Q is for Quality of Experience

| April 22, 2014

Is a negative aesthetic experience as valuable as a positive one? Before I attempt to answer this question I believe I first need to define what constitutes an aesthetic experience, what are its requisites. I’d like to try and start from a broad definition and gradually isolate what distinguishes this event from more mundane and banal episodes. Firstly, as the word itself suggests, it is something pertaining to the senses. It therefore needs to be triggered by an external stimulus which then, through perception, reaches our minds hence allowing us to become aware of it. But, if this was it, every time we see, hear, feel, taste or smell something we’d be having an aesthetic experience. I believe that, in order for it to be classified as aesthetic, an experience needs to elicit in us a powerful emotion. Still, that doesn’t seem accurate enough. When overstimulated by my surroundings, I often experience a strong emotional response. This usually happens when I’m in the subway and sometimes leads to mild panic attacks. Is a panic attack an aesthetic experience? If so, what is the stimulus, the “work of art” triggering it (the subway? the people? the voice announcing this is a Rockaway Parkway-bound L train? All of the above?)? Perhaps it is inadequate to define a panic attack in the subway as an aesthetic experience because of the settings. What role does the context in which a piece of art is presented in play? Are we only allowed to classify our experience as “aesthetic” if what is triggering it is presented within the boundaries of an especially-designated space (e.g. museum)? You might be thinking something along the lines of “I don’t need you to tell me where to have my aesthetic experience, I’ll have it wherever I want!)”. I agree with you. The beauty of art is that it’s subjective. But for the sake of argument, lets just say we are standing in a museum looking at a painting. What if we perceive it as so unpleasant as to make us feel sick? I would still consider this a positive aesthetic experience, as it successfully evokes a strong emotion. In addition to eliciting emotions, I believe an aesthetic experience should teach us something (about ourselves?). It doesn’t matter whether the emotions experienced are positive or negative, as long as it triggers a process of introspection as a result of which we learn something. It follows that, considering the inherent educational nature of such experience, a negative aesthetic experience is one which fails to teach us something. Can the quality of this experience be measured? Although objective evaluation is impossible, I believe that the more meaningful the interaction with the work of art, the more the aesthetic experience will influence future experiences. To summarize, I believe that a negative aesthetic experience (if we are defining it as an experience which fails to live on in future experiences) is not as valuable as a positive one, and that the extent to which such experience influences future ones determines its quality.