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Book Review: The Art of Seeing – An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter

Book | Authors | Review

By Visvapriya Sathiyam, SAP Labs India – June 29, 2010

This review takes a personal look at Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's and Rick E. Robinson's book The Art of Seeing – An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter.



Cover of The Art of Seeing     

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi & Rick E. Robinson
The Art of Seeing – An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter
Getty Publications, 1991
ISBN-10: 0892361565
ISBN-13: 978-0892361564




Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi     

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a Hungarian psychology professor, who emigrated to the United States at the age of 22. Now at Claremont Graduate University, he is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College. He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic. He is the author of many books and over 120 articles or book chapters. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world's leading researcher on positive psychology. He once said "Repression is not the way to virtue. When people restrain themselves out of fear, their lives are by necessity diminished. Only through freely chosen discipline can life be enjoyed and still kept within the bounds of reason." His works are influential and are widely cited.
(From Wikipedia, adapted)

Rick E. Robinson  

Rick E. Robinson is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Chicago. He was a co-founder of E.Lab, a research and design consultancy, and then Chief Experience Officer at Sapient. Both firms were pioneers in the development and application of ethnographic and observational research approaches for clients such as BMW, Ford Motor, General Mills, General Motors, McDonald's, Sony, and Warner-Lambert. He is the co-author of The Art of Seeing, as well as numerous articles on design and research. He is currently an independent consultant and Partner in Sideriver Ventures.
(From Design Research conference 2010, adapted)




The Art of Seeing by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson is based on a psychological study to discover what constitutes an aesthetic experience. This work is a result of interpretations from interviews conducted with several museum professionals who are primarily 'consumers' of art (as opposed to 'creators' of art) – such as curators, educators, and directors of major art collections. Artists were purposely left out of the study on the assumption that their personal biases (including being either critical or ignorant of other works of art except their own) might hamper the study. This approach to defining an aesthetic experience from the consumer's point of view makes the subject particularly interesting to HCI professionals like us, because we can draw parallels with what constitutes an aesthetic experience for "consumers" of the software we build. Not surprisingly, many of the criteria for an aesthetic experience explained in this book bear a striking similarity to the fundamental design principles and methods that lead to good user experience.

A Conceptual Model of Aesthetic Experience

The authors built a conceptual model that explains aesthetic experience as consisting of six elements:

  1. Object focus, leading to a merging of action and awareness of the subject with the work of art
  2. Felt freedom and release from concerns about past and future
  3. Detached effect, leading to a loss of ego boundaries
  4. Active discovery of new information or insight by repeated and continued observation
  5. Wholeness, a sense of self-expansion and personal integration
  6. Autotelic nature of the experience that is intrinsically satisfying

Experiencing an aesthetic moment as defined above could be the result of several criteria. The authors classify these criteria broadly into four major dimensions of the state of mind.

1. Perceptive:

This constitutes the sensory pleasure that is derived from seeing a piece of art. For perceptive individuals, form, structure, and composition play a very important role in appreciating the work of art.

2. Emotional:

There are many theories that explain the emotional aspect of an aesthetic experience.
One theory suggests that transcendence of actuality moves an observer. This actuality most often reflects the observer's repressed thoughts. Specifically, melancholic themes of war, poverty, and betrayal have a greater impact than other art themes, because their associated emotions are often repressed (clinically proven by Freud and other psychoanalysts). Another theory suggests that the individual's temperament and personality have a significant influence on his emotions and therefore how he judges a work of art. For example, it has been proven that extroverts prefer simple colors in art that are more expressive in nature, while introverts prefer a multitude of colors (based on Carl Jung's theory of extroversion and introversion).

3. Intellectual:

Enjoyment derived from aesthetic experience is a cognitive rush; the knowledge and understanding that art provides and that words cannot.

According to many philosophers and evolutionists, the urge to follow nature's 'universal order' is a primal survival drive. Thus, anything that brings order to our mental faculties becomes a driving factor for all our thoughts and actions. As a result, a work of art that encompasses complexity, a multitude of possibilities, and inexhaustibility challenges the individual's intellect to find new information. And the intellect derives a sense of power (and order) from having that new piece of information or insight. The more a work of art opens up to an intellectual conversation, the more it captivates our attention. This is interesting, by the way, in terms of HCI, in which "simplicity versus complexity" is one of the most debated topics. How do we minimize complexity and yet retain a spirit of challenge that engages the user with the user interface?

4. Communicative:

Many individuals are drawn into a deeply engaging and imaginative conversation with a work of art. They look at art as reality from their point of view when the piece of art reflects their beliefs, morals, and values. This dialog-oriented experience could again be the cause for maintaining a higher mental order.

Criteria for an Aesthetic Experience

The four dimensions above laid the foundation for the authors to formulate their interview questions (the authors have also disclosed their interview questionnaires, evaluation criteria, implementation methodology, and the results for those who are interested in the details). The interviews were used to identify the most important criteria that lead to an aesthetic experience.

1. Challenge

Observers indicated that works that challenged them toward intellectual dialog and curiosity were the most important in creating an autotelic experience. Challenge triggers a quest for information, allowing observers to grow their skills gradually.

2. Skills

The extent of awareness and sensibility to visual information is not inherent, but a skill that has to be learned. Several factors contribute to developing skills, and the level of skill an individual acquires determines the kind of aesthetics he experiences. For example, more educated curators (PhDs) reported engaging intellectually with a work of art than administrators (undergraduates), who derived sensory pleasure (perceptive) from seeing the art. Curators who were middle-aged (34-48) showed a greater preference for the intellectual dimension than younger or older curators, in whom such a strong preference was not seen. Historical curators who specialized in specific forms of art again leaned toward the intellectual and communicative dimension than curators collecting modern art, who drew pleasure from perceptive forms and emotions in the work. One can draw a parallel to how HCI professionals identify user roles to manage consumer expectations. This also suggests that universal design is a myth, as with design works and art works, another frequently and heatedly debated topic in the UX community.

Another interesting aspect is how the interviewees acquired the skills of engaging with art (which can be related to "learnability" in software design works).

  • Passive growth: Some believed that simply aging and engaging in day-to-day challenges such as raising a family made them more mature and sensitive to works of art over time.
  • Active involvement: A few others indicated that a wide range of exposure to different art forms and artists and the resulting range of emotions they experience made them grow.
  • Collaborative efforts: Many preferred talking and sharing their experiences and impressions about artwork with others.

3. Setting Goals

Without a goal, a problem to solve, consumers of art remained outside of the work. This became obvious from the statement: "I have quite a clear idea of what to do when I approach a work of art".

4. Feedback

An important criterion is the anticipation (and the subsequent fulfillment) of feedback while interacting with a work of art. While we as designers know how important feedback about user operations is to actively involving end users with the software, we seldom realize that we have the same expectations of other tangibles we interact with, including artworks. One of the interviewees said, "After I have a certain reaction to the art, it is important to check it with further tests". Feedback from many participants was considered to be ‘rewarding', irrespective of whether they liked the work of art or not :)

5. Confidence

A sense of support, security, and trust seem to drive aesthetic experience. In a museum, this is about the right location, the right lighting, a relaxed setting, and non-intrusive positioning of benches and art works to facilitate a deeper engagement with them.

6. Human presence

And, finally, works that depicted human qualities such as genuineness and humility drew more attention and led to more scope for dialog with the art itself.

7. Personal judgment

Whatever the reason, everyone agreed on one statement: "I trust my personal opinion". This indicates a strong preference for personal judgment of their experiences with the art form.


Overall, this book is potentially interesting to anyone who wants to appreciate museum art or gain a psychological perspective on aesthetics and art. The most interesting aspect of this book, as I said before, is the correlation that I was able to draw to user experience principles and practices. The one thing I found disappointing is that the engaging style of writing and the depth of insight into the subject that is Mihayl's trademark is missing in this book (especially if you have read his Creativity and Flowbefore). But overall, it is certainly of interest to those who like direct anthropological narratives, because it is filled with user quotes and stories that are replicated "as is".

Other Recommended Books

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1997). Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial. ISBN-10: 0060928204, ISBN-13: 978-0060928209
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial. ISBN-10: 0060920432, ISBN-13: 978-0060920432 (appeared as paperback in 2008)

External Links/References


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