Since my arrival in Cambridge, I had various occasions to question my idea of “aesthetic” experience. Aesthetic is indeed a word that often appears in art history, it being probably the most important term of the whole discipline, its core: it stems from the greek verb “aisthanomai”, which means “to perceive”; aesthetics, in fact, is the philosophical science which analyses the perception and the phenomena linked to it. Why do we see things as they are? Why do we feel certain emotions, or we have determined reactions to different objects? These are all questions that delve into aesthetics, and artworks are indeed valuable subjects of analysis.
However, our perception of the world is far wider than this and the world of art, in its enormous variants, cover a minimum part of it: even when we are not conscious, we are constantly part of an aesthetic experience, as stimuli are driven to us through our senses. We see, hear and gain consciousness of objects by touch, taste, smell: an incredible opulence of elements is constantly offered to our mind. Indeed, part of our engagement with the world is given by our own response, that is to say, by the way we shape our reaction to the mere act of perceiving: various people could give totally different responses to their being in one precise place at a precise time observing a precise object.
As I started university, the variety of things around me greatly increased, and so my own experiences as a result of this: walking back from a lecture, attending an informal meeting or going to a concert… In all these moments I could recapture different sensations and appreciate, indeed, the great beauty (or ugliness) of the single instant.
River Cam from Jesus Green
In all these situations, what I perceived as beautiful was a mixture of deeply interconnected factors: the mere recollection of visuals is not enough to explain the complex process leading to pleasure or displeasure. Making a banal example, I will always remember the horrible sensation of my first visit to the Uffizi Gallery: although I am definitely passionate about art, I arrived there after an extenuating journey from Rome and I could not enjoy a single work of art, tiredly wandering from one room to the other. On the contrary, I could remember wonderful visits to far less interesting sites, made special by the mere presence of friends, or by the atmosphere, or by my casual feelings of the moment. Nothing that we perceive or feel is indeed excluded from the aesthetic experience.
Studying modern phenomenology in High School, I was particularly interested in the relation that Edmund Husserl defines between we, knowing beings, and the object we know: there is a mutual interaction, he states, between the object that is given and those who are able to receive the content conveyed through the act of giving. In other words, perception stems from a dialectic between us and the world. As Ernst Gombrich brilliantly puts in “Art and Illusion”, we engage reality with expectations and hence knowledge stems from the process of correction that we endure in front of the actual object.
I have been in Cambridge for a brief period, indeed, but I believe that the incredible quantity of experiences that are available here greatly fostered my perceptiveness toward such aspects: I study art history and thus I am often facing artworks and complex objects, but yet I realise that my experience extends much further than that. Delving into one kind of experience, the artistic one, I see how its complexity hardly applies to several places of my own life.
St Benet’s church’s garden
It is exactly the quick, transitory nature of the instant we identify that makes us blind toward the complexity of our perception: we do not see different stimuli getting together, but rather identify a single object, which is arbitrarily set by our own mind. What is, actually, an instant? How can we separate it from the rest of our experience, how can we set a minimum unit? William James, after all, defined consciousness as a stream, rather than as a sum of definable moments. Actually, we often try to describe experience starting from the premises of experience itself: we define the object by the means of the object itself.