Some characteristics of the aesthetic experience



By Paul Edmonston

The aesthetic moment often occurs when a person is solitary (in the sense of being alone, not lonely), whether he or she is actually or physically alone, or feeling subjectively alone while actually in a group or even a crowd. An example of this is seen in testimonies of exhilaration while attending group performances such as a symphony, the ballet, or a play.

At such times, the person experiences a sense of being both an observer as well as a participant, a sense of being both detached and yet involved. A sense of timelessness in the event often occurs, and time is expressed as being either compressed or dissolved; that is, it is described as being extremely focused in a moment or a person or a place, while at other times it opens out and expands into a sense of the infinite, the limitless in scope or space.

The former is often experienced by persons engaged in making or creating an object, or in a dramatic act of some sort, in which they completely lose the sense of passing time. The latter occurs, for example, when the narrow sphere of the ordinary self's preoccupations is opened out or widened by contact with nature or music, making the self feel more extended, more universal than habitually felt.

At these times, also, a sense of oneness or unity or identification with nature or the object is described, an experience in which the feeling of separateness or alienation either form nature, God, or others is overcome. Such a feeling can be experienced while hearing music or poetry by human beings long since dead in the past, or by reflecting on the nature of existence engendered by the special qualities or subtle influences of their thought.

The aesthetic seems also to occur when the person has been relieved or separated from the usual pressures and preoccupations of the manmade world, whether by accident, design, or choice, such as stumbling upon a strange and beautiful and remote portion of landscape, or standing before the monumental in nature, such as a mountain, the Grand Canon, or a raging sea.

There is often a peculiarly heightened sense of wonder, elation, or awe accompanied by a fresh awakening to the sense of one's smallness in the face of the vastness, the limitlessness, the grandeur of "the other" whether it be designated as nature, God, or some indefinable mystery or omnipresent force.

While such an experience involves often a sense bordering on delight or even impersonal equanimity or calm, it also may bring feelings of terror, provided no immediate threat to the person's life is involved. Examples of this are perhaps among the oldest natural events known to man, namely, lightning and storm, earthquake, flood, and fire.

When the aesthetic is experienced with other persons, a series of uncommon, unpremeditated, and intense responses in both parties is often described, an event in which all of one's previous expectancies having to do with human encounters may be upset, and one's behavior truly and remarkably enriched, deepened, beautified, transformed.

Such encounters, in which the boundaries between two isolated selves are broken down so that a kind of indescribable or mystical fusion takes place for the duration of the meeting, has been admirably and eloquently described by Martin Buber in his profound little book, I and Thou.

However and whenever it occurs, the aesthetic dimension would seem to clarify and intensify, to deepen and extend and redefine what might otherwise be described as the happenings of everyday life. Under its aegis and because of its invasion, the ordinary takes on the character of the extraordinary, the normal becomes the supernormal, the usual becomes the unusual, taking on the ineffable character of mystery -- and while remembered and even relived in later reflection or tranquility, it remains unique to the primary occasion in which it transpired, not usually reproducible by an act of the will, although an attitude of openness and receptivity to its potential appearance can be cultivated and desired.

One of the usual questions that arises in connection with the telling or sharing of such experiences is whether they may be contaminated or dissipated in the telling, never to be regained in their intimacy as when they are recalled in moments of reflection that are private and protected.

One answer usually given is that artists, poets, authors, storytellers, and wise men would never exercise their art of spellbinding others with their experiences if this were the case. Another is that once such experiences are expressed or compressed into a medium, they become second hand, even to the person who underwent them. Thus, telling makes a person detached from his own experience; it becomes difficult if not impossible for him in time to distinguish the components that were present in the original even from those that have been captured, transmitted, or imagined in the telling or the artifact.

Perhaps this will remain unanswerable, but we might point to the fact that modern science assures us that nothing whatever that we experience can ever be lost from the organism to which it occurs. And yet, both from experience and the wisdom of aesthetic reflection, we who are engaged in the arts know that in being formed in a medium, or in whatever way we attempt to communicate it, all our experience is somehow transformed, made new, become something else.

Perhaps we might take a cue or a bit of advice form the yogic literature that advises against the telling of special or heightened spiritual experiences or states as a protection, in the case of the novice, at least, against the energy that sustains them being lost in the telling, with no assurance that the special state of being may easily be regained. Or be guided by the qualification that any spiritual experience (for which we may here substitute the aesthetic) may be communicated without harm or loss if it is sufficiently past, or if we have reached that advanced stage of spirituality in which spiritual elevation and divine contact is continual, unbreakable, and undiminished, so that no fear of loss by communicating from that lofty height need be entertained.

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Paul Edmonston ( is an artist and art teacher. He lives in Athens, Georgia.

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