Empathy, engagement, entrainment: the interaction dynamics of aesthetic experience

Cognitive Processing 2 (19):201-213 (2018)
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A recent version of the view that aesthetic experience is based in empathy as inner imitation explains aesthetic experience as the automatic simulation of actions, emotions, and bodily sensations depicted in an artwork by motor neurons in the brain. Criticizing the simulation theory for committing to an erroneous concept of empathy and failing to distinguish regular from aesthetic experiences of art, I advance an alternative, dynamic approach and claim that aesthetic experience is enacted and skillful, based in the recognition of others’ experiences as distinct from one’s own. In combining insights from mainly psychology, phenomenology, and cognitive science, the dynamic approach aims to explain the emergence of aesthetic experience in terms of the reciprocal interaction between viewer and artwork. I argue that aesthetic experience emerges by participatory sense-making and revolves around movement as a means for creating meaning. While entrainment merely plays a preparatory part in this, aesthetic engagement constitutes the phenomenological side of coupling to an artwork and provides the context for exploration, and eventually for moving, seeing, and feeling with art. I submit that aesthetic experience emerges from bodily and emotional engagement with works of art via the complementary processes of the perception–action and motion–emotion loops. The former involves the embodied visual exploration of an artwork in physical space, and progressively structures and organizes visual experience by way of perceptual feedback from body movements made in response to the artwork. The latter concerns the movement qualities and shapes of implicit and explicit bodily responses to an artwork that cue emotion and thereby modulate over-all affect and attitude. The two processes cause the viewer to bodily and emotionally move with and be moved by individual works of art, and consequently to recognize another psychological orientation than her own, which explains how art can cause feelings of insight or awe and disclose aspects of life that are unfamiliar or novel to the viewer.
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