The Initial Experience of Things – Perception and Aesthetics

There have been many different answers to the question of what conditions are required to constitute an aesthetic experience. Be it Kant’s disinterested contemplation, imaginative free play, or Hume’s concept of the ideal observer. All seem to be focused on a relatively restricted set of conditions in which the experience can be said to allow for an accurate aesthetic judgement. Within a certain set of conditions, it may be true enough, though the merit of aesthetic judgement itself is not our concern here. Instead let us turn attention towards the initial conditions and components of involved aesthetic experience prior to aesthetic judgement.

Certain conditions no doubt aide in allowing for the disinterested contemplation of an aesthetic object – but this is limited as it simply cannot consider everyday aesthetic experiences. The example of museums or art galleries create an environment of serene calm and quiet where one is invited not just into aesthetic experience but is encouraged to delve much deeper into the experience through imaginative free play and contemplation. Such conditions may well provide the conditions necessary to allow for the most appropriate normative cognitive value judgement of aesthetic objects – but not everywhere is an art gallery or museum. One can as it were, place themselves in the position of the ideal observer in such experience, but ideal conditions are rarely present in the real world. Rarely are conditions just right in everyday life to allow us to reside in such a space, yet we spend an enormous amount of money and time on the beautification on cities and towns through the maintenance of park-lands and green-spaces as well as various works of art that can be found throughout most modern cities despite the non-ideal conditions associated with their experience. While art galleries and museums may create the ideal conditions to place one in the best position to appropriately judge a work of art, it does not seem to be necessary in everyday aesthetic experience. There does seem to be some clouding between everyday perception and everyday aesthetic experience where aesthetics seems to be a common component of everyday perception – but when we are engaged aesthetically our focus and attention is able to look past distraction. We observe and categories the object we are perceiving judging its formal and secondary qualities against our prior experience of similar objects and our non-cognitive response to the objects color, size, shape and comparison to other similar objects.

This blurring of the distinction between perception and aesthetics is quite deliberate and is a subject that will undoubtedly come up again in far more detail as it is important to do justice to perception itself and not simply collapse it into aesthetic experience. Aesthetics is an important component of perception, but it is contextual and relational to other kinds of experiences. Suffice to say that for everyday experience aesthetics seems to be something that permeates through a wide range of human experiences, it is not clear most of the time where our aesthetic engagement begins with an object and where it ends – though this concept is a thesis all its own. For now, let us return to the subject of aesthetic experience and continue our focus here. There seems to be a sense in which we partake in aesthetic experiences throughout our daily lives – where our ordinary everyday experience of reality is shaped in a very significant way by the way we aesthetically experience the world around us. The way we aesthetically perceive the formal qualities of a Bear as well as our proximity and relation to us will determine the kind of response that is triggered in out minds. If one sees a large angry Bear that is charging at us, then our response is unlikely to be aesthetic judgement even though our response to the bear is informed by its aesthetic qualities. Much of out everyday lives seems to function this way, where our initial response to an object is generally of its aesthetic qualities, replace the Bear with a cute happy puppy and the response is very different yet still informed by the aesthetic qualities of the experience.

Here is also a question of cognition and whether this kind of experience has any cognitive experience at all involved. One possible response is that this simply cannot be an aesthetic experience at all since the lack of cognition means our aesthetic taste and subsequent judgement is incomplete without a cognitive contemplation of our knowledge and imagination of the object at hand. But I am not so convinced of this claim – since we make seemingly trivial aesthetic assessments of formal and secondary qualities all the time in our everyday experience. Our tastes seem to be limited in these experiences yet there is still cognition of what we are experiencing, through its formal qualities as well as our prior knowledge and experience of similar objects – we assess not only the object itself but its relation to us (ie, is it a threat?). If we take this view on board, what can be said about the cognitive approach to aesthetic judgement?

One might note that we have not yet added much of significance about aesthetic value, and this is because value judgements are almost exclusively cognitive in their formation – and contingent on our ability to perceive aesthetically beyond our subject response to formal and secondary qualities of the object. To make a judgement of any kind implies the assigning of value (positive or negative) to an object or experience – be it aesthetic, moral or scientific. The value we assign any object is contingent on our reason and cognition and it dependent on the conditions through which we experience. Suppose we place the charging Bear in the context of zoo where we can avoid the immediate sense of threat the animal poses – it is in this state that we are able to adequately judge the animals aesthetic qualities (though a zoo may not be the best example – perhaps a nature reserve where we observe a bear through binoculars from a safe distance).

Cognitively, we conceive of a mountains origin and formation, and the role it plays in present ecology and evolution of life before we assign it any value at all – and this is separate to our initial regard for the shadow it casts over the valley below or the blanket of tree tops the cover the lower part of the slopes. We may appreciate these formal properties of course, but that appreciation is limited to immediate experience which is subjective to the individual and thus meaningful value since it is subjective in this case – I personally find that mountain with those qualities valuable but for others there is no guarantee they will hold it in the same regard without a cognitive understanding of its objective properties. Subjective experience will offer no significant weight since value must be transferable between individuals and socially agreed upon – if it is to have any impact socially others must find an objects objective quality to be of value (ie, the qualities expressed in cognitive reflection). However, this does not mean initial experience is meaningless because it is subjective, nor does it mean that our initial experiences stand in contrast or opposition to our cognitive judgement. Without our direct experience of formal qualities and properties, we cannot truly value something aesthetically. It would seem strange for instance if a friend told us that the new Deadpool movie is amazing, even though they had not seen it. We simply could not take their judgement seriously at all, even if they claim to have read it in a critical review of the movie. That experiential component is what makes the experience sensual and meaningful to us. Such that it becomes “my” experience and that is separate from “your” experience. Nevertheless, the subjective appreciation of formal qualities and cognitively conceived reflection on our knowledge and imaginative interaction seems to complement the experience allowing us to formulate a more complete judgement – particularly in the realm of aesthetics where direct experience is a requirement.

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