How experimental psychology can help us understand art
January 15, 2019 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Whys of seeing. "Experimental psychology is providing concrete answers to some of the great philosophical debates about art and its meaning."

"I have discussed three philosophical questions about art that can be addressed empirically: why do we disparage once-revered artworks when they are outed as forgeries? How do we judge quality in abstract art? And does entering a narrative world make us more empathetic once we exit that world? Of course, not all philosophical claims about art can be studied empirically. No experiment could give conclusive answers to ontological questions such as What is art? or What is beauty? But the philosophical problems discussed here are inherently psychological ones. When a philosophical claim is about how the mind works, then that claim is not immune to psychological data, and it is incumbent upon philosophers to consider whether psychologists’ answers are satisfactory."
posted by homunculus (13 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not opposed to Winner's undertaking in principle, but as a working psychologist, I have to take issue with the scope of her claims. For example, consider the sentence, "Why do we disparage once-revered artworks when they are outed as forgeries?" Who is the "we" who is disparaging these artworks, and who was it who once revered them? Are these the same people? Speaking only for myself, I don't find the example forgery Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus to be any more or less pleasing than other Vermeers I've seen. Furthermore, I find Vermeers dull and uninteresting in general. So clearly I'm neither a disparager nor one who reveres. Winner's results don't appear relevant to me, and that's a problem if she's trying to make general claims about human psychology, rather than particular claims about certain socioeconomic slivers of certain cultural groups.

One thing we can say for certain is that the philosophers are wrong whenever they make blanket generalizations about human aesthetics. Many people care about provenance (as is evidenced by the mountain of philosophy on the topic), but many do not (as is evidenced by the rampant and flagrant misattribution of quotations posted on Facebook). Psychology should make an effort not to fall into the same trap of being wrong by default by casting too wide a net.
posted by belarius at 11:59 AM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is a subject of great interest to me, so first let me recommend Siri Hustvedt's writings on the intersections of art, neurology, and psychology to anyone wishing to look into the subject. Her writing is excellent, not jargony and her selection of references in the various fields are extremely well considered. Women Looking at Men Looking at Women is particularly good on this and other related interests.

As for this article, within its scope it's not objectionable as a leaping off point, but that's close to its limits too. The study is somewhat interesting, but as belarius notes there is so much more to the question than the article considers that it's difficult to take too much from it other than some note that abstract art isn't as generic as it is sometimes held to be in strawman arguments, but I'd hope that wasn't really still considered a thing anyway.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:24 PM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm an artist (sometimes), and I primarily work in photography, specifically darkroom photography, and just spent about a week in the darkroom thinking about stuff like this while I print, specifically the traps of authenticity and inferring intent — if you see a photo I took on instagram, it will look substantially different from the version you see from a physical print. In some ways, they're copies. In other ways, they're different images with different paths and different decisions about how to best communicate meaning. Should they have the same title?

I enjoyed this essay, but one of the inherent problems in it is that it's based on asking people aesthetic questions and presenting their naive intuitions as giving a grounding to a universal human approach. It's certainly interesting to find out that most people approach these images looking for intentionality and desire a knowledge of historical accident in their creation, but that doesn't mean formalists are wrong, or that there's an inherent truth claim being disputed. It also doesn't mean that these views are inherent to humanity — there were zero unmediated subjects being asked subjective aesthetic questions here.

So, no, experimental psychology is not providing concrete answers to philosophical questions about art.
posted by klangklangston at 12:35 PM on January 15, 2019 [4 favorites]

I liked this, and share most of the skepticism folks have expressed already about the applicable scope of the ideas being explored. Prising apart some of the details of seeming blanket philosophies or theories about how people regard art, authenticity, etc. is interesting and I think will help folks have more detailed and nuanced discussions about those things, but it feels more like fodder to advance those still-probably-unresolvable discussions than a route to actually producing capital-a Answers.

The portions about copying/assisting/forging also made me think of some of the work coming out of the 60s conceptual art circles; Elaine Sturtevant's work creating very purposeful, very explicit remakes of contemporary artists was an interesting example of someone tackling head-on some of these ideas about formalist content and authenticity in a way that wasn't tainted by an implication of scandal or secrecy.

Also of the repeated stripe paintings of Daniel Buren and his cohorts in BMPT, who did things like refuse to identify the individual artist responsible for any given piece of the group's work, and stage public painting events in which random attendees were also encouraged to execute versions of the stripe paintings to further muddy the idea of formalist value and clear authorship.

if you see a photo I took on instagram, it will look substantially different from the version you see from a physical print. In some ways, they're copies. In other ways, they're different images with different paths and different decisions about how to best communicate meaning.

I've been thinking about that sort of thing off and on the last couple years too. I make mostly oil and watercolor paintings at his point so there's a little more intuitive distance between (a) the work and (b) the documentary image of the work, but it's still a kind of abstract distinction. And it's become clearer to me as my oil works have gotten larger how much impact reducing an image to a phone screen size has on the perception of the work; even if I'm just unambiguously attempting to share a document of a painting, rather than presenting a phone-screen-specific work, the limitations of that documentation and sharing must be having some effect on how people perceive and react to my work. Far more people have seen my paintings at 2"x2" on their phone than have seen them in person at their actual 2'x2' or 3'x'3 scale, and they look very different in person because of that scale difference. So most people who have seen my work haven't really seen my work as intended. But do I incorporate that fact into my work and how I compose it, or do I just acknowledge and then discard that inconvenient fact and make my work independent of those distributional challenges?
posted by cortex at 1:48 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

(as is evidenced by the mountain of philosophy on the topic), but many do not (as is evidenced by the rampant and flagrant misattribution of quotations posted on Facebook).

You've got that backwards. The rampant and flagrant misattribution of quotations posted on Facebook and online in general is proof that people deeply care about provenance, because what people are doing when they put fake quotes in the mouth of Lincoln or Einstein is falsely imbuing that quote with that provenance. The fake quote wouldn't have the same power if it were attributed to just some random person.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:51 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

AN Whitehead said something something like 'whenever answers to a question posed by philosophers come into view, a small group splits off to pursue them as a science'.

(If anyone can find the original I'd be grateful; I've looked for it several times now without success. Whitehead was a dead ringer for Putin, by the way.)
posted by jamjam at 4:15 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

This thread is a great example of why I love MeFi. Find something interesting and put it in the bean grinder.
posted by homunculus at 4:19 PM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Aeon has something of an empathy theme going today: The empathetic humanities have much to teach our adversarial culture
posted by homunculus at 4:20 PM on January 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used to make copies of oil paintings for the painters, in one case it was a set of two images of grandchildren at the beach by an accomplished artist, it took some effort to get the color exactly right out of the printer, preserve the work properly, and learn how difficult it is to work for experts in what they made. I also made a complete set of copies of one painter's works to go to a gallery so sell him as an artist. These were digital, and that language is difficult in translation so the end viewer sees the work in true colors.

I am an artist, and I think there is a personal communication in art pieces that gives them a special quality. Art is discussed as a three way thing, the Art work what it is made of, the Artist who made it and their ability or energy or whatever Artists imbue, the third element is the viewer and everything they bring to the event of viewing Art. I can tell you some art pieces just figuratively bring me to my knees. There is something there that is intense and well projected.

I can give you an example. I had seen copies, again, and again of Van Gogh's "Starry Night on the Rhone." Due to printing with dye inks this piece always blued out, and the stars and lights were mostly white, and it was an uninspiring example of his work. But coming around a corner in the Musée 'd Orsay, I was shocked by the beauty of the piece, and I had to sit down and look at it for a long time. It took first place in my mind for paintings I have ever seen, though once as a girl I came across a Van Gogh of green wheat, maybe in Germany, I stood there for a long time too.

Art is special, we spend so much time in front of digital media, it is important that students receive an excellent art education, or else, we are going to be gazing at the meh for the most part of our collective visual experiences.

The advent of HDR photography is diminishing the real visual experience at a rapid rate. The ability to digitally charge whole swaths of video, is also disturbing. I was watching a set of videos while my family was getting ready to go out, here was a longish video shot in Southern Utah, he turned the orange up to well beyond flaming pumpkin, where every bit of sand or sandstone was nearly day glo. I asked my daughter who works with graphics if maybe the color balance on the TV was off and needed to be calibrated, she said no that other things were all well balanced. So the videographer goes to breathtaking places and amps the color until they are other worldly as opposed to natural worldly. There is a big buy in for his stuff too.

I dislike seeing the Germans bashed all the time, when we are in a very similar situation in this country with the ugly undercurrent up front and horrifying. I know we are not a nation of monsters. The victims of our new white nationalism might feel differently.

I was a young girl living in Arkansas when I read "To Kill a Mockingbird," it definitely changed me for the better. It did not improve relations with my southern relatives at the time, but it changed me for the better. The statements that education, or reading do not educate, do not change world view, or possibly engender compassion for those who need it, that is preposterous, why bother to get an education or read if that is so? Pffft!
posted by Oyéah at 6:13 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Interesting that Vermeer is used as a reference for "true art" when there is a good chance Vermeer himself was cheating by using a custom-built camera obscura to turn painting into something like tracing from a light box.

I highly recommend the documentary Tim's Vermeer where some random guy reverse engineers what he thinks he used and then attempts to recreate a Vermeer painting to prove it.

There are a lot of obvious clues like there are no sketches from Vermeer, not even underdrawings on his paintings and he never did an apprenticeship to learn how to paint. Plus his use of light was something beyond normal human vision. But all of this makes perfect sense if he used a camera obscura.

And I guess the point of why this is possibly upsetting is because art is supposed to be a type of communication that you understand more of a person and their perspective the more you examine their art. But when it's a fake or fabrication, you have put in some amount of effort down a dead-end. There is no direct human communication, only the shape and feel of it.
posted by lubujackson at 12:17 PM on January 16, 2019

I was gonna just run past shouting USING TOOLS ISN'T CHEATING!!! but I thought that might come off as more wanting a fight than what I really mean, which is just to say that the real story in my mind is that popular perception of the purity of process in how Great Art is made extends past the broad concepts of copying and forgery to details of how an original work is made.

The thing with Vermeer is a great example; there is something scandalous in the popular imagination that this great, revered painter used optics, because it subtracts from the notion of purity of process whereby the great painter looks at a thing with clever eyes and then holds their arm out and causes the image of that thing to appear on the support, fin. It taints that image of genius, of unmatchable artistic power, to see it as qualified by the use of tools; the more powerful the tool is perceived to be, the greater the taint.

The more inside scoop on all that—and Tim's Vermeer gets into this a bit when they talk with David Hockney but as I recall doesn't go all that deep as it is more occupied with the idea and process of Tim replicating Vermeer's setup in particular—is that it was no revelation that Vermeer might have used optics, and that in fact many artists, great and otherwise, were understood to have done so to greater or lesser extent. Hockney's long-form argument in Secret Knowledge (which I highly recommend, it's great) is that what is revelatory is more the extent and antedating of the use of optics compared to the relatively later, less-broad use previously generally agreed on in the art historical world.

Hockney repeatedly makes a point through his book that is worth noting: optics do not make marks. To have a tool that helps you see better, or differently, or in a more consistent or controlled way, or even to project that vision onto a surface, does not make a new image. Optics don't make marks on paper or put paint on a canvas; they don't make decisions; they don't generate the motivating idea behind a drawing or painting or what have you. Neither do pencils or paintbrushes.

Even in photography, where the line between seeing and making becomes about as collapsed as we know how, the camera does not make art. Photographers are not thought to be cheating by using lenses and film; we understand that those are fundamental tools of the form.

People who aren't making art often judge tool use in art in what I have come to see as strange and inconsistent ways, depending more on popular conceptions of how Real Art is or ought to be made than on the reality that tools of all sorts are a vital and normal process of any kind of process of making a thing. It's something I've come to see as strange partly because I've had to spend the last couple years fighting down my own hangups and assumptions along those lines so that I could get on with actually making the kind of art I wanted to in a way that worked for me, instead of feeling like I had to make the kind of art I was supposed to according to the ascetic disciplines I imagined were obligatory.
posted by cortex at 3:35 PM on January 16, 2019 [4 favorites]

People who aren't making art often judge tool use in art in what I have come to see as strange and inconsistent ways, depending more on popular conceptions of how Real Art is or ought to be made than on the reality that tools of all sorts are a vital and normal process of any kind of process of making a thing.

This is right on, and I also resent glib accusations of cheating based on how people use tools artistically, but there are definitely cases where I've been let down by how tools are used to create a work. In my mind, ideally, the advantage you get from the abstract leverage that some tool gives you in art is that it opens new semantic realms for the artist to explore. If you automate sound creation, for example, then you have the opportunity to explore the creation of sounds that would be physically impossible for a human performer to make, among many other opportunities. In that case, the intentionality and the effect come through in other domains, and it's not a lesser work for how you've used that tool. It can be disappointing, though, when tools are deployed for convenience without the realms they reveal being explored at all. I suspect, though, that a lot of those accusations of "cheating" come about because the accuser hasn't really considered what new possibilities the tool in use affords and how the artist is manipulating them.
posted by invitapriore at 6:27 PM on January 17, 2019

« Older "...prions are not an infectious entity; they’re...   |   “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments