Reviewing How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, by Ellen Winner (OUP 2019); The Aesthetic Animal, by Henrik Høgh-Olesen (OUP 2018); The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution, by Stephen Davies (OUP, 2012).
What art does to us – why, for instance, a certain piece of music may strike us as movingly beautiful – can it be explained with the methods of psychology?
Ludwig Wittgenstein thought not. In fact, he dismissed the idea as ridiculous:
People often say that aesthetics is a branch of psychology. The idea is that once we are more advanced, everything – all the mysteries of Art – will be understood by psychological experiments.
This is very funny – very funny indeed. There doesn’t seem any connection between what psychologists do and any judgement about a work of art.
The sort of explanation one is looking for when one is puzzled by an aesthetic impression is not a causal explanation, not one corroborated by experience or by statistics as to how people react.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (1967), p. 17, 19-21.
That aesthetic experiences cannot be exhaustively explained (“all the mysteries of art”) may be readily admitted. But why wouldn’t we be able to pinpoint some of the factors that cause, say, our perception of beauty and perfection in some work of music?
Wittgenstein’s outburst may sound even odder if we realize that in its eighteenth century (Enlightenment) origin, between roughly 1735 and 1790, aesthetics was considered precisely “a branch of psychology” (as is implied by the word aesthetics, which relates to perception).
What maybe explains Wittgenstein’s view is the fact that aesthetic judgment (typically: is it beautiful?) is, like moral judgment (is it good or bad?), a matter of choice. Choice, but not arbitrary, and not entirely subjective. Exclaiming How beautiful! is not a reflex, it is an expression of the decision to credit a specific experience with a certain value (about which we may argue). The problem was most famously discussed by Immanuel Kant, and it may have been through his (unintended) influence that philosophers of aesthetics developed an abhorrence of psychology.
Nowadays, the sciences of mind are eagerly applied to questions of art and aesthetics. There are three main areas of research: the first focuses upon human cognition and behaviour; the second upon the possible evolutionary origins of our aesthetic behaviours; and the third, the neurological approach, studies what happens in our brains when we’re engaged with artworks. The subject is popular enough to foster an industry of bestsellers and would-be bestsellers, particularly in the third (brain) division.
How Art Works: a Psychological Exploration (2019), by psychologist Ellen Winner, belongs in the first, cognitive-behavioural division. The title alludes, I presume, to Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997), and, presumably, shares in that author’s irony. As Pinker put it, progress in psychology allows at least some baffling “mysteries” to be “upgraded to problems” that can be resolved (p. ix). And that implicitly answers Wittgenstein’s sceptical outburst.