When Europeans began to theorize art in the eighteenth-century, they thought it had little use value or any relevance to the practical everyday. In his Critique of Judgment, the German philosopher Emmanuel Kant asserted aesthetic experience was in fact a cognitive inquiry, but only one that amounted to the judgment of disinterested pleasure.
Since the twentieth-century, attitudes changed, just as the direction and interests of art. But these opinions ventured by philosophers, sociologists, and ethnographers allow us to look at the entire trajectory of art differently than they were assessed in the early in the modern era.
Art experience is actually like everyday experience in that ANY kind of stimulus can trigger analysis and thought. Usually, most (including many psychologists and philosophers of art) think of art’s hedonistic value; which is that we seek reward through an experience of pleasure. On the contrary, we can think of the reception of art as an organic process of response and decision making.
Hans and Schulamith Kreitler explain in their Psychology of the Arts the art experience is motivated by tensions, which exist prior to its onset, but are triggered through the production of new tensions by the work of art. Essentially, the goal of the art experience is to achieve a kind of state of homeostasis – a condition of equilibrium and balance that gives the sensation of pleasure. Yet their theory also accounts for experiences that challenge us in some way, and for which we may take an immediate dislike.
Sometimes the challenge a work of art puts before us may be perceived as a barrier but is rather an invitation for deeper inquiry. Art makes us confront our barriers and the things that block our perceptions and thoughts. Sometimes these can amount to the most significant realizations. The resulting reduction in tension can result in building motivation and ultimately the performance of a perception into an everyday action.
Many of these realizations come from the most initial and immediate moment of the perception of a work of art. This is usually the moment when we experience pleasure, drowsy boredom, or also offense and disgust. Deeper analysis of these leading first impressions allow us to dig deeper in our emotional responses and thoughts. Borrowing, in part, from Kreitler and Kreitler, those are:
1. Color – What are your personal associations and the culturally shared meanings?
2. General Formal Structures – What are the simple and complex gestalts and your response to their significance of the expressive idea? What is the role of variation, symmetry, and balance?
3. Figure and Ground: What is in the foreground and background, and what is the relationship to scale?
4. Symmetry, Continuity, and Closure: Are things balanced, varied, and closed or open?
So why is this important for the everyday? Exercising these observation skills are all acts of judgment. When we stand back and process our reactions, we become aware of ourselves and the world. Or even the perception of a gestalt amounts to a decision of “rightness”: through the process of tension and release we put the pieces of the whole together. We can see our shifting perspectives with different points of view. We can see patterns of things and the reasons for them being interrupted.
Such skills translate well into any field or profession in which people make decision and solve problems. Those can be science and technology, engineering, law, to name a few. As Arthur Efland said in Art and Cognition, works of art may serve to reveal conflicted domains in reality and our minds in which our expectations are challenged. We can see how we ourselves play a role in our perceptions and learn how to see beyond them, we can identify patterns and exceptions, we can conceptualize a situation of “rightness” from the arbitrariness of art’s expressive language, and we can listen to ourselves to identify the deeper meaning of things beneath what is given on the surface.