Psychology of Art

Psychology of art is an interdisciplinary field of study that analyzes the processes of art creation and perception. It studies and explains both creativity and the mental processes of artists and perceivers.

Art psychology combines methods and knowledge from various fields of study, including:

  • Art
  • Philosophy
  • Architecture
  • Aesthetics
  • Visual perception
  • Psychoanalysis and studies of consciousness

Art psychology borrows knowledge and ideas from various psychology branches, including the Gestalt psychology of perception and Sigmund Freud's symbolism. It also uses approaches of the Jungian psychoanalysis and Experimental psychology, as well as of the psychology of attention and psychology of form and function. Scientists have been building up the studies into art psychologies during the whole 20th century. The researches of philosopher John Dewey and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, for instance, had great importance for the contemporary understanding of art and for the development of art psychology in general.

Psychology of art is still developing and few universities and colleges teach it as a separate disciple.

Psychology and art are inextricably bound to each other as psychological concepts are the foundations for any art expression. Art is just a means for projection of the feelings and psychological needs of the artist. It helps the individual reflect his or her perception and experience.

As a creative process, art is also a process of human psychology. More specifically, art is a cognitive process when examined through the theory of perception. Gestalt theorists like Wolfgang Kohler, Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer and Kurt Lewin devoted their work to studies of the human perception throughout the 20th century. Their theory of visual perception provided a primary explanation of the processes of art creation and perception. The Gestalt scientists explained perception as a process combining both object and context. According to the Gestaltists, the perception of objects, as well as of art, is also influenced by their environment. Hence, art perception is based on principles of the Gestalt theory, such as continuity and closure.

The studies of German psychoanalytic Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) further contributed to the understanding of art creation and perception. Freud was the first to kick off a research into art as part of psychoanalysis. Freud saw art and creation as a tool used by individuals in an attempt to manage their psychic pressure and frustrations. He focused his studies on the "content" of art, which represents the inner conflicts and repressed wishes of the creative individual. Generally, in psychoanalysis, art is considered a projection of the artist's mind and of his or her unconscious inner world of desires.

The ideas of Surrealistic art represent a follow-up of Freud's ideas on the unconscious. Surrealism appeared at the beginning of the 20th century as a cultural movement, influenced by philosophy and psychology, before developing into an art movement. It is based on the merger of art and life, stressing on unconscious wishes. Some of the most prominent representatives of Surrealism were Andre Breton and Salvador Dali. The art works of Dali, for example, resemble the Freudian concepts of unconscious desires and interpretation of dreams. Surrealism also puts the emphasis on sexual symbolism, which is a keystone in Freud's psychoanalysis.

However, the Freudian and surrealistic view on art as directly related to madness and sexuality raised much more criticism than the theory developed by Carl Jung. Jung's theory, which saw art as a form of expression of the artist's culture, gained most authority and recognition in art history. A main concept in Jung's psychoanalysis is that of the "collective unconscious", which Jung believed can be reached by art. Thus art can help us understand the process of creativity as well as shared cultural aspects passed from generation to generation.

As an independent field of study, psychology of art can be divided into two branches:

  • Structural psychology of art
  • Functional psychology of art

The structural art psychology considers the structural aspects of art perception, based on the principles of the Gestalt theorists. Functional art psychology in turn focuses on the creative process, reflecting the functional aspects or the processes taking place in the artist's mind. The structural branch is interested in form, while the functional branch puts the emphasis on the content. The structural psychology of art focuses chiefly on the perceiver and the process of art perception, whereas the functional psychology of art studies the process of art creation. Both approaches are crucial for developing a comprehensive theory of art psychology.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Art in Human Affairs: An Introduction to the Psychology of Art
Norman Charles Meier.
McGraw-Hill, 1942
Psychology and Its Allied Disciplines
Marc H. Bornstein.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, vol.1, 1984
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Psychology and Art"
Aesthetics Today
Morris Philipson.
World Publishing, 1961
Librarian’s tip: "Psychology and Art [1950]: A Summary and Critique" begins on p. 279
The Foundations of Aesthetics, Art & Art Education
Frank H. Farley; Ronald W. Neperud.
Praeger Publishers, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Part Two "Psychological Bases"
The Experimental Psychology of Beauty
C. W. Valentine.
Methuen, 1962
The Sense of Form in Art: A Comparative Psychological Study
H. Wolfflin; Alice Muehsam; Norma A. Shatan.
Chelsea Publishing, 1958
Continuity and Change in Art: The Development of Modes of Representation
Ethel S. Blatt; Sidney J. Blatt.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1984
Librarian’s tip: "Psychological Criteria for a Vocabulary of Form" begins on p. 23
Mind in Art: Cognitive Foundations in Art Education
Charles M. Dorn.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999
Visions of Aesthetics, the Environment & Development: The Legacy of Joachim F. Wohlwill
Roger M. Downs; Lynn S. Liben; David S. Palermo; Joachim F. Wohlwill; Joachim F. Wohlwill.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Developmental Aesthetics and the Pyschology of Photography"
The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity
Mark Turner.
Oxford University Press, 2006
The Arts and Human Development: A Psychological Study of the Artistic Process
Howard Gardner.
Basic Books, 1994
The Biological Origins of Art
Nancy E. Aiken.
Praeger Publishers, 1998
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