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Psychological Approaches to the Art History

Peter Tzanev

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4. Disciplinary parameters of art psychology 

A lot of researchers put a sign of equality between psychological aesthetics and art psychology. For example, in the introduction to his book The Psychology of Art Appreciation (1997) the Danish psychologist Bjarne Funch says that: ‘psychological aesthetics, also called the psychology of art, is one of the academic disciplines that has been actively involved in the investigation of art and its influence on human existence.’[1] Such a substitution has its logic coming from the common origin and common subject of research of these two disciplines. Historically the experimental aesthetics envisioned by Fechner as an empiric science develops at the end of the 19th century simultaneously in the context of experimental psychology and of neo-Kantian aesthetics[2], tempted by different psychological approaches and methods. At the same time other authors such as the Austrian psychologist Christian Allesch[3] think that the research field of psychological aesthetics is wider than the one of the art psychology.

In historical aspect the psychological aesthetics stays connected with the development of the experimental psychology and with a more global understanding of human creative activity. In this way the psychological aesthetics stays in the context, given by the classical philosophic tradition, which analyses human aesthetic experience with the help of aesthetic categories.

Another typical feature of the psychological aesthetics is that it prefers to regard art as a universal and not historic phenomenon. Under the influence of the processes in the general sciences of art and the emancipation of separate psychological schools, part of the contradictive and inhomogeneous field of the psychological aesthetics gradually begins to specialize and differentiate. So the psychology of art as a discipline begins to relate more closely to the experience of the theories which are outside the experimental psychology.

One of the main characteristics of the psychology of art as a discipline is that it develops as a collection of alternative psychological approaches to art, which are part of different, rivaling psychological schools. Art history as a general science of art does not play the role of arbiter, because methodologically it differentiates from all possible forms of “psychologism”.

So the psychology of art stays outside the art history. A position that allows different psychological schools to offer their own theories of art, great part of which remain “invisible” to the science of art, and others manage to permeate in its essence in the form of certain topics, terms, ideas.

During the entire 20th century the fate of the psychology of art turns out to be much more related to the history of modern psychology and the processes in modern and contemporary art, than to the theoretic development of the very science of art. At the same time it is not an overstatement that the academic psychology from the first half of the 20th century does not have any effect on the theoretic development of the art history.

A situation, which does not change during the entire 20th century, regardless of the work of scientists such as Rudolf Arnheim[4], who in 1954 wrote the book Art and Visual Perception[5], which undoubtedly is the biggest contribution to the differentiation of the psychology of art as an independent discipline within the framework of the art theory. However, this does not stop Ernst Gombrich from stating in his book Art and Illusion (1960) that despite its qualities and usefulness the book of Arnheim gives little to the art historian.[6]

Psychology of art does not manage to receive a statute of a fundamental discipline as for instance the historic science is, within the framework of the academic science of art. Another indisputable fact is that psychology of art never becomes equal in rights within the framework of the scientific psychology.[7]

In 1994 in the preface to his book Cognition and the Visual Arts the American cognitive psychologist Robert Solso states that regardless of the stormy development of the cognitive psychology in the second half of the 20th century almost nothing from the findings in this field is applied to the sphere of art.[8] With great regret Solso notes that until the beginning of the 1990’s the literature on psychology of art contains only psychoanalytical texts and some psychophysical researches.

Without a doubt the systematization of a comprehensive and integral art psychology remains a project for the future and the main reason for this is in the development of psychology itself.

The development of psychology as a scientific discipline is connected with influence by different philosophical schools amongst which the most important is the philosophical positivism of Auguste Comte. It is interesting that Comte himself excludes psychology from his hierarchical system of sciences. According to him the base of science is physics, on which chemistry is based, which in turn is a fundament for biology, which is in the core of the new science – sociology. Comte thinks that the biological science for the brain gives the knowledge for human nature which is necessary for sociology.

German idealists also doubt the possibility to quantitatively assess conscious experience and predict that psychology would never become a science, because it is impossible to experimentally measure the psychic processes. In Germany philosopher Immanuel Kant suggests creating a science about human behavior and names it anthropology and in England John Mill has a suggestion for a similar science – ethology, devoted to the factors which influence the development of human personality.

The idea of psychology as a humanitarian science is connected with the name of philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey who confronts the idea of positivists that physics should serve as a base for every science and suggests the model of history. According to him psychology does not belong to natural sciences, but to humanities.

According to the American psychologist Michael Cole the reason for the exclusion of art and culture from psychology is that when psychology is institutionalized as a science, the processes constituting the mind are divided between several sciences – culture goes to anthropology, social life to sociology, language to linguistics, past to history and so on and each of these disciplines develops methods and theories suitable for their field.[9]

The major methods in psychology depend on the use of standardized procedures which allow the application of linear statistical models to determine the significance of results, whereas in anthropology the major methods depend on participation along with people in their everyday activities and interviewing them in a flexible and acceptable way. According to Cole, who tries to combine psychology and anthropology, the methods used in the two scientific fields are diametrically opposite.

Such a division of the sciences about human shows why art as a subject of research turns out to be a marginal sphere in the field of scientific psychology which tries to use artificial experiments on the model of natural sciences.

Another interesting trend in the history of psychology is that psychological models which turn out to be closer to humanities than to natural sciences have better development as a self-dependent separate sphere of the psychological research and influence on the general development of art itself.

Psychology as a science according to experts enters the 21st century in a state of theoretic crisis.[10] According to historians of science the field of contemporary psychology is advanced on the way to fragmentation and disintegration from number of independent psychologies, which are unable to communicate with each other. In the beginning of the 21st century psychology is more fragmented than ever before and as every fraction holds to its theoretic and methodological orientations, approaching the research of human nature with different techniques and imposing its own specialized terminology.[11]

As far as every discipline has its own subject of study it is logical to ask the question what does the psychology of art study. One possible answer is that psychology of art studies the psychological processes related to art, for example, perception of art. At the same time such an answer raises the question what is the difference, for example between psychology of art and psychology of perception. Many books on psychology of art deal with the general phenomena of attention, sensations, visual perception, memory and thinking and related them to different aspects of art. So psychology of art finds its purpose as a psychology of art perception, regardless of how general and undefined is every psychological definition of the term “art” seems regarding art history as a science.

Moreover when under the category art perception are viewed different perceptive, emotional, cognitive, evaluation, spiritual and other kinds of relations between the human and the works of art. In fact there is no psychological system or theory which was specially created to be used in the field of art. Most often psychological systems and theories apply their own theoretical postulates and hypotheses as explanation of different aspects of art.

In historical aspect the development of psychology of art is defined by the existing differentiation and confrontation of separate psychological schools and directions. The development of psychology in the first half of the 20th century is dominated by the psychoanalysis and behaviorism, which in its turn in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a reaction causes development of new psychological systems, namely the schools of humanistic and cognitive psychology. This circumstance can explain why when in 1972 the psychologists Hans Kreitler and Sulamit Kreitler in their book Psychology of the Arts review the main psychological approaches to art, they believe that future development of psychology of art is connected with expansion of cognitive orientation.[12]

A similar view can be found in the book Invented Worlds. Psychology of Arts (1982)[13] by the American psychologist Ellen Winner, as well as in the book of Howard Gardner Art, Mind and Brain. Cognitive Approach to Creativity[14], published also in 1982. In Winner’s book are reviewed some of the most significant psychological approaches to art, developed on the basis of psychoanalysis, psychobiology, Gestalt psychology and cognitive psychology, respectively connected to the names of Ernst Kris, Daniel Berlyne, Rudolf Arnheim and Ernst Gombrich.

It is interesting that authors such as Michael Parsons[15] and David Perkins[16], who in the next decade suggest original ideas related to art psychology in cognitive direction do not show any interest in the achievements of the other psychological schools. The same conclusion can be made about Robert Solso, who in 2003 publishes his book Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain in which he tries to apply the achievements of the cognitive neuroscience to art psychology.[17]

It is a known fact that traditionally the psychoanalytical approach to art excludes any possible interaction with the rest of the psychological approaches. This is why it is a curious trend that some psychologists from other schools such as Pavel Machotka use classical psychoanalysis of art combined with psychometric models close to experimental psychology.[18]

There are enough grounds to say that in the beginning of the 21st century psychology of art is not less fragmented than the scientific psychology. Every psychological approach to art holds to its own theoretic and methodological orientation, applies different techniques and its own specialized terminology, which excludes the possibility for active dialogue with the rest of the psychological approaches to art.

In this regard an interesting exception is the book by the Danish psychologist Bjarne Funch The Psychology of Art Appreciation[19], published at the very end of the 20th century, which is the most comprehensive synopsis of art psychology to that moment. Funch’s book gives a specific vision for the major theoretical approaches and statements in the field of art psychology from the positions of the existential-phenomenological psychology of art to which Funch himself belongs. According to Funch five main psychological directions in the study of art perception can be differentiated: psychophysical approach; psychoanalytical approach, approach based on Gestalt psychology; cognitive approach; existential-phenomenological psychology of art.

In his research Funch reaches the conclusion that from the five major psychological approaches reviewed by him not only have different subjects of psychological research, which is concentrated on different aspects of art, but also that they are different types of art perception.

For example, according to the psychophysical approach art perception is based on a special personality disposition, called aesthetic pleasure, which helps the individual to make the difference between beautiful and ugly and which according to this approach is a major psychological characteristic of art. According to the cognitive approach the perception of works of art is based on the common cognitive abilities and the pleasure from perception of art is not connected with aesthetic pleasure, but is caused by the very cognitive activity and understanding of art. The psychological approach based on the Gestalt psychology and the theories of expression, deals with emotional perception as a specific type of aesthetic disposition. The psychoanalytical approach is focused on the psychobiography of the artist and the dynamic nature and role of the unconscious in the creative process. A basic psychological characteristic of art in this approach is the so called by Funch ‘aesthetic fascination’ which shows the relation of certain characteristics of the piece of art to the psychic structure of the individual. The existential and phenomenological approach to art perception takes as a base of the psychological characteristic of art the aesthetic experience which is a form of existential actualization, connected with a new and different type of state of the individual.

One of the most valuable qualities in the Funch’s research is that it reveals the original contributions and potential of each of the reviewed psychological approaches to art. At the same time Funch suggests quite a narrowed version of the most influential approach in the historical development of art psychology during the 20th century, namely the psychoanalytical one. In his book in the framework of the psychoanalytical approach in addition to Freud Funch reviews only the ideas of Ronald Fairbairn and Ernst Kris and partially mentioned and cited are Hanna Segal and Peter Fuller. Funch does not take into account two of the most significant authors of the British psychoanalytical aesthetics, namely Anton Ehrenzweig and Richard Wollheim. There is no representation of the analytical and archetypal art psychology connected with the names of Carl Gustav Jung, Joseph Henderson and James Hillman. From the Jung art psychology Funch deals in detail only with the works of Erich Neumann.

Moreover, despite accentuating on the work of the American psychologist Rolo May, Funch does not present the humanistic and transpersonal art psychology. The biggest gap in his research is that Funch never mentions and doesn’t deal with any social-psychological approaches to art. The absence of the evolutional art psychology and neuroscience art psychology can be objectively explained with the fact that these two newest psychological approaches to art are formed at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Their influence in the past years connected with the stormy development of the modern evolutional theory and contemporary neuroscience which uncover totally new and unexplored to that moment aspects, related to art psychology.

The main problem of each psychology of art is connected with the possibilities to relate its own psychological model of art to the models of art which function in the disciplinary field of art history. Rejection of the topical theoretic models of interpretation of art in fact means rejection of the scientific subject of the art history. Such a rejection usually threatens to leave the psychology of art outside the specialized discourse of the modern theory of art. Thus psychology of art faces a choice either to go back to the universal undefined field of psychological aesthetics or to look for opportunities to offer a subject of study which is related to the disciplinary field of art history.


[1] Funch, B. The Psychology of Art Appreciation. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997. 

[2] In this context, it is no coincidence that as early as 1793 the Swiss writer Johann Heinrich Zschokke, Influenced by Kant’s Ideas publishes a book titled "Ideas for Psychological Aesthetics. (Johann Heinrich Zschokke, Ideen zur einer psychologischen aesthetik. 1793.)

[3] See Allesch, C. Aesthetics as a Human Science. 20th Annual Conference of the European Society for the History of Human Sciences, Amsterdam, 2001.

[4] Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) receives education in both psychology and art history at Berlin University, where his teacher is one of the founders of the Gestalt psychology Max Vertheimer. After his immigrating to the United States in 1940, Arnheim heads first course on psychology of art in the world, founded in 1943 at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

[5] Arnheim, R. Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

[6] Gombrich, 1960.

[7] Interesting confirmation of this statement is the fact that many authors who write in the field of art psychology, have no academic psychological education. For example, the great Russian scholar Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), who in 1925 wrote a doctoral dissertation named ‘Psychology of Art’ (Lev Vygotsky writes his work in 1925, but it is first published as late 1965. (Виготский, Л. Психология искусства. Москва, 1965) and the English explorer Anton Ehrenzweig (1908-1966), author of the world famous book The Hidden Order of Art (Ehrenzweig, A. The Hidden Order of Art. A Study in the Psychology of Artistic Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), graduate in law and acquire their knowledge of psychology without academic training.

[8] Solso, R. Cognition and the Visual Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994.

[9] Cole, M. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harward, 1996.

[10] Schultz D., Schultz, S. A History of Modern Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 2007.

[11] Smit, N. Current Systems in Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2001.

[12] Kreitler, H., Kreitler, S. Psychology of the Arts. Dunham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1972.

[13] Winner, E. Invented Worlds: The Psychology of the Arts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.

[14] Gardner, H. Art, Mind and Brain: A Cognitive Approach to Creativity. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

[15] Parsons, M. How We Understand Art: A Cognitive Developmental Account of Aesthetic Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

[16] Perkins, D. The Intelligent Eye: Learning to Think by Looking at Art. SantaMonica, CA: Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1994.

[17] Solso, R. The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003.

[18] The books in question here are by Pavel Machotka ‘The Nude: Perception and Personality.’ (Machotka, P. The Nude: Perception and Personality. New York: Irvington Publishers, 1979.) and ‘Painting and Our Inner World: The Psychology of Image Making’(Machotka, P. Painting and Our Inner World: The Psychology of Image Making. New York: Plenum Publishers, 2003).

[19] Funch, B. The Psychology of Art Appreciation. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1997.

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