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Psychology and art

Text From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The psychology of art is an interdisciplinary field that studies the perceptioncognition and characteristics of art and its production. For the use of art materials as a form of psychotherapy, see art therapy. The psychology of art is related toarchitectural psychology and environmental psychology.

The work of Theodor Lipps, a Munich-based research psychologist, played an important role in the early development of the concept of art psychology in the early decade of the twentieth century. His most important contribution in this respect was his attempt to theorize the question of Einfuehlung or "empathy", a term that was to become a key element in many subsequent theories of art psychology.


In the narrow sense, there is no discipline "the psychology of art," for unlike other branches of psychology, with their numerous academies and research programs, there are few Psychology of Art programs in the universities. Nonetheless, the literature on the topic is extensive, given that the issues addressed by art psychology have attracted both professional psychologists as well as non-professionals; it has attracted those who write about the arts, including music and architecture, and those who produce it.

The general principles that guide most of the work in art psychology are

  1. that art is perceptual and that it can thus be studied by asking questions about our perceptions.
  2. that art operates in a cultural continuum and that one can come to terms with the continuum through analysis of art.
  3. that the production of art is a meaningful enterprise and as such is an important avenue by which one comes to terms with human creativity.

Art psychology developed in opposition to 19th century philosophical aesthetics which approached art by first asking about beauty and metaphysics. For most art psychologists, beauty is culturally or socially contingent. Art psychology was, however, also developed initially in opposition to Husserlian phenomenology which made no normative judgments about meaning. Most branches of art psychology emphasize the primacy of consciousness, but there are variants which engage the question of the subconscious. Generally speaking, however, those interested in the psychology of art express an optimism about art and its meanings that moves them away from the concepts discussed by Freud.



One of the earliest to integrate psychology with art history was Heinrich Wölfflin (1864 – 1945), a Swiss art critic and historian, whose dissertation Prolegomena zu einer Psychologie der Architektur (1886) attempted to show that architecture could be understood from a purely psychological (as opposed to a historical-progressivist) point of view.

Another important figure in the development of art psychology was Wilhelm Worringer, who provided some of the earliest theoretical justification for expressionist art. Richard Müller-Freienfels was another important early theorist.

Numerous artists in the twentieth century began to be influenced by the psychological argument, including Naum GaboPaul KleeWassily Kandinsky, and somewhat Josef Albers and Gyorgy Kepes. The French adventurer and film theoristAndré Malraux was also interested in the topic and wrote the book La Psychologie de l'Art (1947-9) later revised and republished as The Voices of Silence.


Though the disciplinary foundations of art psychology were first developed in Germany, there were soon advocates, in psychology, the arts or in philosophy, pursuing their own variants in the USSR, England (Clive Bell and Herbert Read), France (André MalrauxJean-Paul Weber, for example), and the US.

In the US, the philosophical premises of art psychology were strengthened - and given political valence - in the work of John Dewey. His 'Art as Experience was published in 1934, and was the basis for significant revisions in teaching practices whether in the kindergarten or in the university. Manuel Barkan, head of the Arts Education School of Fine and Applied Arts at Ohio State University, and one of the many pedagoges influenced by the writings of Dewey, explains, for example, in his book, The Foundations of Art Education (1955), that the aesthetic education of children prepares the child for a life in a complex democracy. Dewey himself played a seminal role in setting up the program of the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, which became famous for its attempt to integrate art into the classroom experience.

The growth of art psychology between 1950 and 1970 also coincided with the expansion of art history and museum programs. The popularity of Gestalt psychology in the 1950s added further weight to the discipline. The seminal work wasGestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality (1951), that was co-authored by Fritz Perls, Paul Goodman, and Ralph Hefferline. The writings of Rudolf Arnheim (born 1904) were also particularly influential during this period. His Toward a Psychology of Art (Berkeley: University of California Press) was published in 1966. Art therapy drew on many of the lessons of art psychology and tried to implement them in the context of ego repair. Marketing also began to draw on the lessons of art psychology in the layout of stores as well as in the placement and design of commercial goods.

Art psychology, generally speaking, was at odds with the principles of Freudian psychoanalysis with many art psychologists critiquing, what they interpreted as, its reductivism. The writings of Carl Jung, however, had a favorable reception among art psychologists given his optimistic portrayal of the role of art and his belief that the contents of the personal unconscious and, more particularly, the collective unconscious, could be accessed by art and other forms of cultural expression. Jung, Carl; Marie-Louise von Franz (ed.); Aniela Jaffé (1964). Man and his Symbols. London: Aldus Books Ltd.. pp. 18–103; 230–271. ISBN 0-385-05221-9.

By the 1970s, the centrality of art psychology in academy began to wane. Artists became more interested in psychoanalysis[5] and feminism, and architects in phenomenology and the writings of WittgensteinLyotard and Derrida. As for art and architectural historians, they critiqued psychology for being anti-contextual and culturally naive. Erwin Panofsky, who had a tremendous impact on the shape of art history in the US, argued that historians should focus less on what is seen and more on what was thought.Today, psychology still plays an important role in art discourse, though mainly in the field of art appreciation. 

Because of the growing interest in personality theory—especially in connection with the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Briggs (developers of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator), contemporary theorists are investigating the relationship between personality type and art. Patricia Dinkelaker and John Fudjack have addressed the relationship between artists’ personality types and works of art; approaches to art as a reflection of functional preferences associated with personality type; and the function of art in society in light of personality theory.


  • Mark JarzombekThe Psychologizing of Modernity. Cambridge University Press, 2000, ISBN
  • Alan RyanJohn Dewey and the High Time of American Liberalism. W.W. Norton 1995, ISBN
  • Michael PodroThe Critical Historians of Art, Yale University Press, 1982. ISBN

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