“Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds.”
“Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”
I’m not sure who coined the phrase “aesthetic emotion” or how long it’s been around, but this definition on Wikipedia is pretty good as I understand what it means:
“Aesthetic emotions refer to emotions that are felt during aesthetic activity and/or appreciation. These emotions may be of the everyday variety (such as fear, wonder or sympathy) or may be specific to aesthetic contexts. Examples of the latter include the sublime, the beautiful, and the kitsch. In each of these respects, the emotion usually constitutes only a part of the overall aesthetic experience, but may play a more or less definitive role for that state.”
Since I’ve been covering the topic of emotions in filmmaking and screenwriting for almost three weeks now I thought I’d throw aesthetic emotion in the mix. While the word aesthetic isn’t as popular a word as when philosopher Immanuel Kant and others kicked the term around in the 18th century, its origins go back to at least the Greeks who were concerned with the study of beauty. Ideals that had more to do with moral and spiritual implications of beauty than say the cover of Vogue magazine.
An article I found online about British art critic and philosopher Clive Bell reads:
“He claimed (in his book Art, 1914) that there is a certain uniquely aesthetic emotion, and that aesthetic qualities are the qualities in an object that evoke this emotion. In the visual arts, what arouses this emotion is certain “forms and relations of forms” (including line and color), which Bell called “significant form”. Aesthetic response to significant form is not to be identified, according to Bell, with other emotional responses. For example, a photograph of a loved one might evoke fond memories and feelings of love; the statue of the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima might arouse feelings of patriotism; the Vietnam War Memorial might evoke feelings of grief or lament (my examples). While these are all perfectly appropriate responses, they are not aesthetic responses. Rather the aesthetic response is a response to the forms and relations of forms themselves, regardless of what other meanings, associations or uses they may have. It is a strong emotion, often a kind of ecstasy, akin to the ecstasy felt in religious contemplation. The emotion, and the kinds of significant form that evoke it, are the same for cave art, Polynesian carvings, a Vermeer painting or a Cezanne.”
Robert McKee in his classic book Story dedicated a few pages to aesthetic emotion, including this passage;
“When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge, it becomes all the more powerful, all the more profound, all the more memorable. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever… A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.
In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual. It does not express ideas in dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion. It requires no mediator, no critic to rationalize the transaction.”
A movie scene that jumps to my mind of showing aesthetic emotion is from The Shawshank Redemption written and directed by Frank Darabont, where Mozart’s music is played in the prison courtyards;
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is—I don’t want to know, some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful that it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.”
(Go to the 3:00 minute mark of the clip below to get the essence of the scene.)