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The Science of the Psychology of Artistic Creation and Perception of Art


Predisposition to Artistic Creation

On the mysterious process of artistic creation Kant had this to say: "All the steps which Newton had to make from the elements of geometry to his great and profound discoveries he could represent with perfect clarity not only to himself but to anyone and could pass them on to posterity; but no Homer or Wieland can show to us how ideas full of fantasy yet replete with thought emerge and combine in his head for he does not know it himself and consequently cannot teach it to anyone. So, in the scientific field the greatest inventor differs from a wretched imitator and a pupil only in degree while he differs specifically from someone whom nature has endowed with a gift of the fine arts."1Modern artists may be aware of certain psychological aspects of their creative work but to this day there is much about these processes that defies understanding. The Russian poet Pushkin wrote: "Every talent is inexplicable. How does a sculptor see a hidden Jupiter's head in a piece of Carrara marble and bring it to light by breaking the shell with chisel and hammer? How does it happen that thought comes out of the poet's head equipped with four rhymes and measured in clear and uniform stanzas? – So no one except the improviser himself can grasp the quick impressions, the close connection between his own inspiration and the alien external will."
In considering the process of artistic creation aesthetics cannot afford to ignore its psychological aspects. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the founder of "analytical psychology", noted that psychology as a science of the processes of the psyche can be linked to aesthetics. This indicates the presence of a borderline zone between these sciences to where aesthetics is called upon to contribute as the psychology of art.
There is a hierarchy of value ranks describing the degree of a person's predisposition to artistic creation: capable – gifted – talented – genius. The American psychologist Guilford distinguishes six capabilities the artist exhibits in his work: fluent thinking, analogies and juxtapositions, expressiveness, the ability to switch from one class of objects to another, adaptation flexibility or originality, and the ability to lend desired outline to artistic form.
To be artistically gifted means to have a sharp perception of life, to be able to select objects for attention, to fix these impressions in memory, to extract them from memory and include them in the rich system of associations and links prompted by creative imagination. At various periods in their lives many people engage in some sort of artistic activity with varying degrees of success. But only someone with artistic capability can create artistic values of social interest. An artistically gifted person creates works that have lasting value for a given society over a considerable period in its development. Talent produces artistic values of intransient national and sometimes universal human relevance. A genius creates the highest human values relevant for all times. The measure of an artist's genius is powerful perception of the world and depth of influence on mankind.

The Psychological Mechanisms of Artistic Creation

Artistic creation begins with a particularly sensitive attitude to surrounding phenomena and presupposes "rare impressions" and an ability to keep them in memory and to assimilate them. Memory is an important psychological factor in artistic creation. An artist's memory is not a mirror, it is selective and creative. Marcel Proust attached exceptional significance to memory. Believing that it is memory that confers artistic shape on reality he revived the past and then set down his memories in his works.
An important element in the psychological mechanism of artistic creation is internal release which provides an outlet for the artist's confessional urges and his wish to share profound feelings or vivid impressions with persons close to him.
The creation of a work of art involves the subconscious, the conscious and the superconscious. The subconscious engenders in every creative process (and not only in artistic creation) a vast number of variants for the solution of a problem, together with images and mental associations between phenomena. The intuitive aesthetic sense, a sense of harmony and beauty makes one select the most beautiful solutions and images from this vast number. The mechanism of intuition is closely linked with aesthetics. Henry Poincare, the French mathematician, stressed that the distinguishing quality of the mathematical mind should be sought not in logic but in aesthetics. The same ideas have been expressed by a contemporary American mathematician, S. A. Papert.2The ideas that pass from the subconscious to the conscious are not always correct, since there are no logical criteria of truth in the subconscious. Beauty is the criterion in the transfer of ideas and images from the subconscious to the conscious where the material (thoughts) received from the subconscious is subjected to rigorous testing. An idea born, selected and organized in the subconscious by the aesthetic sense, rises to the conscious. There it is checked out logically, clarified and processed by reason (which provides arguments, fills in missing links, validates and puts it in the cultural context which enriches it). From the conscious the ideas or images, checked logically and illuminated by reason, go to the superconscious where they are deepened and given a final theoretical-conceptual or artistic-conceptual shape. Logic is the criterion in selecting what is to be passed from the conscious to the superconscious.
The process of selecting ideas and images in passing from intuition to the conscious and from the conscious to the superconscious is not unlike the process of natural selection. Nature produces many mutation variants of a given organism whereupon natural selection identifies the more viable variants. The best adapted specimens survive, passing on their qualities to new generations through genes. Intuition, too, produces a multitude of "mutation" variants of ideas and images. First the aesthetic sense (at the intuitive level) and then rigorous logic (at the conscious level) select ideas and images from that multitude. Only the most beautiful, harmonious, coherent, logically convincing and valid of them "survive", i.e. go on for further processing in the artist's mind.
The transition from the subconscious to the conscious and to the superconscious involves a tremendous creative increment. It is not a straight or one-way process but rather a reciprocal kind of movement. The creative process proceeds from the subconscious to the conscious and then to the superconscious but the results, once they have been formed in the conscious and the superconscious, return to the subconscious. There they give rise to new ideas and images enriched by impressions of life and new creative work of intuition. These new results of creative work are marked by still greater harmony and logical coherence. The three departments of the brain that take care of the three stages of the creative process (the subconscious, the conscious and the superconscious) have then – specific languages. And the transition from one stage to the second and third, the movement back and forward again is a process of translation from one language of the brain into another. In fact translation from one language into another and back is the simplest model of the creative process. It is through such double translation that artistic thought grows. In the case of the artist this inner growth is particularly creative and effective because it involves three internal languages of the mind in back-and-forth translation. In the creative process pauses may occur which represnt an incubation period during which new ideas germinate to prepare intuitive leaps of thought.
The creative process is unthinkable without imagination which makes it possible to rearrange the perceptions and impressions stored in the mind. Imagination produces living pictures in the artist's mind. Witness Ivan Goncharov, a Russian 19th-century writer: "...faces give you no peace, pester you, pose in scenes, I hear snatches of their conversations – and. God may forgive me, it often seemed to me that I was not imagining all this but that it was hovering about me and all I had to do was to look and think."
Imagination has many varieties: phantasmagoric, as with Hoffman, philosophical and lyrical, as with Tyutchev, romantic and exalted (Vrubel), morbidly exaggerated (Salvador Dali), mystery-laden (Ingmar Bergman), starkly realistic (Federico Fellini), etc. Creative imagination gives aesthetic pleasure, and in this it differs from hallucinations.
Conscious and subconscious, reason and intuition are involved in the artistic process, with the subconscious processes playing a particular role.
American psychologist Frank Barron tested 56 American writers (of whom 30 were popular, original and artistically gifted and 26 merely "prolific") and came to the conclusion that in writers, emotionalism and intuition are highly developed and prevail over the rational. Of the 56 writers tested 50 were found to be "intuitive" individuals (89 per cent) which compares with just 25 per cent in the control group of persons whose professions are remote from art.3
The high role of the subconscious in artistic creation was noted already by Ancient Greek philosophers (in particular Plato) who treated that phenomenon as an extatic. God-inspired, Bacchic state. For Homer a rhapsod is a singer who sees light from above, and Pindar called the poet a prophet of the Muses.
The aesthetics of romanticism made an absolute of the subconscious in the creative process. Schelling wrote: "...the artist finds himself involved in the creative process involuntarily and even contrary to his inner desire... Just as a doomed man does not do what he wants or intends to do but fulfils what has been inscrutably ordained by fate in whose dominion he is, so does the artist... he is exposed to a force that draws a line between him and other people inducing him to depict and articulate things that are not fully open to his gaze possessing unfathomable depth."4
In the 20th century the subconscious in the artistic process attracted the attention of Sigmud Freud and his psychoanalytic school. The psychoanalysts turned the artist as a creative individual into an object of introspective and critical observation. Psychoanalysis assigns absolute importance to the subconscious in the creative process giving prominence to the subconscious sexual element. According to Freudians, the artist is a personality who sublimates his sexual energy in art, which is a kind of neurosis. Freud believed that through a creative act the artist expels from his consciousness socially unrealisable needs and thus resolves the conflicts of real life.
According to Freud, unsatisfied desires stimulate fantasy. In reality, however, the subconscious, though important, is not the only cause of the creative process.
Artists themselves draw attention to intuition as an important element in their work. This is how Goethe described the process whereby verses are born: "I had no foreknowledge or anticipation of them, but they took instant possession of me and demanded immediate materialisation, so that I had to write them down there and then like a lunatic." For all the significance of the subconscious and intuitive processes in artistic creation making an absolute of them is untenable in scientific terms. The creative process is an interaction of subconscious and conscious, intuition and reason, natural ability and acquired habits. Schiller wrote that "the subconscious combined with reason makes an artist-poet".
Although the share of reason in the creative process is not predominant quantitatively it determines qualitatively many essential aspects of creativity. The conscious element controls its main goal, the super-task and the outlines of the artistic conception of the work, illuminates a "bright spot" in the artist's mind making it a focus for his entire life and artistic experience. The conscious element takes care of self-observation and self-control, helping the artist to analyse and assess his work critically and draw conclusions that would lead to further artistic growth.
The conscious element is particularly important in the making of large-scale works. While a miniature may be entirely the result of a stroke of inspiration, a large-scale work needs profound and serious pondering. It would not be irrelevant to recall what Tolstoy wrote about his War and Peace: "You cannot imagine the difficulty for me of the preliminary work of deeply ploughing the field in which I am forced to sow. To think over and over what may happen to all the future people in my future work, a very large one, and to think over millions of possible combinations and select 1/1,000,000th of them is terribly difficult." Dostoyevsky, too, stressed the importance of the conscious elements describing his work on The Karamazov Brothers: "I am now summing up what was thought over, composed and recorded during three years... Would you believe it, although it was written during three years, some chapters I write and reject, rewrite again and again."
The creative process is particularly fruitful when the artist is in a state of inspiration. That is a distinct psychological state of creativity when thinking is clear and intensive, associations are rich and prompt, insight into the essence of life's problems is sharp, and the life and artistic experience "erupts" powerfully and is involved in the creative process.
Inspiration generates tremendous creative energy, it is almost a synonym of creativity. It is not for nothing that Pegasus, the winged horse, has been since ancient times the poetic symbol of inspiration. The state of inspiration ensures the optimal combination of the intuitive and conscious elements in creative work.

1 Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, S. 201.
2 S.A. Papert, "The Mathematical Unconscious", in: On Aesthetics in Science. Cambridge, Mass., 1978, pp. 105-19.
3 F. Barron, Creativity and Personal Freedom. Princeton. New Jersey, 1968.
4 Friedrich Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus, Verlag Philipp Reclam jun., Leipzig, 1979, p. 263.