- Humans uniquely obtain pleasure from certain abstract stimuli such as music, poetry, or planting flowers.
- Many real-life episodes can be experienced as deeply moving, such as weddings, graduation, and funerals.
- The aesthetic experience provides an escape from everyday practical experiences.
Aesthetic emotions play a crucial role in the processing and enjoyment of art. Individual aesthetic emotions are about various types of aesthetic objects, such as nature, design, fashion, physical attractiveness, landscapes, music, paintings, architecture, and social events (weddings, funerals). In the presence of beautiful things, we feel a broad range of emotions, such as fascination, surprise, awe, feelings of transcendence, wonder, and admiration.
The following describes the distinctive nature of aesthetic emotions and the benefits of aesthetic experiences (Menninghaus et al 2019).
Beauty is the Ultimate Value
Aesthetic emotions are typically sought and savored for their own sake. The focus is on the pleasure that arises from the act of doing something rather than achieving some ultimate personal goal. However, they can contribute to mood regulation. For example, we often go to the movies or to music performances with the expectation of experiencing emotional uplift. Perceived beauty enhances the perceived social and intellectual competence of people.
Aesthetic emotions are influenced by aesthetic judgment. Beauty in the eye of the beholder. People disagree about much of what they find beautiful, ugly, or otherwise aesthetically moving. Familiarity plays a powerful role in shaping our aesthetic tastes. Repeated exposure increases how much we like something. Eventually, aesthetic taste becomes part of our identity, and changes in taste can be viewed as changes in identity.
Novelty vs. Familiarity
An aesthetically pleasing object requires a balance between novelty and familiarity. Aesthetically appealing objects are novel and unique. However, too much novelty may result in confusion. This may explain why viewers prefer representational to abstract paintings.
Beauty Moves Us
Aesthetic emotions motivate prolonged and repeated experiences (you never get tired of watching a beautiful sunset). We also desire to possess aesthetically pleasing objects. In cases of fascination and high levels of suspense, aesthetic emotions may even appear to dominate one’s behavior. That is, “one cannot get enough of listening or looking.” And being moved feels good (e.g., watching a joyful movie). The aesthetics of consumer-oriented design and fashion is largely devoted to triggering such action tendencies that translate into buying decisions.
Aesthetic emotions can elicit strong physiological responses, including increases in heart rate, skin conductance, tears, shivers (chills), and goosebumps. The intensity of emotional involvement is by itself a key factor for aesthetic enjoyment.
The aesthetic experience provides an escape from everyday practical experiences. The opportunity to escape from one’s reality contributes to mood improvement. The American Dancer Twyla Tharp remarked, “Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” The positive emotional effect of the aesthetic experience affects mood and indirectly promotes health and well-being (Mastandrea, 2019). These benefits include improvement of memory, lower stress levels, and increased social connection. For instance, most aesthetic perceptions of landscapes, natural scenes like sunrises, and sunsets tend to produce positive feelings of peacefulness, relaxation, and harmony.
The Paradox of Enjoying Negative Emotions in Art
Arts are therapeutic because they are cathartic. Studies suggested that the psychological distance of the perceiver from the artwork reduces the emotional impact of the artwork (Winner 2019). Art provides a safe space to experience negative emotions. It is safe because we know it is art, not reality. This explains why we enjoy listening to sad music or watching horror movies. Music helps to channel one’s frustration or purge (catharsis) negative emotions (anger and sadness). When we listen to sad music or watch a sad film, we are disconnected from any real threat or danger that the music or movie represents.
Aesthetic experiences can arise from the appreciation of artworks (e.g., poetry, music, painting, etc.) or natural objects like sunsets or landscapes. 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 can help to enhance aesthetic experiences. Aesthetic pleasure differs from physical pleasures (drinks, food, or games). We tire less quickly of artworks at one sitting than of most of the pleasures we physically consume.
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Mastandrea S; Wagoner JA; Hogg.MA (2019). Art and Psychological Well-Being: Linking the Brain to the Aesthetic Emotion Front Psychol 10: 739.
Menninghaus, W., Wagner, V., Wassiliwizky, E., Schindler, I., Hanich, J., Jacobsen, T., & Koelsch, S. (2019). What are aesthetic emotions? Psychological Review, 126(2), 171–195.
Winner E (2019), How artworks: A psychological exploration, New York, NY: Oxford University Press,