How do you appreciate art? – a psychological perspective
Another question that gets eyes rolling and brings to mind lofty concepts and airy ideals of things like beauty and so on. But that’s not really what I’m going to talk about. This isn’t going to be a “how-to” essay, but more of a “how do we do it” essay.
Because, you already know how to enjoy or experience art! As a person, you are already born with the faculties of a brain which are much the same as every other human, and that is pretty much all that is needed. In this post, I shall discuss the mechanics or the process which we use when we encounter art.
Why should we give a hoot? I believe that if we understand our processes in our encounter of art – it will help in our understanding of what good, or maybe great art is.
System 1 and System 2
To put it simply, there are two ways of thinking we all have – the “fast” System 1 – (our gut instinct, our heuristics, our emotions) and the “slow” System 2 (our conscious analytical thought process). System 1 generates feelings, impressions, and operates automatically and quickly, with no sense of voluntary control. System 2 is our remembering self, which we use for conscious analysis of problems and ideas. Of course, there aren’t literally 2 little brains thinking separately inside us, but it is a useful analogy for description of our mental process.
(note: I am not a professional psychologist, but I believe that I am not going to propose any radical new ideas which have no basis. Rather, I’m taking an existing model and applying it to art.)
The process of engaging with art
Art is a subjective experience for every one of us, because we have different cultural and social backgrounds, and the frame of mind when we view or experience an art piece is unique to us.
But when we see or experience an artwork we feel is good, we all have the same processes which go on inside us. The artwork will first engage our System 1 (the fast system), this brings up emotions, directs our attention towards the work, perhaps makes us admire the piece. This is the part that makes us go “wow”, or “that’s interesting… let me have a closer look” and so on. In and of itself, System 1 activation is not enough to let us think that the piece is good.
To be good art, the piece must also engage System 2 (the slow system) – the piece should engage us in the analytical thought processes. So perhaps we may go “how was this work done technically?”, “this painting is so amazingly realistic, why is this so?”, “what a way to visualize a scene, now why didn’t I think of that before?” and so on.
It is this System 2 engagement – our remembering self – that makes an art piece linger in your thoughts long after you have seen it, or perhaps make you want to hang in up in your house so that you will spend more time with it.
Either System 1 or 2, or both systems needed?
Art that activates either System 1 or 2 in isolation probably isn’t good enough for you.
If only System 1 is activated but not System 2, then all you would feel is something along the lines of “nice new bokeh picture in flickr” – something “nice” or “pretty” but ultimately forgettable.
If only System 2 was activated but not System 1, then a likely scenario is when you were made to write an essay by your art teacher to describe how “great” or “intricate” or “technical” the art is, even though you find it bland or boring or totally opaque. All the art piece was to you was only a problem to be solved consciously. This is probably worse than System 1 engagement in isolation.
But what if a work of art not only engages our affection (system 1) and at the same time makes us contemplate further about the artist’s message (system 2)? Then it is not only good art, but great art. Great art engages the audience on an instinctive level as well as making us conscious and aware of it’s theme or message.
There is no need to study lots of lofty concepts like beauty / proportions / aesthetics (unless you are really interested). Just go by your gut first! The art you want to own should have made an impression or conjured some emotion in you at first. But that isn’t enough. It’s got to go further than love/shock/intrigue at first sight, it’s got to make you look closer, make you think about it even after you’ve gone off and looked at other pieces. If you find yourself thinking about the piece even after you’ve left the gallery or the theatre, then you know, that art has made a link between the artist’s mind and yours.
From Part 1 – Art is the medium through which the creator engages the audience, much like how language is used to communicate.
And the test of good art is like good communications – how engaging it is, and how effective it is at getting the artist’s message across. To have deep engagement, both system 1 and system 2 need to be activated.
Engagement is subjective and different art pieces will appeal to different people. But at least, I suppose, you can now tell visitors to your home why you bought that framed print hanging on the wall 🙂
One last thing – If art is so subjective, then what is it that makes masterpieces? Maybe activating system 1 and 2 are a start, and that the message being told is the final key. Perhaps there are universal stories/emotions/concepts that apply to wide swathes of people, and that is the final key to being a masterpiece.