Jannik M. Hansen / Experience with visual art, empathy and depth

Ever since its conceptual formation scholars have argued that empathy can help us understand and explain intense affective experiences with works of art. One renowned writer on the topic, Theodor Lipps, for instance wrote that “empathy shall make aesthetic appreciation comprehensible” (Lipps, 1900, p. 416). Approximately a hundred years later Eisenberg and Strayer (1992) presented a somewhat similar suggestion, arguing that empathy should function as a basic principle of aesthetics. To what extent empathy actually qualifies as a basic principle of aesthetics remains however unsettled. Most often it is assumed that empathetic encounters presuppose an actual other (Cuff et al., 2016), but recently a range of scholars working on topics of aesthetics has pointed to the central role of empathy for our experiences of art. Despite this proclaimed relevance of empathy for the understanding of affective-aesthetic encounters, proper descriptions of empathy are lacking in the scientific and philosophical literature. As already demonstrated by Moritz Geiger (1911a; 1911b), the lack of description often leads to theoretical confusion and disagreement. The first step towards clarity and theoretical coherence is therefore, as Geiger also writes, to start with describing the matters of fact of aesthetic experience, and provide answers to questions such as, what do we experience when experiencing a work of art empathetically? What is given during such moment? How is consciousness structured in aesthetic empathetic experience? The general aim of my research is to remedy the lack of description and provide answers to these questions and to do so on the basis of interview material subjected to descriptive phenomenological analysis. By bringing this descriptive account of aesthetic empathy into dialogue with phenomenological analysis of empathy and selfhood it is my hope to contribute to our understanding of how empathy can shape experience with works of art and how empathetically experienced art can shape affective core aspects of the spectators’ selfhood. 

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