The idea that the experience of art makes use of our imagination is deeply ingrained in Western thinking about all artforms. Indeed, the notion that art stimulates the imaginations of its audiences, spectators and readers is widely promoted as being one of the principle benefits it brings both to societies and individuals.
Certainly, it would be hard to deny that the making of works of art does indeed involve imagination. Making a work of art involves, after all, a degree of invention and a weighing up of possibilities. Describing such a process would arguably necessarily involve reference to something like a concept of imagination. However, our assumption that the consumption of art necessarily involves imagination may be less secure. My paper argues that while the consumption of art may “stimulate” our imagination in a general sense, the way in we typically experience artworks is marked not by the freeing up of imagination but by its curtailment. That is to say, aesthetic experience is marked not by an increase but by a decrease in imaginative activity.
My argument will be pursued as follows. First I will outline a rough working concept of the imagination which aligns a classic definition (Scruton) with the idea that the imagination functions to regulate and improve everyday perception (it arises as a result of our evolved ability to doubt or reflect critically upon our perceptions). Second I will briefly compare the imagination’s role in some examples of everyday perception with some examples of artistic perception drawn from music, film, literature and painting. Third, I will outline an analytic argument according to which aesthetic experience is related to the perception of particular features as necessary and desirable. In this way I claim that states of extreme aesthetic engagement – where we are, for example, “transfixed” or “transported” by a work – require by definition a suspension and curtailment of imaginative activity.