In this paper aesthetic experience is defined as an experience different from everyday experience and similar to other exceptional states of mind. Three crucial characteristics of aesthetic experience are discussed: fascination with an aesthetic object (high arousal and attention), appraisal of the symbolic reality of an object (high cognitive engagement), and a strong feeling of unity with the object of aesthetic fascination and aesthetic appraisal.
Aesthetic experience is one of the most important but also one of the vaguest and most poorly specified concepts of art and aesthetics. The purpose of this paper is to provide a more explicit definition of this phenomenon and to propose a tentative design of underlying motivational, cognitive, and emotional processes and dispositions.
Generally, aesthetic experience can be defined as a special state of mind that is qualitatively different from the everyday experience. Aesthetic experience is a psychological process in which the attention is focused on the object while all other objects, events, and everyday concerns are suppressed. Similarly, defined aesthetic experience as a special kind of subject-object relationship in which a particular object strongly engages the subject's mind, shadowing all other surrounding objects and events. In both definitions, aesthetic situations and objects of aesthetic interest are specified as fundamentally different from everyday situations and objects of everyday use.
In my opinion aesthetic experience does not belong to the same class of reality as aesthetic preference, liking, the judgment of beauty, and so on. Unlike aesthetic experience, which is an exceptional state of mind, liking and the judgment of beauty belong to the domain of everyday experience with everyday objects. However, beauty can be a generator of aesthetic experience, but only if it transcends its biological, psychological, and social functions and gets new ‘aesthetic’ meanings in the symbolic (‘virtual’) reality. Namely, in aesthetic experience the object of beauty is not seen as a tool for the satisfaction of bodily needs, but rather as a provocation of the higher level pleasures, such as pleasures of the mind. In other words, to be a part of an aesthetic experience, beauty must transcend from its practical to aesthetic values—that is, a beautiful object must become an object of beauty. According to this, even ugly things can elicit aesthetic experience.
Aesthetic experience is similar to the occurrence referred to by the concept of flow or optimal mental processing. Flow is defined as an effortless mental energy flow caused by the awareness of harmony between incoming information and our goals. During this state of mind people are intensively immersed in what they are doing, with strong involvement in the process of the activity. Similarly to aesthetic experience, in this mental state attention is highly concentrated on a particular object or activity, which induces a distortion of the sense of time and a loss of self-consciousness.
Aesthetic experience is also closely related to peak experience. In peak experiences, attention is fully engaged and focused on a particular object, while the object is seen as detached from its everyday purpose and usefulness. Like in the state of flow, the person is self-transcending, self-forgetful, and disoriented in time and space. Generally speaking, peak experiences can be identified in all states of mental focusing on meditation, such as mindfulness. Also, it is close to spiritual transcendence, which is the feeling of connectedness and unity with other people, life, nature, and the like. Like in peak experience, in spiritual transcendence persons focus the world from a larger perspective, losing the immediate sense of time and space.
Aesthetic experience can be associated with the concept of absorption. Absorption is the disposition of having episodes of amplified attention that fully engage the subject's mental (perceptual, representational) and executive (motor) resources. For instance, absorption can emerge when a person is watching Noh or Kabuki theatre, reading Haiku, listening to the music of a Shakuhachi flute, observing Tsuba’s, and the like. In these situations he or she loses awareness of the surrounding environment and becomes fully engaged in the symbolic world.
Aesthetic experience: summary of preliminary definitions
In the preliminary definitions of aesthetic experience and similar phenomena, three characteristics can be identified as crucial and distinctive.
The first characteristic refers to the motivational, orientational or attentive aspect of aesthetic experience. During the aesthetic experience persons are in the state of intense attention engagement and high vigilance; they are strongly focused on and fascinated with a particular object. They lose their self-consciousness, the awareness of the surrounding environment, and the sense of time.
The second characteristic refers to the cognitive, that is, semantic, symbolic, and imaginative aspect of aesthetic experience: a person appraises the aesthetic objects and events as parts of a symbolic or ‘virtual’ reality and transcends their everyday uses and meanings (eg; in Kabuki theatre we are worried about the characters, not the actors, etc).
Finally, the third characteristic of aesthetic experience is affective. It refers to the exceptional emotional experience: a person has a strong and clear feeling of unity with the object of aesthetic fascination and aesthetic appraisal.
The structure of aesthetic experience
In the previous paragraphs the characteristics of aesthetic experience were derived from conceptual definitions and analyses. In my recent studies similar characteristics of aesthetic experience were specified empirically. Aesthetic experience is a special kind of subject-object relationship—that is, a fascination with an object, appraisal of profound meanings of an object, and a corresponding feeling of an exceptional relationship with an object.
Correlational analysis has shown that the Aesthetic Experience is closest to the factor Arousal, that is, the interest in art objects: the greater the arousal, the greater the aesthetic fascination. Generally speaking, these results suggest that the object of aesthetic experience can be both pleasant and unpleasant and both more or less regular, but it must be arousing and interesting. The aesthetic effect of arousal was the central issue of relationship between preference, arousal and the so-called collative variables (complexity, uncertainty, novelty, ambiguity, etc): complex, irregular, and unusual stimuli have greater arousing potential; they draw more attention and are experienced as more interesting and attractive than simple, regular, and ordinary stimuli. Aesthetic fascination, as a part of aesthetic experience, is based on similar processes, but in this case the attention, the vigilance, and the mental activity are particularly intense (high concentration), more extensive (wide range of attention and mental activities), and longer-lasting (maintenance of vigilance). Aesthetic fascination will be more precisely specified in the following paragraphs, which concern the functional relationship between aesthetic fascination, appraisal, and feelings.
The function of aesthetic experience
Aesthetic information processing is usually described as a multi-stage process. Many designs agree on the notion that the process starts with stimulus input, then continues through several processing stages, which are connected to deeper memorial instances, and ends in the final decision making, which is an evaluative judgment of the stimulus. For instance, aesthetic information processing passes through three stages: two earlier stages are focused on two distinct categories of stimulus properties (symmetry and complexity), whereas the later stage elaborates a deeper semantic aspect of the object. Accordingly, an aesthetic response can be realized from each stage of processing, which explains the variability of aesthetic taste (eg, preference for simplicity vs. preference for complexity).
Visual information processing (perceptual analysis, grouping, and object recognition) elicits emotional processes, and the emotional processes send feedback information into the perceptual and cognitive system via attentional mechanisms. The three-component design of aesthetic preference, emotional and cognitive processes are put into the same structure and associated with corresponding equals. The first component encompasses two aspects of emotional response, such as the representation of the reward value of the stimulus and attentional regulation, which is associated with the awareness of the emotional state. The second component refers to the enhancement of early visual processing, and the third component is decision-making.
The most comprehensive design of aesthetic information processing is the five-stage design. The design includes the following stages: (1) perceptual analysis (eg, processing of complexity, symmetry, etc); (2) implicit memory integration (the processing of familiarity, prototypicality, etc); (3) explicit classification (the processing of style and content); (4) cognitive mastering (art-specific versus self-related interpretations); and (5) evaluation (measuring of mastering success). One of the most important points in this design is a feedback-loop between mastering and evaluation: the results of cognitive mastering are continuously evaluated in relation to how successfully the artwork is understood. In other words, the evaluation stage guides and initializes the further aesthetic processing by measuring its success. Finally, the evaluation process ends with two parallel outputs: aesthetic judgment (eg, judgment of artwork's beauty) and aesthetic emotion (eg, feeling of pleasure). According to this design, all processing stages are accompanied by emotions. Successful processing results in positive affective states (pleasure or satisfaction), whereas non-successful processing results in negative emotions.
All proposed designs deal with the temporally distributed stages of information processing which ends with a single outcome—aesthetic decision, response, or judgment. An exception is the design, which ends with two outputs—aesthetic judgment and aesthetic emotion. For the purpose of our interest, these designs are not completely satisfying because they were not focused on the factors and mechanisms which generate the aesthetic experience itself, as an exceptional state of mind. However, they have some elements which are important and interesting for creating the ideal of aesthetic experience. I found the following elements particularly important: (a) feedback relationship between perceptual-cognitive and emotional processes, (b) the role of attentional mechanisms in aesthetic information processing, and (c) the distinction between earlier (perceptual) stages, focused to physical features of an object, and later (cognitive) stages, which are responsible for the appraisal of the semantic aspects of artworks.
Our tentative design of the most elementary functional relationships between different domains of aesthetic experience has two general stages, the initial and the main stage. The initial stage begins with the perceptual and cognitive appraisal of a tsuba’s basic properties, such as complexity, regularity, familiarity, and the like. If the tsuba is appraised as interesting, then arousal and attention are amplifying, while the affective consequence of this process is a state of excitement. Excitement can be more or less pleasurable, which is affected by both more pleasant (eg, attractive, graceful, erotic, etc.) and less pleasant (eg, strange, bizarre, deformed, etc.) stimuli. The increased excitement additionally amplifies the attention through the feedback connections. At this level, the amplification of attention is crucial because it adds the ‘fuel’ to the cognitive system, and thus it supports the cognitive preparation for the further exploration of the piece.
Fascination is defined as a state of intensive, extensive, and long-term concentration and vigilance, which continuously ‘feeds’ and energizes the cognitive system. This contributes to the efficacy and ease of further appraisals, which is particularly important for the processing of highly sophisticated artistic works. This process is accompanied with a feeling of an exceptional and unique relationship with the object of fascination. Like in the initial stage, the aesthetic emotion affects the maintenance of fascination via feedback connections, which indirectly contributes to the efficiency of the appraisal process.
To summarize, aesthetic emotions are defined as feelings of unity and exceptional relationship with the objects of aesthetic experience. Aesthetic emotions, such as admiration, delight, rapture, awe and so on, are induced by the appraisal of the artwork's or natural object's form (eg: symbolic structure), and they are basically pleasurable. On the other hand, the emotions induced by the appraisal of the content of artwork can be both pleasurable and un-pleasurable. The processing of aesthetic information is based on cognitive structures which are capable of solving perceptually and meaningful demanding tasks, such as integration of multi-level perceptual, symbolic, and affective information, and so on. Successful realization of such complex mental activities requires high concentration and awareness and efficient working memory processing. Our design emphasizes the role of general arousal and attention (fascination) in ‘energizing’ the cognitive processes and expanding the short-term memory workspace for aesthetic information processing.
The aesthetic experience is specified as an exceptional state of mind which is qualitatively different from ‘normal’ everyday mental states. In this mental state, a person is fascinated with a particular object, whereas the surrounding environment is shadowed, self-awareness is reduced, and the sense of time is distorted. Amplified arousal and attention provide the additional energy which is needed for the effective appraisal of symbolism and compositional regularities in ‘virtual’ aesthetic realities. Finally, during this process a person has a strong feeling of unity and the exceptional relationship with the object of aesthetic fascination and aesthetic appraisal. The findings from previous studies suggested that aesthetic experience is closer to arousal (interestingness) than other dimensions of subjective experience, and regularity (harmony): the object of aesthetic experience can be both pleasant and unpleasant and both more and less regular, but it must be arousing and interesting. Interestingness plays an important role in generating the aesthetic experience: appraisal of interestingness opens a ‘mental space’ for further aesthetic appraisals and continuous aesthetic fascination.
According to my approach, aesthetic experience can focus on a wide spectrum of objects, including intentionally created artworks and aesthetically designed objects (eg: tsuba, kodogu), natural Japanese gardens and Tea Ceremonies, human beings and animals, objects of everyday use, and so on. The main condition that such objects must satisfy to become the objects of aesthetic experience is to exceed from the practical to the aesthetic level of meaning. Artworks are not automatically and objectively the objects of aesthetic experience. For many non-experts, artworks are rather seen as the ornamental parts of the everyday environment than as exceptional objects with deeper aesthetic symbolism.
Finally, the more comprehensive approach to aesthetic experience should take into account its biological and psychological functions. We can speculate that the function of aesthetic experience comprises the functions of two groups of close phenomena, such as other exceptional experiences (eg, peak experiences, flow, etc) and the experience of beauty (eg, pleasure, attraction, harmony, etc). In my opinion, the purpose of aesthetic experience could be described as a ‘winning’ combination of a strong tendency associated with the experience of beauty and a certain intrinsic ‘liberating’ tendency associated with exceptional states of mind and similar phenomena. I believe that in the future the awareness and states of consciousness could be very fruitful for the better understanding of the basic function of aesthetic experience.