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Aesthetic experience
Philosophy of art
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Child art & artists

What is an aesthetic experience?

In my graduate studies in the field of art education, areas that have significantly
influenced my view of art are aesthetic experience and self-realization/ revelation
through personal reflection. Dewey (1958) has viewed aesthetic experience as a
dynamic relationship with events in which we can live fully and wholly for the moment,
forgetful of time and space, as we resonate with the situation. In an aesthetic
experience, what is illuminated is a heightened sense of meaning and the 
realization of value that is first emotionally internalized through our senses, and later,
realized intellectually (Dewey, 1958, p.38).

There is a difference between those ordinary moments of life characterized by
'distraction and dispersion' and those moments, however rare, in which " the material
experienced runs its course to fulfillment" (Dewey, 1958, p.35). This latter is an
experience and the aesthetic is the qualitative aspect of an experience that arouses
our emotions when all the functioning parts in a situation are interrelated toward a
complete whole. 

An experience is not necessarily pleasurable or gleeful. It may enter into our lives 
so as to become touchstones of our understanding through which we interpret other
experiences. In his book, Art as Experience, Dewey says:
"Struggle and conflict may be themselves enjoyed, although they are painful, when
they are experienced as means of developing an experience….For 'taking in' in any 
vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of 
consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction, which 
may be painful…. (P.41)"

An example of my personal contact with such an experience would enhance the 
subject more clearly. I have realized physically and intellectually the extreme
importance of an aesthetic experience in art. There are those rare aesthetic
experiences that lead to personal revelation.

An example of such an experience is described as follows:

I am sitting in a classroom. The room is dark and the teacher is showing slides 
of abstract expressionist painters. A slide of Hans Hoffman's painting is on the wall 
and the teacher is analyzing and explaining the work. He clicks to the next slide, 
which is "woman I" by Wiliem De Kooning. There is a painting of a woman right in 
my face. My first reaction is "WOW". My chest moves forward as I breath the air 
deeply and my back straightens. I am trying to connect with the painting and digest
the information pouring from the image. I hear the sound of my breathing and sense
my eyes moving quickly to every corner of the painting in order to grasp its 
powerful presence.

My eyes cannot concentrate on one area of the painting, as they move from one 
line, brush stroke and shape to the next one, almost like trying to swallow the 
painting all at once. My heartbeats are getting faster and faster. For a second I 
look at other people in the dark. They all look very calm and unaffected by the 
painting. It seems that I am alone in this visceral experience and I move 
uncomfortably in my seat.

My feelings are a mixture of excitement, joy, fear and pain. I have never seen 
a woman painted this way before. I feel weak in the presence of this powerful

All of these thoughts are passing through my mind quickly in a fraction of time. 
Now that my eyes have touched all parts of the painting, they have stopped
wandering and slowly the whole woman is visible all at once. Now that I have 
"taken in" the image, I can breath a little easier.

Here I have described the emotional component of my aesthetic experience. After
feeling came a realization. I realized that I see myself in the image of that woman. 
This realization later on led to self- reflection as to how I view myself and why. 
My self- reflection was the closure part of my aesthetic experience because it helped
me to grow internally and be a better-adjusted person.

My aesthetic experience had all the three components of an experience that Dewey
talks about. They are emotion, closure and structure or form. I have already clarified
the emotional component of an aesthetic experience. Closure refers to the sense of
intrinsic completion, value and meaning that one arrives at through the experience. 
My self- realization through intellectual reflection was the closure component of my
aesthetic experience. Dewey mentions that for an experience to occur form must be a
constant gathering together as well as an opening up. This is achieved through the
relational, rhythmic structure of the work that is successfully organized. My aesthetic
experience occurred because there was a successful, organized form (the painting) in
front of me to look at.

The artist materializes his emotions and thoughts through organized forms, called
expression, and the viewer realizes that expression only when the material of the
work is successfully organized by the artist. In other words, "the form, then, is
transitive as well as transformational activity which passes from the interaction of the
creator and his material to the interaction of the work and the audience. The form is no
more in the object than in the mind -It is the organization of response to the
material" (Alexander, 1987, p.235).

Work Cited

Alexander, Thomas M. (1987). John Dewey's Theory of Art, Experience & Nature: 
The Horizons of Feeling, New York: State University of New York.

Dewey, John. (1958). Art as Experience, New York: Capricorn Books.