The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson

This book explores the enjoyment of viewing art within the framework of flow, the psychology of optimal experience. Flow is an intrinsically rewarding feeling of total involvement in an activity. To be fully engaged in a state of flow, one must be skilled and challenged. The author studied museum professionals as a proxy for the more general art viewing population.

“The experience is one of an initial perceptual hook followed by a more detached, intellectual appreciation that returns the viewer to the work with a deeper understanding.”

“The best examples of objects containing such challenges are works whose meaning appears to be inexhaustible.” As one respondent put it, “‘A good painting will never be used up.’”

Four dimensions of aesthetic experience are explored: cognitive, perceptual, emotional, and communicative.

“One curator stressed the secondary importance she placed upon intellect by commenting: ‘Sometimes I think it gets in the way, in all honesty, because when you see something and you’re immediately thrown into thinking of parallels and dates and all that kind of thing, it stops you from just having this incredible reaction to it as an object.’” Another observed, “There is a certain danger in being too articulate about these things.”

“Our studies show that while art historical knowledge may not increase the delight first experienced in encountering the object, it does provide layers of meaning that increase the challenge for the viewers and hence may make the experience more complex and enduring… It is not enough that the work be beautiful and complex, but there needs to be a balance of challenge and skills in the encounter.”

As individuals, our aesthetic experiences can evolve. “There seems to be a developmental trend in the interaction with works of art, a trend that unfolds in similar stages during the course of a person’s life. It appears that many people are first attracted by the visual impact of the formal qualities of objects, such as an unusual and strong shape or a vivid color combination. Biographical references and emotional content are often the second step. Intellectual challenges are usually discovered later.”

“The aesthetic encounter inevitably involves the realization that art is made by human beings to communicate the entire range of human thought, feelings, and conditions down through the ages. In the interviews conducted with museum professionals, no one element was described as being so central to the aesthetic experience as the human quality of art. One respondent spoke of ‘the way in which a work of art allows you to have a sudden appreciation of, an understanding of, the world. That may mean your place in it… that may mean… [the] ability to suddenly let go of ourselves and understand our connection to the world.’”

Figure 1: model of the interaction in the aesthetic experience.

“In Figure 1, the two interlocking ovals labeled The Artist and The Viewer represent the sets of dimensions—perceptual, emotional, intellectual, and communicative (a, b, c, and d)—that produced the art object as well as the configuration of abilities in those same dimensions that the viewer brings to the work… If there were complete congruence, there would be nothing that was not already known and the object would hold no interest. If there were no overlap whatsoever, there would be no point of entry… There are also parts of the work that do not intersect with the sphere of the artist’s dimensions.  These areas… are open to interpretation and understanding by the beholder.”

“Someone standing before a painting or sculpture is confronted with an object that physically does not change. Yet many times and in many ways, these museum professionals have talked about ‘seeing new things’ or ‘reaching new understandings’ in their encounters with works of art. If the work is not changing, these revelations, these insights and epiphanies, must come from changes within the viewer.”

“Most events in consciousness are built from culturally defined contents as well as from personal meanings developed throughout an individual’s life. Thus, two persons can never be expected to have the same experience, and the farther apart in time and place they are, the more the details of the two experiences will differ.”

“The most celebrated form of the aesthetic experience [is] transcendence or loss of ego… Attention is so completely focused, so completely enmeshed in the interaction with the artwork, that the viewer gives up, at least momentarily, his most human attribute: self-consciousness.”

The book addresses how museum professionals can facilitate the aesthetic experience. The physical environment should focus attention on the art itself, free from distractions.

“Another condition basic to the aesthetic experience is the amount of time available for viewing and being with works of art… ‘The more time that you live with a painting, or with a sculpture, whatever, the more time you have to see it, to find things. If you just walk by a painting, you’re not going to get anything out of it, anything at all, seeing takes time.’”

And, ironically, one museum professional commented, “Going to openings… drives me crazy, because it’s a social atmosphere that really doesn’t go with looking at work. It’s very hard to look at work in a social context. ’… “Truly seeing art, as opposed to merely viewing it, is for most respondents a ‘solitary activity… it’s private, it’s quiet.”

In summary, “the aesthetic experience can be taken as one form of flow, or optimal experience, related to many similar experiences that share the same structural attributes—deep concentration, a sense of control and freedom made possible by a balancing of challenges and skills, and a continuous development of meaningful complexity.”

I have previously reviewed Csikszentmihalyi’s book Good Business about the enjoyment of work. He also wrote Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly, and Rick Emery Robinson. The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter. Malibu, California: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1990. Buy from