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


The Psychological Mechanisms of Artistic Perception.
Perceptual Attitude

In a sense the psychology of artistic perception is a mirror image of the psychology of artistic creation. The perception of a work of art proceeds on many planes; it comprises direct emotional experience, grasping the logic of the author's thought, and the rich and ramified associations that involve the entire field of culture in the act of perception.
One aspect of artistic perception is "transposing" the images and situations in a work to one's own situation in life, i.e. identification of one's own self with that of the character. Identification is combined with opposing the perceiving subject to the hero whom he regards as different. This combination enables the recipient to act out in imagination and artistic experience a situation he has not played in life and to benefit by the experience of that vicariously played role.
The element of play in artistic perception is rooted in the play aspects of art which is born through imitating and copying man's working activity, and preparing him for it. In the act of perceiving a work of art all these essential and genetic elements of art are repeated. In a play situation the recipient acquires experience passed on to him by the artist through a system of images. The play element in artistic perception is an operation carried out by the sender of information and directed towards the perception and consciousness of the recipient.
The whole complex procedure of perception in art cannot however be reduced to the above aspects. An important aid is synaesthesia, i.e. the interaction of sight, hearing and other senses in the process of perception.
Let us consider the matter a little more closely taking our examples from what is perhaps, perceptually, the most challenging of all the arts – music.
Musical sound images to a certain extent influence the visual sequences in the recipient's mind. This phenomenon underlies the problem of colouring in the sound of poetry which was particularly prominent in symbolist poetry. The same effect is at the basis of the colour vision of music which some composers and artists had. The awareness of that quality of music gave rise to the problem of colour-music, notably in the work of the Russian composer and pianist, Scriabin. On the other hand the Lithuanian artist Ciurlionis did much to trace the musical elements in art.
The colour aspect in the perception of sound is but one possible auxiliary psychophysical mechanism of artistic perception. Another has to do with literary-plot and visual figure associations. That element is found in the perception of musical works, and not only of such synthetic varieties of musical art as, say, opera, songs or oratorios, which have a certain literary narrative basis, but also in symphony music. The famous French pianist Marguerite Long attests that Claude Debussy perceived music in visual and literary images. It is not by chance that he saw the minstrels, rooted as they were in Anglo-Saxon life, through the eyes of Toulouse-Lautrec. Their art "has the fascination of places of pleasure, an atmosphere of night cabarets".
Do literary and visual associations help in the perception of music? Some theorists feel that a listener to music must have pictures and plastic images before his mental gaze, that visual narratives invariably unfold before him. Otherwise the experience of music is incomplete. Other theorists, stressing the specific nature of the musical idiom, its intrinsic richness and expressiveness, believe that music needs no translation of sound into visual images and that the latter is an infringement on the purity of music. In point of fact the perception of music is a complex and manifold process and it may include synaesthesia, visual and other non-musical associations.
Heine in his Florentine Nights speaks about a second musical vision, the ability to associate every tone with a sound figure, and he describes his impressions of a concert by a great violinist: "...every sweep of his bow brought visual figures and pictures before my eyes; in the language of sounding hieroglyphics Paganini was telling me about a host of vivid events". Heine's imagination transformed musical images into visual and literary ones. Not that this breaks the norms of musical perception. The nature of associations in the mind of a person listening to music is determined by that person's specific gifts and experience, the arsenal of artistic and life impressions stored in his memory. The French psychologist Ribot noted that music most commonly evokes pictures and visual scenes with people who are engaged in drawing or painting.
An important feature of the perception of art is its allegorical-associative character. Associations range fruin analogies with known facts of artistic culture, non-artistic associations to memories of past experiences. Associations enrich the perception of music by putting it within the context of the listener's entire life experience. Through rhythm extra-musical associations are related to gesture, movement and dance. A sensitive choreographic "reading" helps towards deeper musical perception.
The mechanism of perceiving a work of art involves space and time associations. The perception of a work of art includes three important elements: the perception of the present (the immediate musical sound, the here-and-now perception of what is depicted on a canvas or what one is reading at the moment, etc.), the perception of the past (constant comparison with what one has previously heard, seen or read; in poetry that aspect of perception is enhanced by rhymes and in painting by the "reading" and filling in of events that preceded those portrayed), apperception of the future (anticipation of the development of the artist's thought by grasping its inner logic; the idea of consequence in representational art, or the development of a literary plot, etc.).
One of the peculiarities of the mechanism of perceiving art stems from the fact that every art is in a certain sense a performing art. For example, in a literary utterance one can visualise a programmed performer. In other words, in literary perception the performer ("for himself") and recipient are combined in one and the same person. Reading, like "performance for oneself" in the perception of other arts, has its own style. The same literary work can be "performed for oneself" in different ways, i.e. can be read and interpreted in different keys.
An important psychological factor in the perception of art is the perceptual set which we assume on the basis of all previous culture historically fixed in our minds by all our previous experience. The perceptual set is the set of presuppositions with regard to a work of art that lasts throughout the artistic experience.
The emergence of new musical ideas described as "new music" occurs cyclically (about once every 300 years). Each "new music" causes a radical change in the notions of harmony. To be able to perceive the new in art there must be a readiness not to cling to old sets, an ability to modernise them and to perceive a new work in all its idiosyncrasy and historical originality with an open mind. The history of art warns us to be cautious in making final judgements. The renewal of art and the appearance of new means and principles of making art need not detract from the importance of past aesthetic values. Masterpieces are eternal contemporaries of mankind and one assumes their artistic authority as a factor in their perception.
In the perception of a literary text an important aspect is the perceptual mood which arises from perceptual anticipation. Clues to the latter are contained in the title of the work and the accompanying descriptions and explanations. Thus, even before we start reading a literary text we know whether we are going to perceive verse, prose or drama and we learn from the subtitle indicating the genre whether we are going to read a poem or a novel, a tragedy or a comedy, etc. That preliminary information determines the level of expectancy and goes some way to determine the presuppositions in their perception.
Furthermore, the very opening lines, scenes and episodes give us an idea of the integrity of the work, and the nature of the integrity which the recipient is to digest aesthetically. In other words, style, which is the vehicle, guarantee and exponent of the artistic integrity of a work makes the recipient tune in to a certain emotional-aesthitic wave. The perceptual-informative function of style consists precisely in that it determines the potential of perception, i.e. the readiness to perceive a certain volume of factual and value information.
The perceptual set engenders a certain perceptual expectancy, and that in turn includes tuning in to a certain style and genre. Sergei Eisenstein rightly pointed out that an audience brought up on the comedies of Charlie Chaplin or Harpo Marx is likely to receive each of their works as a comedy. That accounted for quite a few misunderstandings when an author switched from one genre to another. If a comedian wants to work in drama or a tragedian wants to take up comedy, they must be aware of these dangers.

Problems in the Study of Artistic Perception

The perception of art is an intimate, private and personal process that takes place in the depths of the consciousness and is extremely difficult to record when observed. The process depends on the life exposure and cultural background of the individual (stable factors) and his mood and psychological state (changeable factors).
The first exposition of the problems of artistic perception is to be found in Aristotle's theory of catharsis. He thought that art purged the soul by making it experience compassion and fear. Throughout the long history of aesthetics the theory of perceiving art remained undeveloped owing to its complexity and dependency on other disciplines, such as psychology and psychophysiology. The main method has been the introspection of the theorist watching his own reactions to a work of art which were then compared to the introspections of other people. Today experimental techniques are available for the study of artistic perception: its character and intensity are measurable and can be an object of psychophysiological experiments.
The first experiments in the study of artistic perception, dating back to the late 19th century, involved listeners giving verbal descriptions of their visual and emotional sensations in reply to questions that were "open" (describing the moods and associations in one's own words) and "closed" (the recipient was asked to choose from a set of epithets the ones that best reflected his impressions from listening to a piece of music). The result was sometimes imaginative descriptions of impressions received from the music heard. These experiments do not go far enough in revealing the complex mechanism of artistic perception but they do reveal the diversity of its individual differences and its two forms: 1) perception proper (understanding the meaning of the work, deciphering its sign system and understanding the musical text); 2) reaction to the perception (the nature of emotions and thoughts evoked in the recipient's soul). Experimental study of artistic perception is made more difficult by the fact that the recipient finds himself in constrained circumstances. Aware of being observed, he tries to meet the experimenter's expectancies, "forces" himself to concentrate to be able to describe his impressions.
Perception depends on the general cultural background and aesthetic experience of the perceiver, on his acquaintance with the idiom of the particular type of art and his discernment in deciphering it. One can, on that basis, identify typological groups of recipients sharing the same attitude to art and the same value orientation. The specific traits of these groups must be borne in mind in studying perception. Knowing to which group a listener belongs one can predict with a fair degree of accuracy what his reaction would be to a given work of art.