What does it mean to be artistic? To what extent is it learned? For many, art is meant to instill a myriad of emotions in the beholder, such as beauty, awe, surprise, sadness, anger, and even disgust. Some artworks generate feelings rather quickly, while others depend on elaborate thought and knowledge. Actually, our response to art always depends on what we know—which includes factual knowledge about the world, cultural knowledge, knowledge gained from personal experiences, and even knowledge about the art process itself. In Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder, I explored the psychological processes involved when we invite an aesthetic experience and offerred the I-SKE model, which implicates four essential features of our aesthetic response to art: the artist's intention to offer a work for aesthetic appreciation, and three components that drive the beholder's experience: sensation, knowledge, and emotion.
Part of my interest in aesthetics evolved from my own explorations in the art of photography. When I was a teenager my father bought me a Nikon camera and several lenses. I enrolled in a photography course in high school, and during my senior year I landed a job at a camera store. As might be expected, I put most of my earnings back into the cash register. I built a small darkroom in our spare bathroom and reveled in the art of black-and-white photography. This venture sparked an interest in art history, and in college I took an introductory course on the topic. With the demands of graduate school and an engaging academic career, my interest in photography and art waned. In my 40s, however, I rejuvenated my interest both in art and photography by taking photography workshops in the summer and teaching a freshman seminar on the "Psychology of Art" during the academic year.
Photography offers for me an opportunity to explore the creative process as well as a way of examining how viewers respond to artworks. People vary with respect to the images they like, and sometimes their reasons for liking one is unexpected. As one who tries to create "art" it is of course satisfying when an image elicits strong feelings. One person was particularly moved by "Graceful Aging" because it reminded her of her recently deceased mother as it elicited a sense of sadness and beauty at the same time.
With respect to the role that knowledge plays in experiencing art, I find it interesting how every picture tells a story. The story may be about the human condition, about our society's plight, about the artist's personal experiences, or even about art itself. As beholders, we share in a story told by the artist. In "Subway Stories, New York" viewer may imagine the stories that underlie the individuals in the scene.
As my primary research program involves the study of human memory, I find it particularly interesting how art reminds us of the past and how we apply our own experiences and recollections to interpret artworks. Titles often act as a vehicle to the artist's intention. With "Broken Memories," I wanted the image, which first appears as an abstraction of colors and shapes, to also represent the feelings behind objects that were once a part of someone's life.
In my explorations of the psychology of aesthetics—both in terms of my photography and scholarly ventures—I have come to appreciate that our art experience is a whole-brain issue, and as the I-SKE model suggests, we must consider how an artwork drives all three components of this experience: sensation, knowledge, and emotion. For artists and the creative process, it may be worthwhile to consider this model as well, as it seems that artworks work best when they amplify all three components in the beholder.