A is for Aesthetic Experience

| March 2, 2014

As we mentioned about aesthetic experience and its relation to artworks … I’ve been doing some basic research beginning with the definition of aesthetics and finding references about aesthetic experience particularly in relation to John Dewey and Maxine Greene.

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “aesthetics” refers to a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste and with the creation and appreciation of beauty. More broadly, scholars in the field define aesthetics as “critical reflection on art, culture and nature.[1]” (Kelly, 1998). The word ‘aesthetic’ was first used by Alexander Baumgarten in his Reflections on Poetry (first published in 1735), as a reaction to the rational philosophy of Descartes and the mechanistic science of Newton. Baumgarten established aesthetics as a discipline and defined it as scientia cognitionis sensitivae, the science of sensory knowledge, in his foundational work Aesthetica (1750). Baumgarten contended that excluding sensations and perceptions from knowledge is a mistake, and that sensations and perceptions provide an equally valid conception of reality as Cartesian logic. Baumgarten believed the aesthetic value of work of art could be determined by its ability to produce vivid experiences in its audience.

The word “aesthesis” means perception or sense-perception derived from Greek, and therefore the study aesthetics relates to the study of perception. As Baumgarten stated, the aesthetic value of an experience depends on the ability of the experience to produce vivid experiences in the audience, which depends on the motivation and the physical ability of the audience to perceive a set of stimuli as vivid. Therefore, art as a field that is created through the productions through our physical senses and sensibilities is naturally related to creating aesthetic experiences (Smith, p. 4).

Aesthetician and art educator Ralph Smith (1989) stated that the site many examples of aesthetic experiences come from nature, ordinary objects, and works of art. Yet he claimed that the works of art created by mature artists have a far greater capacity to sustain aesthetic experience than most other things. Smith stated that writings about aesthetic experience in particular, have much to say about the ways we make sense of works of art. He argued that accounts of the aesthetic experience contribute to a better understanding of what is involved in developing a sense of art in the young (1989, p. 201).

In general terms, when people talk about having an aesthetic experience, common features are such as feeling of gratification, stimulation, pleasure, or enlightenment.

Esthetic experience is both euphoric and exhilarating, serene and contemplative… esthetic experience thus stimulates the senses and provides insight, which is to say that it is both affective and cognitive. It can further be a tonic for the human soul: we often stand taller and feel a sense of expansion after an intense esthetic experience. This is what in Dewey’s terms constitutes its consummatory value. (Smith, 1989, 200-201)

Often times, an aesthetic experience is related to recalling an emotional response, related to a felt experience.

When I see works that come close to my heart, that I think are really fine, I have the strangest reaction: which is not always exhilarating, it is sort of like being hit in the stomach. Feeling a little nauseous. It’s just this sort of completely overwhelming feeling, which then I have to grope my way out of, calm myself down, and try to approach it scientifically, not with all my antennae vulnerable open… When you encounter a very great work of art, you just know it and it thrills you in all your senses, not just visually, but sensually and intellectually.  (Excerpt from an Interview in Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The psychology of optimal experience,” 1991, p107)

On the other hand, Smith also addressed the polarities and paradoxes of aesthetic experience in relation to certain senses of artworks being fictional and that it provokes imagination and reverie. Sircello called this ‘the experience of the melancholy, stating that works of art construed as an artifact that can induce a high level of aesthetic experience may also result in psychological letdown as well (Smith, 1989, p. 201). Nonetheless, according to Smith and many people who describe their response to works of art, reveals that art is condensed with possibilities that can promote an aesthetic experience to whoever appreciates or interacts with the artwork emotionally and intellectually.

However, when we talk about aesthetic experience and the response it evokes, we are talking about the internal qualities that occur within the mind. According to Sir Herbert Read (1964, p. 9), Hume’s famous statement that inspired Kant’s first theory of aesthetics was, “beauty is no quality in things themselves; it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” John Dewey wrote about this in terms of consciousness of being the true transformative motivation when a person engages with an artwork or when one has an aesthetic experience.

To see, to perceive, is more than to recognize…The past is carried into the present so as to expand and deepen the content of the latter… Continuities realized in an individual, discrete form are the essence of a conscious experience. Art is thus prefigured in the very processes of living…The distinguishing contribution of man is consciousness of the relations found in nature. Through consciousness, he converts the relations of means and consequence. Rather, consciousness itself is the inception of such a transformation.  (Dewey, 1934, p. 24-25)

Maxine Greene also emphasized an active and alert participation of the mind in interacting a work of art;

Aesthetic experiences require conscious participation in a work, a going out of energy, an ability to notice what is there to be noticed in the play, the poem, the quartet… To introduce students to the manner of such engagement is to strike a delicate balance between helping learners to pay heed- to attend to shapes, patterns, sounds, rhythms, figures of speech, contours, and lines- and helping liberate them to perceive particular works as meaningful. (Releasing the Imagination, 1995, p. 125)

Greene’s aesthetic experience can also be connected to a transformative quality that provokes imagination, empathy towards others, and a motivation for social justice.

True involvement with art can facilitate freedom of thought and creates humans that learn from and empathize with others. Aesthetic experience goes beyond visits to museums, sites and monuments. A true aesthetic experience requires cognitive participation, which transforms the viewer/reader/listener, teaching them more about an idea, subject or story than they could every experience on their own. These experiences not only move the action of people, but also facilitate dreams, leading to new solutions and become force for change and freedom, teach lessons of deeper thought, self-determination, and human potential.

I personally think that an aesthetic experience calls for a development or cultivation of an aesthetic awareness, or an aesthetic sensibility. This is where education convenes…


[1] Kelly, M. (1998). Encylopedia of Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press.