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The Subject of Aesthetics

by Tone Roald
Brill Rodopi, Amsterdam, NL, 2015
174 pp. Paper, €44,00
ISBN: 9789004308718.

Reviewed by George K. Shortess
Department of Psychology, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA


This book is a report of an investigation of aesthetic experiences based in the visual arts. It describes a very good approach for tapping directly into that experience, using qualitative, empirical methods that are framed in terms of philosophical theories of aesthetics, with particular emphasis on Merleau-Ponty, Jauss, and other phenomenologists.

The Introduction gives the overall framework for the book. Chapters 1 and 2 provide a fine overview of the history of the study of aesthetics, in both philosophy and psychology. Chapter 3 provides a discussion of qualitative methodology employed in the empirical research. Chapter 4 reports and interprets the empirical data collected. In it the author develops the idea of intrapellation as a process that is central to the aesthetic experience. Chapter 5 provides further discussion of the aesthetic experience (as outlined in Chapter 4) in the context of aesthetic theories, followed by a very helpful conclusion.

As the author points out, researchers in empirical aesthetics, in the tradition of Alexander Baumgarten, have usually investigated the characteristics of conventionally defined art objects in settings that do not promote the aesthetic experiences of the viewers of these objects. This is somewhat understandable because science usually tackles the easier and more controllable phenomena first. However, while interesting in its own right, this approach tends to avoid trying to understand the experience of art directly.

The Subject of Aesthetics, on the other hand, attacks the experience directly. Throughout the discussion of data, the author emphasizes that the aesthetic experience is characterized by intense interest, rather than disinterested contemplation, as some theorists have argued. Central to the author's conclusions developed from her interview data is Intrapellation, which reflects the important time dependent character of the aesthetic experience. It is the process in which the viewer of the artwork first seeks meaning (although it can involve other reactions to the work), followed by the work providing feedback (sometimes a shocking rupture) to the viewer. This interaction continues back and forth in a flexible and rather free manner. Art objects can then be defined as objects that produce this kind of aesthetic experience, which suggests that potentially any object can function that way with an individual.

There is a good discussion of methodology overall. However, in describing her own procedures, the author should provide more details about how subjects were recruited, what their backgrounds are, and more details on where and how the interviews were conducted. She does give references, but it would be helpful to provide more specific details in the book. Further, since all of the analysis was done by the author it would strengthen the findings if a second evaluator looked at the raw data independently. Even in her brief review of empirical aesthetics, a mention of Daniel Berlyne would have been a thoughtful touch, given the magnitude of his influence.

As the author recognizes, the results are limited by the use of verbal language in describing aesthetic experiences. Subjects often stated that they were unable to precisely describe the experience. In addition, a significant component of discussions of aesthetic experience deals with the possibility of experience before consciousness. This suggests the need for other ways for understand the experience. Two possibilities are using a new language and measuring direct physiological responses (possibly neural activity) at the time of the experience. Precisely how to follow either of these pathways is at present very unclear. However, developing further and extending the approach used in The Subject of Aesthetics may help to provide further insight in the aesthetic experience.

As a cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist with research interests in perception and empirical aesthetics, I recommend this book to anyone interested in understanding the aesthetic experience, but particularly to those with an empirical aesthetics background. It may help to bridge the gap.

Last Updated 1 April 2016

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