Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience

Sensory Aesthetics: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

This presentation begins by recuperating the original definition of the aesthetic proposed by the philosopher Alexander von Baumgarten and then examines how this definition was formalized and neutered by Immanuel Kant. For Baumgarten, aesthetics had to do with the study of “the plenitude and complexity of sensations,” which culminated in the perception of art. When Kant took up the concept, however, he drained it of its sensory plenitude and revised its significance to that of a “disinterested” contemplation and judgment of beauty. The presentation then shifts to a consideration of how the senses are engaged in diverse non-Western aesthetic traditions with a view to arriving at a multi-modal understanding of aesthetic experience which holds across cultures instead of being peculiar to the West. Examples range from Navajo sandpainting and Japanese tea bowls to African masks and Desana basketry. The presentation closes with a consideration of the proliferation of innovative display practices in contemporary art galleries, such as the “Soundscapes” exhibition at the National Gallery and “Sensorium” at Tate Britain, which redefine art as that which engages multiple senses. It is argued that these shows signal the restoration of Baumgarten’s original definition of the aesthetic and compel us to reject the straightjacketing of aesthetic perception proposed by Kant.