On Aesthetic Experience & The Emphasis Of Form

In this paper, I will examine Noel Carroll and Jerrold Levinson’s definitions of aesthetic experience with reference to their emphasis on form/formal properties. I will begin by describing what they mean by form/formal properties. I will then, while pointing out the similarities and differences in their views, explain how each of them suggest that aesthetic experience can be sufficiently conduced from one’s attention to the formal properties of an artwork. Subsequently, I will develop my own understanding of aesthetic experience. I will then explain how Carroll and Levinson ironically resist formalism for reasons which the other uses to promote their own definition of aesthetic experience. With this in mind, I will conclude by suggesting that they are both essentially formalist since they both view that aesthetic experience (conduced by artworks) requires cognizant  awareness of the formal properties of such artwork; this is essentially formalism.

Carroll and Levinson emphasize the importance of attending to form/formal properties to conduce aesthetic experience. Nothing in their writing suggests disparity in their definitions of these terms. They both seem to suggest that formal properties are the observable and perceptible parts of an artwork. If one was to take the formal properties out of the artwork and attend them independently they would bear no meaning; for meaning is derived from conceptualizing the synthesis of these properties (conceptualization comes after cognition). For example, colours, lines, light, tone, space, curvature, and composition are formal properties. It may be meaningful for a shoe to be darkly shaded, but dark shading doesn’t mean anything on it’s own. It is simply an object of cognitive awareness. Contrarily, a shoe is a concept which on it’s own bears meaning, therefore it is not a formal property.

Furthermore, for traditional formalists, conducing aesthetic experience requires one attend the formal properties of an artwork with disinterestedness. For them, representational content and conceptual meaning is at best irrelevant. In contention to this, Carroll creates his ‘deflationary account’ of aesthetic experience which suggests that one attend the formal properties of an artwork; however, no specific mental disposition, such as disinterestedness, is required, but content is relevant. Carroll does not think that art needs to be valued for it’s own sake. For him, neither appreciation nor valuation is a factor in conducing aesthetic experience. To conduce aesthetic experience, Carroll suggests that one attend the formal properties of an artwork while being aware of how the artist designed the artwork to express concepts and convey meaning. One must realize what the artist is trying to say, while discerning how the formal properties succeed or fail in realizing this. Carroll calls this “design appreciation” and states that, “if our experience is preoccupied with discovering the structure of the work – that is aesthetic experience”. Finally, Carroll claims that in discovering the structure of the work and conducing aesthetic experience one discovers aesthetic properties. These properties are concepts such as grace, beauty, and unity, which the artist intends to express. For Carroll, aesthetic experience is no more than adequate attention of formal properties in order to discover these aesthetic properties.

Alternatively, Jerrold Levinson suggests that the difference between aesthetic experience and non-aesthetic experience is not in what one attends to (the formal properties themselves), but the way one attends to these properties. While Carroll supposes that aesthetic experience is realized when one adequately attends to the formal properties of an artwork, Levinson, who thinks that Carroll misses the fact that aesthetic experience is somehow rewarding, valuable, and worthwhile, supposes that an aesthetic frame of mind is necessary. He claims that, even with adequate attention to formal details, one cannot realize aesthetic experience unless one attends these properties in the right manner for valuing and appreciating the experience. Levinson describes this manner of attention in great detail; he claims that one must be at a disposition to attend to an artwork with a willingness to be affected by it. To do this, Levinson states that one must realize an aesthetic state of mind, one in which imagination and creativity reign over rationale and logic. It is a state which can be described with the following words; contemplative, disinterested, detached. While these words may seem to suggest passivity, it is important to note that Levinson argues that, by finding the experience valuable in-itself, one must be actively involved in realizing and appreciating the self-valuing state of mind of the aesthetic experience. Levinson emphasizes formal properties of artworks because he believes that attention to these properties with an aesthetic state of mind  suffices for triggering aesthetic experience. Then, once in that state of mind, further attention of formal properties help in maintaining and developing aesthetic experience. Levinson agrees that formal properties are important in conducing aesthetic experience from artworks; however, how one attends these properties is fundamental.

In regards to aesthetic experience, my own view resembles Levinson’s more so than Carroll’s. It has been suggested throughout the history of epistemology, particularly in Indian philosophy, that direct perception is the sole valid means of knowledge. In this way,  I propose that the state of mind of aesthetic experience is one of pure consciousness and direct cognitive awareness, and that it grows in intensity proportionately to one’s level of pure conscious awareness. Aldous Huxley, whom my definition of aesthetic experience most closely resembles, stated, “knowledge is a function of being, when there is a change in the being of the knower, there is a corresponding change in the nature and amount of knowing”.

In this view, aesthetic experience is essentially a change in one’s being which increases the nature and amount of one’s knowing. Huxley’s “Mind at Large” theory in The Doors of Perception suggests that man is capable of pure boundless knowledge, however, a filtration valve has been imposed to prevent one from being overwhelmed. He supposes that aesthetic experience is basically a diminishing of this filtration. Essentially, less filtration means higher attunement of this pure conscious knowledge which is supposedly inherent in our nature.

Furthermore, a person with a higher sense of awareness of this pure consciousness more easily realizes aesthetic experience as well as experiences it more intensively. In terms of the valuing of artworks, one could say that aesthetic experience is a state of mind of higher cognitive and epistemic awareness of formal properties, as well as instinctual and intuitive valuing of this cognizing as it necessarily signifies this pure conscious knowledge. I believe, as Aldous Huxley, that, known as a phenomenon of one’s being, the aesthetic experience can be realized at any moment, in any situation, from anything (everything has formal properties); however, the importance of artworks, and specifically forms, is in helping one trigger the aesthetic experience. The attention of artworks is sufficient, but not necessary, for conducing the aesthetic experience. Other sufficient, though not necessary, means for conducing the aesthetic experience include drug experimentation (particularly hallucinogenic substances) nature experience, and meditation. None of these things necessarily conduce aesthetic experience; the only necessary requirement for aesthetic experience is a purely conscious and active awareness of one’s cognitions. In regards to artworks, this clearly means active awareness of formal properties, since they are the properties being perceived.

Moreover, Carroll and Levinson ironically resist formalism for reasons which the other uses to promote their own definitions of aesthetic experience. Carroll resists formalism in saying that formalists claim that content is irrelevant and requires a state of disinterestedness to conduce aesthetic experience. Levinson, however, resists formalism in saying that formalism only requires attention of the formal properties of an artwork and misses the fact that aesthetic experience is somehow rewarding, valuable, and worthwhile in-itself. It seems as though each of them would find the other formalist in nature.

In conclusion, all accounts of formalism rely on an essential foundation. This foundation suggests that formal properties are significant and that one must attend to these properties to conduce aesthetic experience. While Carroll and Levinson raise many other points to their definition, they both suppose that formal properties are significant and that one must attend to these properties to conduce aesthetic experience (from artworks). Both of their views require cognizant awareness of the formal properties of such artworks. Therefore, I consider them both essentially formalist. Any deviation from this comes after the fact.

Works Cited

Carroll, Noel. Beyond Aesthetics. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper &   Brothers, 1954.

Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins, 1944.

Levinson, Jerrold. Toward  Non-Minimalist Conception of Aesthetic Experience.


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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