Leonardo Thinks


Historical Article by Rudolf Arnheim and Karen Tsao

Rudolf Arnheim and Karen Tsao propose that the psychology of art is the kind of synthesis our culture requires.
Psychology and Art in “Leonardo”

An issue devoted to the relations between psychology and the arts cannot but bring to mind the many years during which Leonardo has been an arena for this specialty and a haven for those of us who have a liking for it. From the point of view of the academic disciplines the psychology of art is a hybrid, whereas for us it is the kind of synthesis our culture requires. Just as Frank Malina saw to it that his journal facilitated the explorations of physics and chemistry needed increasingly for today’s technology of the arts, he realized that all art is psychological experience. To do justice to this fact, he attracted experts from the pertinent branches of knowledge, the practicing artists and the psychologists, the philosophers and the technicians-a motley crowd by the usual standards but a unique opportunity for us to be instructed and disturbed by unaccustomed approaches. The wholesome gymnastics of sticking one’s neck out has been encouraged in an atmosphere of tolerance. The various steps by which a psychologist like James J. Gibson moved from straight perception to an appreciation of artistic imagery were recorded, responded to, and criticized in the issues of Leonardo. The optics, physiology, and projective geometry of depth perception were presented in many of their facets; the philosophers wondered whether perspective is discovered, invented, or inverted, and artists saw that the magic of their pencil lines deserves experimental scrutiny and is accessible to it. I remember the tempest in the teacups of closed and open systems I myself unleashed when I related aesthetic order to thermodynamics. Papers on the psychology of the artist called up Freud but also Piaget and related motivation to morality; and the brain specialists saw to it that the functions of the cerebral hemispheres were scrutinized with more sobriety than was the case elsewhere in the public prints. Accuracy and a respect for facts together with a constant encouragement of intuitive speculation and imaginative invention continue to distinguish this indispensable forum that has made many of us say what we might not have said otherwise and learn what might have escaped us.

Rudolf Arnheim
With this issue of Leonardo, we begin a new feature: special issues which discuss aspects of a central topic that are important to practicing artists and of interest to Leonardo’s readers. While compilations of past Leonardo articles have been published in book form on two occasions, this is the first time that a group of works on a single topic has filled one issue of the Journal. The current topic originally was intended by Frank Malina as the focus of a fifth, an extra, issue. But because this format offers a greater depth of examination than the occasional article, we have incorporated it into our regular quarterly schedule.

The contents of this issue draw from a large variety of subfields within psychology. We have worked with the guest editors to present papers which meet both the standards of the psychology profession and the aims of Leonardo. From the International Conference on Psychology and the Arts, we have selected those papers that (1) specifically address the relations between the arts and the sciences as creative endeavors; (2) represent seldom discussed ideas or art media; or (3) consider social circumstances of the art-making process. Though diverse, this group of papers does not include artists’ comments on these matters. But despite that omission, we believe this volume will encourage an exchange of information, opinions and ideas between psychologists and artists.

Communication between the two professions is impeded by the misconceptions each of them has about the other. Artists are suspicious of psychological studies in which they are treated as passive subjects, rather than creative agents. And psychologists are confounded by the myth of the artist as social outcast which serves to detract from valid artistic criticism of the social order. The imperfect communication between these disciplines often sets in time the view each has of the other; misconceptions tend to focus on long standing aspects of these fields, while the innovations of one rarely are recognized as ‘proper’ to it by the other. The mainstream of the art world perceives psychology as concerned with the normative and the abnormal, in statistical analyses and psychoanalysis. The mainstream of psychology discusses the arts almost entirely in terms of things to be looked at, that is, painting and sculpture. As the basis of its view, each profession has experience usually limited to its most likely role in the other: artists as survey subjects or therapy clients, psychologists as museum-sightseers.

But much more is happening than the commonly seen activities. For example: Contemporary artists use computer-assisted image making, abstract signals directly from nature, construct works on an environmental scale, link simultaneous art events via satellite, and replace visual with conceptual connections. At the same time, contemporary psychologists examine the functions of different modes of mental imagery, model information processing, trace the neurophysiology of emotions, deduce the neurolinguistic structure of thought and communication, and describe the semiological network of culture.

Each of these professions can broaden the other’s perspective on the nature of creativity and perception. The artist’s work can inform the psychologist of the emotional value of creating and the way perception functions in reaching an artistic goal. The psychologist can acquaint the artist with the variety of creative strategies and the various mechanisms and schemata of perception. To bring about this exchange, psychological researchers must welcome the participation of artists, and artists must realize their own role as researchers. This calls for artists and psychologists to stretch toward a new understanding of psychology’s role in the arts and the arts’ role in the world. Leonardo will continue as a forum for trail-blazing work in both fields, and we hope that in these pages our authors will keep taking chances.

Karen Tsao
ISSN No: 1071-4391
Author: Rudolf Arnheim and Karen Tsao
Originally published in: Leonardo, Vol. 16, No. 3, Special Issue: Psychology and the Arts (Summer, 1983), pp.161-162
Print: ISSN 0024-094X, Online : ISSN 1530-9282, DOI: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1574904.

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