Finding Beauty in a Flaming Charlie Brown Christmas Tree
To begin I think it is important to state my own definition of an aesthetic experience. I believe that an aesthetic experience can be positive or negative, lasts for a limited amount of time, and is markedly different from everyday experiences. There are three criteria for an experience to be aesthetic, the first being an emotional connection to the experience. If an experience is able to elicit strong emotions associated with pleasure or disgust and a feeling of personal connection within someone, I believe it becomes vivid and aesthetic. Secondly, a high degree of mindfulness is necessary during the experience. I agree with the definition of mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” The final criterion is a sense of novelty or rarity surrounding the experience, more specifically, an experience that is either new, or familiar but rare. When an experience is new there is a higher level of concentration associated with it and you are more in the moment. When an experience is familiar but rare there is a strong emotion and connection but it still requires concentration.
In terms of how aesthetics fits with other areas of philosophy, I believe it fits very well with both metaphysics and epistemology, especially the inquiries that I chose to pursue for these topics. In metaphysics I looked into the self and concluded that the self is a product of our life experiences, in epistemology I looked into memories and how they are created and become knowledge. I believe that the aesthetic experience is a major contributor to our memories which in turn contribute to our knowledge which makes us who we are and builds up the self. The more diverse a range of aesthetic experiences we collect, the more complex and intricate the self becomes.
My aesthetic experiences over the holidays led me to develop my third piece of criteria, that an aesthetic experience should have a sense of novelty or rarity. A few examples of new aesthetic experiences I had include meeting my baby cousin for the first time, watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and taking a foam rolling class. Although this collection is very diverse, each experience required a state of mindfulness, provoked emotions or sensations, and was pleasing. In each case, I feel as though I gained new knowledge and made connections to previous knowledge resulting in a contribution to the bundle of my “self”.
In terms of familiar but rare experiences, I found that all of mine were either traditions or culturally specific. This led me to believe that our culture plays a significant role in shaping our perception of aesthetics. Our opinions regarding fashion, food, music and even physical attractiveness can be influenced by our culture and upbringing. For example, my family has many German Christmas traditions including getting a scraggly uncultured Christmas tree, putting real candles on it and lighting them. While some people might not find beauty in a flaming Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it is aesthetically appealing to me because of the connections to my family and culture and past happy memories that it represents.
I also took part in celebrating Hogmanay or Scottish New Year by playing Auld Lang Syne on the pipes at 4:00pm on December 31st for a crowd of already inebriated people at the local legion. Bagpipes are a very polarizing instrument, you either love them or hate them, but I have found that the reasons people appreciate them are far deeper than the sound they produce. Bagpipes represent Scottish culture, are played at funerals and weddings, have strong ties to the military. When the pipes are played they rouse feelings of patriotism, grief, and joy. The majority of people who dislike them are judging them on their sound alone, they haven’t had experiences that led them to connect with the music on a personal level.
On a basic level aesthetics is about keeping us alive, as a species there are somethings that we all find pleasurable or disgusting and these instincts are linked directly to survival and procreation. However, these instincts constitute only a basic level of aesthetics. When it comes to an individual finding something aesthetically pleasing or revolting, I believe it comes down to a combination of nature and nurture or biology and experience. Beyond basic survival, aesthetics becomes very individualized and personal, the specifics of what people find attractive or repulsive depends on the thousands of prior experiences they have collected in their life up to that point.
When it comes to the opinions of other scholars of aesthetics, I agree with Leath and his point that the only universal defining characteristic of aesthetic experiences is concentration. My criteria of mindfulness is very similar to concentration in the sense that it requires being consciously present in the moment and aware of your own feelings and sensations. I also agree with Fromm when he says “if one is concentrated, it matters little what one is doing; the important, as well as the unimportant things assume a new dimension of reality, because they have one’s full attention.” I believe that by practicing mindfulness it is possible to begin to find beauty or aesthetic value in everyday objects and routines and gain more pleasure from life.
I don’t agree with Bullough on his point that emotional detachment and distance are essential for an aesthetic experience or with Kant’s idea that art should be judged autonomously. I think that the emotions provoked by a piece of art, poem, or play make it more vivid and profound for the person experiencing it, they create a personal connection with the viewer and cause them to leave with a deeper understanding of the piece as well as themselves. Art is meant to be provocative or communicate a deeper message, in many cases it is meant to be perceived and interpreted differently by different people.
I agree with Descartes ideas that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that beauty pleases. I think that the reasons for a person to regard an experience or piece of art as aesthetic or beautiful are as complex as the person themselves and depend greatly on said person’s previous experiences. For this reason, I think it is narrow-minded of Hume to believe that taste is universal, especially when he was the one to develop the bundle theory with premise that the self is a unique and constantly evolving collection of impressions and sensations.
In conclusion, seeking out a diverse range of aesthetic experiences especially new ones is key to building one’s “self” and having an enjoyable, full life. I believe that this can refer to the external stimuli of the experience itself or to the way in which we perceive it, for example approaching everyday experiences with mindfulness.