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A thesis presented to the Faculty of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts (M.A.) in Psychology by Athena Taylor
San Francisco, California June 2006
© 2006 by Athena Taylor
Approval of the Thesis
APPLYING AN INTEGRATIVE THEORETICAL APPROACH TO THE INTERPRETATION OF ART
This thesis by Athena Taylor has been approved by the committee members below, who recommend it be accepted by the faculty of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in partial fulfillment of requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Psychology
Thesis Committee: ___________________________ Alan Combs, Ph.D., Chair ____________________________ Steven Pritzker, Ph.D. ___________________ Date ____________________ Date
APPLYING AN INTEGRATIVE THEORETICAL APPROACH TO THE INTERPRETATION OF ART
Athena Taylor Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center
This thesis proposes a model for the psychological interpretation of art applying multiple research perspectives. The purpose is to show that the integration and exploration of research from the social sciences gives a deeper understanding of art. Works of art from several art movements are examined. The art images are interpreted from three different perspectives: (a) the artist’s personal psyche, (b) the artist’s social or collective context, and (c) transcendental/spiritual messages in the art. Each perspective is then analyzed in light of psychoanalytic, anthropological, historical, sociological, cognitive, formal and transcendental theory. The overarching purpose of the thesis is to demonstrate that this model of art interpretation offers a rich and thorough method of analysis.
Table of Contents List of Figures.....................................................................................................................iv INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY..................................................................................1 Overview of the Research........................................................................................2 REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE......................................................................................4 Psychoanalytic.........................................................................................................4 Cognitive/Physiological...........................................................................................8 Anthropology, Art History/Criticism, Sociology...................................................14 Formalist/Structuralist............................................................................................17 Transcendental.......................................................................................................19 SUMMARY AND REVIEW OF THE MODEL: A WALK THROUGH..........................27 DISCUSSION....................................................................................................................31 Clinical Applications..............................................................................................31 Educational Applications.......................................................................................31 CONCLUSION..................................................................................................................32 REFERENCES..................................................................................................................33 APPENDIX........................................................................................................................36
List of Figures Figure 1: Art Wheel: General version................................................................................27 Figure 2: Art Wheel: The Balcony, by Manet....................................................................30
Introduction to the Study This thesis proposes a model for a psychological interpretation of art applying multiple research perspectives. The model is constructed similar to a pie chart in which each “slice” consists of a domain of the social science research. After assembling the relevant criticism, each perspective or piece of pie will be explored for its insight into art. Building a model that follows a step-by-step process of interpretation is the approach developed in this thesis. The model consists of the following research perspectives: 1. Psychoanalytic 2. Cognitive/physiological 3. Anthropology, Art History/Criticism, Sociology 4. Formalism/Structuralism 5. Transcendental A pictorial image can express many layers of meaning, therefore it is critical to have an overall familiarity with as much of the social science research as possible. Though a thorough interpretation requires exhaustive study of the research, this model serves to provide focus and guidance for the investigator. The five disciplines included in the model give unique and in some instances opposing perspectives on how to decipher a work of art. The realization in academia of the value of interdisciplinary and integrative studies aligns with a broader interpretative approach to art in relation to the field of psychology. Problematic issues with the lack of shared knowledge within this broad field have been noted by William McKinley Runyan:
different individuals and groups in personality psychology sometimes have little interest in, respect for, or even knowledge of each other’s research….Some such analysis of the internal lines of division and criticisms within the field is necessary for understanding its intellectual and interpersonal structure. (1997, p. 46). The aim of this inquiry is to gain a general sense of the research of each of the domains. (If a particular perspective is especially pertinent or compelling then one might be inspired to explore it in further depth.) For instance, one research approach would be to conduct data searches on anthropological studies of the influence of Native American art on the Abstract Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock. However, examination of the other criticism on Pollock’s art would lead to psychoanalytic interpretations that oppose the anthropological view (Tuchman, 1986, p. 273). The goal is not to apply a reductive method of analysis, but to note that applying diverse avenues of interpretation can reveal the complex nature of a work of art. To illustrate the research interpretations, two figurative examples of the model and a step by step method of how to apply the model are provided after the essay’s review of the literature. Overview of the Research The following is an overview of the research perspectives that constitute the proposed model. Considering the concept of a painted image as a kind of dream made manifest, this paper looks at how Freud might interpret the various symbols and colors in a painting. Does a great deal of red reveal a suppressed passionate temperament or obsession in the artist? For instance, a section in this paper examines a Freudian interpretation noting such terms as the id and ego and that certain shapes/objects in a painting might symbolize sexual content, a technique that Freud used in interpreting
dreams. Also included is a Jungian approach which finds archetypal and spiritual motifs in art (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 518). This study also examines a Structural approach, looking at the painting as an organic entity, complete in itself, discounting all other influences on the artist. Theories on the evolution of the mind, the psychology of aesthetics and physiology are additional strands for consideration. A formalist interpretation is part of the model, for example, the color blue signifies spirituality (Douglas, 1986, p. 196). This paper examines theories in aesthetic properties of pictorial perception and neuroscience, which postulate that different modes of painting enlist different cerebral systems. This section of the thesis further discusses how art can be understood as a visual language and that it has direct parallels to poetry and music (Tuchman, 1986). Like poetry, art often speaks in metaphor, which conveys layers of meaning about the nature of the artist, society and the transcendent. Metaphorical or figurative language in a poem is similar to a symbolic form in an image and can yield many interpretive insights. Now each discipline’s perspective will be examined, supported by examples of its research.
Review of the Literature Psychoanalytic This chapter consists of applying a chosen research domain to the interpretation of a specific work of art. A Freudian perspective provides insight into the psychic states of individual artists and how their art is shaped by the context of their personal lives. However, the limitations of a psychoanalytic approach are also discussed, highlighting the need for including research from the other disciplines. Freud’s (1910) extensive analysis of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work in Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood, serves as an example of the implications of an artist’s childhood influences on his art. But because Freud did not have accurate biographical records on Da Vinci’s life, Freud’s analysis is conjecture. Many researchers have applied Freud’s theories in looking at how early childhood experiences can influence the unconscious of the artist and how these influences would be apparent in the subject matter of an artist’s work (Dudek & Verreault, 1997, p. 319). When a Freudian interpretation is applied, representational art provides an especially accessible language for deciphering the meaning of familiar objects and narratives in a painting. The painting, The Balcony by Manet is a portrait of people that could reveal the unsaid dramas that governed Manet’s own life and psyche, in contrast to an abstract painting that consists of amorphous shapes that may symbolize transcendent allusions to the infinite, but do not provide a clear story of the abstract painter’s relationship to society or family.
Donald Kuspit (2002) gives an in-depth critique of the family dynamics that might have influenced the intrapsychic functioning of Manet’s self-perception as revealed in his art. Even further, Kuspit critiques an anti-Freudian analysis of another of Manet’s paintings, his nude Olympia circa 1863, as a courting of the incest-barrier with the prostitute standing in as a substitute-object. He further discusses the phallocentric Freudian construction of the primal fantasy and points to the European cultural issues of racism and sexism current in Manet’s time. Kuspit’s analysis is useful in that he considers many layers of theory, ranging from sociological to historical, but notes that the power of psychic reality, even if dated, is critical to a thorough analysis of art: [The author] is in effect denying the power and influence of psychic reality. She is blind to the fact that psychic reality shapes social reality as much as culture which is also in part, a mental product. At the least, she is badly in need of some idea of the psychosocial, i.e. a theory correlating and perhaps synthesizing the interpersonal and intrapsychic, the sociodynamic and psychodynamic. (Kuspit, 2002, p. 757) Another example of art analysis from a psychoanalytic view is Gilbert Rose’s (2004) interpretation of a painting by Vermeer as an example of ego states and unconscious desire. Rose translates Vermeer’s image of a female model holding a trumpet in her hand, and a possible self-portrait of the artist’s hand as a bulbous mush, as an unconscious expression of the artist’s “forbidden wish for sexual fusion condensed with its own punishment, his mushed hand” (Rose, 2004, p. 419). This particular reading of visual cues revealing unconscious meaning seems to be open to debate but it is cited here to demonstrate the layers of analysis that can be explored in looking at a painting by an artist as exquisitely gifted as Vermeer. Images are a language with their own symbols and
syntax, similar to the written word. Paintings and poetry are able to use metaphor to convey meaning. Rose’s interpretation could be considered speculation, as the ambiguity of art can most likely only inspire educated guess work but the possible meanings are what make art interpretation an infinitely fruitful exercise. Other research applying a psychoanalytical approach is found in a recent dissertation written for the UCLA Art History department by Laura Dawn Meyer (2003). Her thesis is a psychoanalytic interpretation of the art and life of artist Louise Bourgeois. Meyer suggests that to understand Bourgeois’ art, we must locate the roots of the unconscious in childhood, which enables a historically and culturally grounded analysis of human subjectivity. In contrast to Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist art that emphasized the primordial, geological past of life on the planet as the common origin of human instinct, Meyer states that Bourgeois’ art reveals a different kind of “prehistoric” legacy: cloudy memories of infancy and childhood, stemming from a specific family, a distinct culture, and a particular historical epic. Meyer also includes perspectives from cultural studies and gender politics. While a psychoanalytic grounding is central to her premise, she acknowledges the value of an interdisciplinary interpretation: “My contention that Bourgeois’ focus on childhood, intimacy, and the home environment supports a ‘Constructivist’ analysis of human subjectivity runs counter to certain foundational feminist theorizations of art and gender politics” (Meyer, 2003, p. 89). Constructivism is a theory that posits “we do not discover reality but actively construct the meanings that shape our experience” (Helson, Pals & Solomon 1997, p. 296). Similarly, Ellen Handler Spitz, in her book Art and Psyche: A Study in
Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics (1985), points out that there are discrepancies within the limitations of psychoanalytic theory, and that is why an interdisciplinary method of interpretation can compensate for a lack of objectivity that can accompany any single theory. She claims that the applied psychoanalyst is dependent on relatively fixed data, and “interpretations are bound to be ‘wilder’ more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the countertranserference, more rigid, and more open to attack by the skeptic” (Spitz, 1985, p. 54). Art can serve as a conduit for resolving conflicting energic forces and even further as a medium for expressing “certain things that he/she cannot permit himself to say or do openly” (p. 47). Though art often visually describes psychic disturbances, both on an individual and societal level, it is delimiting to look at art as a sign of psychic dis-ease, to be read as a symptom of pathology. If art is interpreted as an expression of pathology then we might only consider that a mentally unstable artist such as Van Gogh painted frenetic images of what he saw around him, rather than that he painted with such original brilliance and passion, and that his provocative style continues to be admired more than a hundred years later. In support of the importance of looking at the entire context of an artist’s life, Spitz states that we must undertake the demanding work of gathering all the knowledge available regarding the cultural, social, political, and economic history of the artist’s lifetime as well as the stylistic and iconographic traditions of the period. Finally, we must take into account how the interpreter goes about sifting and sorting such material, which Spitz claims “is highly problematic….It can range from a fictive to an almost documentary to a thematic approach….the ultimate purpose of conducting such
research…is to provide a facsimile or context” (Spitz, 1985, p. 51). By studying the biographies of artists, we can ascribe meaning to the content of their artwork. This content is an articulation of the artists’ preoccupations expressed in their art, which may be universalized to describe the collective psychic state of the society within which the artists lived. The research in the psychoanalytic literature is especially enlightening, but it is useful to note the importance of being aware of the weaknesses of a purely psychoanalytic interpretation. The following chapter will focus on perspectives on art in anthropology, art history/criticism and sociology. Cognitive/Physiological Another section of the interpretative model focuses on a cognitive/physiological perspective. Cognition plays a powerful part in how artists express their imaginations in artistic form. Cognitive theorists have also investigated the experience of the viewer and how the viewer’s mind participates in a dialogue between the artist and the audience. Both Freud and Jung believed in the importance of dreams, images, and fantasies as psychologically relevant to the analysis of human consciousness; their investigations provide ample material on how to interpret art, but these theories are incomplete. An inclusion of a cognitive explanation of aesthetics and creative mental processing adds tremendous depth to the study of consciousness and how art reveals psychic content. A cognitive piece of the puzzle in building a model for art interpretation was found in Takahashi’s article in Aesthetic Properties of Pictorial Perception (1995, p. 678). He posits a model of several strands of analysis: cultural context; visual feast for
the eyes, (wherein we must look at stimulus properties and artistic activity); and the pleasure of looking. He includes the psychophysiological concept of arousal—a homeostatic model of motivation and experimental psychology and aesthetics—focusing on the material object and its aesthetic effect in its perception—emphasizing empirically oriented aestheticians. His model also discusses the philosophical psychology of art. This research is emboldening, and it indicates that a movement towards an interdisciplinary analysis of art is gaining momentum. It is useful to note Takahashi’s formulation of an integrative model, and point to additional studies that have been conducted on the cognitive effects of aesthetic perception. In her dissertation on aesthetics, Karyn Smarz (2004) makes an in-depth inquiry into the psychological aspects of aesthetic perception. She states that subversive art that provokes the viewer to reconsider the current social paradigm activates mental processes that are organic to the questioning mind. Since human consciousness is constantly striving to find meaning in the world around us, the visual image serves as a powerfully concrete medium in which to interpret both inner and outer reality. She further notes that art offers a medium for the viewer to resolve the psychic tension created when attempting to understand the content in a work of art. For instance, what mental processes are occurring when a viewer looks at a painting representing social issues that are embarrassing to the establishment? Or as seen in much of contemporary art, what questions are asked when one beholds artistic statements about religion, psychoanalysis, or social conditions. For instance, Andy Warhol’s work is a graphic reminder of the overwhelming presence of material consumption in our lives. According to Smarz, when
viewers attempt to translate the meanings of political art, they become active participants in the construction of reality. The cognitive mental processes involved in viewers’ interpretation of social reality further reveal what a powerful tool art is for provoking an audience to try and understand the environment around them. An especially intriguing exercise is to discover what governs the choices an artist or viewer makes in creating/interpreting art. The possible interplay between how the conscious and unconscious comprehends visual content is a useful avenue of inquiry. Smarz concludes that researchers may not yet know however, the answer to this cognitive dynamic. She claims that it may be impossible, ultimately, to determine which elements of an artwork have been “chosen deliberately or intuitively, which have occurred through sheer chance, and which have forced themselves upon the artist in spite of her conscious intentions” (Smarz, 2004, p. 89). How does the investigator determine for example, what in Jackson Pollack’s mind induced him to decide that dripping paint on the floor would be for him, the purest way of expressing the nature of cosmic spirit? (Tuchman, 1986, p. 49) The interpreter is left with the difficult task of determining what conscious and unconscious decisions, deliberations and chances, expressions, repressions, oppressions, and conventions each played a part in the complex process of producing his great drip paintings. Brain functioning discoveries in cognitive psychology and the assimilation of perception provide one possible formula for understanding how the mind produces, takes in and experiences a work of art. Artists themselves may provide differing explanations for the techniques and processes they use, for instance Jackson Pollack consciously employed the method of automatism, which was a trance-like state induced in order to
channel “the spirit of creation” (p. 49). In this way, a cognitive interpretation can provide an alternative or additional explanation of how the style of dripping paint evolved. Additionally, an image is a material representation of how an artist processes his or her unconscious and surroundings. There has been extensive research into this area and this branch of psychology serves as an important avenue in the interpretation of art. Rose (2004) notes that studies by Humphrey and Pinker suggest that visual stimuli such as art prompts perceptual and affective mechanisms in the brain that originally evolved to classify sensory input and put it into context. According to this cognitive research, the mind finds hedonic value (pleasure) in making sense of certain stimuli and putting it in context with past experience; this then carries into the mind’s compulsion to find meaning in art. An outcome of this mental processing creates a dynamic of communication between an artist and viewer, as each tries to find both a personal and shared understanding of the world as expressed in art: “Effort after meaning also links with the concept of an artwork as a message from the artist that can be received and understood by its audience” (p. 426). The term that describes the mental process of trying to express new ideas or experiences is called endocept. Research into emotions by Averill (1997) gives clarity to this mechanism by describing it as the feeling when one is unable to put into words new emotional experiences. When this occurs, the individual might use other symbolic forms such as poetry, music and painting to express these new feelings. Similar findings on the nature of art as a sensory experience were described in a Canadian master’s thesis by Virginianne (1998). She researched the subject of the
accessibility of abstract art by young people and casual museum-goers, and found that once they understood that an abstract painting could be experienced as an optical “event,” its mysterious forms took on meaning as such. She suggested that when an individual encounters a large abstract canvas in a museum, to stand 25 feet in front of it. After several minutes of gazing, one’s eyes begin to blur and become entranced by the reds and stripes of a Barnett Newman painting, for instance. The experience envelops the viewer in a hypnotic and meditative state, perhaps moving one outside of time and space. Further, a contributor to a 1995 Australian art exhibition of paintings with religious themes provides a poignant description of Robert Motherwell’s abstract painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic. Drawing upon its formal components and articulating spiritual awe when describing the painting, Rosemary Crumlin makes comprehensible the mysterious content of Motherwell’s work: A Motherwell work will not open itself to the passing traveller. It demands time and a willingness to stand open to darkness and mystery. It is meant to be a ritual experience which, even though it makes no physical sound, as music does, is filled with the solemn beats and throbs of its heavy pendulous jet black shapes, its singing, dazzling whites, and the tensions set up by the tracks and traces of colour which shrill their way across the surface or sneak out behind the major themes and tensions set up through the strong dominant shapes. Only then will the viewer be able to answer the call that every elegy offers – to listen to the heart, to hear its call, to remember life and to be ready, too, for death. (Crumlin, 1998, p. 110) The painting described here is one of a series of very similar Elegy paintings by Motherwell. Another example of art experienced cognitively, is seen in Virginianne’s quote of the artist’s intention, which provides insight into understanding an image which, for the
viewer, might contain unfamiliar visual cues for interpretation. And that is what [Barnett] Newman said – “my art is an event” – so basically that means if nothing happened then you have not seen it….The experience is better…. It is more, if they have a perceptual experience. The experience of a Baroque painting is much more intellectual, in the end, because it involves more of a reading and an understanding of the symbolism and the historical context. For example, the orange peel is the symbol of time and an unlit candle on a stack of books is the symbol of what is left after death. (Virginianne, 1998, p. 122) Virginianne also notes that the individual artist creates images that are a reflection of particular psychic types: (a) immitationalist, (b) intellectual formalist, and (c) expressionist: “You have the freedom-loving student (artist) who is the emotionalist, the one who lives by the rules who is the formalist, and then the other one is the intellectual/symbolist, thinker” (Virginianne, 1998, p. 123). The notion of perception determining how art affects the mind physiologically can be considered in light of the evolution of human perception. Virginianne defines this history as follows: Historical: Minimalism in art as the result of historical evolution: A. The western idea that art evolves comes from the patriarchal view of nature and man’s progress, of always having something new and better than before. B. The Renaissance view of art as the “I” “eye”. I see, therefore I have a point of view, where the spectator is a fixed point. C. Cartesian view, “I think, therefore I am”, which brings the view down to thought. Has thinking replaced seeing? D. McLuhan’s “acoustic space” where everyone is at the center of a sphere with different points of view. This view changes when we share an experience like when we all watch the same television program. (Virginianne, 1998, p. 115) Taking a physiological approach at what art reveals about the human mind, Gilbert Rose points to the richness art and poetry offer in describing human perception in contrast to the dry dispassionate style found in scientific literature: “The aseptic language betrays no hint of the perceptual (and emotional) richness contributing to aesthetic ambiguity from
the realm of the preconscious—that still too often overlooked playground of remembered dream and creative fantasy" (Rose, 2004, p. 422). For Rose, the poetry of Rilke and a painting by Vermeer elucidate the subtler emotions that are not as beautifully described by scientific writing. He sees evidence of early ego states not only in the art of the modern era but in the aesthetic ambiguity that often characterizes great art. Vermeer, according to Rose, is especially famous for his aesthetic ambiguity. This ambiguity is expressed in the artist’s ability to capture qualities of intimate light: “Vermeer’s nuanced lighting is both an incitement to preconscious perception and active participatory imagining” (p. 423). Rose is drawing upon both the analysis of the formal aspects of art, and research conducted in neurological perception. He further describes an especially telling component to what art can reveal: states of human emotion. He then points to the window that art provides in understanding the ambiguity of perceived reality and the complex dynamics of brain function. The brain has different cerebral systems that operate according to specific orientations. He cites the linear artwork of Mondrian and Malevich as illustrations of the activity of brain cells that are selective for lines. Similar to Ellen Handler Spitz, Rose also concludes that neurological explanations for how the mind creates art is useful, but “it says little about the power of art to arouse emotionally, or about the relationship between love or eroticism and artistic creativity. All, we might add, are as yet metaneurological” (Rose, 2004, p. 426). In this way, a cognitive interpretation of art is but one facet of a model that reveals the complex forces that imbue artistic creation.
Anthropology, Art History/Criticism, Sociology Continuing with the next useful domain of research that will be included in the interpretive model, this thesis looks at social science disciplines outside of psychology. While sociological and anthropological explanations of art may appear to address the obvious or give superficial readings of art content, they are important and useful to building a more complete story behind what forces influenced a particular artist at a particular time in history. In some cases, a painting may have been deeply embedded in the social context of its period, while in other instances the art contains timeless content. In his review of Henry Glassie’s anthropological study, Material Culture, Hirokazu Miyazaki emphasizes connecting the formal properties in the art object with cultural data from beyond, and how this might aid our interpretation of the act that created the artifact. Employing anthropological research to look at art objects fashioned by various cultures, Miyazaki offers a window of interpretation into several art forms: Whether his subject is Bangladesh water jars, Turkish ornamental plates, or Acoma jars sold to tourists, Glassie focuses on the artist’s enduring commitment to his or her values – the spirituality of Bangladesh potters, the Turkish artists’ use of calligraphic and geometrical religious designs on plates, Japanese potters’ images of the Seven Gods, or Swedish and American artists’ commitment to tradition. (Miyazaki, 2001, p. 332) In this way, a painting can be for the interpreter, like a dream for the psychoanalyst, an Egyptian tomb for the archeologist, a story of power and prestige for the cultural historian, and the depiction of a cosmic law for the religious student. Considering The Balcony by Manet, the art historian Paul O’Neill claims that the current criticism at the time (1980s) reflects its own preoccupations with historicism
rather than an in-depth critique addressing Manet’s personal concerns. An exhaustive interpretation includes descriptions of the historical setting of Manet’s time, and the many other factors that might have governed his consciousness. But the first layer of translation (historical) of an enigmatic work such as Manet’s The Balcon, could be read as an allegory of the artist’s background, the figures in the painting representing “Spain (Berthe Morisot), Japan (Fanny Claus), and the Netherlands(Guillemet)….apart from Morisot’s Andulusian look” (O’Neill, 1983, p. 302). However, this excessively historical reading leaves out many other possible interpretations. Perhaps, the portrait of Berthe Morisot could be read as an expression of Manet’s idealized feminine archetype, (Jung, 1959, p. 179) as we know that Morisot was a friend to Manet and an accomplished artist in her own right (O’Neill, 1983, p. 306). There are eternal universal messages that are infused in the consciousness of artists, yet their experience and environment undoubtedly play an important role in determining what they perceive and create. The aim is to learn how artists see the world around them, using psychoanalysis to read their subjective experiences. While at the same time, representational art depicts the material world around them through a subjective lens. The following research from three divergent social science domains illustrates not only the evolution of their theoretical approaches, but also demonstrates the potential for meaningful insight that they each offer. Please note the contrasting use of language and vocabulary. Ideally, their language would not be homogenized if their research were to be integrated into an interpretive model. Sociological interpretation of a landscape painting:
Middle-class identity in the Victorian period in the United States was a network of values defined by Protestant piety, domesticity, genteel decorum, and confidence in the natural status of bourgeois social institutions such as the family. Within this social environment, aesthetic motives were hygienically separated from utilitarian ambitions. The result was a two-tiered approach in which the generative forces of material life – technology, agriculture and industrial production, and labour of all sorts – were quarantined off from the realm of culture and aesthetic uplift. History painting, premised upon lofty sentiment and heroic rhetoric, held a high place on the scale; genres requiring not acts of intellectual synthesis but more purely executive ability – still life, portraiture, and painting of animals – were ranked correspondingly lower in the hierarchy. (Miller, 1998, p. 342) Anthropological interpretation of Indonesian art: Gregory Bateson, in analyzing the compositional structure of a Balinese painting of a cremation procession, used a communication model. He declared that art was fundamentally part of man’s search for grace, borrowing from Aldous Huxley this term to indicate naïve simplicity or lack of self-consciousness and deceit, a fundamental integration of the self. His central question was: in what form is information about psychic integration, the union of head and heart, contained or coded in the work of art?….He saw the art code, then, as an exercise in communicating about the unconscious, a skilled message about the interface between conscious and unconscious thinking. (Firth, 1994, p. 16) This particular example supports the possibility of both a transcendental dimension to art and that a painting can be read as a spiritual message through visual code.
Anthropological analysis with an integration of a psychological approach: Much modern anthropology of art has been concerned not only with explicit but also with implicit meanings – relationships which the people themselves do not, possibly cannot, formulate in words, but which are of prime importance for an understanding of the origin and maintenance of their art. One general theory of symbolic behaviour, including the creation of things classified as art, assumes the existence and operation of psychological processes of which the persons concerned are quite unaware in any conscious sense. To unravel the meaning of many symbols in exotic art, then, demands complicated, subtle analysis, which includes study of the symbols as a system, in relation to one another through total art field and in relation also to the more general iconography of the society. (Firth, 1994, p. 17) Art historical interpretation: Rudolf Wittkower in his “Interpretation of Visual Symbols” distinguishes usefully between four levels of meaning: the literal representational, the literal thematic, the multiple meaning, and the expressive meaning. The last, Wittkower states, is obviously the central problem of art and the history of art. Historians, however, are no less interested in all four levels of meaning. They do not limit themselves to using art to document fact but want to understand art on the other three levels as well, above all on the level of expressive meaning, which encompasses the whole mysterious complex of taste and the aesthetic impulse in artists and their audience. (Freedberg & DeVries, 1991, p. 221) Formalist/ Structuralist Moving on with the exploration of the literature from the relevant disciplines, an interpretation of an artwork’s formal elements is critical to our inquiry. To provide an analogy, the investigator gains a great deal of information about the human organism by analyzing the shape and structure of the heart, seeing that it is made of flesh and beats to a rhythmic pulse. Considering its form does not lead however, to an understanding of its capacity to feel the emotion of love, for example. But an anatomical examination does provide useful information and possibly allude to the heart’s unknown meaningful capacities. Form and structure in a work of art correspond to and evoke particular
emotional responses. Rosemary Crumlin (1998) points to the familiar experience of feeling inspired by moving music and architecture, of how music can induce us to weep or jump up and dance; how we can feel warm and intimate in some structural spaces or hallowed and uplifted in others. What occurs in these instances is that we are responding to the sign systems of color, line, representation and expression that characterize a work of art. (p. 98) The inception of alternative theories in criticism was especially evident when the idea of image as an object became popular. Social context or the psychological state of the artist was pushed aside and only the formal components of the image itself were considered. This movement occurred in the 1930s and 1940s during the same decades in which the major ego psychologists began to publish their contributions to psychoanalytic theory. Spitz (1985) claims that the emergence of the focus on art entirely as an object came about as a response to the challenging art of European modernism. Cubism, Futurism and later Abstract Expressionism, required the “viewer to look at rather than through, to see form rather than to read narrative or symbol” (p. 100). What is regrettable, is that there evolved out of these opposing schools of thought the need to have one supersede the other. Perhaps formalism and a psychoanalytic approach could offer coexisting insight. The next section focuses however, on analyzing the formal elements of a picture. Karen Stone (2003) addresses the religious significance of art, and includes clarifying definitions of pictorial formal elements and how they underpin the meaning of an image’s content. The definitions included in her book provide invaluable guidance for our inquiry here, and for the student or museum-goer unfamiliar with the technical elements of art interpretation. The author delineates several terms such as shape, line and
texture, which are points of reference to be considered when looking at a work of art. For a complete list of the definitions of the elements, please see her excellent and thorough book, Image and Spirit (2003). Her guide for the analysis of formal elements is an invaluable tool for a more informed understanding of an image, and how the structure of the pictorial elements reveal meaning about the artist’s emotions and psychic states. Transcendental Useful to the understanding of consciousness, an especially enlightening exercise is to apply a spiritual interpretation to art. Research indicates that abstract art offered a new visual vocabulary for articulating transcendental themes. Abstract Expressionism was a movement in art that began around the turn of the 19th century, with its inception by the Russian artist Kandinsky, and flourished in New York for several decades until about the 1950s. Abstract paintings are a rich source for interpretation for they can be read on two levels, the psychological state of the individual artist, and the spiritual, which was the intended meaning of many of the Abstract Expressionists (Tuchman, 1986). Jung, the first theorist to use the term transpersonal (A. Combs, personal communication, June 5, 2006) stated that the unconscious transcendental message is the most important function of art: “What is essential in a work of art is that it should rise above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet (painter) as a man to the spirit and heart of mankind” (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 517). Jung explained the importance of spiritual art in his essay Psychology and Literature, Whenever the collective unconscious becomes a living experience and is brought to bear upon the conscious outlook of an age, this event is a creative act which is of importance to everyone living in that age. A work of art is produced that
contains what may truthfully be called a message to generations of men. (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 516) By analyzing a specific art object, both the microcosmic attributes of the human mind, and the collective’s spiritual aspirations become apparent, just as Jung’s dreams served both. The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 (Tuchman, 1986) is a book that encapsulates the significance of abstract art, namely that the mysterious non-representational shapes are a new language for revealing the spiritual dimension. Taking the ideas of various thinkers in The Spiritual in Art it is useful to draw parallels to the philosophical essays and art criticism found in the anthology, Art and Its Significance by Steven Ross, (1994). Though humanity’s self-concept has evolved from a shared consciousness with the group or tribe, (magic-animistic), to the present day sense of individual alienation, what is remarkable about the ideas that infused the work of the Abstract Expressionists is that their art expresses the Buddhist concept of an underlying cosmic unity. Plato, in the Symposium, describes the nature of love and beauty as being absolute, and that the “ideal” could be the unity conceived of in Buddhism, once one sees beyond the world of illusion or maya: but what if man had eyes to see the true beauty—the divine beauty, I mean, pure and clear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colors and vanities of human life-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? (Plato as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 63) Abstract art is a useful language for describing timeless notions about a universal
unity. Virginianne (1998) makes an apt analogy between viewing abstract art and listening to music. She states that “music without lyrics allows the mind to wander off into imaginary realms” (p. 89). In a similar way, an abstract painting allows viewers’ imaginations to consider divergent interpretations of its content. The abstract art movement that began just before the 1900s was a departure from art history’s enduring description of human consciousness through the representation of the world of objects. After centuries of Western Christian iconography, portraiture and landscapes, humanity is introduced to what is possibly a new dimension (Henderson, 1986). Some thinkers consider this alternate reality a sudden jump in consciousness to a higher level in human spiritual evolution (Tuchman, 1986). It has been found that many of the abstract expressionist artists had explored and studied the occult, spirituality and Eastern thought and were highly conscious of these ideas when executing their paintings. Discussed below are paintings that illustrate or evoke some of these mystical and occult concepts. The artist as shaman or spiritual translator can be seen in the artist Gottleib’s statement: The role of the artist, of course, has always been of image maker. Different times require different images. Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil…our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. (Tuchman, 1986, p. 50) For Jung, art serves as a sweeping and powerful force that tells the visual story of human consciousness, just as literature narrates humankind’s myths, art tells the story of the past,
present, and future in a pictorial language. Further, the visual myths in art are not merely the description of historical events but, what is essential in a work of art is that it should rise far above the realm of personal life and speak from the spirit and heart of the poet as a man to the spirit and heart of mankind. (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 517) When humanity is psychologically alienated from our spiritual center or the cosmic unity, Jung claims art will: attempt to replace reality by fiction, being unsatisfactory, must be repeated in a long series of creative embodiments. This would explain the proliferation of imaginative forms, all monstrous, demonic, grotesque and perverse. On the one hand they are substitutes for the unacceptable experience, and on the other they help to conceal it. (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 512) Art serves the psychological purpose of acting as a compensatory outlet allowing the mind to grapple with the overwhelming forces that arise both internally and externally. Psychological theorist Kris advanced the concept of “regression in the service of ego,” which is a defense mechanism that gives a structural definition of artistic creativity. Kris posits that there is a boundary between mature, reality-oriented secondary process thinking and the pre-logical, primary process thinking seen in dreams. McCrae and Costa in their essay Conceptions and Correlates of Openness to Experience (1997), explain Kris’ concept further: Primary process thinking is the source of creativity: the conventional associations between ideas and images are temporarily abandoned, leaving the mind free to try new associations. The artist then returns to secondary process thinking to select the useful products of this freer association and adapt them to the requirements of reality. (p. 837) The pre-logical process thinking may be the domain of archetypal, collective and spiritual ideas and what informs the non-objective shapes in abstract art. This research is one possible explanation of the source of artistic visions. Some artists would argue that a
creative act is not the “product of crude untransformed drive affects” claimed by Kris, (Runco & Richards, 1990, p. 304) but their expression of the transcendental consciousness. This is evident in a statement made by the abstract painter, Barnett Newman: The present painter is concerned not with his own feelings or with the mystery of his own personality but with the penetration into the world mystery. His imagination is therefore attempting to dig into the metaphysical secrets. To that extent his art is concerned with the sublime. It is a religious art which through symbols will catch the basic truth of life….The artist tries to wrest truth from the void. (Barnett as cited in Tuchman, 1986, p. 49) Speaking from my own experience as an artist, I feel I am a channel for creativity and that what I paint is more than my own ideas about my subjectively perceived world. I deliberately paint using a stream of consciousness technique as I hope to be open to ideas beyond my personal perspective. Explorations about the roots of pre-logical thinking and the history of human conscious and how consciousness is signified in abstract pictorial form can be found in Allan Comb’s fascinating book The Radiance of Being (2002). Combs theorizes that the human mind, developing as it has from the reptilian brain, has evolved through several worldviews: magic-animistic, mythic, mental, existential, subtle, causal, culminating with our present capacity to possibly draw upon all of these outlooks simultaneously: accessing the integral consciousness. In this way, by interpreting art through as many perspectives as possible, we are perhaps experiencing the integral consciousness. Additional inquiries into the spiritual significance of art is evident in several art movements’ exploration of ineffable ideas about the cosmic beyond. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity shares striking similarities to the possibility of alternate realities and points of
view. Picasso’s Cubist paintings describe the idea of looking at an object from many angles simultaneously (Moritz as cited in Tuchman, 1986, p. 302). Linda Dalrymple Henderson, in her essay, Mysticism, Romanticism and the Fourth Dimension, explains that the abstract art created at the turn of the century was describing newly discovered ideas about space and time: Only in the twentieth century would abstract artists like Malevich and Theo van Doesburg, inspired by Hinton’s and Ouspensky’s writings on the fourth dimension, succeed in depicting a gravity-free, directionless space….Apollinaire commented that the Cubist painters “live in the anticipation of a sublime art” and that ‘contemporary art, even if it does not directly stem from specific religious beliefs, nonetheless possesses some of the characteristics of great, that is to say religious art. (Dalrymple as cited in Tuchman, 1986, p. 220) By interpreting the work and studying the beliefs of the abstract artists, one can discover if the formal aspects of their images only allude to cosmic ideas and states of human consciousness, or if they are in fact the actual spiritual message in visual form. Jung believed artistic visions describe actual psychic states: The vision is not something derived or secondary, and it is not a symptom of something else. It is true symbolic expression—that is, the expression of something existent in its own right, but imperfectly known. The love-episode is a real experience really suffered, and the same statement applies to the vision. We need not try to determine whether the content of the vision is of a physical, psychic or metaphysical nature. In itself it has psychic reality, and this is no less than physical reality. (Jung as cited in Ross, 1994, p. 513) The occult symbols of some abstract art provide a window into understanding the human psyche and the cosmic principles governing the universe. Symbolist paintings directly addressed these issues and were explored by artists and poets who were part of the Symbolist movement. Maurice Tuchman, in his essay Hidden Meanings in Abstract Art (1986, pp. 17-57) analyzes the concept of synthesthesia which is the combining of
experienced physical states. The Symbolist artists believed this was a manifestation of a cosmic law. They were intrigued with the possibility of intermingling senses and more specifically with painting’s approximating music. Statements of meaning by artists are especially moving, for if they are able to articulate the deeper significance of their work than we can gain even more insight into the infinite conscious potential of the universe. For instance, the Symbolist painters were interested in laws of duality and correspondences. (p. 124). The French poet Baudelaire shared, with the other artists of the Symbolist movement, a fascination with limitless space. He saw his poetry and the art of Delacroix as mediums for projecting their ideas onto other minds (Tuchman, 1986, p. 17). Tuchman also analyzed the shapes and content of specific works and provides definitions for their formal elements. For instance, according to ancient occult spiritual doctrine, complementary/contrasting colors and simplified or straight, or quietly undulating vertical or horizontal lines signify spiritual purity. He interprets Mondrian’s painting, Woods Near Oele, 1908 as an illustration of male-female polarity, which is symbolized as opposing vertical and horizontal lines. There is documentation that in 1909, Mondrian became a member of the Dutch chapter of the Theosophical Society, so he would likely have been aware of occult theories on the divine relationship between the male and female forces in the universe and how their union brings about a communion with the underlying cosmic spirit. For instance, the mysterious color paintings of Mark Rothko are akin to the altar pieces of medieval art. Perhaps Rothko has distilled an image down to describing the essence of the universe.
Art reveals many other levels of the human experience. A remarkably high proportion of abstract art expresses the conscious exploration by the artists of ideas about the cosmic and metaphysical. Their interest in myth and primeval art revealed not only a desire to understand the roots of human consciousness, but to illustrate that these ideas are alive and timeless. The artists Gottleib and Rothko discussed this in a 1943 radio broadcast. Gottleib proclaimed that: [t]hose who think that the world of today is more gentle and graceful than the primeval and predatory passions from which these myths spring, are either not aware of reality or do not wish to see it in art. The myth holds us, therefore, not through its romantic flavor, not through the remembrance of the beauty of some bygone age, not through the possibilities of fantasy, but because it expresses to us something real and existing in ourselves. (Gottlieb & Rothko, 1943) The artist Barnett Newman articulates the goals of the abstract art movement and its fascination with American Indian art and a connection to universal mythic themes. The abstract artists are possibly expressing a call for humanity to rediscover the spiritual dimension, lost with the eclipse of religious faith by Western materialism: Barnett Newman established the grounds for defending abstract art: “There is in these [Northwest Coast] works to all those who assume that modern abstract art is the esoteric exercise of a snobbish elite, for among these simple peoples, abstract art was the normal, wellunderstood, dominant tradition.” He stressed that an awareness of Northwest Coast art illuminates “the works of those of our modern American abstract artists who, working with the pure plastic language we call abstract, are infusing it with intellectual and emotional content, and who….are creating a living myth for us in our own time.” (Tuchman, 1986, p. 49) Transcendental meaning in abstract art is fascinating. The writings and research on abstract art demonstrate that the forms in this art have a far more profound significance than one might initially realize.
Summary and Review of the Model: A Walk-Through A model translated into an “art concept wheel” could provide a guide in reading an inscrutable abstract painting found in a museum. Below is a description of how to read an artwork using a “general” version of the art wheel. An example of a general model:
Figure 1. Art Wheel: General version
(Because the wheel is in a circle, the procedure for taking the steps may not follow the order described below.) Referring to the wheel, the art viewer would first learn that an image consists of several components. This initial step would involve focusing on the artwork’s formal elements such as color, paint textures and shapes. The wheel would cite examples of the significance of certain colors; for example, blue in art usually symbolizes spirituality. The second step would entail finding out when a painting was created and if it was part of a particular art movement. If the work of art was an abstract painting by Robert Motherwell for instance, then a brief biographical description on the wheel would state that many of the abstract artists were interested in transcendentalism and theosophy and were attempting to depart from academic art’s focus on painting technique and validating the European social order. Similarly, if one were to visit a museum in Amsterdam, and stood before a masterpiece by Vermeer, the art wheel’s history (social sciences) section would be helpful in interpreting a painting of figures depicted in an historical scene. Though too lengthy to be printed on the wheel, to cite an example of a critique of representational art, Leo Bogart (2003) states that much can be learned about human behavior from an anthropological, historical and sociological reading of a group portrait, mythological, history or religious painting. Looking at the content of a painting as a unified whole and taking note of what the figures in a pictorial scene are wearing, reveals the changing styles, subjects, themes, settings, costumes and furnishings which can provide the historian or interpreter with invaluable evidence of living patterns, preoccupations, belief systems, social class structures, and gender roles. Even more interestingly, Bogart points
out that the way in which the artists describe the details of their day documents the role they are taking on in “relation to those who are painted: reverent worshipper, dispassionate or ironical observer, savage satirist, shameless toadying publicist, authorized recorder of history from the official point of view” (Bogart, 2003, p. 199). After becoming familiar with the historical context of a painting, the third step in the wheel’s process would be to read the section that provides a brief description of cognitive theories on art interpretation. For instance, a short paragraph on the hedonic value of looking at art would tell the viewer that the brain automatically finds pleasure in finding meaning in art. The fourth topic that is included in the wheel would point out that art, especially abstract and medieval religious art, describes human spirituality and that a circular shape or halo in a painting symbolizes the principle of cosmic unity. A paragraph discussing transcendental/spiritual concepts would be included in this “slice” of the art wheel. Finally, the fifth step in the process of the wheel’s interpretation would be to consider a Freudian approach. The wheel would include a short description of Freud’s key theories citing a summary of Kuspit’s analysis of Manet’s Balcony painting as an example for the viewer to read. As a tool or model for art interpretation, each section of the wheel provides the viewer with conceptual guidelines for thinking about an image’s possible meanings. Using the wheel, a person discovering how informing art can be, might be inspired to contemplate and draw conclusions about the evolution of human consciousness and also identify with content in the art. For instance, one might have Dutch ancestry and a Vermeer painting may provide clues to one’s family history. Finally,
noted in each slice of the wheel would be an article or book as a reference if the viewer wished to investigate the topic further.Below is an example of an art wheel that describes a particular painting, The Balcony by Manet:
Figure 2. Art Wheel: The Balcony, by Manet
Discussion Clinical Applications Finding psychological content in art has implications for the clinical setting. In looking at the departments and courses offered at many psychology institutions, the study of art is not emphasized as an avenue for consciousness research. A specific application for art research to the practice of clinical psychology is found in the insight offered by the model. If psychiatrists consider both the verbal statements and dreams of clients in order to discover information about their psyches, art could also serve as a window into understanding human consciousness and could assist the field of psychology in comprehending the complexity of the human mind. Educational Applications The wheel could be brought into the school environment to teach art appreciation and as a tool for evaluating art in the public sphere, such as a museum or gallery. Though this is a theoretical study, with funding and marketing, the proposed model could be manufactured into an “art concept wheel” and distributed to schools, museums and galleries. Steve Pritzker had the exciting idea that art wheels could be customized to the individual works of the permanent collections of museums (S. Pritzker, personal communication, May 15, 2006).
Conclusion While visiting a museum or gallery and gazing at a work of art, it might be tempting for the viewer to make a quick assessment of its subject matter and move on to the next painting. An audience might not have the time, energy or inclination to ponder deeply its many layers of meaning. Using a model for interpreting art through the study of social science research is a possible avenue for gaining a richer understanding of an artwork. If the interpreter is familiar with the perspectives of history, art criticism, the various psychological theories and anthropology, he or she is better equipped to see what art conveys about both the individual artist and humanity/society as a whole. Continued research will hopefully lead to new methodologies and avenues of study for a psychological interpretation of art.
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Appendix Images of artworks discussed in this paper, available on the Internet.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34 by Robert Motherwell, 1958, Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 80” x 100”, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.
Adam by Barnett Newman, 1951-52, Oil on canvas, 2429 x 2029 mm, Tate Gallery, London.
Untitled by Athena Taylor, 1998, Oil on canvas, 31/2’ x 5’, Collection of artist.
Untitled, 1949 by Mark Rothko, 1949, Oil on canvas, unknown dimensions, Collection Kate Rothko Prizel.
The Balcony by Edouard Manet, 1868-69, Oil on canvas, 66 1/2” x 49 1/4”, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Olympia by Edouard Manet, 1863, Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 190 cm (51 3/8 x 74 3/4 in) Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
The Art of Painting by Johannes Vermeer, 1666, Oil on Canvas, 130 x 110 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
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