The connection between humor and aesthetic experience has already been recognized by several thinkers and aesthetic educators. For instance, humor theorist John Morreall writes that "humor is best understood as itself a kind of aesthetic experience, equal in value at least to any other kind of aesthetic experience."1 For Morreall, both humor and aesthetic experience involve the use of the imagination, are accompanied by a sense of freedom, and often lead to surprises that we did not anticipate. Another theorist has noted that the appreciation of specific kinds of humor and particular aesthetic experiences versus others are often matters of taste.2 Still other researchers have argued that aesthetic matters play a crucial role in certain kinds of humor that they call "advertent."3
In this essay I would like to extend the research of Morreall and others who have examined the various connections between humor and aesthetics by focusing on that which is unique about humor and sets it apart from other types of aesthetic experiences. I begin my analysis by describing the nature and purpose of aesthetic experience while briefly distinguishing it from other human endeavors. In the next part, I discuss some of the most important characteristics that humor shares with aesthetic experience. I then proceed to identify that which distinguishes humor from aesthetic experience in general as well as that which is unique for aesthetics. The final part of this essay takes an in-depth look at the shift produced by both humor and aesthetic experience. I argue that although it may be the case that both humor and aesthetic experience create a shift in the viewer, the kind of shift we experience in each is generally quite different. [End Page 110]
The Nature of Aesthetic Experience
Perhaps the most important characteristic shared by the vast majority of aesthetic experiences is that they have intrinsic value for people. Unlike other human pursuits and endeavors, aesthetic experiences are not instrumental, which means that they are not motivated by goals (like money or fame) that are extrinsic to the activity itself. As Elliott Eisner writes, "Aesthetic experience is a process emerging out of the act itself. Unlike so many other types of human activities the experience that constitutes art does not begin when the inquiry is over—it is not something at the end of a journey, it is part of the journey itself."4 Margaret Macintyre Latta agrees with Eisner, noting that the significance of the aesthetic experience is not really evaluated by the product (that is, the artistic object) but rather by the process of making art.5 For Latta, this process involves the acts of interpreting, constructing meaning, and engaging in dialogue with nature and the canvas she is painting on.
Aesthetic experience is, therefore, quite different from other human activities such as work, which is frequently driven by external motives; therapy, in which we concentrate on understanding and treating our own symptoms and feelings or those of others; and even studying, which is all too often a means to attain another end. As such, aesthetic experience is much more like play, which people, and especially children, do for the sheer enjoyment that it provides. Several theorists have pointed out that aesthetic experience presupposes a kind of distancing or emotional detachment from practical concerns and immediate threats.6 However, the term "emotional detachment" can be misleading since people who have an aesthetic experience are actually deeply engaged with the aesthetic object. The detachment that people feel in aesthetic experience is a distancing from our everyday duties and responsibilities for the sake of being engrossed in the experience itself.
Paradoxically, while aesthetic experiences are not instrumental, one of the most important characteristics of these experiences, as Michael Parsons notes, is that they are object-centered—meaning that they are "focused on the qualities of some object external to the self."7 When we are engaged in any kind of aesthetic experience, whether admiring some paintings in an art museum, listening to a musical performance, or gazing at a beautiful sunset, the focus of our attention is on the aesthetic object rather than on...