Psychology of Aesthetics

Psychology of Aesthetics

The world of art remains a mystery to most of us. Unless you’re one of those few who has formally studied it, the closest we come to art appreciation is “I know what I like.”  A rationale that works for most of us.

Art is a form of communications. As the Canadian philosopher and prophet of the digital age, Marshall McLuhan wrote several decades ago “The medium is the message.” It is the artist that has a vision or a message waiting to be expressed. The recipient of this message is people like you and me. But, it is the art, in whatever medium it takes on, that is the message.

A tour through the vast catalogues of art show us the breadth and scope of those messages. From a simple red apple sitting among other fruits in a bowl to the panoramic view of Dante’s Inferno there is a message. The level of acceptance achieved by the artist is in direct proportion to their understanding of the psychology of aesthetics. The medium of the message.

By way of an analogy, let’s use this example. You are traveling across country by car. You find yourself in downtown Kansas City, Missouri. Stopping for lunch you are anxious to get back on the road. But what road do you need to get back on? Seems simple, doesn’t it? Just stop and ask someone.

The response can take on many forms, verbal directions, the pointing of a finger, or a review of an all too unfamiliar map. To make matters worse the person giving directions seems unsure of their answers, they have a stutter, and the map has been drawn on several times before.  Not wanting to appear stupid you listen and pretend acknowledgement of your understanding of the directions. Back on your way, you realize that you are still lost.

Just as it is important that the person providing you with directions, communicate effectively so it is with the artist in their effort to convey their message. Enter into the world of the psychology of aesthetics. As used here aesthetics means the study of the relationship between the mind and emotions.

If you have ever noticed those works of art that grab you do so in certain ways. In them are symbols and messages that trigger both cognitive and emotive responses. There is a message within the work. It’s as though the artist in his or her construction of a work of art actually took into account the workings of the mind and feelings. The choice of colors, the placement within the setting of certain objects, the size, shape, or technique used. Each act done with purpose. It is the artist’s view of the world transferred or communicated if you will to others.

These are the components that go into the criteria for the psychology of aesthetics, but, before delving too far into the role of aesthetics it is important to clarify one myth. Aesthetics is not synonymous with the more traditional understanding of beauty, i.e. the positive. Here are many works of art that convey disturbing imagery. Are these beautiful? In a manner of speaking, they are. They stir an emotional response within us.


One would be hard-pressed to accept a depiction of the suffering of the inmates at a place like Auschwitz prison camp as beautiful. Although, if the cognitive and emotive message conveys the horrendous wrongfulness of that place couldn’t it be argued that there is a “beauty” in the work? Beauty in that the viewer’s mind is again reminded of the inherent wrongfulness of Auschwitz.

Psychologically, the aesthetics of a work of art are symbolic or a representation of something real to us. As we know, not everyone responds to the same work of art in the same manner. Our individual backgrounds and experiences provide us with different understandings of the meaning of a work of art. The artists challenge is in providing as large an audience with the message to be conveyed.

Among the outstanding “stars” of the art world was the Spaniard Salvador Dali, an often eccentric surrealist whose works communicated Dali’s understanding of the world. I can’t imagine a more telling example than his series of a work depicting clocks and time.  Rich and full of meaning Dali’s work raises the question of what psychological factors were at play in his work.

Let’s begin by putting forth the idea that aesthetics, which work of the mind and emotion in the appreciation of art, is a form of communications between the artist and the observer. When the principles of the human psychology of attraction are successfully applied to this mix the result can be confusing to the casual observer.

Certainly there are those people who consider Dali’s interpretation of time to be a bit too abstract, there are legions of others who fully grasp and appreciate his view. An outcome that Dali himself would find amusing. He sat out with an internal and a subjective view of the meaning of time. This view began to take on a shape in Dali’s mind. Over time, (pun intended) his concept of time evolved. Moving from a precise, logical, and orderly system of measurement to becoming a parody on what time represent to most people.

The challenge for Dali as it is for many artists is this: “How do I communicate my alternative view to others?”

Depending on their medium different artist will experience the clarity of their message differently. While the Dali’s, the Picasso’s, and the Warhol’s expressions take some getting used to others like Norman Rockwell and his clarity of American life need little explanation.

An appreciation and understanding of the dynamics of aesthetics in art can open one to a whole different appreciation of an artist’s work. Rather than simply brushing by a work of art because it didn’t appeal to you may be a lost opportunity. Imagine the possibilities if you stopped long enough to find out what the message in the medium is.