Aesthetic Emotions: The Emotional Effect of Beauty
Gazing at Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, waking up early to watch the sunrise, reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, or closing your eyes to listen to Debussy’s Clair de Lune are all inexplicable experiences that awaken a storm of emotions. The beauty found in art and nature is so intense that sometimes you just have to pause and take it in.
That feeling and deep sensation that takes over when you look at a beautiful work of art, a breathtaking landscape, or an attractive face, creates emotions. In fact, if we think about it, the point of art is to spark emotions, communicate them, share them, and therefore create a deep connection with the observer. But they’re not just any emotions, they’re aesthetic emotions.
“Artistic beauty is not representing beautiful things, but the beautiful representation of a thing.”
According to Rafael Bisquerra, a professor at the University of Barcelona, aesthetic emotions are an emotional response to beauty, any kind of beauty. In this context, beauty could mean a work of art, a landscape, or a certain person. It all counts, as long as it has an emotional impact.
“Beauty belongs to life, but is immortalized in art.”
-Leonardo Da Vinci-
Although these kinds of emotions occur when you react to certain artistic works, they’re a phenomenon that goes beyond the work of art itself. This emotional experience in response to beauty happens because you feel deeply connected with what you’re seeing. Although you may need to be sensitive to your emotions to experience it, aesthetic emotions can create very joyful, almost indescribable, feelings.
That being said, aesthetic emotions are not always enjoyable, pleasurable, and positive, they can also be made up of negative emotions. For example, when viewing the painting The Third of May 1808 by Fransisco Goya, you may feel fury, anger, or anxiety, depending on what it means to you and your personal history. Similarly, seeing the sculpture Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova can stir up feelings of nostalgia, love, and tenderness. It all depends on the beholder.
The magical feeling of aesthetic emotions is a very personal experience because it’s a result of your personal connection with a work of art or other beautiful things. Hence, it can be a very ambiguous concept, since everyone experiences them from different stimuli. Moreover, they are a virtually unknown phenomenon, with both supporters and critics. Some authors that have referred to aesthetic emotions are Dickie (1974), Lazarus (1991), Hjort and Laver (1997), and Levinson (1997).
Aesthetic emotions are mysterious and also very difficult to understand. It’s hard to determine how and why they arise from artistic works, skilled athletic accomplishments, or even astounding scientific developments. But because these things can generate aesthetic emotions, educational environments can be one of the best places to find them.
“Beauty doesn’t see, but is only seen.”
Aesthetic emotions in education
According to Rafael Bisquerra, aesthetic emotions should be included in education. But not just educating students about this type of emotion at a theoretical level, but helping them experience it at a personal level by introducing situations that could stir aesthetic emotions. As Bisquerra suggests, learn to be emotionally moved and enjoy it.
“It’s difficult to judge beauty; I am not yet ready for that. Beauty is an enigma.”
This approach not only helps students be more in touch with their emotional side, it can also influence important skills such as emotional awareness and regulation. Contemplating a work of art can awaken a wide range feelings and emotions in someone, depending on the context and their personal history. But after those emotions are awakened and identified, they can be managed.
Subjects such as music, natural sciences, or art history would be the most likely to stir these emotions in students and help them experience them personally, which could motivate them to continue learning. However, this would mean that emotional education would have to be an integrated theme across subjects, not separated into its own subject of study.
How to experience aesthetic emotions
Before I finish, I would like to leave you with a selection of art so you can experience aesthetic emotions for yourself. Maybe they’ll stir up something inside you, or maybe not. It all depends on you…
Starry Night Over the Rhône
To an Athlete Dying Young By A.E. Housman
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market-place;
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder-high.
Today, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears.
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge-cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on its curls
The garland briefer than a girl’s.
Für Elise by Beethoven
A Cenote in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico
Ocean Atlas by Jason deCaires Taylor
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
Love by Alexander Milov
Bisquerra Alzina, Rafael (2009). Psicopedagogía de las emociones. Madrid: S
Cover image: Expansion sculpture by Paige Bradly