Art, phenomenology, and the aesthetic experience

what is art

by Brian Kantor & Nevena Niagolova

What is aesthetic experience?

This is an experience many of us have on a regular basis: You’re in a museum, a decorated hallway, someone’s yard, walking down the street. Art is everywhere.

And while the regularity of this experience dulls thoughtful reflection, there is much to consider in the interaction between ourselves and aesthetic expression.

Dissecting the senses

For years psychologists have tried to understand aesthetic experience from a more scientific perspective. For them, we can understand aesthetic experience by objective and quantitative analysis of select elements of an artwork—geometry and color, for example—and their stimulation of regions in the brain.

But is that really the best way of understand aesthetic experience?

The Greeks and the Cosmos

In search for a more complete understanding, some researchers believe we need to look back. Way back. To the Greeks.

Aristotle understand art as much more than simply the sensation it created in the mind. Art and aesthetic experience stimulated thoughts and reflection about the world.  In that way, aesthetic experience linked an individual’s mind to the wider cosmos.

Phenomenological Psychology Perspective – Totality of the Aesthetic experience

Later, philosophers of phenomenology had related thoughts, believing that art becomes art not by the sum of its parts but through its totality with which we interact.


aesthetic experience

Bringing Subjectivity

More recently, some psychologists seek to use these perspectives to improve their own understanding of aesthetic experience today. They argue that we cannot understand these experiences through reductive, quantitative analysis, but must attend to subjective experiences of the individual, namely, how the art appears differently to every individual.

The magic of art, then, is not contained in the artwork itself, but in the interaction between art, the viewer, and his or her own social history.

So next time you stumble upon a piece of art, what do you bring to the artwork, and how does your personal history shape this interaction?

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