Aesthetica Preprint, 32 (August 1991)

Lucia Pizzo Russo, Defining Psychology of art

Ever since it became a science in the late nineteenth century, psychology has shown a major interest in art. Yet despite the promising start, subsequent development was not a kind to the psychology of art. Despite various endeavours, it has never succeeded in achieving scientific dignity but has been relegated to a small space, generally little frequented or misinterpreted, sometimes even considered illegitimate, or at any rate as a locus of mere application in which pure psychological knowledge can not be elaborated. By contrast, in contemporary culture the need for a psychological approach to the problems of art has repeatedly been expressed by art historians, theoreticians and critics.
Today, in practice, it is as if psychology and psychology of the arts moved in two different directions. The specification "of the arts", which should define a sector of psychology, serves instead to marginalize one side the research strategies implicit in the psychological study of art. On the contrary, the author of this paper, attributing great value to the potential for innovation that the arts can bring to the study of the cognitive processes, and to the educational areas that these processes help to develop, investigates the reasons that have inhibited the development of the psychology of art.
Jean Piaget, whose work is seen as the most rigorous and attentive example of the fundamental strategies of psychological research, and Rudolf Arnheim, the solitary champion of a theory of the cognitive processes which is an alternative to the dominant one, are the psychologists through whom the investigation is carried out. Perceptive illusions, the delight of psychology and the gravestone of the psychological study of art, are the starting point for the analysis of perception and knowledge, themes used for comparing the two scholars. The main questions to which an answer is sought are: Why does scientific psychology take art as its object right from its so-called "prehistory? What are the reasons that have prevented its development? If psychology, when it studies the cognitive processes of artistic endeavour, is called psychology of art, what sort of psychology is it when it does not deal with art?