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The Journal of Aesthetic Education 37.1 (2003) 40-53
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Aesthetic Experience and Aesthetic Analysis
David E. W. Fenner
The "raw data" that aesthetics is meant to explain is the aesthetic experience. People have experiences that they class off from other experiences and label, as a class, the aesthetic ones. Aesthetic experience is basic, and allother things aesthetic — aesthetic properties, aesthetic objects, aesthetic attitudes — are secondary in their importance to aesthetic experiences. 1
Considering aesthetic experience as the raw data that philosophical aesthetics seeks to explain is a relatively recent phenomenon. This was certainly not the focus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Aesthetic judgment was the focus of Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, and Kant: "How do we make meaningful judgments (hopefully real ones) about the aesthetic quality of (certain) objects and events?" But with George Santayana, John Dewey, and Jerome Stolnitz, the focus changes. Now the interest is in the aesthetic experience: what makes those experiences we label "aesthetic" special? Why do we separate those experiences from others?
The movement from the Taste Theories to those focused on aesthetic experience is not a movement that is over and done with — far from it. There is still (and I think there will always be) a tension between these two very basic aspects of philosophical aesthetics. And, although I claim that aesthetic experience is the most basic thing that aesthetics studies, I recognize that this is challengeable and only true from a certain temporal viewpoint.
I recently taught the most rewarding undergraduate course in aesthetics. The reason that it was so rewarding was that the students carried the class with deep and insightful discussions, and they were not shy about challenging what was coming out of my mouth. One of the challenges that informed our entire semester focused on the tension between experience and judgment. I lectured comfortably about aesthetic experience as our "raw data," and I lectured equally comfortably about how taking an aesthetic view of an object or event meant focusing primarily, if not exclusively, on [End Page 40] what is available to us through simple sensory acquaintanceship with the object. "Aesthetics," I said, "is about the sensuous aspects of our experiences." And so we could, for instance, take an aesthetic view of a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph which precluded our experiences being mired in the themes that the more famous Mapplethorpe photos take as their content. "Mapplethorpe is a great photographer," I argued, "and one can see this if one is willing to focus strictly on what meets your eye when you look at the picture." In short, I held the position that the aesthetic view is the formal one.
Without saying more, what I did was conflate two different things. On the one hand, I argued that aesthetic experience is a natural part of life that aesthetics seeks to explore. On the other, I argued that appreciating something aesthetically was to appreciate its formal qualities, those qualities that one could access simply through looking, hearing, touching, for example. But these really are two different things.
Aesthetic experiences, if we are to treat them as "raw data," must be explored without pre-conception, prejudice, or limitation. And, truly enough, the vast majority of aesthetic experiences are not focused exclusively, in terms of their contents, on formal or simple-sensory matters. Aesthetic experiences are, first, experiences. They are complex things, having to do with things as tidy as the formal qualities of the object under consideration and with things as messy as whether one had enough sleep the night before, whether one just had a fight with his roommate, whether one is carrying psychological baggage that is brought to consciousness by this particular aesthetic object. Later in this essay, I want to explore some of this complexity.
The other side of what was happening in my class, the formal focus on the sensory as the basis for an aesthetic viewing, is not the substance of "aesthetic experience" per se. It is rather the basis of what we might call "aesthetic analysis." Aesthetic analysis has to do with separating out from our...