Art and Identity: Essays on the Aesthetic Creation of Mind

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These works will not allow us to infer the mind of the human artist. Can we do this for abstract art?

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And, if so, can this help us distinguish art by great abstract expressionists from superficially similar art by children and animals? Tension between those who revere and those who deride abstract art can be seen even among the most highly regarded art historians. Contrast this to the attitude of the late American art historian Kirk Varnedoe, who was chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art from to They represent a series of deliberate choices by the artist, and involve invention and evoke meanings — for example, energy, space, depth, repetition, serenity, discord.

Goodman’s Aesthetics

Chimps, monkeys and elephants have all been given paints, brushes and paper on which to make marks. And their paintings, like those of preschoolers, bear a superficial resemblance to abstract expressionist paintings. We wanted to find out whether people see more than they think they do in abstract art — whether they can see the mind behind the work.

We created pairs of images that looked eerily alike at first glance. Each pair consisted of a painting by a famous abstract expressionist whose works were found in at least one major art-history textbook eg, Mark Rothko, Hans Hofmann, Sam Francis, Cy Twombly, Franz Kline and others and a painting either by a child or a nonhuman animal chimp, gorilla, monkey or elephant.

The question we asked was whether people would prefer, and judge as better, works by artists over works by children and animals. And, if so, on what basis?

Aesthetics Philosophy of the Arts

People see more than they think in abstract art — they see the mind behind the work. For both the like and the better questions, participants selected the works by artists at an above-chance level. And when our respondents chose a work by an artist as better or preferred , they often explained their choice by referring to the mind behind the work, saying that it looked more thought-out, intentional and planned. We have repeated this experiment in different ways — for example, presenting the works one at a time rather than in pairs, and asking which is by the artist vs the child or animal — and we find that, overall, people are correct about two-thirds of the time, a rate that is significantly above chance responding.

Most importantly, when we asked people to rate each image on the dimension of perceived intentionality without telling them that some were by children and animals , we found that those by artists received significantly higher intentionality ratings.

Art and Identity - Full publication list

What this shows is that we evaluate abstract art by inferring rightly or wrongly the mind behind the art. Just as we evaluate an original as better than a forgery because we infer the mind of the original master behind the original work. It is indeed plausible to assume that reading particular works of literature about particular kinds of injustices might arouse in us feelings of empathy, not just for the characters, but also for real individuals who might be in the same kinds of situations as the fictional ones.

This is a view that is often promulgated, but rarely with evidence. Where better to step into the shoes of another than with works of literature, where we can meet a wide variety of people, all so different from ourselves? Not all would agree. After leaving the fictional world, have we paid our empathy dues?

In one study , after reading a story about an injustice committed against an Arab-Muslim woman, participants were less likely to categorise angry ambiguous-race faces as Arab. But did this translate into kinder behaviour? This was not examined. In another study , after reading an excerpt from Harry Potter about stigma, children reported more positive attitudes about immigrant children at their school.

But note that this change of mind or heart occurred only for children who identified with Harry, and only after a discussion of the reading with their teacher — and this might have been the deciding factor. Meanwhile, after reading a story about a character behaving prosocially, participants were more willing to help the experimenter pick up accidentally dropped pens.

But note that picking up dropped pens is very low-cost helping, and we have no idea how long such an inclination to help lasts. If we just go by the studies carried out so far, I would have to come down on the side of the skeptics. These near-transfer connections are not particularly generalisable to actual literature, since most literature does not carry a moral lesson. And yet, I am not ready to conclude that there might be no link between reading certain works of literature and becoming more empathic.

I make here a plea for more and better research on the effects of literature on compassion.

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Great literature allows us to get inside the lives of people we would never meet in real life. I would wager that if we could do the study right, we could show that reading Dickens not only makes us feel what it is like to be a penniless, hungry and unjustly treated child, but also more likely to help children in such conditions too — if the opportunity to help presents itself.


Here we see the cruel effects of injustice and the potential life-giving results of kindness. Might this make a judge more likely to be lenient in sentencing certain kinds of crimes? No one would claim that there is a necessary link between reading Dickens and Hugo, and compassion for the poor and outrage at injustice.

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  • View all copies of this ISBN edition:. Synopsis About this title Art has the capacity to shape and alter our identities.

    Art and Identity: Essays on the Aesthetic Creation of Mind

    About the Author : Tone Roald is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen, where she also obtained her Ph. Review : "Art and Identity" is a book any scholar working the field of art or psychology should read. Buy New Learn more about this copy. Customers who bought this item also bought. Stock Image. New Paperback Quantity Available: Don't have an account? This chapter attempts to explain why those to whom art matters should be interested in what philosophers have had to say about art and aesthetic experience. The chapter begins with general reflections on the relations between art and philosophy, but turns soon to the task of identifying a distinctive theme of aesthetic theory in the past fifty years, acknowledgment of which is arguably crucial to the proper appreciation and understanding of art.

    The theme identified and then elaborated on in the remainder of the chapter is labeled aesthetic contextualism. The central idea of aesthetic contextualism is this: a work of art is an artifact of a special sort, an object that is the product of human invention at a particular time and place, an essentially historically embedded object, that has neither art status, nor determinate identity, nor aesthetic character, nor definite significance, apart from the cultural context in which the work is created and through which it is constituted.

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