What Makes Something Beautiful?

The making of aesthetic pleasure.

Posted Sep 26, 2018

The term aesthetics is defined as the perception, interpretation, and appreciation of beauty (Shimamura and Palmer, 2014). In the presence of beautiful things, we feel a broad range of emotions, such as fascination, awe, feelings of transcendence, wonder, and admiration. The experience of aesthetic emotions can happen when a person perceives and evaluates a stimulus for its beautiful appeal or virtues. Aesthetic emotions are experienced through vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell and cognitive processing in response to respected stimuli. Aesthetics plays a central role in the design, consumer products, eating a meal, physical attractiveness, music, and nature.

Scholars have identified some of the key features of the aesthetic appreciation of everyday life experiences (Schindler et al 2017). 

1. Beauty is the ultimate value. Beauty is something that we pursue for its own sake. The focus is on the pleasure that arises from the act of doing something rather than achieving some ultimate goal. For example, for an accomplished chef baking a cake could bring process pleasure. The act of eating the cake is a different kind of pleasure (satisfy a craving). However, it is difficult to separate the content of a work of art from its form. The taste of coffee cannot be separated from its aroma. What is beautiful seems interesting, good, and usable.

2. Being fully absorbed. Aesthetic experience is similar to the concept of flow (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990). During this state of mind, people are intensively immersed in what they are doing, with strong involvement in the process of the activity. During the aesthetic experience, persons are strongly focused on and fascinated with a particular object. For instance, absorption can occur when a person is watching movies, reading novels, or listening to music.

3. Beauty in simplicity. Aesthetic pleasure is a function of the perceiver’s ease-of-processing (Reber, et al 2004). People prefer things that are easy to think about. The more effortlessly the perceiver can process an object, the more enjoyable is his or her experience. For example, when a complex idea is presented in an accessible way, it creates a particularly strong experience of aesthetic pleasure. The power of fluency is similar to the idea of “Occam’s razor” to look for the simplest explanations.

4. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. Aesthetic emotions are influenced by aesthetic judgment. Knowing is seeing. That is, we apply our knowledge of the world to interpret what we see. This subjectivist view, reflected in expressions like taste cannot be debated. People disagree about much of what they find beautiful, ugly, or otherwise aesthetically moving. For example, you might like Bach, but your friend likes the Rolling Stones. However, research suggests that the beholder may be changing constantly (Yang & Leonard, 2014). For example, people used to prefer a clean-shaved man. But, now men with beards are the mainstream. Our judgments of beauty can shift over time in response to the media and popular culture.

5. Pacing reward. Pacing reward means to scale back stimulation deliberately and maintain it permanently at the lower level of increasing return. At that level, every additional increment of stimulation provides increasing satisfaction. This means not to maximize consumption but to keep them under control, to pace it (a mindful living). For example, one may wolf down a lovingly prepared meal, or one may take time and savor every bite mindfully.

The power of everyday aesthetics can be used to improve the quality of life. This means appreciating the mundane activities in our daily life as extraordinary in order to enhance aesthetic experiences. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, pornography, or games). We tire less quickly of artworks at one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume. From this perspective, an interesting or happy life might also be regarded as a creative "work of art."

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. New York:Harper and Row.

Reber, R., Schwarz, N. & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver’s processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 364-382.

Schindler I, Hosoya G, Menninghaus W, Beermann U, Wagner V, Eid M, Scherer KR. (2017),  Measuring aesthetic emotions: A review of the literature and a new assessment tool, PLoS One. 5;12(6):e0178899. 

Haiyang Yang and Leonard Lee (2014),"Instantaneously Hotter: the Dynamic Revision of Beauty Assessment Standards", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 42, eds. June Cotte and Stacy Wood, Duluth, MN : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 744-745.

Saito, Yuriko (2014), “Everyday Aesthetics,” in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Michael Kelly (ed.), second edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, second vol. pp. 525–529.

Shimamura, A. P., & Palmer, S. (Eds.). (2012). Aesthetic science: Connecting minds, brains, and experience. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.