In the 1960s, philosopher George Dickie wrote a series of articles trying to debunk some of the then current ideas about aesthetics, calling them phantoms or myths. What he was referring to was the notion of a specific aesthetic attitude we can identify and assume, and the idea that works of art cause a particular kind of experience we’d have to call aesthetic. When we look at today’s discourse, it seems that he was fighting for a lost cause – aesthetic experience is more alive than ever. In large parts of philosophical aesthetics, aesthetic experience has become the default mode of addressing problems of art, and in psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, aesthetic experience has become a popular topic of inquiry.
Denying the existence of something that has such a solid presence in discourse is an unconvincing move: if aesthetic experience doesn’t exist, what is it that everyone talks about? And what about our own experience: are we deluded when we feel that there is something peculiar and specific that happens when we are encountering a powerful or challenging video installation or an inexplicably impressive sunset, something that is not the same as the feeling of having an animated conversation with someone we like, or taking a warm bath? Hardly.
The trouble starts when we try to define and demarcate aesthetic experience and, particularly, when we try to measure it. For instance, if in any given situation of engaging with music, we react to it and interact with it in multiple ways in various sensory, cognitive, and bodily registers, which of these reactions and interactions can be identified as properly aesthetic? Is me tapping my foot an aesthetic response? Can my memory of when I first heard the tune and the rush of emotionally charged associations it brings with it be called aesthetic? And what about my analytical grasp of its structure, if indeed I do grasp it? We would probably be wary of calling any response to music or art aesthetic but where do we draw the line – and why? If any encounter with art involves some kind of understanding and emotional reaction (does it?), is there a specifically aesthetic understanding and are there aesthetic emotions? And can we free the notion of the aesthetic from its traditional association with the autonomy of art in order to turn it into a cross-cultural, or even universal, concept?
I don’t mean to brush aside or downplay the numerous attempts to give answers to these questions. The problem might be assuming that there is indeed something in the world, in our minds and brains, whose precise identification and meticulous description will answer them clearly and unambiguously. In a way we are still spellbound by Kant and especially by his interpreter Schiller, assuming that there is something out there (or rather in there) that connects our bodies and minds but isn’t tainted by our everyday needs and wants, something that holds the promise of freedom and autonomy.
Aesthetic experience is not a mere figment but it is a discursive invention – a way of drawing together modes of experiencing something and associating them with certain classes of objects and with a socially instituted practice, thus creating a “thing” whose nature and boundaries we can question. In a way this meant creating a new kind of experience that the ancients hadn’t known. For instance, Aristotle’s eleos and phobos (misery and shudder), the prime emotions the viewer experiences or should experience in a tragedy, are obviously not the same as the popular contemporary categories of wonder, awe, or being moved. Does this difference indicate that either set of emotions doesn’t really exist or isn’t relevant to our interactions with art? Of course not. Experience is a fluid and malleable affair, and our ways of making sense of it, talking about it, and imposing norms on it shape it in fundamental ways. But if there is anything that all the different attempts to define and delimit aesthetic experience show, it is that we are talking about a complex of different modes, aspects, and/or dimensions of experience, rather than a unified thing.
Nelson Goodman suggested speaking of “symptoms” of art rather than features or defining traits. He obviously didn’t mean that art is a disease (even though such a view might open up some interesting perspectives) but rather that it cannot be defined conclusively. As he understood it, any instance of art is characterized by a constellation of several of these symptoms but not necessarily all of them. I would suggest taking this medical metaphor one step further. Relying on symptoms to define a disease can only be a first step in scientific medicine. What counts is its etiology, its actual cause or causes whose recognition would ideally allow medicine to fight it directly and not just alleviate its symptoms. But sometimes medicine encounters diseases whose etiology remains unclear so that they must be defined by a certain constellation of often seemingly unrelated symptoms. They are called syndromes.
Any definition of a syndrome is given until further notice, as it were. Sometimes new symptoms are discovered, sometimes others are deleted from the defining constellation. The search for a cause continues but may be abandoned after decades of research. The syndrome thus acquires some stability but continues to lack a pathophysiological anchoring point. In the absence of such a point of reference the syndrome is often named after the person who first described it.
Maybe aesthetic experience should be considered a syndrome whose empty center will not be filled. It is not a thing but a way of interpreting a constellation of different symptoms whose nature, number, and relation has and will continue to be a contested matter. Recognizing this might lead us to refrain from asking what aesthetic experience “is” while continuing to investigate what people experience in the face of works of art, how they account for their experiences, and what role our own questions and concepts play. And naming the syndrome after its inventors might help contextualizing it and gaining some historical perspective. It might even make us question some of our most cherished ideas about the Kant-Schiller Syndrome.
I do not find it all that shocking that aesthetic experience can be reduced down to only physical and emotional reactions. What more could it be than just that? But, asking that question is a fundamentally philosophical one, not an empirical question. Observations are what the empirical researcher is interested in.
The only way that something like beauty could exist outside of human experience would be if it were a thing that exists outside of physical reality, i.e., God. So, I think one has to start at the absolute beginning: can something come from nothing?