What if religions explored the seemingly immeasurable, spiritual effects of art? What if art could change the way we think about God? Dr. Kutter Callaway is leading a group of scholars including Dr. Wade Rowatt and Dr. Sarah Schnitker in a research project called Measuring the (Im)measurable: A Psychological Model of the “Something More” that Humans Encounter in and through Art. This research seeks to build a set of experimental frameworks for quantifying how aesthetic experiences relate to spiritual outcomes.
The project begins with the idea that the emotional, psychological and spiritual experiences we have when we encounter an artwork are not as mysterious as they seem at first and they can, in fact, be measured. There are rigorous and well-defined experimental practices that measure the psychological effects of images on the viewer. Building from this foundation, Dr. Callaway and his collaborators hope to link these effects with the psychological signatures of spiritual experience. Once these paradigms meet, the result will be a set of experimental tools that can be used to measure the spiritual effects of art.
The first experiment uses altered photography to measure the way people think about God and other spiritual matters. Working with an artist, Dr. Callaway and his team have commissioned the creation of a set of artful, aesthetically pleasing photographs. These images are then altered by cropping so they become compositionally awkward, jarring versions of the originals. A third set of images, a control set of photos that are commonly used in other psychological experiments, is also used. Study participants will be shown images from one of these three sets and then assessed on the way they subsequently imagine God and entertain other spiritual ideas. If beauty and spirituality are linked the way Dr. Callaway suspects, the effect of the images should be measurable.
Once this experimental framework has been established, new variables will also be tested. The first experiment will focus on the formal qualities of the photographs, but content of the artwork is also an important variable. Dr. Callaway is interested in questions of good versus bad art, serious masterpieces versus kitsch. Shouldn’t the excellence of an artwork have a measurable effect on the way it elicits a spiritual response in the viewer? Or will the comfort and nostalgia of kitsch have a similar effect?
Another dimension that will be tested is the effect of the aesthetic fluency of the viewers themselves. How much time do the participants spend looking at art on their own? Have they studied it, do they have extensive art historical knowledge? How will those who understand the intricacies of composition and symbolism react to aesthetic stimuli, compared to those who have little prior knowledge? The hope is to collect data on a general, non-expert population, but also control for factors like art-viewing skill and experience.
Part of what makes the spiritual effects of art seem immeasurable is that spiritual realities, by their nature, resist quantification. So Dr. Callaway makes an important distinction: the goal is to measure the spiritual experiences of the study participants, not to measure spiritual reality itself. In other words, the psychological hallmarks of an encounter with the divine can be quantified, recorded and compared, but God cannot.
We often think of art as something that’s decorative, a beautiful afterthought that operates on a surface level. But this ignores how foundational our aesthetic experience of the world is to our psychological and spiritual experiences of the world. Aesthetic experience is not only a pathway to spiritual understanding, the two are inextricably linked. We build our ethical and spiritual understanding of the world first through our understanding of beauty, the traditions and structures of religion come later.
Dr. Callaway emphasizes the centrality of art to the human experience by referring to our species not as homo sapien, but instead as “homo aestheticus.” Our experience of beauty is central to the way we understand our reality physically, psychologically, and spiritually. This centrality makes the work of measurement all the more important. Art moves us deeply, and we need tools to understand how.