What if a painting is more than color, form, and brushstrokes?
What if looking at art is just the first step in experiencing it?
What if art makes us more spiritual and more creative?
Pablo Picasso once famously stated that “art is not truth; art is a lie which allows us to approach the truth— at least in so far as truth is discernible to us.”
A century later, it’s still a provocative idea. It says that art is fundamentally an abstraction of reality. Paradoxically, it also proposes that art is a vehicle for deep understanding, a means of revealing an otherwise hidden truth. It also suggests reciprocity between artist and viewer, both conjoined in an exploration.
The relationship between creator and viewer and the potential of art to generate new understandings are topics of great interest to Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, a senior research scientist at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and Pablo Tinio, head of the Creativity and Aesthetics Lab at Montclair State University. Both subscribe to the theory that the process of creating art is mirrored in the way it’s perceived by viewers. Now, with funding from Templeton Religion Trust, they’re doing research to measure this mirroring of creativity. In the process, they’re bringing the perspectives of their two disparate fields of expertise — the psychology of creativity and empirical aesthetics — into collaboration.
Seeing art is only part of experiencing art. Using the mirror model as a theoretical foundation, this project is testing two big ideas about the cognitive benefits of art on viewers: that it can provide an understanding of transcendent, spiritual dimensions and that it can foster creativity.
“Artists aim to portray meaning for their audiences – ideas and messages about the human condition and moral or spiritual concepts,” Ivcevic Pringle contends. “To do so, they explore key ideas and continually expand, adapt, and fine tune them to create the finished work. Throughout the creative process, they expand on the work and build on layers of materials— from initial studies and sketches to the final, refined piece.”
According to Tinio, who formulated the mirror model a decade ago, a viewer’s initial interaction with an artwork starts where the artist has left off, “Their interaction first involves the processing of surface features, such as color and the finishing touches applied by the artist towards the final stages of the creative process. After spending more time with the work, the viewer begins to access and process the concepts and ideas of the artist, as well as the motivation that drove the work’s creation, its meanings,” he explains.
With this research, they hope to push past the minutiae of what minor aesthetic features of artworks people prefer over others or what types of art attract more attention and interest. Instead, this project is asking much bigger questions that look at the full circle of artistic creation and perception. It begins from a place of open inquiry and uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to capture the full complexity of the art experience.
The project consists of two studies. Both take place in museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The museum setting is an important differentiator of this project. While certain effects of art in controlled settings are well-mapped, something is missing from the results, these researchers insist.
“We know from researching affective science, the science of emotions, and personality psychology that powerful experiences are influenced by their settings,” says Ivcevic Pringle. “We know that the size of spaces is related to the experience of awe and wonder, for instance. Another thing that happens in museums is that we are already primed for a particular kind of experience: our minds are ready to engage with art. That is not the case in a laboratory setting.”
Another difference is that in most lab experiments, viewers respond to art images selected by the researcher. This project, however, is measuring people’s responses to art that stands out in some way to them.
In the first study, participants are asked to identify works that are meaningful to them and then discuss their experience through a “think aloud” process. Ivcevic Pringle explains: “Essentially, we are asking them to voice their thoughts. We know that when people engage with art, they have ideas, thoughts, and questions. We cannot open their heads to get direct access to what these are. But we can ask them as they are experiencing a piece of art. What pieces of art are meaningful and in what ways? What understanding is gained from it? Which art pieces inspire spiritual understanding? This study will enable us to generate themes that describe different kinds of understanding gained from art.”
The second study examines the conditions in which art engagement facilitates creative thinking and problem-solving. Creative thinking metrics are administered to different groups of museum visitors: some who did not engage with art yet (shortly after coming into the museum), some after being interviewed about surface features of art, and some after reflecting on meaningful pieces of art.
In both studies, interviews with participants are open-ended, seeking to meet people where they are in order to walk back what’s happening when they have a meaningful encounter with art. The studies are designed to account for the full range of art experiences, from immediate responses to the more involved processes of gaining new insights.
“We are interested in the potential of art to create insight changes, new understandings, new perspectives in people. As we’ve listened to how people experience art, we have noticed that they oftentimes — on their own, non-prompted — use words that imply or directly indicate a spiritual experience. And we’re very curious about that,” says Ivcevic Pringle.
“We’re asking big questions about meaning and personal transformation,” echoes Tinio.
Research in empirical aesthetics provides ample evidence that art can produce a range of emotional effects. What’s more, neuroscience has begun to map the parts of our brains that fire when we look at art. These studies provide a foundation, but a more complete picture of the way people interact with art is needed. Research methods need to be prepared to go beyond existing confines to capture it. It’s time to go further, these researchers say.
In addition to the scholarly outputs of papers and a symposium, Ivcevic Pringle and Tinio hope their project will be a basis for examinations into how certain differences affect people’s cognitive responses – individual versus group engagements, for example, or viewing representational versus abstract art. Such knowledge can only help museums in their efforts to provide education and funnel the power of art for good.
By building on established research and documenting how art is experienced in actual lived experiences, this project is delving deep into its potential to change us. New methods and new questions are waiting to be uncovered.
Special thanks to Cultivate Arts & Education and Yolanda Gonzalez