In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psychology of Art and Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Models and General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Composition and Pictoral Balance
  • Composition and the Human Visual System
  • The Golden Section
  • Interpretive Information, Search for Meaning, and Aesthetic Judgments
  • Art-Related Background Knowledge
  • Development and Personality Differences
  • Aesthetic Emotions
  • Neuroaesthetics
  • Evolutionary Aesthetics
  • Psychology of Photography
  • The Museum Experience
  • Education, Society, and Culture

Psychology Psychology of Art and Aesthetics
Pablo Tinio, Jeffrey Smith
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 November 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0002


The psychology of art and aesthetics is the study of the perception and experience of the visual arts, music, film, performances, literature, design, and the environment. Art is a human phenomenon, and therefore aesthetics is fundamentally a psychological process. Psychological aesthetics evolved from the study of aesthetics by philosophers such as Baumgarten and Kant. It was Gustav T. Fechner (see Foundational Works) who took aesthetics out of the realm of contemplative musings by developing rigorous procedures for studying the arts. He subjected beliefs derived from philosophical work, such as the golden section, to empirical investigation. Researchers address a multitude of psychological topics such as visual and auditory perception, knowledge and memory, and preferences and emotion, using a variety of approaches, from experimental and physiological methodologies to qualitative analyses and state-of-the-art imaging techniques. Furthermore, aesthetics researchers compare art experts to novices, develop models of aesthetic reactions to works of art, and look at how people perceive art in museum settings. Although aesthetics has traditionally been closely tied to beauty, research today encompasses those works of art that elicit negative reactions and even those that are intended to offend. The literature included in this article focuses on classic texts that have proposed an original theory, concept, or debate related to the psychology of arts and aesthetics as well as more recent works that have attempted to revisit prior work and stimulate current debates. The order of presentation is based more on the similarity (or contrast) among the various sources and on the progression of ideas than on a strict chronology. The first section presents the foundational readings. This is followed by articles that provide general overviews and present formal models integrating the many aspects of the psychology of art and aesthetics. Basic features of art-related stimuli and mediators of the aesthetic experience are then examined. The next broad sections describe literature on the search for meaning during aesthetic experiences, the influence of personal characteristics such as art expertise and personality on the perception and interpretation of art, and the experience of aesthetic emotions. Descriptions of three emerging areas in psychological aesthetics, namely, neuroaesthetics, evolutionary aesthetics, the psychology of photography, and museum research follow these sections. Finally, psychological aesthetics in the context of education and culture is presented.

Foundational Works

This section examines foundational literature reflecting the history and contemporary state of the psychology of art and aesthetics. Fechner 1876 is often associated with the founding of the psychology of art and aesthetics. It served as a catalyst for the works of future scholars, such as Arnheim 1954, which situates the study of aesthetics within the context of Gestalt psychology, and Gombrich 1960, which considers aesthetics within the context of general psychology. Berlyne 1971 and Kreitler and Kreitler 1972 are seminal works that revived the field in the 1970s by generating numerous testable hypotheses, especially those concerning features inherent in the stimulus. From this period, research in the psychology of aesthetics grew in terms of both the number of researchers investigating the area as well as the definitions of the phrase “psychology of aesthetics” and what is studied under its rubric. Winner 1982 and Solso 1994 reflect the scholarship that has been undertaken in research carried out during the 20th century. Locher, et al. 2006 links scholarship before and after the turn of the 20th century. Tinio and Smith 2014 presents an introduction to the field and is a broad representation of the current issues and future directions of the psychology of art and aesthetics.

  • Arnheim, R. 1954. Art and visual perception. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Lays the foundation for his Gestalt psychology of art. It focuses on how the meaning and expressiveness of an artwork are derived from its compositional structure and the dynamic interactions among the various features. Thus, even the most complex of experiences ultimately stems from the configuration of compositional elements.

  • Berlyne, D. E. 1971. Aesthetics and psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

    The book presents Berlyne’s most important ideas, such as how psychological phenomena, including aesthetic responses, are founded on physiological processes, of which arousal is a central process. Berlyne introduces his concept of “collative variables,” which refers to stimulus properties that influence arousal and which, in turn, influence the hedonic value of the stimulus.

  • Fechner, G. T. 1876. Vorschule der Ästhetik. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel.

    This work marked the transition from the philosophical approach to aesthetics to the more experimental approach. Fechner ushered in not only a completely new approach to conceptualizing aesthetics, but also, drawing heavily on his psychophysics background, he introduced new quantitative methodologies that provided greater experimental control for studying aesthetics issues.

  • Gombrich, E. H. 1960. Art and illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Gombrich explicitly conveys the importance of psychology in the study of aesthetics and the arts, especially visual arts. The author delves into longstanding issues such as the role of imitation of nature in art. Gombrich claims that artists create by using what they know and then compare this creation to what they see.

  • Kreitler, H., and S. Kreitler. 1972. Psychology of the arts. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    Kreitler and Kreitler present a cognitive theory of aesthetics based on the idea that a stimulus such as an artwork—visual arts, poetry, dance, and architecture—and the structure of and characteristics of its corresponding components stimulate certain cognitive processes that produce an art experience.

  • Locher, P., C. Martindale, and L. Dorfman. 2006. New directions in aesthetics, creativity, and the arts. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

    This book covers the aesthetics of visual arts; creativity; the cognitive psychology of music, literature, and visual arts; and the influence of affect and personality on creativity and aesthetic experience. This is a great introduction into the field.

  • Solso, R. L. 1994. Cognition and the visual arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

    Provides an introduction to the cognitive psychology of the visual arts using research from vision science, psychophysiology, neuroscience, and neural network modeling. Addresses phenomena such as figure-ground, perceived contrast, visual ambiguities, illusions, and visual perspective as well as observer-related factors such as memory and expertise in arts.

  • Tinio, P. P. L., and J. K. Smith. 2014. The Cambridge handbook of the psychology of aesthetics and the arts. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This foundational work provides an excellent overview of the current issues and future directions of the psychology of art and aesthetics. Topics include: concepts, theories, and methods; perspectives and approaches to art and aesthetics; objects and media under examination; and contemporary issues and debates.

  • Winner, E. 1982. Invented worlds: The psychology of the arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Winner considers both sides of the topic, from the creation of art to its perception, and the book encompasses visual arts, music, literature, and poetry. Topics are explored from multiple perspectives. For example, the chapter on the audience or perceiver of art includes the perspectives of Freud, Fechner, Berlyne, and Eysenck.

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