experiences are generated in encounters with cultural objects and such
experiences are marked by the free play of cognitive and numinous experience
unstructured by concepts. Kant’s famous three types of pleasure, made infamous
in social theory by Pierre Bourdieu, are examined in relation to the critical
theoretical concept of aura, the social psychology of “flow,” and cognitive
explanations of perception to explain experience in aesthetic fields. Theories
of aesthetic experience developed at the crossroad of critical social thought
and cognitive science hold promise for a social analysis able to avoid the
usual sociological pitfalls of either ignoring aesthetics or reducing it to
structurally determined differences of taste.
aesthetic field, aura, cognition, cultural sociology, disinterestedness, distinction,
do people flock to movie theaters to see remakes of old films and sequels to
recent ones knowing full well that, in all likelihood, what they are about to
see will pale in comparison to their first go around? Why is unrequited love
such a compelling feature of our favorite stories? What drives (so-to-speak)
such large numbers of people to an interest in NASCAR super-speedway racing?
Why do so many people try to hold on to the past with their family snapshots?
How is it that the people of one culture find such a wide variety of things
especially cultural sociology because of its penchant for examining esoteric
high culture alongside the more quotidian, is a likely source for an answer.
Unfortunately, despite its promise, the typical sociological explanation is
often superficial. Most of the time sociology simply tells us that there is
variation within the cultures of societies, often even enough variation to
allow for different recognizable cultures or subcultures and, because of this
variation, we are able to see a variety of groups or audiences for different
cultural objects. Thus the notion “different strokes for different folks” is
elevated to the status of sociological explanation.
am, of course, being more than a bit too dismissive, but as a cultural
sociologist myself, I feel somewhat entitled. These issues are more complex than my quick dismissal implies, and notably so,
because the idea of societies filled with different taste cultures has been
given critical import by Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of distinction, an idea that
has been more influential to the sociological study of art and culture than any
other in recent years. No cultural
sociologist’s toolkit is really complete without his concepts of capital, and a good
understanding of their interplay upon and within
social actors’ life trajectories. When it comes to art, specifically, Bourdieu
us in excruciating empirical detail the irony in how the dominant aesthetic of disinterestedness works very much in the
interest of society’s powerful.
paper looks to another level of analysis, one that is simultaneously more
general in its applicability across groups and institutions and more interested
in common individual level aesthetic experience as opposed to the social
consequences of taste. Why do people
flock to see film remakes, revel in romantic longing, or watch the Daytona 500
on television? Questions like these are addressed here by briefly examining
typical sociological approaches to art and by looking at the idea of “fields”
and aesthetic fields in particular. Although sociologists tend to treat
aesthetic fields as they would any other, I will argue that they are unique and
what sets an aesthetic field apart from others is aesthetic experience.
explanation of aesthetic experience, in turn, draws from cognitive theories of
self, the human desire for numinous experience (often culturally coded as
spiritual or enlightening), the critical theoretical concept of aura, and the
idea of “flow” developed in social psychology. To make this argument it will
first be necessary to rescue Kant from current sociological misinterpretations.
Rather than censuring the notion of disinterestedness or simply identifying the
differences between the audiences for different cultural objects, the effort
here is to suggest some possibilities for understanding fundamental
similarities cutting across the institutions and life-worlds inhabited by
different audiences. How might one understand the larger context – an aesthetic
field - in which the taste for disparate objects and the desire for certain
2. Social Worlds
and Art Worlds
It is difficult for sociologists to
give aesthetic analysis its due. Sociology typically takes one of two
approaches to aesthetics, neither of which contributes to an understanding of
aesthetic experience. One common approach, the production of
culture perspective, championed by Richard Peterson and canonized in Howard
Becker’s Art Worlds, takes an
agnostic position on aesthetics.
According to Becker
Aesthetic principles and
systems, being part of the package of interdependent practices that make up an
art world, will both influence and be influenced by such aspects of it as the
training of potential artists and viewers, financial and other modes of
support, and the mode of distribution and presentation of works. They will
especially be influenced by a pressure for the consistency implicit in the idea
such a statement Becker (and I doubt very much he would disagree with me for
saying so) leaves the definition of aesthetics to someone else, to the
participants of the art world in question. In the production of culture tradition, an
art world is a sub-category of social world, defined (like all social worlds)
as diffuse networks of people with a patterned variety of interaction with one
another. The patterns of interaction are directed toward some shared goal, but
the definition of that goal and the means to achieve it are much less rigidly
defined than they would be in, say, a business organization. Everyone involved
in an art world is connected somehow or other, and the job of the sociologist
is to describe the complex and sometimes ambiguous patterns of interaction that
emerge as participants go about defining, creating, judging, distributing, appreciating,
and whatever else they do in relation to art.
3. Fields, Artistic Fields, Aesthetic Fields
second major sociological approach to studying art that became dominant after
the English translation of Bourdieu’s Distinction
in 1984 examines taste as a component of powerful and exclusive social forces
that establish and maintain status hierarchies. In Bourdieu’s approach a theory
of fields stands in for the descriptive concept of social world. An artistic
field is defined as a system of social positions structured by power relations
in which social actors struggle over the appropriation of economic, social, and
cultural capital. In other words social actors in an artistic
field (in any field really – think of the legal professions for example) seek
advantage through the influence of wealth (economic capital), their social
networks (social capital), and their taste for and knowledge of those aspects
of culture that confer honor and esteem (cultural capital). In this scheme, because
status distinctions are associated with appreciation of high culture, Kant’s
formulation of the disinterested attitude of aesthetic contemplation becomes a
tool of domination. In Bourdieu’s eye, learned practices of disinterested
contemplation of cultural objects serve to camouflage what is, in fact, highly
interested action directed, not necessarily consciously, toward deploying and
legitimizing power and domination.
Bourdieu there really isn’t much doubt that our art institutions and practices
reproduce and reify social structures. But
isn’t it possible that even if aesthetic practices have a structuring power,
Kant had it right in describing experience?
Surely it is. It is especially so if we take seriously just how Kant conceptualizes
the act of judging as opposed to the judgment itself. The judgments themselves
are bound by concepts, constrained by social forces, while the process of
judging is something else, something Kant calls the free play of cognition not
determined by concepts.
Judging something to be pleasurable or good (the two “interested” judgments
posed against the “disinterested”) requires some set of concepts and sense of
purpose. One knows the pleasurable in relation to what one knows of one’s self,
and certainly knowing what is good requires some objective sense of rules and
concepts. The beautiful, on the other hand, animates cognition (just as do the
good and the pleasurable) but does so free of any sense of purpose, free from
concepts that guide interpretation and constrain meaning. This is the nature of purposiveness without
purpose and it is this sense of the aesthetic that is ignored or too easily
dismissed by the sociological imagination still under the influence of Bourdieu.
in his rather simplistic inversion of Kant, wants us to believe that the
pleasures of judging are more fully realized, not in cognitive play but in
directed, concept-driven contemplation with a sociological purpose. Pleasure comes from the interest in
discovering that which “makes the [art] work necessary” or, in other words, how
the particular artistic field creates the conditions that fundamentally shape
But when Bourdieu is talking about the pleasure to be had from delineating the
contours and textures of some artistic field or other (in the quotation above
it’s Flaubert’s literary field), he is talking about a particular kind of
discovery that might result from an aesthetic experience but he isn’t talking
about the experience itself. (Again, he thinks we ought to be leery of the
disinterested experience as it masks what is actually going on.) There is
something fundamental and experiential being ignored if all we do is talk about
the concepts and awareness that derive
from an aesthetic encounter.
how do we talk about the experience? Janet Wolff’s definitive statement on the
dilemmas with, and the need for, situating aesthetic considerations within
sociological analysis certainly nudges us in the right direction.
She recognizes correctly that Kant is important to developing aesthetic
sociology not only because he figured prominently in twentieth-century debates
about, and defenses of, high modernism, but equally because, having relatively
little to say about exactly what art is, he instead developed an understanding
of the aesthetic attitude. Such an approach, because it is focused on peoples’
experiences rather than on cultural objects alone, is, at least intuitively,
open to the sociological imagination.
particular focus on the disinterestedness fundamental to aesthetic experience
has been criticized for being impossible and, according to Wolff, phenomenological
theories of art, like those of Natanson and Morawski, have been better at
explaining the nature of aesthetic experience per se. Arnold Berleant provides phenomenological
insight as well. He asserts that “…the phenomena
of aesthetics reach to the very source of perception and meaning in direct
experience.” He provides a detailed description of the particular
characteristics of the aesthetic field as “The total situation in which the
objects, activities, and experiences of art occur” and argues that the
experience of art is fundamentally bound up with the social world “…in spite of
the tendency of modern aesthetics to build barriers against the incursions of
political uses, social conventions, moral orthodoxies, and cognitive
significance.” Wolff would like us to understand that art is
both bound up with the social world and
has its own specificity, first, in the relatively autonomous structures,
institutions, and signifying practices which constitute it, and through which
it represents reality and ideology [and] art also retains an autonomy with
regard to the specifically aesthetic nature of the apprehension and enjoyment
of works of art. 
She sees promise
in theories of discourse that allow us to understand how we constitute
aesthetic experiences as we talk about them, and in psychoanalytic theories for
explaining the desire and pleasure underpinning aesthetic experience. But the
difficulty remains, she concludes, in bringing these approaches together with
the sociological “obligation” (her word, not mine) to investigate empirical
phenomena, the “specific social and historical conditions of aesthetic
experience and evaluation.”
An examination of the critical
theoretical concept of aura and the social psychological experience of flow
sheds light on how one might meet what Wolff calls the obligation to
investigate empirical phenomena of aesthetic experiences. Whether it is brought
on by a painting, sculpture, film, monument, celebrity, or natural phenomenon
one sometimes experiences an almost inexplicable wondrous feeling and the word
“aura” seems to capture it. But aura is much more than a simple label for some
mystical or pseudo-mystical experience.
The idea of aura as it is developed
most famously by Walter Benjamin is, frankly, confusing.
Nevertheless, what is clear from his various descriptions of the phenomenon is
is experienced as a collapse of the distinction between proximity and distance.
Originally art objects were dependent on ritual and were thus only ever
fleetingly available. Ceremonial practices such as rites of passage and
communion demonstrated that ritual objects were set off from daily life and
yet, at the same time, the fate of one’s daily life was intimately bound to
them. In the modern era of autonomous art, objects were freed from their “parasitical
dependence” on ritual and their literal uniqueness, their status as originals
enshrined in museums, imbued them with an appearance of distance. Adorno builds
upon Benjamin’s ideas by framing the collapse of proximity and
distance as a dialectic of interpretation and indeterminacy.
For Adorno, artworks are puzzles in
the sense that they are indeterminate in their nature and thus make possible
the free-play of the mind. The indeterminacy of a puzzle both evokes and allows
for interpretation, and artworks, as puzzles, are enigmas in that they both
speak and conceal. They create a
dialectic of proximity and distance as they point beyond their obvious apparent
meaning and invite interpretation, while also confounding and even refusing it.
to Yvonne Sherrat we then have a characterization of aura in which it is (from
Benjamin) “an appearance of
(from Adorno) a fundamental indeterminacy inherent in the object.
The indeterminate nature of the art object leads to the appearance of distance
and also to the experience of aura that helps make an object both meaningful
and beyond interpretation at the same time. The simultaneous invitation and
refutation of interpretation leads to intense engagement with the art object
and, according to Adorno, this intense receptivity creates the ultimate
proximity in the loss of self as Ego to the object or image. One looses
conceptual faculties, the cognitive boundary around the self, and the very
sense of self associated with ego. The Id remains, as self, and it is this that
merges with the art in an aesthetic experience.
Aura and Self: Flow
In one of the relatively few
attempts to study aesthetic experience empirically Csikszentmihalyi and
Robinson surveyed and interviewed art professionals in an attempt to better
understand aesthetic experience and ultimately to propose methods to enhance
individuals’ aesthetic encounters. Early on in the project the authors
recognized that the aesthetic experiences described by the subjects of the study
sounded very much like an already well-studied state of consciousness given the
name, “flow” by Csikszentmihalyi in 1975. Flow is a commonly used term that describes
an exceptional state of consciousness:
refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,”
artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture. Athletes, artists, and mystics do
very different things when they reach flow, yet their descriptions of the
experience are remarkably similar.
Flow describes a
kind of total immersion in an activity and the accompanying state of
consciousness in which all one’s experiences are in harmony.
This state of harmony, described
both as being at one with one’s self and as losing one’s self, occurs when
people are doing things that they feel are worth doing for their own sake. The
optimal experience occurs when a person perceives that there is something for
her or him to do, some challenge, and also feels that she or he has the skills
to meet that challenge (or to come very close). This relative balance of
challenge and skills drives a person having a flow experience toward increasing
challenges and levels of complexity in order to maintain the heightened
consciousness. Flow facilitates and motivates action in the form of cognitive
play. Consequently, flow is often associated with a sense of discovery. One
discovers new skills and new senses of self. Such experiences typically occur
while engaged in activities that have clear goals and boundaries, and within
these boundaries one’s sense of the “outside world” is abandoned, one
experiences a sense of power and control over the outcome of the activity, and
time becomes distorted. George Herbert Mead’s “me” is completely overshadowed
by the “I:”
flow the self is fully functioning, but not aware of itself doing it, and it
can use all the attention for the task at hand. At the most challenging levels,
people actually report experiencing transcendence of self, caused by the
unusually high involvement with a system of action so much more complex than
one usually encounters in everyday life.
In the words of
Csikszentmihalyi, one has an “autotelic” experience – one that is intrinsically
rewarding (it has purpose without purpose).
Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson
describe the rewards intrinsic to encounters with works of art and, because
these descriptions are similar to descriptions of flow, the researchers ask us
to consider aesthetic experience as a form of flow. Four dimensions of an
aesthetic encounter emerge from the study and they include 1) the perceptual –
an experience of physicality, 2) the emotional – including a wide range of
emotional responses, 3) the intellectual – an experience of a relatively closed
or open-ended meaning, and 4) communication – in the form of a kind of dialog
with the artwork or in the form of information about an era or culture. Art
professionals tend to become skilled (they “mature”) in one or more of these
In an aesthetic encounter one’s attention is arrested for whatever
reason and then one’s skills are applied to the encounter. As challenges are
met, attention is refocused at a higher or more complex level and the sequence
begins again. New skills open up new challenges, which facilitate attention.
Attention is focused at a higher level, which helps develop new skills to meet
new challenges. Just as one begins to grasp the meaning (or whatever dimension
upon which one’s attention is focused), the challenge is renewed: the piece
escapes one’s grasp and one is compelled to stay engaged. (The object evokes
and allows and frustrates contemplation.) While the thing that triggers this
experience is certainly socially and historically dependent, the dialectic form
of the resulting cognitive experience may not be; it may be an experience that,
as Kant would say, is free of concepts, disinterested.
Aura and Self: the Numinous
How is such a “non-conceptual”
experience possible for human beings? As fundamentally social and reflexive
beings, it just doesn’t seem plausible that we might, individually or
collectively, be able to experience the sort of matter-of-fact wonder and
mystery of aura as described by Benjamin and Adorno and documented more
contemporaneously as “flow.” Harry T. Hunt takes up a closely related set of
questions in his examination of what he refers to, following Rudolf Otto, as
the “numinous.” In Hunt’s words (drawing from Blofeld), “…the core of numinous
or mystical experience lies in its nonconceptual,
directly felt realization of an immediate sense of Being, presence, or
‘thatness’ – also related to the sheer ‘suchness’ of Zen satori experience.”
According to Hunt an encounter with the numinous is an experience of being itself and understanding such an
experience requires a multi-level conceptualization of the self.
draws from the work of developmental and cognitive psychologists to illustrate
multiple levels of self including: 1) a primary “ecological” or “bodily” self
basic to perceptual-motor navigation, 2) a self-referential or social sense of
self and, 3) a “meta-cognitive,” “noetic,” or introspective capacity that
allows for the representation of “inner” cognitive processes and states of
The fact that the human self is spread across the central nervous system in
this way confirms, according to Hunt, William James’ conclusion that a sense of
self is unattainable by our self-referential awareness and as such it is only
in the ongoing stream of consciousness that the human self might be found.
Experience of one’s sense of self is thereby set up at the fringes of reflexive
consciousness and remains inaccessible via our self-aware conceptualizations.
The self, like the auratic artwork described by Benjamin and Adorno, is both
proximate and distant – inviting interpretation while refusing it. In formal
terms an encounter with aura is much like experiences with the ecological self
that disappears the moment we begin to name it and reflect upon it.
Gibson’s theory of what he calls our “ambient ecological array” helps
illuminate how such experiences of the ecological self take on the significance
that they do.
Gibson describes human perception as the sensory activity involved in
navigating through one’s “perceptual surround.” As Hunt summarizes:
active navigation creates an open horizon ahead, out of which streams ambient
gradients of surfaces and textures, which, closing behind the moving organism,
continuously specify or self-locate its presence within a self-generated
“envelope of flow.”
essentially self-location. Environment and self are co-specified without
reflection in ecological perception. This notion, associated with third-generation
cognitive science represents what some call a radical embodiment of
consciousness and is sometimes derided as “cockroach intelligence” or
“phenomenology without a head.” Nevertheless, Nagataki and Hirose show that
this kind of simple level intelligence effectively explains sentience as
ecological self engaging the world in action (they use McBeath’s example of the
baseball outfielder who engages directly with the environment via a “dynamic
coupling” of subject and object as he moves toward the ball and the ball moves
adding the cognitive understanding of sentience to the already well-developed
sociological understanding of the symbolic and socially constructed self, we
can understand that the metacognitive and introspective hallmarks of the
reflexive self involve spatial metaphors derived from the ecological array.
This is why, according to Hunt as well as Lakoff and Johnson, we so regularly
employ basic physical metaphors like “center/periphery, high/low,
inside/outside, and varieties of kinesthetic ‘forces’” in our attempts to
conceptualize the nature of our being in the world. Should we be able to bypass or perhaps
intensify these metaphors that mediate direct experience of the ecological self,
we may become open to the mystical and ecstatic experiences associated with the
dissolve of the boundary between one’s self and the world. In such cases “[t]he ecological self
reemerges as a ‘presence’ coordinated with an ‘openness’ of the encompassing
array that is typically ‘schematized’ culturally as God or Absolute.”
It should take no great leap to imagine this sort of experience of the
“absolute” as on a continuum with the aesthetic experience described by Adorno,
in which the self (as Ego) is lost and then “merges” with the art as the self
loses its sense of self, its social and introspective dimensions, in favor of
its primary ecological functioning self.
aesthetic field, like any other sociologically defined field, is a system of
social agents acting in relation to others.
Following Berleant, we can think of the total field as including objects and
the perceptions and experiences of the actors, as well.
It is the particular nature of these aesthetic perceptions and experiences that
differentiates an aesthetic field from other fields. Objects in the environment
generate aesthetic fields as people become engaged with them in cognitive play.
What might motivate such an engagement is highly variable and an aesthetic
field might more likely be generated in an art world, but one can emerge
anywhere an object speaks to someone in such a way as to generate the
experience of aura and flow. Kant, of course, identified experiences of
pleasure in the agreeable and pleasure in the good (in which reflective and
introspective dimensions of self are operating), but if an aesthetic field is
generated, then one’s social sense of self and place drop away in favor of free
play unconstrained by concepts (Kant), a loss of self (Adorno), or flow
(Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson). Social-psychological theories of field
phenomena argue that perception and perception of one’s self are wedded in what
John Levi-Martin describes as a “theoretically rich dualism.”
Aesthetic experience untangles this dualism potentially creating insight on
one’s own perceptions of self.
does any of this have to do with the questions asked at the beginning of this
essay? Well, maybe what interests people who go to see remakes, revivals, and
sequels is not the quality of the sequel or the original but the act of
evaluation itself. It isn’t about the outcome but the process of comparing the
two and the repeatedly experienced fact that the second may come close but will
ultimately fail to capture the wonder of the first. This tension experienced as
movie-goers evaluate and argue about what they have seen creates an
intensification of the metaphors blocking direct experience of the ecological self,
spatial metaphors as in “how close is one version to another?” The intensity of
these debates or self-evaluations, if not literally bringing one closer to
numinous experience, at least puts one into a field in which the potential for
the numinous (the bridging of opposites, self and world) is experienced,
metaphorically, in the possibility and impossibility of reconciliation between
the original film and its remake or sequel. This experience is, in turn, formally equivalent to the tension
created by an artwork’s invitation to, and refusal of, interpretation. The
possibility of flow or an aesthetic experience has been created.
there is any potential for a field theory of aesthetics, then the aesthetic
experience ought to be visible in a variety of different institutional contexts
and across genres. So, following the questions posed at the beginning of the
essay, what is it that draws people to watch NASCAR races on television,
particularly ones taking place at the legendary super-speedways in Daytona and
Talladega? Inevitably, the hours-long broadcast will revolve around the ability
or inability of drivers and their crews to get their cars “dialed in.” On these
enormous tracks the fastest cars are those that find a tenuous balance between
a car that floats over the surface of the track (at speeds around 200mph) and
yet still has enough friction to steer itself through the corners. The effort
to find that balance continues throughout the race and provides the
broadcasters with a structure upon which to build their commentary. A variety
of adjustments to the suspension of the car and to the air pressure of the
tires in relation to the changing temperatures of the racing surface and the
length of runs between adjustments are discussed in detail, as is the relative
success of each team. The perfect balance is an impossible goal simply because
of the unpredictability of the wide array of variables at play.
the dramatic struggle to “dial in” is equivalent to the aesthetic/auratic
experience of proximity-through-distance. The condition itself is beyond
attainability: a state suspended between
friction and no friction. Some have described the super-speedway cars as
“[very] low-flying aircraft.” But if they actually fly they will crash and if they
maintain contact with the track they are doomed to be slower than might be
possible. The struggle to dial-in, like the unrequited love of Romeo and
Juliet, is an embrace of the experience of proximity through distance, the
effort to obtain the unobtainable, to interpret the unintelligible, to know the
very different activity, the creation and collection of family snapshots, can
be similarly described as an experience of the formal characteristics of
proximity through distance. Susan Sontag addresses this issue in her popular
writing by employing the idea of melancholy. Sontag is concerned with how people make
meaning in light of the apparently direct, but always partial, connection that
the photograph has to the world. The
connection to the world in front of the camera is paramount, but at the same
time photographs are not transparent and direct reproductions of the
world. Photographs, for Sontag, are
meaningless without explanation. The act
of explanation, of providing context and guiding interpretation of the image,
is a process that takes place in time, and time inevitably distances the image
from the world it depicts.
play of loss and recovery in much of Sontag's interpretations also plays a
central role in the work of the literary critic and theorist Roland
Barthes. Barthes describes photographs
as sites of personal and cultural experience. While looking at a photograph, the viewer has
a set of cultural conventions or "codes" with which to find meaning,
but photographs have a way of challenging those codes. Barthes referred to this phenomenon as an
ever-present tension in the process of interpreting photographs between the
studium (that which is culturally coded) and the punctum (that which is not). Reflecting his post-structuralist semiotic
theories of culture and language, Barthes shows, through his own idiosyncratic
reading of numerous photographs, that photographic meaning is indeterminate.
Though meaning is indeterminate and the possibility of finding it is always tenuous,
the desire to find it is, in Barthes’ view, constant and unrelenting.
Photographic meaning is elusive to the point of indeterminacy and the effort to
find it is an aesthetic experience.
Examples of this form of aesthetic experience are also
available from the worlds of Western high culture. Yonatan Malin has examined
how the use of syncopated or displaced dissonance reinforces the theme of
romantic longing that is the hallmark of the German Romantic Lied form.
The distance and proximity collapse that is experienced emotionally in
melancholic romantic yearning as a kind of frustrated melodic closure becomes
analogous to unrequited love. Much analysis of eighteenth-century bourgeois
culture addresses the distance and proximity between novel expression and the
constraints of form. See, for example, Witkin on Adorno and classical music,
McClary on the sonata form, and Moretti on the literary form of Bildungsroman.
Kurt Konigsberger makes similar analyses through a comparison of Arnold Bennett’s
novel, Anna of the Five Towns, from
the early twentieth century, to the popular animated television show, The Simpsons, from the end of that
These few brief examples from film, auto racing, photography, music, and
literature hint at the potential of a field theory of aesthetics to incorporate
cultural objects from a variety of social and cultural strata and the
experiences of a variety of social actors into one compelling explanatory
framework. Romeo and Juliet are almost
united. The sequel is close but not quite
as good as the first installment. Stock cars very nearly fly. Snapshots almost
recreate a moment in time, and the syncopated dissonance of melancholy music
leaves one longing for resolution.
relationship between auratic form and a socially constructed value given to the
desire for the numinous experience described above and the brief description of
its operation across genres suggests that we can at least entertain the notion
that treating aesthetics as a field phenomenon can push the social analysis of
art and culture beyond the typical sociological approaches that either ignore
aesthetics or focus only on their consequences for social stratification. The
trick lies in creating a sociological imagination for Kant – in conceptualizing
the disinterested attitude in terms of social psychology and cognition.
are those who would have us believe that sociologists simply ought not to tread
on such rarified territory as aesthetics. According to Nick Zangwell, for
example, the application of sociology to the study of art has a
de-aestheticizing effect. Although Zangwell’s characterization of the
sociological literature and sociological reasoning is largely specious, his central concern, “[t]he
idea that [art world] participants might have a motive for participating has
slipped from view” is valid and so too is his assertion that “[w]e need a
theory that gives a good explanation of why people create and consume art.”
The pursuit of numinous experience generated in flow may provide such an
cognitive free play and the critical theorist’s experience of aura meet at the
crossroads of cognitive science and social psychology to direct our
understanding of aesthetic experience toward social-psychological conceptions
of the self and its sense of being in the world. In the aesthetic field
generated by one’s interaction with a cultural object, we can see the pleasures
of Kant’s cognitive free play and the
critical theoretical potential of aura as one’s experience of flow generates
numinous experience and consequently the potential to reflect upon the
relatively fleeting nature of such an experience. This reflection opens up
potentially new perspectives on one’s social self, on its presence and its
absence, and thus taps into the power of self-awareness. The idea of the
aesthetic field presented here is sociological without being reductionist. It
can embrace the social and cultural variation of a range of settings which may
generate aesthetic experience while granting that experience some autonomy and acknowledging the possibility
that the form of the experience is
dictated as much by cognitive structure as it is by social structure.
Battani is Chair and Associate Professor of Sociology at Grand Valley State
University. Publications include "Photography's Decline into
Modernism in Visual Worlds” and "Pop
Culture Institutions: From Production to
Aesthetics" in the Handbook of
Cultural Sociology. He would like to thank an anonymous reviewer of this
journal for invaluable comments made on an earlier version of this article.
Published on January 13, 2011
Darnell M. Hunt, Screening the Los
Angeles Riots: Race, Seeing, and Resistance (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997); Sut Jhally and Justin Lewis, Enlightened Racism: The Cosby Show, Audiences, and the Myth of the
American Dream (San Francisco: Westview Press, 1992); Tamar Liebes and
Elihu Katz The Export of Meaning: Cross-Cultural
Readings of Dallas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990); Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and
Popular Literature (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1984).
See especially Distinction: A Social
Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Harvard: Harvard University Press,
Howard Becker, Art Worlds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 138.
Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art:
Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field (Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 1996); Pierre Bourdieu and Loïc J.
D. Wacquant, An Invitation to
Reflexive Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). See also
John Levi-Martin “What is Field Theory,” American
Journal of Sociology, 109 (2003), 1-49, in which he defines field
theory in his introduction as “Explanation of regularities in individual action
by recourse to a position vis-à-vis others.”
From the dominant
sociological perspective, the disinterested attitude is the defining feature of
Kant that has been institutionalized in art worlds by Prall, Panofsky,
Kahnweiler’s defense of Cubism, Greenberg’s post-war promotion of High
Modernism, and in D.W. Prall, Aesthetic
Analysis (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1967); Erwin Panofsky, “The History
of Art as a Humanistic Discipline," Meaning in the Visual Arts
(1955; Chicago, 1982), and Idea: A
Concept in Art Theory (New York: Harper and Row, 1968); Daniel-Henry
Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work
(London: Lund Humphries, 1947) and The
Rise of Cubism (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, 1949); Clement Greenberg, Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1965) and Homemade
Esthetics: Observations on Art and Taste (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
Herbert Gans, Popular and High Culture:
An Analysis and Evaluation of Taste (New York: Harper-Collins, 1974).
Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment
(Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987), Section 9.
Bourdieu 1984, p. xix; and see Allen Dunn, “Who Needs a Sociology of the
Aesthetic? Freedom and Value" in Pierre Bourdieu’s Rules of Art,” Boundary 2,
25, 1 (1998), 87-110.
Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1993).
Maurice Natanson, Literature, Philosophy
and the Social Sciences: Essays in Existentialism and Phenomenology (The
Hague: Nijhoff, 1962); Stefan Morawski, Inquiries
into the Fundamentals of Aesthetics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974).
Arnold Berleant, The Aesthetic Field: A
Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas
Publisher, 1970); and Art and Engagement
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), pp. 109-110.
Wolff, op. cit., p. 108.
Wolff, op. cit., p. 109.
Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations, ed. H. Arendt (London: Fontana Press,
Thodor W. Adorno,
Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Yvonne Sherratt, “Adorno’s Aesthetic Concept of Aura,” Philosophy and Social Criticism, 33, 2 (2007), 155-177.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson, The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter (Malibu,
CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990).
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Play and Intrinsic Rewards,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 15 (1975), 41-63.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow:
The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books,
1997), p. 29.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Isabella Selega Csikszentmihalyi, Optimal Experience: Psychological Studies of
Flow in Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988),
Harry T. Hunt, “’Dark Nights of the Soul:’ Phenomenology and Neurocognition of
Spiritual Suffering in Mysticism and Psychosis,” Review of General Psychology, 11 (2007), 209-234; Rudolf Otto,
The Idea of the Holy (New York:
Galaxy Books, 1923); John Blofeld, ed., The
Zen Teaching of the Hui Hai (London: Rider, 1962).
Hunt, ibid., p. 210. See also Ulric Neisser, “Five Kinds of Self-Knowledge,” Philosophical Psychology, 1 (1988),
James Gibson, The Ecological Approach to
Visual Perception (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1986).
Hunt, op. cit., p. 211.
Rodney A. Brooks, “Intelligence Without Representation,” Artificial Intelligence, 47 (1991), 139-159; Andy Clark,
"Embodied Cognitive Sciences?" Trends in
Cognitive Sciences, 3, 9 (1999), 345-351; Michael K. McBeath, Dennis M.
Shaffer, and Mary K. Kaiser, “How Baseball Outfielders Determine Where to Run
to Catch Fly Balls,” Science, 268
(1995), 569-573; Shoji Nagataki and Satoru Hirose, “Phenomenology and the
Third Generation of Cognitive Science: Towards a Cognitive Phenomenology of the
Body,” Human Studies, 30 (2007), 291-230; Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The
Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,
See also George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors
We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
Hunt, op. cit., p. 212.
John Levi-Martin, “What is Field Theory,” American
Journal of Sociology, 109 (2003), 1-49.
Susan Sontag, On Photography (New
York: Dell, 1972).
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida:
Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
Yonatan Malin, “Metric Displacement Dissonance and Romantic Longing in the
German Lied,” Music Analysis 25, 3 (2006), 251-288.
W. Witkin, Adorno on Music (London:
Routledge, 1988); Susan McClary, "Constructions of Subjectivity in
Franz Schubert's Music,"
Queering the Pitch, ed. by Phillip Brett, Elizabeth Wood, and
Gary C. Thomas (New York: Routledge, 1994); Franco
Moretti, The Way of the World: the
Bildungsroman in European Culture (London: Verso, 1987).
Kurt M. Koenigsberger, “Commodity Culture and its Discontents,” Leaving Springfield, ed. by John Alberti
(Detroit, Mi:Wayne State University Press, 2004).
Nick Zangwell, “Against the Sociology
of the Aesthetic,” Cultural Values,
6, 2 (2002), 443-452 and “Against the Sociology of Art,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 32, 2
(2002), 206-218. Also see Bridget Fowler, “A Note on Nick Zangwell’s
‘Against the Sociology of Art,” Philosophy
of the Social Sciences, 33 (2003), 363- 374.