Art as occasion: three critical methods for analyzing aesthetic experience

If we want to evaluate aesthetic experiences beyond forms of value we already expect to find, we should look at what people actually do when they experience and discuss art together.

I gave this talk at the 2017 CAA annual conference in Sarah Cook and Charlotte Frost‘s ‘Accelerated art history: tools and techniques for a fast-changing art world’ session. The talk focused on the kinds of things that people say when they’re discussing art, and what we can learn from observing those conversations in order to choose and calibrate our methods of arts evaluation. The main point is that given the basic philosophical problems of using objective measures to evaluate ostensibly subjective experiences, we should use empirical methods such as conversation analysis which are designed for studying interaction and participation to guide the tools and approaches we take to evaluating specific aesthetic experiences and situations.



  1. Stefan and Katherine: Audio / Transcript.
  2. Mark and Stuart: Audio / Transcript.
  3. Lee and Dominic: Audio / Transcript.


BNC Consortium (2007) The British National Corpus, version 3 (BNC XML Edition).

Coleman, J.; Baghai-Ravary, L.; Pybus, J. & Grau, S. (2012), Audio BNC: the audio edition of the Spoken British National Corpus Phonetics Laboratory, University of Oxford.

Crossick, G. & Kaszynska, P. (2016), Understanding the value of arts & culture
The AHRC Cultural Value Project, The AHRC Cultural Value Project. Retrieved from:

Hoggart, R. (1957) The Uses of Literacy New Statesman, Transaction Publishers. London, UK.

Pomerantz, A. (1984) in Atkinson, J. M. & Heritage, J. (Eds.) Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes, Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis, Cambridge University Press, 57-102

Stivers, T. (2008),  Stance, alignment and affiliation during storytelling: when nodding is a token of affiliation Research on Language and Social Interaction, 41, 31-57


Theorists struggle to describe, analyze, and document event-based artwork because its relevance and value seems inextricable from the many varied experiences that involve and therefore constitute the work.

Cultural studies tackles this problem by exploring the social uses of cultural literacy: how artworks may be constituted by a community of use or propagated as mass culture. Critical sociologists of art have shifted focus from the hagiography of artists and cultural canons to diffuse cultural production, distribution, and evaluation processes within specific groups and subcultures. But then which of the situations where cultural works are used and experienced is most relevant? Today, a 90s piece may be viewed on a seat-back monitor in-flight, and early performance, ready-made, or conceptual artworks are often experienced via photographs, retellings in conversation, or as written into art histories. One solution is to treat all social uses of artworks as event-based and therefore analyzable. Recordings of everyday social settings where people engage with artworks in mundane and practical ways can reveal an artwork’s relevance and value in that specific situation. In this talk I plan to demonstrate three critical methodological approaches using three analytic vignettes: two young men shoot and narrate a YouTube video of a performance artwork; two builders discuss Jackson Pollock while plastering a wall; a gallerist and their client flip through an auction catalog. These micro-sociological events reveal the interactional uses of cultural literacy: how people themselves deal with an artwork’s many possible uses and can inform how we should best describe, analyze, and document event-based artwork.

Albert, S. (2017, February). Art as occasion: three critical methods for analyzing aesthetic experience. Paper presented at The College Art Association Annual Conference, New York.

Improvisation ≠ non-improvisation

As part of a research project into partner dance as an interactional achievement, I presented a short paper at the 2015 Joint Improvisation Meeting in Paris. The presentation draws on research published in a paper I wrote on the rhythmical coordination of performers and audience members in a dance improvisation. Thanks to CNRS Paris and the organisers for making this video of the talk available available.


If you just saw a presentation of this paper, here are the references for the talk – there are more in the paper linked above.

  • Atkinson, J. Maxwell. 1984. “Public Speaking and Audience Responses: some Techniques for Inviting Applause.” In Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, edited by J. Maxwell Atkinson and John Heritage, 370–410. Cambridge University Press.
  • Boden, MA. 2003. The Creative Mind: Myths and Mechanisms. London: Routledge.
  • Broth, Mathias. 2011. “The Theatre Performance as Interaction Between Actors and Their Audience.” Nottingham French Studies 50 (2): 113–133.
  • Broth, Mathias, and Leelo Keevallik. 2014. “Getting Ready to Move as a Couple: Accomplishing Mobile Formations in a Dance Class.” Space and Culture 17 (2) (\#jan\#): 107–121. doi:10.1177/1206331213508483.
  • Chauvigné, Léa A. S., Kevin M Gitau, and Steven Brown. 2014. “The Neural Basis of Audiomotor Entrainment: an ALE Meta-Analysis.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00776.
  • Clayman, Steven E. 1993. “Booing: The Anatomy of a Disaffiliative Response.” American Sociological Review: 110–130.
  • DeMers, Joseph Daniel. 2013. “Frame Matching and ΔP T ED: a Framework for Teaching Swing and Blues Dance Partner Connection.” Research in Dance Education 14 (1) (Apr): 71–80. doi:10.1080/14647893.2012.688943.
  • Gardair, Colombine. 2013. “Assembling Audiences.” PhD thesis, Queen Mary University of London.
  • Goodwin, Charles. 2007. “Interactive Footing.” In Reporting Talk, edited by E Holt and Rebecca Clift, 16–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jackson, Jonathan David. 2001. “Improvisation in African-American Vernacular Dancing.” Dance Research Journal 33 (2) (Winter): 40–53. doi:10.2307/1477803.
  • Keevallik, Leelo. 2010. “Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction.” Research on Language & Social Interaction 43 (4) (\#nov\#): 401–426. doi:10.1080/08351813.2010.518065.
  • Puri, Rajika, and Diana Hart-Johnson. 1995. “Thinking with Movement: Improvising Versus Composing.” In Human Action Signs in Cultural Context: The Visible and the Invisible in Movement and Dance, edited by Brenda Margaret Farnell and Drid Williams, 158–185. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
  • Ravignani, Andrea, Daniel L Bowling, and W Tecumseh Fitch. 2014. “Chorusing, Synchrony, and the Evolutionary Functions of Rhythm.” Frontiers in Psychology 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01118.
  • Sacks, Harvey, and Emanuel A Schegloff. 2002. “Home Position.” Gesture 2: 133–146. doi:10.1075/gest.2.2.02sac.
  • Schober, Michael F., and Neta Spiro. 2014. “Jazz Improvisers’ Shared Understanding: a Case Study.” Frontiers in Psychology 5 (August) (\#aug\#): 1–21. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00808.
  • Sloboda, John A. 1986. “The Musical Mind” (Apr). doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198521280.001.0001.

Two forms of silent contemplation – talk at ICCA 2014

For the International Conference on Conversation Analysis 2014 I gave a talk on some work derived from my PhD: Respecifying Aesthetics. It looked at two forms of silent contemplation – and two sequential positions for bringing off silences as accountable moments for subjective contemplation and aesthetic judgement.

The talk looked at where this conventional notion of aesthetic judgment as an internal, ineffable phenomenon might come from in practical terms. In philosophical terms the idea comes from Kant, who gets it from Hume, who draws on Shaftesbury. I think Hume puts it best.


But this talk isn’t about philosophical aesthetics – it’s about the practical production of contemplation in interaction. It points to the kinds of practical phenomena that we can observe in people’s interactional behaviors that might have inspired philosophers to hypothesise that aesthetic judgments are ineffable, internal, psychological activities.

The empirical crux points to two positions in sequences of talk that people can use to present something as arising from contemplation. The first is done as an initial noticing or assessment, launched from first position without reference to prior talk or action. The second is produced as a subsequent noticing – launched in first position as though responsive to some tacit prior ‘first’.

By studying the practical structure of these ostensibly internal, ineffable events, we can develop more plausible hypotheses about how aesthetic experiences function in theoretical or psychological terms.


  • Coulter, J., & Parsons, E. (1990). The praxiology of perception: Visual orientations and practical action. Inquiry, 33(3).
  • Eriksson, M. (2009). Referring as interaction: On the interplay between linguistic and bodily practices. Journal of Pragmatics, 41(2), 240–262. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2008.10.011
  • Goodwin, C. (1996). Transparent vision. In E. A. Schegloff & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), Interaction and Grammar (pp. 370–404). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, M. (1987). Concurrent Operations on Talk: Notes on the Interactive Organization of Assesments. Papers in Pragmatics, 1(1).
  • Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2001). Configuring exhibits. The interactional production of experience in museums and galleries. In H. Knoblauch & H. Kotthoff (Eds.), Verbal Art across Cultures. The aesthetics and proto-aestehtics of communication (pp. 281–297). Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
  • Heritage, J. (2012). Epistemics in Action: Action Formation and Territories of Knowledge. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 45(1), 1–29.
  • Heritage, J., & Raymond, G. (2005). The Terms of Agreement: Indexing Epistemic Authority and Subordination in Talk-in-Interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68(1), 15–38.
  • Kamio, A. (1997). Territory of information. J. Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Leder, H. (2013). Next steps in neuroaesthetics: Which processes and processing stages to study? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 27–37.
  • Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in Conversation Analysis (pp. 57–102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (1996). Some Practices for Referring to Persons in Talk-in-Interaction: A Partial Sketch of a Systematics. In B. Fox (Ed.), Studies in Anaphora (pp. 437–85). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction: Volume 1: A primer in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.
  • Schegloff, E. A., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8(4), 289–327.
  • Stivers, T., & Rossano, F. (2010). Mobilizing Response. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 43(1), 3–31.
  • Vom Lehn, D. (2013). Withdrawing from exhibits: The interactional organisation of museum visits. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility. Language and the Body in Motion (pp. 1–35). Berlin: De Gruyter.

References: Interactional Choreography

Saussure's Dancers

Here are the references from my talk at the 5th Ethnography and Qualitative Research Conference, University of Bergamo, June 5-7, 2014

Interactional Choreography: rhythms of social interaction in the co-production of an aesthetic practice.

  • De Saussure, F. (1959). Course in general linguistics. (C. Bally & A. Sechehaye, Eds.). New York: Philosophical Library.
  • Iwasaki, S. (2011). The Multimodal Mechanics of Collaborative Unit Construction in Japanese Conversation. In J. Streeck, C. Goodwin, & C. LeBaron (Eds.), Embodied Interaction Language and Body in the Material World (pp. 106–120). Cambridge Univ Press.
  • Jefferson, G. (1988). Preliminary notes on a possible metric which provides for a’standard maximum’silence of approximately one second in conversation. In D. Roger & P. Bull (Eds.), Conversation: An interdisciplinary perspective. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.
  • Kirsh, D., Dafne Muntanyola, R., Jao, J., Lew, A., & Sugihara, M. (2009). Choreographic methods for creating novel, high quality dance. Proceedings, DESFORM 5th International Workshop on Design & Semantics & Form, 188–195.
  • Lerner, G. (2002). Turn-sharing: The choral co-production of talk-in-interaction. In C. E. Ford, B. A. Fox, & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), The language of turn and sequence (pp. 225–257). New York: Oxford University Press USA.
  • Shannon, C. E. (1948). The mathematical theory of communication. 1963. M.D. Computing : Computers in Medical Practice, 14(4), 306–17.
  • Stivers, T., Enfield, N., Brown, P., Englert, C., Hayashi, M., Heinemann, T., … Levinson, S. C. (2009). Universals and cultural variation in turn-taking in conversation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(26), 10587–92.
  • Whalen, J., Whalen, M., & Henderson, K. (2002). Improvisational choreography in teleservice work. The British Journal of Sociology, 53(2), 239–58.

References: Conversational Aesthetics

It’s always difficult to read the reference slide in any presentation, so here are some references for a short talk I am giving on the motivations and methods of doing research in Empirical Aesthetics from the perspective of interactional analysis. If you were at the talk and want the slides – let me know:

Main talk

  1. Frieler, K., Mullensiefen, D., Fischinger, T., Schlemmer, K., Jakubowski, K., & Lothwesen, K. (2013). Replication in music psychology. Musicae Scientiae, 17(3), 265–276.
  2. Kendon, A. (2004). Gesture: Visible Action as Utterance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Leder, H., Belke, B., Oeberst, A., & Augustin, D. (2004). A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments. British Journal of Psychology (London, England : 1953), 95(Pt 4), 489–508.
  4. Leder, H. (2013). Next steps in neuroaesthetics: Which processes and processing stages to study? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 27–37.
  5. Makel, M. C., & Plucker, J. a. (2014). Creativity is more than novelty: Reconsidering replication as a creativity act. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 8(1), 27–29.
  6. Narasimhan, K. P., & White, G. (2014). Agent Clusters: The Usual vs. The Unusual. In Advances in Practical Applications of Heterogeneous Multi-Agent Systems. The PAAMS Collection (pp. 244-255). Springer International Publishing.
  7. Solhdju, K. (2006). Self-Experience as an Epistemic Practice: William James and Gustav Theodor Fechner. In K. Solhdju (Ed.), Self-Rapports. Shaping Ethical and Aesthetic Concepts 1800-2006. Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte.

Works cited in complimentary slides I may or may not have got to:

  • Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Dickie, G. (1964). The myth of the aesthetic attitude. American Philosophical Quarterly, 1(1), 28–45.
  • Egermann, H., Pearce, M. T., Wiggins, G. a, & McAdams, S. (2013). Probabilistic models of expectation violation predict psychophysiological emotional responses to live concert music. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 13(3), 533–53.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. America. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.
  • Ginsborg, H. (2010). Lawfulness without a Law. Philosophical Topics, 25(1), 37–82..
  • Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment. (P. Guyer, Ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kemp, G. (1999). the Aesthetic Attitude. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 39(4), 392–399.
  • Korsgaard, C., Cohen, G. A., Geuss, R., Nagel, T., & Williams, B. (1994). The sources of normativity. (O. O’Neill, Ed.)The Tanner Lectures on human values. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Montague, P. (2002). Hyperscanning: Simultaneous fMRI during Linked Social Interactions. NeuroImage, 16(4), 1159–1164.
  • O’Hagan, J. (1996). Access to and participation in the arts: the case of those with low incomes/educational attainment. Journal of Cultural Economics, (20), 269–282.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (1998). Body torque. Social Research, 65(5), 536–596.
  • Wolff, J. (1993). The Social Production of Art. New York, London: New York University Press.
  • Zolberg, V. L. (1990). Constructing a Sociology of the Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.