessness garnered the attention of theorists (a period I shall return to), we find effortlessness and the closely related concept of grace discussed, analyzed, and greatly admired by the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century thinkers Henri Bergson and Herbert Spencer, with Bergson describing the perception of grace as “the perception of a certain ease, a certain facility in the outward movements” (1889/2008: p. 11), and Spencer claiming that “truly graceful movements…are those preformed with comparatively little effort [and that] a good dancer makes us feel that… an economy of effort has been achieved” (1907: p. 383).
Today, though the concept is largely passed over by tough-minded academics, the allure of effortlessness is apparent in the media, where one frequently finds various athletes, artists, and artworks praised for their effortlessness: the ballerina Natalia Osipova’s grand jetés, for example, are extolled for their effortless elevation, soaring “through the air with so little effort that the sight of her lithe form hanging high above the stage is a shock every time” (Kourlas 2012, July 7); the opera singer Beverly Sills is described as being able to “dispatch coloratura roulades and embellishments, capped with radiant high D's and E-flats, with seemingly effortless agility” (Tomassini, 2007); and of Yo-Yo Ma, the novelist Mark Saltzman says, “his playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement I knew my cello career was over” (quoted in Weschler ,2000: p. 78). And in the world of politics, one finds individuals chastised for their lack of effortlessness and for displaying “what appear to be laboriously studied moves rather than anything that comes naturally” (Fallows, 2012).
Effortlessness, it seems, can be ascribed to bodily movements, to intellectual insights, to poetry, prose and paintings. Even the Golden Gate Bridge has been extolled for its “seeming effortlessness” and likened to “Grace Kelly in Rear Window” (by John King and Anthea Hartig, respectively, interviewed in Christensen, 2012).Indeed, perhaps one reason the topic of effortlessness does not have a foothold in analytic aesthetics is this multifariousness. There is something to be said in favor of this stance: trying to figure out what it means for a portrait to represent a person, one might say, is difficult enough; ought we really to confuse things further by trying to understand what it is for a bridge to appear effortless? I am not immune to such methodological scruples, and in my work in philosophy of mind I have frequently advocated that we should not bother trying to understand whether the mind is physical until we have understood more basic ideas, such as what it means to be physical.99 But when it comes to aesthetics, my relationship to the subject matter is somewhat different; it is not that of detached theoretical interest but rather it is that of an individual with prior interests that have developed from years of work in the field100. Thus, being less driven by the pursuit of truth than by passion, I am inclined to focus straightaway on what is of interest to me. If this is inconsistency, so be it. I imagine I am not the first.
What, then, is it for an action to be effortless? What are we appreciating when we admire Castiglione’s effortless courtier, a dancer’s effortless leaps, a basketball player’s effortless shot, or even a seagull’s effortless soar? For Castiglione as well as for the ancient Chinese thinkers, effortlessness was primarily a social value. According to Castiglione, effortlessness, or at least the façade of effortlessness, enabled individuals to gain recognition, approval, and promotion to higher political positions in the Royal Court. And according to the Daoist tradition, effortlessness engendered de, a type of charisma that allows rulers to persuade neither by force nor decree but merely in virtue of their magnetism (reference). Though no less relevant to politics now than it was in the past, my concern is more with aesthetic rather than social value, and specifically with the aesthetic value of effortlessness in works of art.