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The Aesthetic Experience


Colin Leath

Philosophy 445

Professor Moore

November 27, 1996



The aesthetic experience is often experienced as a pleasurable and desirable experience, an experience which gives life worth and meaning. In this paper I explore the structure of the aesthetic experience in order to understand how the aesthetic experience can be a positive experience. I use the term "positive experience" to refer to any pleasurable experience, meaning any experience which makes an organism feel good and encourages it to continue or return to the experience which gives it pleasure.

I present an aesthetic theory based on these two ideas: first, all experience can be called aesthetic experience; second, the quality of aesthetic experience can be determined by the intensity and duration of an individual's concentration on the experience. I conclude that the positive aesthetic experience is concentration on experience in which there is no desire for greater control of the experience.


The concept that all experience is aesthetic experience is based on the perspective that all experience is perception. Our most concentrated perceptions are our quality aesthetic experiences. Aestheticians and others refer to quality aesthetic experience as "the aesthetic experience," or "an aesthetic experience." I will do the same here. I also use "experience with aesthetic quality" to refer to quality aesthetic experience. The aesthetic quality of an experience is the amount of concentration involved in the experience. I will discuss the nature of the concentration I refer to later in this paper.

The aesthetic experience is not characterized by distance, disinterestedness, or beauty, as some aestheticians have supposed, but by a concentration originating in the organism causing it to perceive its environment with a heightened or more vivid perception.

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 contended that it is a mistake to exclude sensations and perceptions from knowledge, and that sensations and perceptions provide an equally valid conception of reality as Cartesian logic. Baumgarten believed the aesthetic value of a work of art could be determined by its ability to produce vivid experiences in its audience (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

This is one of the most reasonable definitions of aesthetic value. The only criterion is that the work of art produce vivid experience in its audience. This simple, effective definition contrasts greatly with the efforts of those aestheticians who attempt to separate the work of art from the experience of art. I take the position that art does not exist independently of the experience of art. Therefore all questions of a definition of art are secondary to an understanding of the aesthetic experience.

One of the most interesting developments in our understanding of experience is the exploration of the biological basis of the aesthetic experience. Flannery (1990) writes of these efforts,

The results of individuals such as Bullough and Berlyne, though sometimes contradictory, suggest that some attributes are inherently more pleasing than others, that there may indeed be a biological basis to the aesthetic experience. . . If the aesthetic experience is rooted in biology, in the way the brain works, then any object--a piece of art or a scientific specimen--can be a source of aesthetic pleasure. . . (pp. 314-315)

This serves as an appropriate introduction to this concept. However, I would not call an object ("a piece of art or a scientific specimen") a source of aesthetic pleasure. As Flannery suggests, there are characteristics of an organism which allow it to perceive certain stimuli as pleasing. The source of the aesthetic pleasure is always the biological structure of the organism which allows its perception of its environment to be a positive experience. A piece of art or a scientific specimen may be the object of the pleasure, but never the source.

That there is a biological basis for all behavior, including appreciation of art, has been well established, though by no means fully explored, by researchers such as Darwin, Berlyne, Joseph and Dissanayake. It follows that all human experience is created by the human organism; there is no difference in human-madeness between the hiker climbing a mountain and orienting her eyes to view the sunset, and the museum-goer looking at a painting, or the composer striking different keys on a piano. Berlyne (1971) writes, "Animals, and especially higher mammals, spend much of their time performing actions that have no function other than bringing the sense organs into contact with stimuli of particular kinds, so that they can be said to be selecting or creating their own environments to a large extent" (p. 98).

This approach makes it possible for a person to have an aesthetic experience while perceiving anything, whether a daydream, a meditative state, the high of intense physical exercise, or a painting. "Aesthesis" means perception, or, more beautifully, sense-perception. "Aesthetics" means the study of perception. As Baumgarten decided, the aesthetic value of an experience depends on the ability of the experience to produce vivid experiences in the audience. It follows from what was said about perception that the vividness of the experience depends entirely on the motivation and the physical ability of the audience to perceive a set of stimuli as vivid.

Aesthetics, then, is the study of all activity from the perspective that we are orienting ourselves to have certain perceptions (experiences). The aesthetician of visual art should have a good understanding of what combination of form and color will encourage a certain kind of experience in an audience. The aesthetician of physical activity should know what intensity and type of exercise will have certain effects on the exerciser. Moreover, aesthetics can be applied to reason. The aesthetician should know what kind of purely rational (if there is such a thing) exercise should produce a certain feeling in the person who is being rational.

Distance, disinterestedness, and beauty are not defining characteristics of the aesthetic experience.

Distance, disinterestedness, and beauty have been recurrent themes in aesthetic theory. Distance and disinterestedness are effects of the more basic, more universal characteristics of the aesthetic experience, but they are not themselves defining characteristics of the aesthetic experience. For example, concentration, which I later demonstrate to be a defining characteristic of the aesthetic experience, can cause a distance from all other things but the object of concentration. Additionally, the aesthetic experience has often been thought of as the experience of something beautiful, but "beautiful" experience is a subset of positive aesthetic experience, which I describe later. Following the thinking that any vivid experience is an aesthetic experience, the entire aesthetic landscape is changed and can be perceived more clearly.

Kant was one of the first to discuss disinterestedness as a characteristic of the experience of the beautiful. Kant (1995, [1790]) describes as beautiful an object or mode of representation which causes delight apart from any interest. He mentions "flowers, free patterns, lines aimlessly intertwining" (p. 272), as pleasing despite having no signification, and he having a disinterested and free delight in the experience. In this description of the beautiful, Kant fails to mention his own interest in having delight from his perception of the flowers, patterns and intertwining lines. The aesthetic experience requires an interest in having the experience, however unconsciously expressed. This interest may be an aspect of our biological structure, like a species-wide appreciation of certain sequences of sounds (Joseph, 1993). Mauron (1935) gives a coherent explanation of the aesthetic attitude: "The interest lies in what you are going to feel" (p. 31).

Bullough (1995, [1912]) is another who attributes a distance or disinterestedness to the aesthetic experience. His essay, "Psychical distance," exemplifies one of the misconceptions of aesthetics, namely that a certain amount of distance is necessary for aesthetic expression and the aesthetic experience. I will show how this assertion comes from a focus on aesthetic expression and the positive aesthetic experience, not the aesthetic experience in general.

It is true that distance is often a component of aesthetic expression. This is because much of the communication of vivid experience involves an intimate awareness of the experience being communicated, yet distance in time and in person from the experience. For example, a poet describing a battle is often distant in time and place from the battle she describes.

In using the term distance, Bullough describes what may be a characteristic of the positive aesthetic experience: an appropriate level of stimulation and no feeling of a need for control. For example, watching a tragedy in a theater setting distances you from the actuality of being in the tragic situation yourself. This provides a reasonable level of stimulation and encourages no desire for control of the situation. This is best demonstrated by Bullough's concept of "under-distancing." He mentions a man watching the play, Othello, whose misgivings about the faithfulness of his wife are heightened because of the events in the play. The failure, in Bullough's mind, of the audience member is his inability to experience the play as merely a play, his inability to maintain this minimum amount of distance. However, the play-watching husband experiences the play more vitally and intensely than anyone else in the audience. He certainly does not enjoy the play, as Bullough states, nor does he find it beautiful, but the play has shown aesthetic quality by encouraging a vivid experience in this man.

Bullough also writes that his capacity to appreciate fog while at sea is a function of his distance from being worried about the fog as causing a greater hazard to his health or his enterprise. But his beautiful, mysterious experience of the fog-world is certainly not more vivid than the experience of Jim, the runaway slave, shouting for his lost friend Huck through the fog on the river. Bullough is able to appreciate the experience as beautiful. Jim experiences the same natural phenomenon as terrifying, not beautiful, or in any other way positive. Bullough is describing why his experience of the fog is positive. His explanation of psychical distance is useful in understanding the positive aesthetic experience, but not in defining the aesthetic experience itself. The aesthetic experience can be an experience of intense terror or ugliness, and it always involves interest, often a very intimate or non-distanced interest.

I have discussed how distance, disinterestedness, and beauty are not defining characteristics of the aesthetic experience. Distance and disinterestedness more often reduce the vividness of a sense-experience. An understanding of distance and disinterestedness may be useful in understanding aesthetic expression and the positive aesthetic experience, but not in understanding the universal nature of quality aesthetic experience. Concentration, however, is a defining characteristic of quality aesthetic experience.


The aesthetic experience has one universal characteristic: among all people, at any time, the aesthetic experience involves concentration on some aspect of the environment. The premise that I work with is that concentration is the activity involved in all vivid experience. The longer and more intensely concentrated the experience, the more lastingly vivid and intensely vivid the experience, and therefore the greater the aesthetic quality of the experience. The experiences of the greatest aesthetic quality in our lives are those which enter our consciousness, or we cause to enter our consciousness, the most often with the most force and intensity. By concentration, I mean focus on one type of activity, the one we do in the present moment. The concentration I refer to often requires no effort. For example, our entire conscious attention will focus on a nearby flash of lightning, for an instant, without conscious effort.

In the following paragraphs, I make several efforts to test the appropriateness of determining the aesthetic quality of an experience by the amount of concentration involved in relation to the experience.

First, let us consider experience when we are not concentrating: when we are doing one thing and thinking about another. This is the attribute of most everyday experience that keeps it from being quality aesthetic experience. It is easy to think of examples in our own experience when we are not concentrating on the task at hand, or if we are trying to concentrate but not doing a good job of it. Erich Fromm emphasizes the importance of concentration when he writes on "the practice of love" in his book, The Art of Loving (1956):

One must learn to be concentrated in everything one does, in listening to music, in reading a book, in talking to a person, in seeing a view. The activity at this very moment must be the only thing that matters, to which one is fully given. If one is concentrated, it matters little what one is doing; the important, as well as the unimportant things assume a new dimension of reality, because they have one's full attention. . . To be concentrated means to live fully in the present, in the here and now, and not to think of the next thing to be done, while I am doing something right now. (p. 113)

Simply stated, activities which do not have one's full attention cannot achieve the same level of vividness or "newness" as activities which do have one's full attention.

Second, let us consider this chart in which the psychologist Csikszentmihalyi compares his criteria for optimal human experience, which he calls "flow" experience, to Beardsley's criteria for the aesthetic experience. Beardsley's criteria are representative of much of traditional aesthetic thinking.

Beardsley's criteria for the aesthetic experience Csikszentmihalyi's criteria for the flow experience

Attention fixed on intentional field
Attention centered on activity
Release from concerns about past and future
No awareness of past and future
Objects of interest set at a distance emotionally
Loss of self-consciousness and transcendence of ego boundaries
Active exercise of powers to meet environmental challenges
Skills adequate to overcome challenges
A sense of personal integration and self-expansion
Does not need external rewards, intrinsically satisfying
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, p. 8)

I use these lists of attributes to demonstrate that all of Beardsley's criteria place contradictory constraints on the aesthetic experience except for "attention fixed on intentional field." Consider "felt freedom" and "release from concerns about past and future." I can imagine an intense concern about the future or an obsession with a past event to be vivid experience. Distance as a criteria is based on a misconception of the aesthetic experience which I discussed earlier, and "active discovery" and "wholeness" are both positive attributes. An aesthetic experience is not necessarily positive and may well be deeply and lastingly terrifying. It is not unimaginable that an aesthetic experience consist of an intense focus on one's separateness and one's inability to transcend the barriers of the individual consciousness. It is however unimaginable that there be an intensely vivid experience that is at the same time unconcentrated. I could imagine a person's attempt to do many things at once (people often do--for example, when they attempt to pat their head and rub their belly at the same time, instead of concentrating on one of these activities) but such an attempt is an activity which itself involves concentration.

Third, let us consider activities which appear to involve intense concentration but are not usually considered to have aesthetic quality. For example, threading a needle, playing a video game, or witnessing a flash of lightning. Although these can be extremely concentrated experiences for the duration of the activity, threading a needle, seeing lightning strike, or playing a video game rarely involve as much time spent in contemplation of the experience or reaction to the experience as, say, the experience of death. While these experiences appear to involve intense concentration while the activity is taking place, outwardly visible concentration is only a very little bit of the effect of an experience. The concentration involved in the examples I mentioned is of lesser duration, if not lesser intensity, than that involved in our greatest life experiences. Therefore we are correct in not considering those experiences to have significant aesthetic quality.

Concentration is the only universal defining characteristic of aesthetic experience. The intensity and duration of the concentration on the experience can be used to determine the quality of the aesthetic experience.

The positive aesthetic experience

The positive aesthetic experience is concentration on an experience in which there is no desire for greater control of the experience. I support this idea by discussing the negative aesthetic experience, then I give examples of the positive aesthetic experience.

Briefly let us consider the negative aesthetic experience. In the most depressed or terrifying times of our life we are not content with our situation. We desire an ability to change our situation, to find what we are missing, or to escape what is depressing us. We are intensely concentrated on an unpleasurable emotion. The greater our inability to change the experience, and the greater our desire to change the experience, the more concentrated and the more lasting the experience is. Distance from ability to resolve desires, questions, and pain--in other words, lack of control in a situation--has been the cause of much aesthetic expression and experience.

On the other hand, the positive aesthetic experience is characterized by concentration on an experience in which the experiencer is happy with the state of the experience because she is able to control and change the experience in ways that please her, or she has no desire to change the experience at all. Remember Jim, for whom the fog was a great frustration, even an agony, because it reduced him to drifting blindly when he wanted very much to find Huck. Bullough, however, was able to enjoy his perception of the fog because he was not worried about the fog causing a hazard to his health or his enterprise. Both Jim's and Bullough's experiences can be called quality aesthetic experiences, but Jim's experience was negative, and Bullough's was positive. Bullough had no desire for more control of his situation while Jim certainly did.

Charles Mauron (1935) describes positive aesthetic experience as a focus on what is being perceived at the moment, without a desire to change the perception; control is exercised only to maintain and encourage the pleasurable perception and to explore the associations or feelings it causes in us:

It is as though we were in a church, and instead of understanding the words a friend has just uttered, that is, instead of forming and releasing immediately the correct response, we listened to the murmur of the echoes they have awakened, rolling confusedly from vault to vault. Thus, before a work of art, we listen to the repercussions within us, passing from one nerve-center to the next. And what a multitude of nerve-centers we possess, all more or less connected with one another!
In ordinary life we sometimes pause in this way before a tree, a landscape, a piece of furniture, a sentence, or the face of a friend--or at a table even, with a mouthful of wine, our attention concentrated wholly on the delicate black savour which we are rolling between the palate and the tongue. In such moments, I think, we are all like artists, because instead of putting an end to the stimulus by a prompt reaction, we keep it in suspense. (p. 31)

Often this is what an artist is doing when painting a picture, writing a poem, or composing a song. Andrew Wyeth describes his activity in this way: "My struggle is to preserve that abstract flash, like something you caught out of the corner of your eye, but in the picture you can look at it directly."

In this instance, Wyeth is working with a past experience, but one also can experience positive aesthetic experience without direct reference to past experience. In circumstances when thoughts of the past or future serve no purpose, it is easy to stop and play with sense-experience. One can sing, not a song heard before, but a sequence of notes varied in just the way you might feel like playing with the sound to see the effect it produces in yourself. One can dance, in a sense, by moving in ways you have not thought of moving before, and experience the sense of this new and unconforming, personally expressive movement. Or one may sit down to write or draw with a certain tension, and focus on that tension in the dark ink, forming images in the mind and on the paper. Or one might just sit and savor being for a time.

This kind of active, intrinsically-motivated focus on an aspect of experience is very common, but so often it is only the artists, and then only a few of them, who pursue this experience with the integrity to think of it as something more than a daydream. It is however very often the case that such a playing with sense-experience results in nothing more than an ephemeral one-time song, dance, or savoring and playing of associations; an echoing in the brain which fades in time. The artists, as we recognize them, are those, who, like Wyeth, use the manipulation of an outside medium to explore what causes certain feelings in themselves.

The traditional artists we love the most are those whose manipulations of the external medium to stimulate themselves are also successful at stimulating our own self. It is not unlikely that a person who concentrates on the effect of a certain form on their own self might construct a form that also has a similar effect on another member of the same species and culture. But I digress in discussing aesthetic expression.

The positive aesthetic experience is often simply an acceptance of input through the senses, and a savoring of what that input causes in you as it echoes in the brain. It is often an active manipulation of the thoughts and images in your brain or an active manipulation of an external medium like the air, through sound, or your own body, through free movement, while concentrating on its effect upon your feeling, your self. It can be a focusing on past memories or an imaginary playing out of the future.

The most general point here is that positive aesthetic experience is concentration on sense-experience when you are not being made to concentrate out of fear for your survival or any other fear. The more intense and lasting the voluntary concentration is, the more powerfully and lastingly positive the experience.

Application of the theory

"To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."  -H.D. Thoreau

My hope was that the understanding gained from this research would facilitate the positive aesthetic experience. Remember, concentration is conducive to such experience, and also remember the level on which the aesthetic experience occurs; it is immediate and personal, not distant. The most interesting recent experience I've had regarding an understanding of the aesthetic experience is that positive aesthetic experience is not encouraged by asking, "Why?" That is, concentration on an activity is not helped by questioning the purpose of the experience or activity. I had noticed that I enjoyed very much focusing on the forms I was making with my pen on my paper in class, and that I enjoyed exploring the associations which came to me while drawing, in this way, during that time. I had been having difficulty concentrating on anything, because I would continually ask, "What is the point?" And continually find no point. My friend and I developed the hypothesis that we cannot ever figure out the point in rational thought, yet we can experience the well-being that comes when "thought-space goes to zero." In other words, perhaps the point is to concentrate, and to live and work in those environments in which we concentrate best, and not to begin to ask, "What is the use of this concentration?" because it is in concentration that we find the mental state that we want.

In addition to concentration, remember that certain environments and certain stimuli are more conducive to getting our "attention centered on our activity" than others and that perception is an activity which we are actively engaged in every moment of our lives. The positive aesthetic experience can be had simply by focusing on input from our external environment, but often, so much more effectively, we create our own personally-tailored vivid experience, by singing, imagining, moving, and playing in the ways we find, by hypothesis and experiment, send us the most.


I hope, if nothing else, I am able to appreciate all facets of experience as potentialities for the aesthetic experience, if I so desire them to be. But I have found that I am not content to stay in my room forever awed by the paint-splatters on my wall, because, somehow, I have the conception that that is not what life should be. Moreover, traditional artistic expression and appreciation are only one facet of the whole potentiality for vivid experience, and it is our tendency to seek out the whole life-experience which best and most completely fills our needs; which best and most completely stimulates us in the right ways, and our lives are our attempts to so stimulate ourselves. For each different individual it is different, and I will not now say one way is better than another, only that this is what we do, and let us realize that we all are doing the same thing, but often using different words to describe it.

I hope this paper will be known as a universal theory of aesthetics, upon which an aesthetics of every profession and every activity can be built.


The concepts in this paper were developed in conversations with many people, but most notably Gordon, with whom I discuss consciousness and experience being on Wednesdays.

The ideas in this paper could not have been communicated as effectively as they are communicated here without my friend Rebecca's critical reading of the drafts and her suggestions of changes which needed to be made. Reading through this paper with her has helped me to consider my writing from a perspective other than my own, and, I hope, forever improved my ability to communicate.


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