Philosophy of the Arts


Kant on What Pleases Directly in the Senses

To those who know the original performance by Jimi Hendrix of “Little Wing” Stevie Ray Vaughan’s cover may at first sound like a fraud.1 Vaughan is playing a Jimi original in a Jimi-like manner, and this is, simply, ‘not done’. Now why would we want to regard this performance of “Little Wing” inauthentic’? Surely, melodies are there to be performed? Isn’t that why we put tunes in notation, why we describe and define them through a score?2 In popular music the relation between what emanates from the mind of a tune’s composer and its performance is often much more intricate than is the case with most classical music. None of this belongs exclusively to pop music, though. However, it is more normal here than it is in classical music. This brings to mind a deep problem both in music aesthetics and in philosophy of art generally, concerning that which pleases directly in the senses: the phenomenal basis of aesthetic evaluation, as opposed to the structural, or formal (depending on one’s theoretical background) ontology of the work. In our preliminary disapproval of Vaughan’s “Little Wing”, however, we must be taking his performance as something quite different from a performance manifesting the structure or form of Jimi’s tune. In this piece of music we do not merely hear a performance of the tune of “Little Wing” but one in the very style of Jimi Hendrix. Now Hendrix is appreciated for his special treatment of the music and for his guitar playing—his perfect timing and the looseness of his interventions in the tune. So here we have one guitarist plagiarizing the other—or so the argument goes. To dismantle the argument one would have to establish whether the performance at issue is perhaps in Vaughan’s own style (or in no style at all). Indeed, as a better trained listening teaches us, Stevie Ray Vaughan is playing the tune in his own style. (…)
‘Kant on What Pleases Directly in the Senses.’ Issues in Contemporary Culture and Aesthetics, 9, 71-83, 1999.
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