Order and change in art: towards an active inference account of aesthetic experience

Dec 18, 2023

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How to account for the power that art holds over us? Why do artworks touch us deeply, consoling, transforming or invigorating us in the process? In this paper, we argue that an answer to this question might emerge from a fecund framework in cognitive science known as predictive processing (a.k.a. active inference). We unpack how this approach connects sense-making and aesthetic experiences through the idea of an ‘epistemic arc’, consisting of three parts (curiosity, epistemic action and aha experiences), which we cast as aspects of active inference. We then show how epistemic arcs are built and sustained by artworks to provide us with those satisfying experiences that we tend to call ‘aesthetic’. Next, we defuse two key objections to this approach; namely, that it places undue emphasis on the cognitive component of our aesthetic encounters—at the expense of affective aspects—and on closure and uncertainty minimization (order)—at the expense of openness and lingering uncertainty (change). We show that the approach offers crucial resources to account for the open-ended, free and playful behaviour inherent in aesthetic experiences. The upshot is a promising but deflationary approach, both philosophically informed and psychologically sound, that opens new empirical avenues for understanding our aesthetic encounters.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Art, aesthetics and predictive processing: theoretical and empirical perspectives’.