Psychology and the Arts Part 1

Written by Kate Siner Francis Ph.D.

The arts clearly have importance to many people. Small children express themselves through pictures, festival center around the creation of costumes and masks, and artists create works that move us to tears or laughter. Anthropologists have explored how the arts are important to people throughout every culture and time (Dissanyake, 2000). Psychologists, while they have not completely ignored the arts, have not discussed them adequately. The purview of psychologists contains any part of the human experience that influences thoughts, emotions, or actions. The arts, falling into this category, cannot be slighted without being endemic of a much larger oversight.
Art and psychology were first connected through early human ritual practices (Dissanyake, 2000; Ellenberger, 1970). As the discipline of psychology began to form, the early psychologists naturally incorporated the arts into aspects of the discipline (Ellenberger, 1970). This was likely due both to the common origins or art and psychology and the pervasive academic and cultural environment.  After the advent of experimentalism, the study of art in psychology became largely taboo within mainstream psychology. (Bergquist, 1999; Koch, 1975). Still, studies of aspects of art by psychologists continued in non-experimental disciplines. For example, the study of creativity received much attention by Humanistic psychologists (Maslow, 1962; May, 1975; Rogers, 1977).
In the last 40 years, the study of art-related phenomena has had a comparable renaissance and spans experimental, humanistic, and analytical disciplines. (Amabile, 1996; Csikszentmihali, 1996; Gantt, 1998; Schneider, 2001; Tiezte, 2006). During this time, Expressive Arts and art therapy advanced theoretical and field research (Furth, 1988; Gantt, 1998; McNiff, 1986; Tibbetts, 1995)  and The American Psychology Association, APA, began to focus on the neuroscience of art (Fischer, 1961; Tiezte, 2006). More recently, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi completed a study where he interviewed 90 people about the experience of being creative. He used this information to support his theories about flow (Csiksentmihalyi, 1996). Several other scholars have also discussed the implications of the arts to psychology (Dissanyake, 2000; Hillman, 1992; Koch, 1992a; Sarason, 1990; Schneider, 2001). In 1989, Sigmund Koch completed a groundbreaking study where the artists themselves were asked to speak about their experiences in a detailed and methodical manner.
Art-related studies in psychology cover many areas including creativity, art criticism, aesthetics, an artist’s experience, and art-based ways of creating meaning.  Each area of study has its own clarity and its own ambiguity. This essay is predicated on the belief that the arts are intrinsic to psychology and that they have been inadequately researched due to epistemological and methodological misconceptions. This essay demonstrates where and how arts-related research might be strengthened through a discussion of major contributors and current approaches. It concludes with an overview of the strengths and weakness of each discipline as well as a discussion of what type of research that discipline is adept as discussing. This essay establishes clear epistemological foundations for arts research in the future.

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