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Psychology of Art

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psychology of art

Is graffiti art or vandalism? Is the renowned Banksy a criminal or a graffiti artist? Keeping his identity hidden, he has left his stenciled art on public buildings but has also sold his art to the world’s rich and famous.

What about cartoons? Are they art? Ask those who live in the Belgian city of Brussels. Known for having a strong comic strip culture, this city has commissioned artists to paint the sides of buildings and subway walls with cartoon characters.

It has a comic strip museum, and hosts an international comic strip and cartoon festival. Coffee shops in Brussels display framed images of Tintin and the Smurfs, famous characters born in Belgium.

What about the often atonal or aleatoric music of 20th century composer John Cage, who broke many musical boundaries? Cage is best known for his 1952 composition 4’33" consisting of three movements comprised of total silence without a single note played by any instrument. It is one of most controversial pieces of music ever written – or not written.

Cage’s other work along with many of his contemporaries who used nonmusical objects, such as smashing lamps or paper clips on musical strings, to create “music” continue to cause heated debates among both professional and nonprofessional musicians.

“People do need novels and dramas and paintings and poems, ‘because they will be called upon to vote.’’’ –Alexander Hamilton

These arguments extend to all areas of arts, areas that continue to produce controversial and questionable works. What is art, and what isn’t? Who decides? Why do some people consider the stencil art of Banksy aesthetically pleasing, while others call it vandalism? Why are some people emotionally moved by the music of Cage, while others find it a joke?

These arguments date back to the time of Plato and Aristotle who gave birth to a branch of philosophy investigating the nature of art, and what constitutes beauty or good art. They called it aesthetics.

Developing a Science of Art

The Greeks’ inquiry into what constitutes art – and beauty – has continued across the centuries. In the 18th century poem “Ode on Grecian Urn,” John Keats declared that “Truth is Beauty.” Written about representational art and its audience, this poem and the exact meaning of its famous last line have been debated ever since: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

A universal agreement on the definition of truth let alone how truth and beauty define any type of art has kept scholars of many disciplines searching and investigating well into our current highly advanced, technological era. Measuring and testing this hypothesis is still beyond our grasp.

During the 20th century, however, psychologists became intrigued with the sticky web of aesthetics. They began to realize that with their growing knowledge of how and why humans think and behave in certain ways, and the increasing availability of tools to measure cognitive structures, they could contribute a more empirically based scholarship to this field.

Psychology researchers knew that by uncovering how neurology, biology and anatomy contribute to how individuals view and make art, they could contribute to aesthetics in a way that was provable and practical.

Why Study the Arts?

The knowledge gained from understanding such an esoteric subject would add to our understanding of how the brain functions, expanding the scholarship in many areas of psychology including personality, clinical, cultural, perceptual, physiological, and cognitive.

In short, by understanding how humans physically and emotionally think and respond to art, psychologists gain insights on the full body of knowledge concerning the human cognition and behavior. And this knowledge will eventually be used in many practical applications, from rehabilitative therapies to functional design and clinical therapies.

The field known as the Psychology of Aesthetics is one of the newest of psychological sciences, and only over the last decade has research in this area started to expand.

In the 2006 inaugural issue of the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, psychology professor Paul J. Silvia called for a better marriage between the study of aesthetics and other areas of psychology, most urgently in the area of the psychology of creativity.

Silvia writes: “Most of the typical Westerner’s encounters with aesthetic intent come from designed objects-a graceful faucet, an elegant lounge chair, a knock-off Alva Aalto stool sold at a big-box retailer-not from museum collections. The psychology of art and aesthetics, however, knows nearly nothing about interior architecture and industrial design.”

He goes on to state that understanding how people relate to designed products and materials will close the gap between creativity and aesthetic studies, illuminating “how a designer’s intentions are enacted in the experience of the user.”

Stated simply, this field is a new and compelling area of study for those interested in the arts and psychology – and how they work together to make our existence more interesting, meaningful, and productive.

Research areas and topics from the psychology of creativity sometimes overlap with aesthetics, but the psychology of aesthetics focuses more exclusively on how and why people and cultures continue to make, discuss, and argue about art.

The American Psychological Association (APA) Division 10, called the Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, brings together professionals working in this field. It states that the field encompasses study into the visual, literary, and performing arts by focusing on the following:

  • The developmental, motivational, affective, and cognitive processes of creativity;
  • Aesthetic content, form, and function of the arts;
  • The audience response to the arts, including preferences and judgments;
  • The use of the arts as diagnostic and therapeutic tools;
  • Creativity in the sciences.

Knowing how individuals process artworks (for example literary texts) has educational significance. And understanding how individuals perceive visual and musical artworks helps scientists understand how the brain processes sensory data. In fact, studies in the psychology of aesthetics draw heavily from the psychology of perception – a related field that provides researchers with clues as to how individuals process sensory data and form beliefs, make decisions, and behaviorally function in the world in which they live.

Many career options and paths are available for those interested in the psychology of aesthetics, but most require coursework, a degree, or a strong background in psychology. The following fields provide opportunity for study in this area: Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Educational Psychology, and Media Psychology. Some schools offer classes, certificates and degrees in the psychology of creativity.

Contact psychology schools for more information on bachelor’s, master’s or PhD degree programs.

Jazz and Identity

Most individuals, even if they don’t recognize it, use the language of popular music to define themselves. Many African Americans, for example, strongly associate with jazz, even describing jazz – and later hip hop - as integral for their personal and sociocultural identities.

Psychology Professor Richard L. Tietze has developed and taught a course for over 30 years at Marymount Manhattan College that uses jazz as a tool for developing human identity.

The course, “Jazz and American Identity” has students listen to jazz, and learn about its musicians and composers. They then record their thoughts on how they felt while listening to the piece, and discuss their thoughts in class.

He wrote a summary of his 30 years of collected data from these classes, and reported the findings in a 2008 article for the “Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.”

The students responded to questions such as “What in me is responding to this listening experience?” and “Am I able to connect this with other experiences, especially those I define as meaningful to my identity?”

In addition students were asked to record musical landmarks in their lives, such as a time period when a particular song or composition marked his or her identity, marking it as “my music.” This helped students see the connection between music and their personal identities.

Margaret from Detroit wrote how her father worked in the auto industry, and her mother led a church program. She described how the music of Motown formed the backdrop of her life.

She talked of how Motown music gave African Americans a sense of hope, and the idea that racism would one day be overcome.

“Motown records still represent a lot of the good and bad that occurred in Detroit, but the music will always live on. The music will always be ingrained in my mind, influencing and inspiring direction in my life.”

Another student, Sean, writing about the musicians trading improvised licks in a Miles Davis song, stated:

“The back and forth of the music becomes like an interpretive dance between the rhythm and other components of a song, which almost play out like a scene in your head. In this community one is able to see that the character of the individual is determined, in large, by those that surround him.”

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