An aesthetic experience arises in response to works of art or other aesthetic objects. Although the term aesthetic itself was not introduced until the eighteenth century, it is clear that what are identified in contemporary discussions as "aesthetic experiences" were "felt" by individuals long before this: for example, when Plato worried about excessively emotional reactions to recitations of poetry or when Aristotle described the positive effects of attending the theater. Nevertheless, the exact nature of aesthetic experience—even the idea that there is such a unique form of experience—remains a matter of controversy.
What Aesthetic Experiences Feel Like
One area of contention concerns what it feels like to have an aesthetic experience—that is, whether there is some special emotion or attitude or other internal sign that enables one to recognize that what one is having is an aesthetic experience and not some other kind. Immanuel Kant, one of the first philosophers to have addressed these kinds of questions, characterizes aesthetic experiences as those pleasures associated with occasions when one judges something to be beautiful. He asserts that one recognizes that this pleasure does not result from a realization that an object is useful or agreeable to one because of special things about oneself. Instead the pleasure arises simply because the form of the object is delightful and could and should be enjoyed by anyone. Kant makes a sharp distinction between responding positively in this manner and responding positively for moral or scientific reasons. Although several theorists have disagreed with Kant's argument, most theorists agree that aesthetic experiences are identified as such at least partly because of an emotional involvement of the experiencer. One feels good (or bad) when one responds aesthetically to a beautiful sunset or elegant poem (or to a messy waste dump or plodding verse).
But it is more than just a feeling of pleasure (or pain) that characterizes aesthetic experiences, according to many theorists. John Dewey (1958), for example, argues that aesthetic experiences are the most complete, the richest, and the highest experiences possible. One is actively engaged and conscious of the world's effect on one but at the same time appreciative of one's possibilities for acting on the world. One senses an organization, coherence, and satisfaction as well as an integration of the past, present, and future that ordinary nonaesthetic experiences lack.
More recently, Nelson Goodman (1976) has warned that too much emphasis on the pleasurable aspects of aesthetic experiences deprives them of much of their importance. What he derisively calls "tingle-immersion" theories overlook the crucial role of intellect, he cautions. In aesthetic experiences, the emotions function cognitively, he says; one "feels" a heightened operation of both cognition and emotion operating together.
What Aesthetic Experiences Focus on
Another area of debate is the object of aesthetic experience. Many philosophers have insisted that the pleasurable (or painful) responses associated with an aesthetic experience must be connected with something special about some objects and events—properties that nonaesthetic or nonartistic objects and events lack—for clearly we do not have aesthetic experiences with regard to just any old thing.
Aristotle believed that the pleasure unique to dramatic tragedies consisted in a catharsis of the painful emotions of pity and fear and that this could occur only if a play had certain properties—the right sort of plot and characters. Kant, we saw above, thought that aesthetic experiences were pleasant when objects were such that mere apprehension of their form alone evoked delight. In general, theorists and critics described as "formalists" insist that in an aesthetic experience attention is directed solely to immediately perceivable properties of objects and events—shape, colors, tones, sounds, and patterns. Monroe Beardsley (1958), for instance, characterizes the focus of aesthetic experiences as formal unity and the intensity of regional quality. Clive Bell (1914) claims that emotional responses to objects exhibiting "significant form" can be so intense that one does not care at all about the content of some artworks; what matters is always form and not content. Jerome Stolnitz (1960) argues that one takes up a special attitude, distinterestedness, when one has an aesthetic experience. Ordinary everyday concerns or purposes are put aside, and one focuses on the form of an object for its sake alone, he believed.
An increasing number of theorists disagree with the formalist position that when one has an aesthetic experience one focuses solely on an object's formal properties and that one's scientific, moral, religious and other beliefs or concerns are put aside. For one thing, some insist, the expression of certain ideas plays a key role in some works of art, and surely thinking about these ideas (content) is an appropriate and important aspect of the aesthetic experiences of them. Even if focus on form is necessary to aesthetic experiences, it may be that content and context are also legitimate matters for aesthetic attention.
What Having an Aesthetic Experience Requires
Even if one grants that aesthetic experiences arise only in the presence of objects that exhibit a form that pleases, many theorists have insisted that more than a formally pleasing object and passive viewer are required. Just as not every object gives rise to an aesthetic experience, so not all individuals have aesthetic experiences in reaction to the same objects. David Hume (1987) in the eighteenth century and, more recently, Frank Sibley (1959) in the twentieth, have insisted that only persons who have taste or special sensitivities are capable of responding aesthetically. Not all people are equally competent judges, Hume claims. Only people who are sensitive, attentive, open-minded, perceptive, clear-headed, trained, and experienced can tell a good poem from a bad poem. In the absence of sensitivity, one will be left completely cold by objects that enthrall a more acute and receptive observer.
Formalists, we saw above, insist that aesthetic experience requires an appropriate amount of distance—one must put aside beliefs or purposes and give oneself up entirely to the object. But others argue that precisely the opposite is the case. Contextualists insist that, before one can have an aesthetic response (or at least an appropriate or full one), one's intellect and moral beliefs must be engaged. Noel Carroll (2000), for example, argues that moral concerns may block or enhance aesthetic experiences. Kendall Walton (1970) asserts that one cannot interpret and otherwise respond to a work of art unless one is versed in the genre it represents. One cannot judge whether a sonnet is good or bad unless one knows that it is in fact a sonnet and not a haiku, for example. Allen Carlson (2000) points out that an aesthetic appreciation of nature requires an awareness that what one is appreciating is nature (not a painted landscape, for instance). This in turn demands an understanding of how nature works. The person who brings a fair degree of scientific knowledge to a particular environmental system will have a much fuller, richer aesthetic experience of that environment. What is required by or, at the very least, relevant to aesthetic experience may be whatever directs one's attention as fully as possible to the potentially pleasurable formal properties of an object or event.
Where or When Aesthetic Experiences Occur
The nature of aesthetic experience may not be fully accounted for even if one knows everything important about objects that occasion them—the context or circumstances attending an individual's response may prove critical. Some philosophers call attention to the viewing conditions: for example, whether a concert is live or recorded or whether a poem is read to oneself or recited aloud. Others focus on the political, economic, or social conditions of an experience. To what extent are aesthetic experiences socially constructed? Is responding pleasurably to the color of a flower, for instance, "natural" (in the way that hunger or sexual arousal is), is it taught (in the way that acquired tastes are), or is there some mix of innate and learned response? Herein lies another set of issues that philosophers and others (for example psychologists, sociologists, and economists) debate.
Aesthetic versus Artistic Experience
Art objects are examples of aesthetic objects. But not all aesthetic objects are artworks—for example, sunsets or mountain vistas. Whether there is a difference between aesthetic experience and artistic experience is still another question that theorists address. Kant notes that in appreciating art objects one is aware of the fact that a human created it (and, in the case of great Art, that someone of genius was responsible for it). Thus artistic experiences lack the "purity" associated with those disinterested pleasures that arise from form alone.
Arthur Danto (1986) has argued that developments in the history of Art (such as the appearance of rather odd artifacts in museums) mean that one cannot tell if something is a work of art or not in the absence of a theory of art. This is not the case for aesthetic objects, it would seem. One does not need a theory of the aesthetic in order to have an aesthetic response, for one can have such a response to anything at all. It may be that some experiences of art are not aesthetic at all. If one is primarily concerned with the history of an object or its economic or religious value, then one may not care about or may even completely ignore the formal properties of that object.
The Need for the Concept of Aesthetic Experience
Finally it must be pointed out that not everyone believes that it is possible or necessary to distinguish aesthetic from other kinds of experiences. The whole notion is too vague and abstract, some philosophers argue. Reporting that one has had an aesthetic experience is no more informative than claiming that one has had an "economic experience" or an "automotive experience," according to some. One describes one's experience far better by saying things like "I bought some junk bonds yesterday" or "I had an exciting ride in a Porsche this morning" than by saying "I had an economic experience" or "I had an automotive experience." Similarly, one might do away completely with talk about aesthetic experiences and rely instead on discussions of reading particular poems or listening to pieces of music or birdsongs or looking at specific paintings or landscapes or drinking particular wines.
Nevertheless, people do talk about aesthetic experiences, and there might be good reason to try to articulate what they involve. If one goal of education is to improve the quality of life through aesthetic experiences, then it will be important to determine what such experiences feel like, focus on, and require. Moreover, if one fears that significant properties of objects or events will be overlooked if one confuses moral or scientific perspectives with aesthetic ones, then it may be necessary to distinguish the last from the former two.
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Marcia Muelder Eaton (2005)