In this course, we will try to understand the human need to produce and experience art by using the strategies and tools of scientific psychology. We will look at empirical research on our perception and responses to art and the theories such research has generated. Since we cannot do justice to the whole field, we will focus primarily on visual art.

Monet's Bridge

Major categories of research are attempts to (a) isolate the features of

paintings that make them attractive, (b) understand how features of the

anatomy and physiology of the nervous system influence what we like and

do not like and (c) understand the role of cognitive processes in

artistic activity. We will consider theories from perception and from

cognition relevant to understanding, remembering and liking. We shall

also examine some apparent determinants of creativity and identify

dimensions of personality and development that influence aesthetic

responses and artistic activity.

Throughout the centuries, philosophers and critics have thought about

art and have produced a multitude of assertions and pronouncements about

the nature of art or criteria for good art. Unfortunately, there appears

to have been little agreement among these thinkers. Berlyne (1971) argued

that a basic problem in such study was a failure to

distinguish between untestable assertions, which he called normative

assertions, and factual questions, which were testable.

Thus a statement such as, "Truth is beauty" may follow from some

philosophical position, but it does not easily lead to empirically

testable propositions. Factual questions, on the other hand, can be

tested. For example, one can readily design experiments to

examine whether color is a powerful determinant of aesthetic pleasure.

The point of Berlyne's distinctions was not to denigrate

philosophical speculation, but to call attention to the opportunity

offered by the scientific method. Philosophers have grappled with human

problems of far greater complexity than our science has been able to

address, so far. What was frustrating to scholars such as Berlyne was

that the speculative method has not yielded answers that warrant

universal agreement. Thinking based on the scientific method at least

offers such a possibility.


Since definitions shape understanding and guide research,

consideration of the meanings of terms becomes important. Some

difficulties will become apparent when clear definitions are



Aesthetic responses are complex responses to external stimuli or to

memories. These responses can include some emotional component, a

cognitive component, an interest component and some other

component, such as awareness of or reflection on that interest or

that emotion.

The emotional component need not be positive, although that is what

people first think of. Aristotle suggested that the role of drama

was to provide us an opportunity to experience negative feelings in

a safe and socially-acceptable way. The appeal of horror movies

needs to be understood this way, I think. In addition to the

feelings of fright or horror produced by such a movie or by a Greek

tragedy, the audience members experience a positive feeling,

perhaps one of relief, or perhaps appreciation of the dramatist's

skill in the creation of emotion in the audience.

The example of horror movies raises another issue. In most

circumstances, the intensity of the emotional component of an

aesthetic response is lower or weaker than one might experience in

a real-life, emotion-provoking event. Viewing Goya's The 3rd of

May, 1808 (click to see) in the Prado is likely to elicit a degree of revulsion

at murder and political repression and of admiration for indomitable

spirit, but it is not the same as being there. Moreover, the positive

feeling one experiences from this painting, derived from the formal

composition of the pattern as well as the semantic content, would

rarely be classified as intense. This may be due to differences in

the media, e.g., drama is extended over time, but the experience of

a painting need not be.

The cognitive component may be formed by many contributors. In

representational paintings, the artist has included information

about objects, i.e., semantic information. Understanding that

information may be crucial to understanding what the artist was

about and also may be an important determinant of the emotional

component of the aesthetic response. For example, Manet painted

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian as a protest to the French

government's decision to withdraw support from Maximilian, whom it

had installed on the throne of Mexico, thus abandoning him to his fate.

If you did not know the history, the painting would lose a good bit

of its impact. Another example of this is the use of cultural

symbols to communicate meaning, e.g., a lamb for innocence or for

sacrifice, the goddess Athena or an owl for wisdom and a bull for

power or menace.

Another type of cognitive component is often elicited by more

contemporary works. Nonrepresentational paintings, i.e., paintings

without any semantic content, and some representationals, e.g.,

cubist works, can elicit a sense of bewilderment in the naive

observer. It is unclear what the painting is "about". Even for

sophisticated viewers, some of the high-analytic cubist paintings

by Picasso and by Braque are very difficult to decode. The

painting, in other words, can present a problem that needs solution

and the observer may spend a great deal of time doing the detective

work required to analyze the visual pattern.

This leads to a consideration of the interest component. The

cubist painting may elicit curiosity which, in turn, prompts the

detective work. There may not be any other emotional or cognitive

component. It is in this sense that interest may be a separate

component in a response. It is also possible, certainly, for

interest in a painting to be the result of a prior emotional or

cognitive response. The realization that a painting portrays some

favorite person or that its pattern capitalizes on some visual

illusion may make the painting very interesting to the observer.

What is a work of art ?

If you consider the definition of aesthetic response above, the

answer to this question may be seen as relatively straightforward.

We could define a work of art as anything which elicited an

aesthetic response. However, consider the idea more carefully.

Can some object commonly classified as a work of art, such as a

painting or a symphony, elicit an aesthetic response ? Certainly.

Can it fail to elicit the response ? Certainly. A particular

painting might elicit a rich pattern of emotional and cognitive

reactions in one viewer and go virtually unnoticed by another who

is unschooled or too preoccupied. In other words, a "work of art"

may not always evoke an aesthetic response.

It is also obvious that objects or events that are not commonly

classified as works of art also may reliably elicit aesthetic

responses. Have you seen a sunset or heard waves crashing on a

shore lately ? Your responses to these events can include all of

the components of an aesthetic response. Similarly, a common tool

may evoke conscious positive or negative feelings because of its

appearance or because its design is perfectly suited to the task

and to the user. It is possible, I suppose, to distinguish between

nature and art on the basis of reliablity. This morning, the

forest around my house was wonderfully mysterious in the early fog,

but I will not easily revisit it or recreate the experience because

the fog has now burned off. Goya's painting, on the other hand, I

can visit and revisit as often as I wish (and can afford the air

fare to Madrid). The realization of that distinction may be the subtle

difference between the experiences of art and nature.

It is clear that a work of art cannot be defined simply by its

effect on observers because it will not have an effect on each and

every observer. Even if we restrict ourselves to a consideration

of objects created by humans, a definition of a work of art cannot

be based on effects, but will have to be found in the

characteristics of the object or in the behavior or intention

of the human who created it or, perhaps most importantly, in its

arbitrary categorization by the culture.

Let us pursue the idea that a work of art has defining attributes.

One could consider a virtually endless list of characteristics that

an object might have that would distinguish a work of art from

nonart without finding universal agreement among observers.

Fortunately, one does not have to go far down that list before

realizing that there is no simple set of characteristics that does

the job. As Trudy the bag lady put it, referring to her space

chums,"...They find it hard to grasp some things that come easy to

us, because they simply don't have our frame of reference. I show

'em this can of Campbell's tomato soup. I say, 'This is soup.'

Then I show 'em a picture of Andy Warhol's painting of a can of

Campbell's tomato soup. I say, 'This is art.'..." (Wagner,1986, p.


Examine some potential defining characteristics. "A work of art is

a symbol for or a representation of reality". That does not seem

to include nonrepresentational art such as much of music and a

large category of visual art. Try another, "A work of art is

something that expresses some cultural truth". Heard a good

lecture lately ? Lots of things may contain cultural truths, but

not win universal agreement as works of art. In addition,

particularly with nonrepresentational art, there may be no clear

cultural message in items that still are generally regarded as art.

The behavior and the personal characteristics of the artist are

often used to include objects in the category art. In its most

simplified form, this perspective defines a work of art as that

thing which is produced by an artist. In more disguised form, the

work is that which is purposively produced by a creative person.

In either case, the difficulty of definition is simply moved from

the object to the person, i.e., the problem now is defining the

concept artist. There is also a danger of circularity here, i.e.,

a work of art is what artists do, artists are those who do works of

art. So, to start somewhere, we will investigate what attributes exist in

visual art works that are generally well-regarded.

Measurement of Aesthetic Responses

Aesthetic responses typically have been measured by (a) verbal

ratings or descriptions, (b) acquisitive behavior, (c) motoric

responses and (d) psychobiological reactions. Each of these will be

considered in detail.

Verbal Ratings or Descriptions.

This is probably the most commonly-used category of measurement

methods. Within the category, the most common procedure is the

rating scale, in which the observer is asked to assign to a

stimulus a number which places the stimulus at a point on some

dimension. For example, a dimension may be defined as ranging from

very good to very bad, with the number 1 corresponding to very good

and 7 to very bad. The observer then assigns a number between 1

and 7 to describe her evaluation of the stimulus. This approach

was championed by Berlyne (1974) and has also been used extensively

by Martindale (1991). It yields data which, depending upon the

particular polar adjective pairs and their number, can contain a

great deal of information about stimuli. These techniques have

also been used to judge the degree of similarity between and among

paintings. An additional benefit of these approaches is that the

data lend themselves to sophisticated statistical treatments, e.g.,

factor analysis and multidimensional scaling.

A variant of the rating scale is the magnitude estimation technique

(c.f. Stevens, 1961). Here the subject is not limited to a

particular scale, but can use any number he wishes, although often

the experimenter will provide an anchor value. For example, the

observer might be instructed "If the goodness of this stimulus is

100, what is the goodness of that stimulus ?" This technique has

been used with great success in studies of perception because the

data it provides indicate that observers are using ratio

comparisons, which is more sophisticated than the rating scales

demand. However, these scales have not been employed in the study

of aesthetic responses. I think that investigators mistrust the

unrestrained nature of the response when they are studying both

stimuli and responses that are themselves likely to be


Another common verbal measurement technique is the forced-choice

response. Often used to denote preference, the observer is asked

to pick between two stimuli the one she prefers. Of course, one

could ask the observer to choose on other criteria instead. While

this technique does not obtain much information on a single trial,

it can be quite sensitive to subtle differences if sufficient

numbers of trials and subjects are employed (e.g., Levy, 1976).

Located somewhere between rating scales and forced-choice

procedures for the information produced on a single trial are

ranking judgments. This is an expanded forced-choice technique in

which the subject is provided more than two stimuli and is asked to

rank them, or order them, on some dimension. The specific ordering

patterns can be used to infer the criteria that observers use

(e.g., Cupchik and Gebotys, 1987), as well as provide some

quantitative estimate such as mean rank for a stimulus.

Finally, some investigators have used discursive essay responses

from observers to attempt measurement of complex activities such as

strategic approaches to understanding a painting. Such essays can

be subjected to analyses such as the protocol analyses used in the

study of problem solving ( e.g., Newell and Simon,1972) to infer

the intellectual steps an observer may be taking in solving a

painting (e.g., Schmidt, McLaughlin and Leighten, 1988).

It is important to realize that this has not been an exhaustive

list. There may be many ways to ask a subject what he is thinking

and then quantify the response, but these are general methods you

are likely to encounter.

Acquisition Behavior

A number of investigators, but Daniel Berlyne (1974) in particular,

have sought to measure aesthetic responses with other, more

indirect methods. Thus, a subject might be told to look at

paintings one-by-one, for as long as she likes. The amount of time

spent on each picture then provides a measure of the subject's

interest in the stimulus. Another approach is to ask a subject to

divide some amount of money into portions to "purchase" various

paintings, thus generating a relative preference rating. I am not

talking here about "investment" buying based on a painter's

identity, but only of laboratory techniques.

Motoric Behavior

While subjects inspect paintings, many investigators have measured

their eye movements. The patterns of fixations across the picture

yields information about the areas to which the subject pays

attention and the sequence in which he attends (e.g., Molnar,

1981). Another measure of visual attention is the speed with which

a subject notices the presence or absence of some characteristic in

a stimulus, but this has not been used very often in the study of


Psychophysiological Measures

Largely inspired by the work of Berlyne (1971;1974), investigators

have used the galvanic skin response (GSR) as an index of arousal

and, by extension, of emotional response. While this is another

valuable nonverbal technique, its inherent variability has limited

its use.

Early Developments in Psychological Investigation.

Gustav Fechner launched the first experimental work on aesthetic

responses (Berlyne, 1971; Bornstein, 1984), testing the

attractiveness of the legendary golden ratio. The golden ratio

obtains when, for rectangle ABCD, AB/BC = BC/(AB+BC). From the

time of Pythagoras, claims have been made that shapes or segments

which contain this particular mathematical ratio are intrinsically

beautiful. Many observations have been made that the ratio is

found in nature, e.g., in the shapes of some leaves and in the

spiral of the Nautilis shell. Over the centuries, some painters,

e.g., Claude Lorrain, Piet Mondrian, have consciously used the

ratio in their compositions, while others, e.g., Leonardo Da Vinci,

Georges Seurat, seem to have employed it without being explicit

about it. It was Fechner, however, who offered the first empirical

evidence that observers actually did find the golden ratio more

pleasing than any other.

In 1865, he reported investigations of aesthetic responses to

rectangles that differed in the proportions of the lengths of their

sides, showing that the most preferred proportion was 1:1.62, the

famous golden ratio. The issue he studied, his methodological

approach and his findings are each illustrative of the

contributions that the science has sought to make.

How did Fechner obtain his data ? In 1860, he had published his

Elements of Psychophysics, which included many detailed procedures

for varying physical energy and collecting judgments of the

resulting perceptual changes. Later, in 1865, he introduced the

method of choice, in which observers picked from a large set those

stimuli that possessed some characteristic most and least. In the

work on the golden ratio, subjects were asked to choose rectangles

they liked best and least. Averaging across the choices of many

subjects, he found that the "golden" rectangle was picked as most

preferred more often than any other and never picked as least

preferred (Bornstein, 1984; Woodworth, 1938). Preference was thus

described quantitatively as the probability of being chosen most or


Why was this important ? The basic question here, of course, was

whether there are patterns that are universally appealing. If that

were so, the likely explanation would have to be sought more in the

nature of the biological system and less in some cultural

convention. Human biology is much more likely to be the same the

world over than is any cultural feature. While Fechner's data did

not answer the question of universality, the investigation of this

vaunted ratio brought the ubiquitous nature - nurture debate into

the field of aesthetics. To what extent are an individual's

aesthetic responses the results of a lifetime of experience with a

particular culture ? To what extent are those responses the

results of the particular and peculiar characteristics of the human

central nervous system ? This statement of the general problem is

a convenient framework for organizing much of the extant

psychological research on aesthetics.

Sigmund Freud was, obviously, another major figure in the history

of Psychology. He also had a great influence on the field of

aesthetics, applying his theories of motivation and of personality

development to the interpretation of particular art works and to a

theory of creativity.

As students of Psychology well know, the essential claim of Freud's

theories was that human biology provides the wellspring of human

motivation and that those motives are in constant conflict with the

restraining forces of culture and of physical reality. The

individual adult's personality is the result of all of the

successful and unsuccessful resolutions of those conflicts,

especially those encountered in the childhood years. Freud's

further claim here was that the adult's behavior patterns can be

interpreted with information about these conflicts, particularly

those that were unsuccessfully resolved.

From this perspective, a parallel examination of the biography and

the work of a particular artist would yield information about the

artist's motivation for designing and composing a painting in the

specific way he did. Freud published such studies of works by

Leonardo da Vinci and by Michelangelo, trying to show a connection

between the content of a particular painting and some difficult

childhood events. As case-studies, these are interesting attempts,

but are impossible to confirm independently. Nevertheless, this

method has influenced many art historians and critics and also

inspired the field of Psychohistory, e.g., Erik Erikson's work on

Martin Luther (1958).

As I indicated, Freud also believed that his general theory offered

insight into the nature of creativity. Since the direct expression

of sexual energy is often thwarted, the omnipresent energy must be

redirected. This can be done, in Freud's view, in a relatively

healthy way by sublimation, in which the energy is channeled into

an adequate substitute activity. Creative activity is one such

substitute. In addition, he believed that the innovative and

original features of creativity were the result of the unusual,

even bizarre, associations in the thought patterns that

characterized the unconscious portions of mind. The creative

person, then, is one who is in closer touch with her unconscious

mind than the average person.

These were the beginnings of two traditions in Psychology and in

the psychological study of aesthetics. Since each was based on

data, experimentally or clinically derived, they are viewed as

examples of "aesthetics-from-below" (Bornstein, 1984).