Art builds understanding | Psychology Today

At the just concluded Designing for Empathy Summit, social scientists and museum leaders came together to discuss how museums can build empathy and contribute to the development of understanding and the creation of meaning.

Despite a long history of studying art experiences, researchers have yet to capture and understand the most significant aspects of such experiences, including the thoughts and insights we receive when we visit a museum, the sense of encounter after seeing a meaningful work of art , or the changed thinking after experiences with art. These powerful encounters can be inspiring, invigorating and conducive to well-being and flourishing.

The theory of aesthetic cognitivism describes the value of art through its role in facilitating a better understanding of ourselves, the human condition, and moral and spiritual concepts. The question is how does this happen – what are the attributes of meaningful experiences of art?

According to the mirror model of art developed by Pablo PL Tinio, aesthetic reception corresponds to artistic creation in a mirror-inverted manner. Artists aim to express ideas and messages about the human condition or the world at large. To do this, they explore key ideas and continually expand, adapt and refine them as they develop the work, resulting in the accumulation of layers of material – from initial studies and sketches to the final, refined work.

The viewer’s initial interaction with a work of art begins where the artist left off. Their interaction first includes the characteristics of the treated surface, such as color, texture, and the finishing touches applied by the artist during the final stages of the creative process. After spending more time with the work, the viewer begins to gain insight and access the artist’s ideas.

The mirroring of artists and viewers occurs in relation to both the emotional and cognitive aspects of art. Tinio and Andreas Gartus compare the emotional characteristics of art and the viewers’ emotional experiences of art. They recruit visitors to the Whitney Museum of American Art who go to see exhibitions of the permanent collection or a temporary special exhibition. These two exhibits were chosen because of their distinctly different emotional tone. While the permanent collection can best be described as formal and serious, the special exhibition featured interactive and playful works by Cory Arcangel.

Visitors were asked to indicate what emotions the art evoked. First, they were asked about the overall feelings that each exhibition evoked as a whole. As predicted by the art mirror model, there was a correspondence between visitors’ emotions and the emotional characteristics of the exhibits—the permanent display of the collection elicited interest and engagement, and the special exhibit elicited amusement and laughter.

Visitors were also asked about the feelings evoked by individual works of art. Again, there was a correspondence between the visitors’ feelings and the emotional attributes of the art. For example, visitors describe a sense of longing, nostalgia and relief when watching Georgia O’Keefe’s film Stairway to the Moonwhich shows a wooden household ladder suspended in a turquoise sky, with dark mountains in the background.

The artist described the feeling of the painting in similar terms to the visitors who viewed it 60 years later. A very different emotional content is depicted in the picture of A. A. Bronson Felix Partz, which depicts the artist’s friend and colleague three hours after his death from AIDS. Viewers identified sadness, despair and compassion as evoked by the picture.

The mirror model of art also describes the correspondence of understandings and thought processes between art creation and appreciation. Viewers often describe how they gained an understanding of themselves or the world and came to new insights and perspectives after engaging with the art. With his Migration series, Jacob Lawrence aimed to tell a neglected story of the more than one million African Americans from the rural South who moved to the industrial North. And viewers gain a new perspective on history, seeing the Great Migration as an integral part of American history.

Finally, making art and looking at art are related to creative thinking. Research in my lab at Yale University shows that an educational program that uses art appreciation activities such as sustained observation, reflection, and perspective shifting builds creative thinking skills. For example, in one activity, people are asked to look at a work of art from different perspectives – up close or from afar, pretending to be a child or mentally walking into the work and walking around it. Such activities make direct use of research results.

Studies show that the more time visitors spend engaging with the art and the more they reflect on it, the greater the congruence with the artists’ intentions and ideas. Indeed, participants reported that after the course they were better at “extrapolating art to personal life,” describing realizing that “connecting real problems to possible solutions shows the utility [art] has’ and appreciated the opportunity to ‘improve personal abilities that you don’t normally work on’.

When we tested the effects of the art appreciation program, the results showed that the participants were more original in their thinking compared to those who did not participate in the program. The way we tested creative thinking was unrelated to art, making the test rigorous because people had to apply skills from one context (engaging with art in a museum) to another (questions about hypothetical situations).

For example, we asked people to come up with creative ideas about how to use common everyday objects (e.g. a button) and to repeat everyday problems in different ways (e.g. “You are working on a project with a group and one person is not doing any of the work” , repeated repeatedly, beginning with “How to…”). Importantly, when we tested people a few months later, creative thinking skills were preserved.

Correspondence in feeling and thinking implies a transfer – between creator and viewer – of ideas, concepts and emotions contained in works of art. Art has the potential to communicate across space and time and create connections and insights that would not otherwise occur. What is needed for this to happen is active engagement with art in contexts that facilitate this engagement, particularly museums.

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