In the context of communication studies, aesthetic theory may be defined as the attempt to understand people’s enjoyment of certain forms of communication – such as stories, movies, music, dance – that are apparently attended to for their own sake, despite their lack of any ostensible instrumental value. Although this type of enjoyment can be considered an inherent feature of human biology (Dissanayake 1992), the specific experiences that give rise to it differ widely among the cultures of the world. Simply put, the study of aesthetics seeks to answer two basic questions: what do people like or dislike about such experiences – and why?
The idea that aesthetic judgments have a bearing on, or somehow derive from, real-world practical imperatives has traditionally met with considerable resistance in the western intellectual tradition, from A. G. Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant to certain postmodernist theories. Such resistance has been accompanied by a normative insistence that what is distinctive about the aesthetic realm is whatever goes beyond the type of response that connects a work of art to the utilitarian goals of everyday life. Indeed, in this view of aesthetics, our contemplation of objects and events in the environment is aesthetic only if it is disinterested (see N. Carroll 1999, 170ff.). This aesthetic stance may be motivated by a desire to emphasize the values that are internal to art, or by an attempt to insulate the representational arts from moral judgments and censorship (Jenkins 2003).
Attractive Objects in Representational Media
A useful starting point for reconsidering aesthetics within communication research is the distinction between representational and nonrepresentational media. In the case of representational media such as pictures or movies, one obvious component of aesthetic pleasure is our appreciation of certain types of sensory experiences in the real world. If the physical characteristics of some people, things, or places appeal to us, representations of those characteristics in pictures or other media may please us as well.
Of particular interest is research linking aesthetic preference to functional aspects of real-world visual pleasure. Paradigmatic instances are studies of facial attractiveness and the literature on landscape preference. A number of experiments, typically based on computer-manipulated images of human faces, have established a cross-cultural preference for symmetrical facial features. One explanation may be that bodily symmetry serves as an external symptom of an organism’s capacity to cope with genetic and environmental stress. Accordingly, a preference for symmetry may be an evolutionary adaptation during mate selection (Thornhill & Gangestad 1999). In the area of landscape preference, an influential treatise by Jay Appleton (1990) has posited that there is a specieswide human tendency to favor pictorial landscapes that contain two features: “prospect,” i.e., places from which the environment can be surveyed for danger or opportunity; and “refuge,” i.e., places offering concealment from threat and protection from the elements. Although tastes in landscapes are certainly shaped by culture, as well as by individuals’ life experiences, the evidence for some degree of cross-cultural commonality in such judgments is substantial (Stamps 1999). In sum, this suggests the broader hypothesis that the human capacity for aesthetic responses to mediated experiences is derived, at least in part, from our need to make adaptive judgments about the formal features of people, places, and things in the real world.
The Appeal of Narration
This hypothesis seems less relevant for aesthetic experiences that go beyond the external “beauty” or “attractiveness” of objects. In particular, such experiences relate to the large category of narrative fiction – including not only verbal storytelling, but also TV shows, theater plays, musicals, etc. When we enjoy a Hollywood movie, we may do so because we find some of the images, or the people in them, beautiful or attractive, but our more likely reaction will involve an evaluation of the story as “exciting,” “suspenseful,” “moving,” etc. Still, such narrative experiences may be compatible with the hypothesis just noted: by identifying with fictional characters to whom positive things are happening, the consumer of fiction may vicariously experience pleasures that correspond to the rewards of real-world success or achievement (Keen 2006; 2007). Alternatively, a major source of our enjoyment of some fiction may simply be the spectacle of good things happening to people we like or sympathize with (N. Carroll 2006).
The hypothesis, however, becomes problematic when the events of a narrative fiction would be undesirable or harmful in real life. There is a substantial explanatory literature on why humans expose themselves to, and derive pleasure from, stories about misfortune, violence, horror, and suffering. Much of this literature is premised on some variant of Aristotle’s (all too brief) explanation of the appeal of tragedy: we voluntarily attend to stories of misfortune and calamity because they allow us to confront various fears and anxieties in a fictional context and thereby experience catharsis of such feelings. But this theory does not accord with the available empirical evidence. Direct tests of the catharsis hypothesis have failed to support it, and, on the contrary, there is a large body of research indicating that exposure to anxiety-provoking fiction leads to an increase in audiences’ anxieties. An alternative to the catharsis approach is to assume that we enjoy terrible or pitiful stories because the awful things in them are happening to someone else and not to us, as implied indirectly by empirical findings in the area of social comparison research. Still, this alternative offers only a partial account of the aesthetic appeals of fiction. In an attempt to give a more comprehensive explanation of our engagement with fiction – as empathy or identification as well as a motivation to witness the unpleasant – a recent, and growing, body of literature has turned to another variant of the kind of evolutionary psychology adopted by Appleton and like-minded investigators of face and landscape preference. This body of literature sees fiction as part of an evolutionarily adaptive activity whose function is to allow for the vicarious rehearsal of social relationships and the enhancement of human beings’ capacity for anticipating the contingencies of their social and physical environments (e.g., J. Carroll 2003; Hernadi 2002; Tooby & Cosmides 2001).
The Challenge of Nonrepresentational Media
In an evolutionary and functional perspective on aesthetics, nonrepresentational media pose a special challenge. Traditionally, the move away from representation in the work of visual artists – and, to a more limited extent, in the literary arts – as well as in the professional criticism of the visual arts, has been associated with the insistence on a disinterested aesthetic stance. Walter Pater’s famous saying, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” summarizes this approach to art and aesthetics.
Even in the case of music, however, there is a substantial body of writing – in music theory per se, but also in ethnomusicology, history, and even social psychology – arguing that the connection between aesthetic preference and real-world values can never be severed. This general argument takes two relatively distinct forms. At one level, writers have sought to trace various lines of continuity between a culture’s music or dance forms, on the one hand, and that culture’s extra-musical features, on the other. Notable examples of this approach include Steven Feld’s (1990) analysis of the connections between music and soundscape (the everyday sounds of the natural environment) among the Kaluli of New Guinea, Alan Lomax’s (2004) extensive cross-cultural research on the relationship between dance styles and work movements, Judith Hanna’s (1988) writings on dance performance and sex roles, and William McNeill’s (1995) historical account of the connections between dance and rituals of social solidarity. At a different level, a highly influential book by Leonard Meyer (1956) suggested that all forms of musical enjoyment can be understood as entailing a single common element – namely, the appreciation of compositional and performative skill. By extension, Larry Gross (1973) has argued that the root of all art – whether superficially representational or not – lies in a biologically and culturally functional human tendency to appreciate skill. Societies may choose to reserve the label “art” only for those skillful activities that do not have any obvious utilitarian purpose (e.g., the movements of a dancer versus the movements of a manual laborer). But, in this view of aesthetics, the psychological mechanisms involved in the appreciation of the former are extensions of processes involved in the appreciation of the latter – and, indeed, would not exist without them.
Although this last approach to aesthetics has the appeal of inclusiveness, its adequacy as an all-encompassing aesthetics theory is questionable. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the argument that certain kinds of representational art (pornography being a pertinent example) are appreciated primarily for their content and not for the skill that went into shaping the form of that content. Indeed, filmmakers typically insist that the ideal viewer should be unaware of the process of artistic creation (Messaris 2006). Therefore, the most satisfactory synthesis of existing theories may be one that preserves the distinctions among different forms of aesthetic experience – looking at representational images, reading verbal fiction, listening to music, etc. – and considers a diversity of aesthetic principles relating to function, form, as well as content, rather than searching for a single formula that attempts to explain everything.
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