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The Characteristics of Art and Relation to Human Psychology

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Defining Art

The Characteristics of Art and Relation to Human Psychology


The discussion about what defines “art” is one that takes into account preconceived notions and pits them against openness to originality and creativity. Several factors go into defining the artistic value of any individual piece, many of which have been examined by psychologists and been attempted to be analyzed and explained. Aesthetic features of works of art such as complexity, coloration, and balance, among others, play a role in how our brain perceives it and whether or not we find it pleasurable. This perception is different between individuals of artistic training and of no training which can impact the perceived value of a piece of art.

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In answering the question “what is art?” it is critical to redirect this question towards “what is the quality of this art?” While many people will disagree with claims that certain pieces should even be identified as or given the title of “art”, I suggest that any piece created with a creative and artistic motive in mind should be considered art and the real determination of its value is where the majority of the focus should be. With focused redirected from whether or not a piece is able to fit into a category of “art” towards the level of value that the work of art holds, it is far easier to examine the factors that we consider valuable in works of art and what it is exactly about these factors that makes them important. In considering each of these factors it is important to also analyze the connection to the human brain and understand that the reason we value certain pieces of work is because we find them pleasurable to look at.

        In focusing in on each of the features a few a fairly easy to measure and quantify. Silvia (2005) measured the correlation between complexity and comprehensibility in a painting and the interest, value, and positive emotions that an individual demonstrated towards it.  Complexity of a painting was defined primarily by the number of polygons, spectrum of color, and lack of blank space in the painting. Comprehensibility of a painting is harder to define although it was measured by how much it resembled the physical world and objects or situations that were familiar to the viewer.  The measures of interest, value, and positive emotions were self-reported by the test subjects by providing a rating for each measure. Overall, a higher complexity and higher comprehensibility in paintings correlated with a higher interest, value, and positive emotion result. While these results aren’t particularly surprising they demonstrate that positive emotions, interest in the painting, and considering the painting as valuable are all related. This provides us with a clear basis for knowledge that our perceived value of the painting is aligned with finding it interesting and experiencing positive emotions due to viewing it. This study also shows that paintings of higher complexity and comprehensibility have a tendency to be viewed as more valuable. Our brain finds a higher complexity in a painting as more interesting and the similarity to images that are more easily recognizable by our brain (comprehensibility) as creating a more positive set of emotions when compared to images that have no resemblance to familiar figures or scenes. Both of these combine to give us the conclusion that a painting that fits these categories is of greater value and is a better work of art. While complexity and comprehensibility are a good starting measure, there are a number of other factors that go into a work of art, otherwise the most valuable paintings would essentially be indistinguishable from photographs of complex scenes of the natural world. Far more goes into a painting being considered valuable.

        Martindale el al. (1990) conducted studies similar to that of Silva, although also used a reporting of “meaningfulness” and went into more fine detail with regard to the emphasis placed on each of these measures (including resemblance to known figures (compensability) and complexity). The measure of meaningfulness is particularly interesting as subjects were simply asked to identify the painting as “meaningful or meaningless”. Results were similar to that of Silva in that higher complexity, meaningfulness, and complexity were all associated with a higher perceived value of a painting. More importantly though, the results showed that the measure of resemblance (comprehensibility) accounted for the highest variation in preference between subjects, while meaningfulness accounted for the second highest variation, and complexity for a far lower amount of variation in preference among each of the measures. The ordering of each of these measures is important is understanding the intricacy of art. These results show that various factors of a painting each carry different weights. While resemblance and comprehensibility may be a critical factor in whether or not a painting is interesting or preferred to others, numerous other factors still greatly impact it. Just because a painting resembles a familiar scene does not mean that the viewer will enjoy that painting if the painting does not meet other requirements. Similarly, just because a painting does not resemble a familiar scene or even any part of the natural world does not mean that the viewer will not enjoy it or believe that it holds value as a work of art. There is no specific formula to creating an ideal painting per se.

        A number of artistic aesthetics go into a painting besides merely the subject of the painting that contribute to its value. While complexity could be considered one of these factors, it has more to do with the subject of the painting and less to do with the actual detail and painting style and artist representation. Other visual factors include the color scheme, balance, symmetry, weight, and many more. Palmer at al. (2013) explored how each of these factors contributes to enjoyment of a painting. Starting with color, results showed that adults from western countries (US, UK) preferred cool colors in paintings (blue, cyan, green) over warm colors (red, orange, yellow). While there was no specified explanation for this, theories included that this is primarily due to location and environment of the test subjects. While each of the subjects in the study was from a western country (and in the northern hemisphere near the Atlantic), it would be interesting to see if subjects from other regions of the world did not follow this trend towards cooler colors. In relation to color choice preferences, subjects preferred colors that had higher levels of saturation, up to a certain point (extreme levels of saturation were reported as too vivid and unpleasant). For other visual factors, paintings with better balance, weight distribution, and use of space were all rated more highly by subjects. These factors demonstrate that a lot of consideration goes into the visual format of a work of art. Randomly placed objects within the painting will not result in the same value as objects placed with intention to create greater visual appeal. Almost subconsciously, the brain is able to pick up on these factors and create preferences. The study also mentioned the golden ratio and a point of measure. Paintings that contained figures that followed the golden ratio performed higher than those that did not. Each of these visual features plays a role in the perception of a painting and a painting that demonstrates a high level of skill must meet each of these requirements. The complexity gives an idea of the skill required by an artist to differentiate their work as having higher value. A trained artist is aware of each of these factors that goes into the creative process and final product. The study same study also touched on the idea of comprehensibility found in the previous two studies. The result of this study mirrored that of the other two. “A common theme in aesthetic judgements of low-level visual properties is that images are preferred when their structure mirrors that of natural scenes. Such findings suggest that people prefer images that have the statistical structure to which the human visual system has adapted…” (Palmer et al., 2013, pg. 91). This follows the idea that greater preference lies with imagines familiar to the viewer and natural world.



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