Kuiken, Don. "Understanding the Depth Metaphor in Aesthetic Experience: Pressing the Limits of Psychological Inquiry." Toward a Psychology of Persons. Ed. William E. Smyth. New York: Erlbaum, 1998. 101-17. Summary Having observed depersonalisation in psychological research, that is, "the failure to locate and understand expressions of the depth of human experience" (102), Kuiken analyses his own personal aesthetic experience of a painting by Van Gogh. Aesthetic events, by their very nature, are well-suited for the examination of the depth of human experience (103). Kuiken represents the aesthetic experience and its potential to invite depth as follows. When the recipient enters the realm of the work of art, the focus changes from the world outside the art object to the possible world within it (106-08). The way the work is experienced is determined by the kind of art the recipient is exposed to and the reality-constituting activities that give the possible world its reality and richness (108). When, during the aesthetic event, formal tensions in the art object are experienced, felt meanings are accentuated. Kuiken identifies two categories of felt meanings: 1. personal feelings and 2. felt presence of outer objects or events (109-11). The experience of the art object dissolves familiar and new meanings that may be transformed during the aesthetic event in a more or less radical manner (111-13). When explicit memories and felt meanings are transformed during the experience of the work of art, the depth of the aesthetic event is intensified (113-14). Such an event becomes existential when the remembered past and the aesthetic present merge together, and it is intimate when self-relevant memories form part of the aesthetic present. Existential and intimate aesthetic experiences may lead to change in self (114-15). The above can be summed up in a four stage-scheme:
a. the recipient becomes absorbed in the possible world of the work of art;
b. felt meanings in this world are intensified;
c. these meanings are transformed, leading to the dissolving of familiarity and the suggestion of something "more";
d. the transformed aesthetic present and the transformed past memories merge, possibly leading to a reconfiguration of the self. (115)
Kuiken indicates that empirical study of these findings is desirable. Nevertheless, the results of this phenomenological study should not be dismissed beforehand because the examined data happens to be gathered in a personalized manner. On the contrary, psychologists should either try to take up the issue of aesthetic response, or try to create an alternative research-approach that enables the individual expression of experienced depth to be studied (115-16). Critique In order to perceive the nature of depth, as well as the way in which aesthetic experiences may lead to this intense state, Kuiken scrutinizes a personal, intimate, and unique aesthetic event during which, by his own account, a significant depth was reached. In other words, broader insights are extracted from the singular, the singular being his own. This approach could be easily queried. We could wonder, for instance, to what extent his findings reflect his expectations, for Kuiken is not only a connoisseur of art, but also a connoisseur of psychology and aesthetics. Furthermore, it is possible that not only the analysis, but also the kind of aesthetic experience, as it is rendered in words, may be reserved to experts of his caliber. Consequently, it is valid to ask whether the subjectivity of this enterprise has gone a bit too far. Perhaps recording the reflections of an expert in art of a comparable level would have been an alternative. By means of follow-up sessions, the necessary elaboration of the respondent's utterances in response to a work of art could have been obtained. However, this alternative approach is problematic as well. For instance, social desirability may influence the respondent's reflections and elucidations, a phenomenon which empirical researchers should always be aware of. Also, because the explanation of the reflections takes place at a later moment than the recording itself, the interpretation of the recorded experience is likely to differ from its original meaning; this is an effect Kuiken's research-design may have suffered from as well. Furthermore, because, ultimately, the researcher must come to an understanding of the experience of the respondent, the individuality of the respondent's expressions may be affected; the respondent may feel the urge to formulate her/his feelings and thoughts in such a way that they become understandable to someone else. But let us return to Kuiken's study. Kuiken has chosen to work with the ultimate intimate research-design: he investigates his own experience. How representative is his aesthetic experience though? How valid is it for this particular experience to be the starting-point for the development of a model of aesthetic experiences and the depth they may encompass? For one thing, Kuiken's aesthetic experience appears to have been of an exceptional intensity. It is possible that different kinds of depth, perhaps with different levels of intensity, are reached in response to different kinds of art. For instance, compare the aesthetic experience of reading a haiku with watching a tragedy. Unfortunately, the possibility of there being various kinds of depth is not addressed. The fact that Kuiken does not indicate what he understands by "depth" does not help matters. Consequently, it is difficult to disagree with Kuiken's premises that every aesthetic experience invites depth. Intuitively, however, it does not seem unlikely that some experiences can be aesthetic, and intense, and at the same time lack depth. Although Kuiken does not define "depth," he does provide a four stage-scheme that describes how depth comes about in an aesthetic event. It remains unclear, though, to what extent these stages should be followed to reach depth. Kuiken concludes his article by expressing the hope that in the future scholars will take up the issue of depth of human experience more often. It would be interesting to compare the experience of depth as it is reached in both aesthetic and non-aesthetic events. This may not only provide insight into the nature of (various sorts of) depth, but also reveal to what extent the process leading up to the depth-experience is similar for the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic. The notion of "depth" and its transformative and self-modifying potential, as identified by Kuiken, may turn out to be an essential indicator in distinguishing aesthetic objects and experiences from the non-aesthetic.
Document created April 8th 2005