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New sciences of art

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The objects of aesthetics are also approached by certain new disciplines of the human and social sciences, thus enriching the search for new theoretical and methodological approaches.

Aesthetic sociology

Gustave Courbet: L'Origine du monde(Two viewers of art, at the Musée d’Orsay. Gustave Courbet: L’Origine du monde)

As an extension of the cultural history of the 19th century, the social history of art studies the collective forces at work in art. Opposed to philosophical idealism, this sociology is initially influenced by Marxist thought (historical materialism); it mainly highlights the socio-economic context and seeks to link artistic evolution to social struggles and classes. In opposition to Marxist determinism, distinct approaches to the study of the social contexts of art were subsequently put in place, more attentive to the internal mechanisms of the “art world”: a study of the contextual inscription of works in the cultural milieu, in particular through cultural history and the anthropology of art (Lévi-Strauss, Boas); a sociological study of the habitus of art (Bourdieu); a sociology of action and contextual interactions (Becker).

These new approaches to art are confronted, for example, with the common idea of ​​a work, born of a “free” inspiration of the artist, or of an aesthetic logic intrinsic to art and independent of the social milieu. Likewise, social mechanisms of reception of works are revealed (distinction, codes, etc.). Nevertheless, these social sciences elude the study of the works themselves, perhaps conferring a “social” reductionism on art; this is the reason for new approaches not only addressing the environment, but the practice, seeing the work itself.

Psychology of art

Sigmund Freud(Sigmund Freud in 1911.)

The psychology of art aims to study the states of consciousness and unconscious phenomena at work in artistic creation or the reception of the work. The analysis of artistic creation takes up the idea of ​​a primacy of the artist himself in the interpretation of art; idea developed since the Renaissance and Romanticism, and already taken up in the biographical approaches of certain 19th century art historians (Cf. Kunstwissenschaft). From 1905, with Freud’s outline of the theory of drives, art became an object of psychoanalysis. This approach is not aimed at evaluating the value of the work, but at explaining the psychic processes intrinsic to its elaboration.

“Finding the connection between the artist’s childhood impressions and destiny on the one hand, and his works as reactions to these stimuli on the other, belongs to the most attractive object of analytical examination” — Freud

This analysis is based in particular on the concept of sublimation; artistic creation is seen as the transposition of a drive (desire): the attempt by the artist to overcome his dissatisfaction by creating a socially valued object, capable of satisfying his desire. Likewise, through this approach, art is considered as a symptom: it then becomes the possible tool for clinical diagnosis or therapy (art therapy).

The analysis of reception prolongs the theory of Gestalt, psychology of form (XXth). This analysis of art seeks to determine the psychological processes of the reception of works by the viewer. This reception is then no longer considered as a simple perception and discovery (of the artist’s knowledge), but as the recognition of a knowledge specific to the spectator, to his own culture and his social environment (Gombrich, Arnheim). These psychological analyzes extend through various cognitive approaches (cognitive psychology, philosophy of mind, etc.), and in particular recent discoveries in neuroscience (functioning of the nervous system: brain, five senses, etc.), which approach new paths the study of perceptions or the factors of aesthetic judgment, even the concepts of creativity or imagination.

Semiology of art

Umberto Eco
Credit: Università Reggio Calabria, CC BY-SA 3.0 license

(Umberto Eco.)

Following the theories of Ferdinand de Saussure and structuralism, a semiology of art is slowly being put in place. This “science of signs” studies not the patterns or meanings of works, but the mechanisms of significance (how the work signifies); the work is considered here as a space of signs and symbols, whose articulation is to be deciphered. The language of works (e.g. pictorial language) is not considered to be a system identical to languages: indeed, this “language” is not composed of meaningless units (such as linguistic phonemes), or by signs of pure convention. This language exists principally through relations of analogy. While certain codes specific to the language of art can be determined (role of form, orientation, scale, etc.), the involvement of strictly material elements (linked to the object: pigments, light, etc.) however, does not allow art to be entirely reduced to systems of language.

The other semiological approach analyzes the mediation of art by language (spoken/written), in particular by studying the discourse on art (description, criticism, etc.). This discourse, considered as a “meta-language” of works, would thus be likely to shed light on the games of meaning in art. This approach has been variously criticized by philosophers and art historians, because of its logocentrism, a bias that would reduce visual works to only texts (descriptive and interpretative), to the detriment of their materiality and the aesthetic experience (of viewer).

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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