The Psychology of Art
eBook - ePub

The Psychology of Art

George Mather

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  1. 136 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Psychology of Art

George Mather

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Why do we enjoy art? What inspires us to create artistic works? How can brain science help us understand our taste in art?

The Psychology of Art provides an eclectic introduction to the myriad ways in which psychology can help us understand and appreciate creative activities. Exploring how we perceive everything from colour to motion, the book examines art-making as a form of human behaviour that stretches back throughout history as a constant source of inspiration, conflict and conversation. It also considers how factors such as fakery, reproduction technology and sexism influence our judgements about art.

By asking what psychological science has to do with artistic appreciation, The Psychology of Art introduces the reader to new ways of thinking about how we create and consume art.

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Art-making is a form of human behaviour that stretches back throughout recorded history. Indeed artworks such as cave paintings and sculptures often constitute the only preserved remnant of human activity. Activities associated with art have clearly been major drivers of human behaviour for millennia despite the lack of obvious and immediate benefits, unlike the rewards (such as food, safety, warmth, shelter and so on) that accrue from other forms of human behaviour. The sheer ubiquity of art through time and space begs questions about why humans engage so enthusiastically in such apparently unrewarding activities, and how they are able to produce art so profusely. These are just the kinds of questions that the discipline of psychology should be able to answer, specialising as it does in the scientific study of behaviour and the mind.
The Royal Academy of Art in London has staged a Summer Exhibition in every year of its existence. The exhibition began as a fund-raiser to support the academy’s art school. Anyone can submit an artwork for display and possible sale at the exhibition. In 2018, the 250th anniversary of the academy, there were 19,800 submissions sent in from the general public, 500 of which were selected for display alongside a similar number of works by academicians. Other high-profile art shows in the UK include the BP Portrait Award, the John Moores Painting Prize and the Jerwood Drawing Prize. Smaller scale open art exhibitions are held by local art organisations every year across the UK and all over the world. Creating and appreciating art are major leisure activities, and support a multi-billion pound professional art industry. Recent US surveys of public participation in the arts have found that about 24% of the adult population (over 57 million people) attend an art gallery at least once a year. About 12% of adult Americans take photographs for artistic purposes, and 6% (13 million people) create visual art such as paintings and sculpture. Women are more likely to engage in all of these activities than are men.
Apart from the sheer scale of exhibitions like the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, a casual browse through an exhibition is enough to reveal the staggering diversity of the art on display in terms of subject matter, motifs, media and techniques employed by the artists, both professional and amateur (see Figure 1.1). Nevertheless, people often find it relatively straightforward to decide whether they like any particular work. Each of the selectors at the Summer Exhibition spends about a week looking at over 15,000 drawings, paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos and mixed media, and deciding which works to include in the exhibition. Each work has only a few seconds to impress the judges. Artist Grayson Perry commented in his introduction to the 2018 exhibition catalogue that “good things sailed through, and the awful were easily dismissed”, though there was a large middle ground where judgements were more uncertain. Research shows that visitors to art galleries typically spend about 30 seconds looking at each artwork, so they seem to be making similarly rapid judgements about what they like or dislike. The facility with which artistic judgements are made begs more psychological questions about how we are able to appraise artworks so rapidly. It is simply incredible that humans could have evolved a specific thought process for judging the worth of an artwork, so the ease of such judgements suggests that they must tap into a more general-purpose thought process. What function might such a process serve?
Figure 1.1
Figure 1.1 Artworks on display at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London are very diverse.
Credit line: Thanks to Sally Rodgers.


Humans had been making art long before the scientific method was developed during the Scientific Revolution from the 16th to 18th centuries. Indeed, leading figures in the history of art played an important role in the development of science itself. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) was an artist, goldsmith and engineer who developed the rigorous system of linear perspective, which creates a sense of depth in pictures using real or implied lines that converge on a vanishing point at the horizon. Linear perspective allows artists and architects to create realistic depictions of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional picture surface. Brunelleschi’s perspective system lies behind the computer-generated images of 3-D scenes that are so common in modern movies and computer games. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) created designs for flying machines and automatic weapons, and dissected corpses to make some of the earliest discoveries about human anatomy, which spurred many advances in medicine. Leonardo sought to understand the world around him, so that he could better reproduce it in his art. So, the histories of art and science are intertwined. Art and science gradually grew apart as the teaching and practice of art and science become institutionalised in art academies and universities. The first art academies were established in Italy in the 16th century in Florence (1563), Rome (1573) and Bologna (1582). Although science did not exist as such at this time (the term ‘scientist’ is an 18th-century invention), it had a close equivalent in the form of natural philosophy, which studied nature and the physical universe. Jacopo Zabarella was the first scholar to be appointed to a position as a natural philosopher at the University of Padua in 1577. Art and science are now poles apart, both culturally and educationally, and many artists and humanities scholars resist attempts to apply scientific concepts and methods to help our understanding of art. There is a fear that science will somehow demean art, robbing it of its mystique, and usurping artists as the sole custodians of its power. For their part, scientists have under-estimated or completely disregarded the insights of artists, believing instead that the scientific method of systematic observation and experimentation is the only sound way to generate new knowledge. However, a central theme running through this book is that both artists and scientists have made and continue to generate new knowledge about the world and our place in it. Indeed their discoveries are often surprisingly coincident with each other.
Psychology as a scientific discipline arrived on the scene quite late. The mind and its relation to the body have been debated from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, notably Plato and Aristotle. But psychology only emerged as a scientific discipline in the mid-1800s, largely due to the work of a German physicist named Gustav Fechner, who worked at Leipzig University along with other founding figures in psychology (Ernst Weber and Wilhelm Wundt). Fechner was interested in how humans make fine sensory discriminations between similar stimuli, such as two lights differing in intensity. He devised several experimental techniques for measuring the limits of sensory discrimination; the smallest difference in magnitude between two stimuli that can be reliably detected. These techniques are called psychophysical techniques, because they measure the relation between mental states (sensations) and physical quantities (light intensity, mass, position, timing and so on). Fechner discovered several psychophysical laws governing the relation between stimuli and sensations. For example, he developed a mathematical formula that describes how the felt magnitude of a sensation such as the brightness of a light relates to the physical intensity of the stimulation as measured by a device such as a light meter.
More importantly for the science of art, Fechner also founded the discipline of empirical aesthetics (empirical statements are ones based on verifiable observations rather than theory or supposition). He developed new psychophysical techniques to study the relation between simple aesthetic judgements of beauty or liking and physical stimulation. One of these techniques, called the ‘method of choice’, is still widely used. The experimental participant is asked to compare two images, such as two artworks presented side-by-side, with respect to an aesthetic value such as ‘pleasingness’. A variant of the technique involves presenting single images, rather than two together, and asking the participant to give a rating score of its pleasingness. Scores can then be analysed in relation to the characteristics of the artworks. Empirical aesthetics allows us to systematically investigate questions about whether and why certain artworks consistently provoke specific responses in viewers, particularly pleasure. However, scientific approaches can also tackle a host of other issues about art, including the brain processes engaged by art, the reasons why we make and enjoy art and whether art serves a useful purpose. All of these issues will be addressed in the coming chapters.
Before leaving this section, it is worth dwelling briefly on potential pitfalls that await us when discussing scientific approaches to art. The first pitfall is to dismiss science as unnecessary in the context of art, because we can make the same insights and reach the same conclusions based on common-sense or intuitive thinking about art. We all have beliefs or theories about the reasons for people’s behaviour, motives, thoughts and feelings. These beliefs are collectively known as folk psychology. Although some folk psychology is accurate, a lot of it is not. Later chapters will show that these two common beliefs are false:
  • Human perception and memory works like a digital camera
  • Creative activities like art use the right side of the brain
The best antidote to folk theories is empirical evidence. According to scientific methodology, a theory should be accepted, provisionally, only if it is not falsified by current evidence. The proviso is there because, in principle, we cannot prove that a theory is true, but we can show that a prediction of the theory is false. The principle of Occam’s Razor is also useful when evaluating theories: ‘Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity’. All other things being equal, the best theories are those containing the fewest clauses or components, and the simplest logic. Superfluous clauses or components and overly complex logic serve only to muddy the water.
A variant of the folk psychology pitfall is to declare that a theory is simply not worthy of consideration because it is not interesting enough. For example, the philosopher Alva Noe (2011) declared that:
What is striking about neuroaesthetics is not so much the fact that it has failed to produce interesting or surprising results about art, but rather the fact that no one – not the scientists, and not the artists and art historians – seem to have minded, or even noticed.
The criteria of interestingness and surprisingness are not ones that scientists would recognise when they evaluate theories. Indeed Occam’s Razor implies that the best theories may also be the least interesting. Neuroaesthetics is discussed in the next chapter, so you will have an opportunity to decide for yourself whether this discipline has yielded any interesting or surprising insights about art.


A simple, almost childish definition of art, at least for the purposes of this book, would be ‘drawing, painting and making sculptures’. Art is traditionally viewed as a visual medium, made by a skilled hand, which is a pleasure to look at. However, since the beginning of the last century there have been continuing debates about what can be considered as an artwork. Starting with Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal, shown in Figure 1.2 (in actuality, probably created by a colleague of Duchamp’s called Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven), some artists have tried to take the question into their own hands, dictating whether something is a work of art. Their aim is to remove aesthetic considerations entirely from the definition of art and replace them with conceptual intent. In the 1960s artist Andy Warhol created artworks that were exact facsimiles of everyday objects such as Campbell’s soup cans or Brillo boxes. These objects prompted many philosophers and artists to define art as anything that is accepted as such, displayed by museums and galleries and bought by collectors. So, a tin of faeces, an unmade bed or a shark suspended in formaldehyde can be declared a work of art. If that declaration receives approval, either from the art world or from the general public, then the object passes into the canon of art. Considerations of natural beauty and visual aesthetics have now become irrelevant.
The question of whether one can consider a given object as a work of art is hugely important, because the definition itself has a major psychological impact on judgements about it. Grayson Perry (2014) summarised the effect as follows:
I need to know whether to put my art goggles on, whether I should think and feel about the work as an artwork, whether I can apply art values to it.
Museums spend a great deal of time and money designing their displays, because they affect the perception of artworks so deeply. For example, an exhibition of African art at the Centre for African Art in New York in 1988 explored the effect of gallery context on the perceived distinction between objects as artworks or as cultural artifacts (Faris, 1988). The way that objects were displayed affected visitor responses to them. In a ‘contemporary art gallery’ setting of unadorned whitewashed gallery walls, with displays under isolated pools of light, otherwise rather banal objects take on the mysterious appearance of Modernist sculptures or constructions. In a ‘natural history museum diorama’ setting, complete with labels, similar objects become artifacts, and the only objects that appear to be ‘art’ are the constructed contextual models and the painted background scenery depicting the African plain.
Figure 1.2
Figure 1.2 The artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a ‘ready-made’ urinal to an exhibition in New York City in 1917, signing it as ‘R.Mutt’. It was his attempt at ‘anti-art’ that violated accepted criteria for what is a work of art.
Grayson Perry’s ‘art goggles’ comment is reminiscent of an effect that is familiar to psychologists, and known as the Hawthorne effect. It refers to a change in behaviour of individuals who know that they are being observed, or are taking part in research. The Hawthorne effect is named after the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorn plant in Illinois, USA, where it was first observed in a study of worker productivity during the 1920s. The study began as an investigation of the effect of lighting, monetary incentives and rest breaks on productivity. However it became apparent during the study that productivity increased simply due to the fact that workers knew they were being studied.
An equivalent effect probably influences judgements of art: Individuals alter their behaviour due to an awareness that they are observing art, or are visiting an art museum. For example, we apply different standards of judgement when we know that we are viewing an artwork rather than some random object lying in the street. Mainstream psychological laboratory research has shown that decision factors of this kind bear on all judgements about sensory stimulation, whether from artworks or from any other source. Psychologists working on perceptual judgements have found that even apparently simple decisions about, say, the length of a line are influenced by context, expectations and biases. Decision factors of this kind are an important part of the more complex judgements...

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