Educating for Aesthetic Experiences

Laura D’Olimpio shares an excerpt from her new book The Necessity of Aesthetic Education: The Place of the Arts on the Curriculum (Bloomsbury, 2024).

Educating for aesthetic experiences

An aesthetic experience arises from engaging in a particular way – a way that is open and receptive to what is there to be experienced – with something – for instance, an art object or art performance or one’s surroundings, in nature or a church for example. An aesthetic experience is an extension of experience, yet, as John Dewey argues in Art as Experience, we must distinguish an experience from a continuous experience, and aesthetic experience constitutes an experience. An experience is both integrated with and demarcated from the rest of experience (see Dewey and Collinson), and aesthetic experiences may vary widely. The imagination has a central role to play in such experiences and all conscious experience has some imaginative quality for Dewey, through which meaning is gleaned. Significantly, aesthetic experience is connected to the ‘something’ (an art object, say) and the mode of perception the viewer uses to engage with or contemplate it. As soon as the spectator attends to the art object in question, they invoke mental activity, which includes one’s images, concepts and emotions, all of which are connected to the art object, and it is the aesthetic experience that is emergent, transcendent, and valuable.

The experiences that emerge as a result of engaging with artworks are multiple, dynamic and complex. This can make it extremely difficult to define aesthetic experience, and, when we try to describe the experience associated with a certain object, such as a theatre performance or a song or an impressive waterfall, we often find ourselves describing the object. I follow Beardsley in claiming that an aesthetic experience results when one’s mental activity is concentrated on the ‘sensuously presented or imaginatively intended object’ (i.e. an artwork, performance, or natural beauty in the form of a waterfall or sunset) which brings pleasure to the perceiver, but there is more to be said about the nature of aesthetic experiences.

The aesthetic experience can create a moment of focus and stillness as one’s attention is absorbed by the object in question, and one is expectant as to what will be revealed or felt; in this way, the person is open to experiencing what is there to be experienced and receptive to what meaning may be made as a result of the feelings and thoughts that arise in relation to that which provokes this experience. It is this kind of attentiveness that is being referred to when aestheticians say that the artwork is being valued or appreciated for its own sake. Dewey, says Collison, notes that aesthetic experiences are most definitely tied to the art object that affords the experience, and the experience is valuable in and of itself.

An object, Dewey says, ‘is peculiarly and dominantly aesthetic, yielding the enjoyment characteristic of aesthetic perception, when the factors that determine anything which can be called an experience are lifted high above the threshold of perception and are made manifest for their own sake.’ This quote highlights the connection between the object perceived and the experience that arises from this imaginative engagement, as well as the value of the experience as being for its own sake rather than being used in an instrumental manner to gain some other good or goal. What is significant is that aesthetic experience is an experience in relation to an object or place (i.e. an artwork, performance, or natural beauty such as a sunset or lush forest or the beach) that may result from a mode of contemplation and this experience included elements of both cognition and feeling. It also involves the imagination. Aesthetic experiences possess a phenomenological quality that includes being absorbed, focussed and open and receptive to the object under contemplation, with a curiosity and excited expectation as to what may be revealed through one’s engagement with (and perception of) the object. Collinson notes that ‘aesthetic contemplation … has both passive and active aspects,’ and C. S. Lewis was surely right when he observed that ‘The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender.’ But contemplation maintains a dialogue with what is perceived.’ Aesthetic experiences may come upon us when we are not expecting them, but they may also emerge and result when we are engaging with art objects in a particular, open, contemplative and imaginative manner.

As Eaton argues:

A work of art is an artifact that is treated in aesthetically relevant ways, at least when it is being considered as a work of art, not as a doorstop or an alarm. Things are art when they are treated in such a way that someone who is fluent in a culture directs attention to an artifact’s intrinsic properties that are considered worthy of attention (perception and/or reflection) within that culture. Furthermore, the person who attends to the artifact and has what he or she would describe as an aesthetic experience realises that the experience is caused, at least in large part, because he or she is attending to intrinsic properties of the artifact considered worthy of attention in his or her community.

Thus, our aesthetic experiences result from the connection between art and perception, and, as such is partly biological and partly socialised. It is a specific kind of seeing that the arts encourage. The vision adopted is one that truly looks and sees, sympathetically, with an open respect for that which is being received. Art, as Hepburn puts it, is often associated with a feeling of the sublime or of wonder, which brings with it the ‘expansion of cognition’ and ‘intensity of perception.’ Again, while this is a natural ability we have, it is enhanced and supported through education, not solely to enhance our experiences and make us more receptive to encountering and embracing aesthetic experiences, but also to help us realise that it is artworks that may afford such experiences due to their intrinsic function or distinctive value.

Art teachers can assist students to see in a particular way – attending to form and specific details and ‘reading’ the artworks in ways that are required and invited by specific media and texts in order to glean the meaning and experience the affect that is there to be experienced. This ‘aesthetic literacy’ is a skill set that art teachers can teach their students, enabling them to make meaning from artworks that connects to and draws upon formal, aesthetic, historical and technical knowledge and understanding of artworks, art forms and various media. Art teachers must, therefore, have specialist knowledge and training themselves in order to be able to support their students to learn about, for instance, art history, aesthetic theory, as well as the technical skills involved in art making. In this respect, I agree with Maxine Greene, yet, as should by now be apparent, I see a much closer connection between aesthetic experience and ordinary experience than that which seems to be allowed for upon Greene’s account.

When students create their own artworks, art teachers can guide them to hone their perception in relation to their own work as well as learn and practise the skills and techniques required in order to manifest the form they have in mind. This is to say that teachers can role-model, and assist students in learning to adopt, the open, receptive mode of perception towards artworks that is conducive to perceiving the artwork aesthetically as well as to experiencing a feeling of awe and wonder in relation to the art object. While such a mode of perception and the accompanying aesthetic experiences of the sublime or delight may well come naturally and even frequently to some, this is not to say that there is not also an important role for teachers in supporting such aesthetic literacy. Aesthetic literacy involves practising an open and receptive mode of perception: it includes engaging imaginatively with (art) objects. Such aesthetic literacy as I describe here is, I would suggest, conducive to aesthetic experiences.

Therefore, such aesthetic experiences are a part (or extension) of our everyday experiences, yet there is still a vital role for the arts and aesthetic education on the curriculum that sees art educators inducting pupils into the skills, techniques, history, theory, critique, and experiences proffered by engaging with the arts. A holistic approach to education must include the arts and aesthetic education. As Laura-Lee Kearns proclaims:

Any pedagogy that chooses to recognise the whole person would have to include the arts as integral to the curriculum. One’s active participation in the arts, whether it be making, viewing, analysing, discussing, or wonder-ing, brings us closer to living harmoniously with ourselves and others.

Even if we cannot directly teach students how to have an aesthetic experience, we may create the conditions conducive to such experiences (of the sublime, wonder, awe), and we may encourage students to adopt an open, receptive mode of perception that is amenable to such experiences. The arts are the ideal vehicle for prompting aesthetic experiences due to the ways in which they present concepts, images and ideas in new and creative ways. Such artistic depiction encourages those engaging with artworks to adopt a certain way of seeing; a mode of perception that is open and receptive and thus likely to result in aesthetic experiences. In many educational spaces, the arts are more accessible than stunning natural landscapes, and artists create art objects that are intended to afford aesthetic experience; this is their distinctive purpose, thereby making them perfectly suited to such an aim.  An educational curriculum without compulsory aesthetic education and a proper valuing of the arts is negligent of our aim to cultivate flourishing human beings who deserve meaningful aesthetic experiences.

Share this article on Social Media

Laura D’Olimpio

Dr Laura D’Olimpio is Associate Professor of Philosophy of Education at the University of Birmingham. Laura completed her PhD ‘The Moral Possibilities of Mass Art’ at The University of Western Australia. She is co-founder and co-editor of the open access Journal of Philosophy in Schools. She is also a regular contributor to The ConversationPhilosophy Now magazine, The Ethics Centre, and ABC Radio National’s Philosopher’s Zone and The Minefield. Laura’s first book, Media and Moral Education: A Philosophy of Critical Engagement (Routledge, 2018) won the 2018 PESA (Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia) Annual Book Award.