The study of the nature of art and the art experience.Ever since Plato esthetics has been a province of philosophy, but from the time of Fechner, it has also been approached from a psychological point of view. Though the two approaches overlap, they tend to differ in both objectives and methodology. The philosophy of art utilizes the methods of direct observation and intellectual analysis, and is primarily concerned with the definition of art, standards to be used in judging works of art, and the esthetic experience as a human value. The psychology of art is based on systematic observation, measurement, and experimental method; it is aimed at describing the sources of the creative impulse and the way we perceive, understand and react to works of art. The following is a summary of recent psychological findings based largely on a review by Irvin L. Child (1967).Understanding of Art. Psychology has made a number of contributions to the study of the meaning of art. First, it has focused attention on the esthetic experience itself, and has shown that individuals differ widely in their reactions to the same work. In other words, instead of possessing a single “true” meaning, a painting or poem or piece of music appears to have many meanings. One of the reasons for this diversity is that different individuals bring different backgrounds of experience and different levels of understanding to the act of contemplation—but another is that there are varied kinds of meaning involved in the experience itself, and an observer may respond to one kind more fully than to another.Many attempts have been made to identify the different kinds of meaning; Child offers a particularly comprehensive classification, based on the distinction between “referential” and “expec- tational” types. Referential meaning includes (a) conventional reference—for example, a dove in a medieval painting signifies the Holy Spirit; (b) iconic or configurational representation, as when a portrait directly represents the subject, or an actor is made up to look as well as act like Mark Twain; (c) exemplary reference, as when certain patterns and colors in abstract paintings, or certain tones and melodies in music represent emotional states without resembling them iconically. Expectational meaning includes (a) syntactical expectation: the syntax or structure of poetry leads us to expect a certain rhythm or rhyme, and the syntax of music leads us to expect the resolution of chords in a certain way; (b) causal expectation: the images in a work of art may reveal something about the unconscious wishes or conflicts that led the artist to produce it; and (c) pragmatic expectation: the architecture of an office building can be understood, in part atleast, in terms of expectations about what it would be like to work in it. All these types of meaning contribute to our understanding of works of art.Many studies have been made of the meanings experienced in the individual arts. In the field of music, Meyer (1956) bases the perception of meaning on the arousal and resolution of an ever-changing series of expectations about the next note, alterations in rhythm, melody, and other components. The trained viewer may experience these “embodied meanings” more technically and the untrained more emotionally. Cooke (1959) believes emotions are essential to the perception of all meaning in music, and Pratt (1954) states that “music sounds the way the emotions feel.”As to the specific emotions experienced, tests have shown that groups of students agree substantially on the emotional meaning attributed to many musical passages; and when changes are made in specific passages (such as raising the pitch or altering the tempo), they exert a marked effect on the judgment of emotional meaning (Hevner 1937). Other experiments have shown that listeners tend to make the same type of drawings in response to single notes sounded in crescendo or in diminuendo (Karwoski, Odbert, Osgood, 1942), and it has also been found that college students tend to select the same sensory metaphors that critics use in characterizing operatic voices (Brown, Leiter, and Hildum, 1957). Many studies have also shown that musically educated and musically uneducated people tend to agree closely on both the emotional and sensory meanings they ascribe to musical passages. There is also some evidence of agreement across cultural lines in studies of folk music made by Gund- lach (1932), and Lomax (1962), though more research of the intercultural, comparative type is needed.In the field of visual art, experimental psychology has concentrated largely on the meaning of specific elements rather than entire works, although Arnheim (1962) has made a start in the latter direction in his study of the evolution of Picasso’s Guernica mural. Several investigators have found considerable agreement between the emotional meanings ascribed by college students and by critics to colors and forms in abstract paintings (Child, 1962; Springbett, 1960). Research has also shown that the same adjectives are often applied to individual details (Poffenberger and Barrows, 1924); and that many people draw similar lines to fit specific mood terms like “gay” and “sad” (Scheerer and Lyons, 1957). People also tend to agree in their reactions to different colors. Wright and Rainwater (1962) have sampled the entire population of West Germany, and found marked agreement in the emotional and sensory meanings which adults associate with different colors. However, none of these studies has resulted in complete consensus, and hence there is room for individual interpretation.In the field of literature, various studies have shown that the meaning of poetry, as opposed to prose, is largely dependent on sound. Hevner (1937), for example, performed experiments with nonsense syllables and found that different emotional meanings were attributed to harsh and smooth consonants, front and back vowels. Not enough research has been done, however, to indicate whether similar sounds have universal meaning in poetry or in language as a whole. Hymes (1960) has found some evidence that the meaning of individual poems may be dependent on a repetition of key words having special sound patterns, somewhat parallel to the leitmotifs in Wagner’s music.A totally different approach to meaning is suggested by psychoanalytic theory, which interprets literature as well as other art forms as objectifications of unconscious mental processes, in the same way that dream fantasies express forbidden desires. Though it is not easy to prove that these meanings are operative, the “depth” approach gives the critic an additional tool for interpretation and helps to show the extent to which art may be an expression of universal human conflicts.Psychological Reactions to Works of Art. The investigations here have been confined largely to immediate reactions rather than long-term effects of art experiences on values, character and way of life. On the problem of judgment, several experimenters have shown that college students tend to be strongly influenced by the judgments of others. Farnsworth and Beaumont (1929), for example, found that unfamiliar paintings were rated more attractive when accompanied by comments suggesting that they were highly regarded by experts and by the social elite; and Sherif (1935) found that when a prose quotation was falsely attributed to a well- known author, a student’s judgment tended to conform to his evaluation of that author. A number of more recent experiments, however, have indicated that the effect of prestige suggestion may be relatively slight, especially in poetry and drama (Michael, Rosenthal, DeCamp, 1949; Frances, 1963).Attempts have also been made to discover what effect training in the arts has on judgment. A comparison between ratings of pictures of oriental rugs has indicated that although the judgments of experts differ considerably among themselves, they show little agreement with judgments of nonexperts (Gordon, 1923). By reworking Gordon’s statistics, Child has shown that the experts tended to agree with each other somewhat more closely than the nonexperts; and in a study of his own, he found marked differences between student preferences and connoisseur preferences for the same group of pictures (1962). Others, however, have found less agreement among connoisseurs than among nonconnoisseurs (Frances and Voillaume, 1964; Gordon, 1956).A number of crosscultural studies also relate to the problem of art judgment. Some of them indicate that in spite of the fact that art products in primitive societies must usually conform to ritual and practical requirements, there is often considerable interest in their esthetic qualities on the part of both producers and spectators. But the question whether the judgments of connoisseurs would agree across cultural boundaries is still unsettled. Empirical studies are hard to carry out, since cultural backgrounds and symbolic meanings differ so widely. Nevertheless, a start has been made in the visual arts by Gerbrands (1957) and Child and Siroto (1965), who have found some agreement in judgments of primitive masks made by individuals in more advanced and less advanced cultures.What are the bases on which connoisseurs and non-connoisseurs judge works of art? Peel (1944) has found that nonexperts tend to judge paintings by naturalness, and experts by good composition; Pickford (1948) has concluded that subjects from both groups respond primarily to harmony between emotional expression and form or design. Many investigators agree that artists as a whole place far less emphasis than nonartists on faithfulness of representation. There is also evidence that artists tend to prefer complex and asymmetrical designs, while nonartists prefer simple, symmetrical designs (Barron and Welsh, 1952; Munsinger and Kessen, 1964).On the other hand, Berlyne (1966) and others have concluded that observers prefer either a very low or a fairly high degree of complexity, with connoisseurs preferring complexity more than non-connoisseurs.Studies made by Williams (1960) and Burt (1960) have shown that subjects who scored high on art judgment tests in one field of art were likely to score high in other fields of art—an indication of the existence of a general esthetic sensitivity. Child (1962, 1965) has found that students whose evaluations of paintings agreed with those of connoisseurs tend to have certain personality characteristics in common, particularly independence of judgment and tolerance of complexity.As to agreement among nonexperts, various studies indicate that although correlations within student groups are low, correlations between the averages of different student groups tend to be high. Comparison between judgments of the same works of art in different nations are inconclusive; some show substantial agreement, others little or none. As to sensory preferences, studies in this country show a high degree of uniformity in reaction to colors, with blues usually given the highest preference rating, followed closely by certain reds and greens, and with yellows generally appearing at the low end of the scale (Guilford, 1939; Helson and Lansford, 1966). The latter experimenters also found a pronounced general preference for high saturation in figure colors and low saturation in background colors, as well as a consistent preference for warm colors among men and cool colors among women.Finally, another step toward relating preferences to personality characteristics has been taken by Knapp (1964), who found that a special interest in abstract expressionist painting correlated highly with freedom of emotional expression; interest in representational painting with a practical, matter-of-fact approach; and interest in geometric abstract painting with intellectualism and withdrawal.Creator and Creativity. Application of creativity tests indicates that originality in art is sometimes, but not always, positively correlated with originality in nonartistic activities such as unusual responses on word association items (MacKinnon, 1962). MacKinnon (1965) has also found that creative individuals tend to be confident and self-accepting, and to set their own standards instead of being preoccupied with the impression they make on others or the demands of others. Similarities in background have been found among architects as well as among school children who score high on creativity tests. In both groups, the mother has usually led an active life outside the home, and both parents have stressed independence, integrity, and self-determination, rather than conformity and obedience.A start has also been made on the problem of relating the personality of the creator to the characteristics of his work. Freud emphasized the artist’s ability to mold material in such a way that it expresses his fantasies faithfully and at the same time opens the way for others to obtain “comfort and consolation” from their own unconscious sources of pleasure. He believed it was possible to infer the artist’s personality from his art productions, as he himself attempted to do with Leonardo da Vinci. Others have followed this approach with Shakespeare, Jonson, Marlowe, and Melville. Some interpreters stress the embodiment of manifest personality characteristics in art productions, while others follow Freud in stressing latent characteristics. Another avenue of research as suggested by Wallach and Gahm (1960), who found a correlation between personality characteristics and the production of abstract designs and doodles by nonartists—for example, a tendency toward expansive drawings among extroverted women with a low anxiety level and introverted women with a high anxiety level.
Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "ESTHETICS," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/esthetics/ (accessed March 22, 2023).