Talking about art in the Big Apple: the 23rd Biennial Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics
The conference, held at Hunter College of the City University of New York, August 22-24, is the latest of a series that dates back to 1965. The 1983 Congress was held in Cardiff in conjunction with the Psychology of the Arts Conference that I co-organised with Antony J Chapman for the Welsh Branch of this Society. The event in New York comprised some160 contributions from researchers representing 24 countries; the arts media and topics discussed included architecture, astronomical images, comics, dance, drama and acting, drawing skills, film, fine art, literature, music, photography, product and graphic design, and robotics, along with museum studies and studies of individual differences in creativity. The majority of contributors were psychologists but there was also a strong presence of philosophers, art historians and practising artists and designers.
Given the wealth of material presented it is difficult to pick out individual contributions or symposia for special attention but there were to my mind two distinctive and well-represented themes in the programme. The first was neuroaesthetics, which has offered a theoretical and methodological boost to the field of aesthetics in recent years. There were several research papers, including reports on the involvement of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex during judgments about artworks and differences within patterns of prefrontal responses between judgements of attractiveness of faces and places and between ratings for understanding as opposed to liking. Anjan Chatterjee, the President of the Association, gave a thoughtful talk on the nature of cognitive neuroscience that considered its limitations and addressed critiques of it in addition to outlining its positive contributions to aesthetics. These issues were addressed by philosophers Noel Carroll, Joerg Fingerhut and William Seeley and the art historian David Freeberg, who suggested in various ways that the cognitive neuroscience approach has much that is novel and valuable to offer the field of aesthetics. Carroll also posed the question why, from an evolutionary perspective, we should invest so many social and economic resources in the production of art and argued that we do so because art’s capacity to engender emotional contagion has proved advantageous for the formation of larger social groups. The roles of social contagion and empathy in the arts featured prominently in other presentations. More generally, I sense a continuing trend away from a simplistic ‘aesthetics from below’ – the correlation of verbal ratings with contrived geometric patterns – towards embracing a range of measures including FMRI, skin conductance and EMG, and recordings of eye and hand movements, and the construction of theories that relate psychology more fruitfully to traditional concepts of philosophical aesthetics and to the study of the richness of actual artworks.
Second, the strengths of an empirical approach were evident in the contributions of psychological theory and methodology to product design. This featured strongly across several sessions in the conference, particularly the systematic programmes brought together under the umbrella of Project UMA, led by Paul Hekkert of Delft University of Technology and involving colleagues from Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and research partners elsewhere including from Cambridge University. Their studies encompassed a range of products from USB sticks to furniture and watches to automobiles, and investigated tactile as well as visual appreciation of objects.
In my own paper I considered the blush as it has been treated in the field of literary criticism, which provides a rich source of insight for the study of emotion more general). I focused on analysis of the blush in the fiction of Jane Austen with the aim of asking what can be learnt about the phenomenon from studying her novels and whether her insights have implications for scientific research. Blushing has figured significantly in her fiction: ‘I identified three themes in literary analysis and related each of these to research in the psychology of blushing: the blush has no single meaning and can be ambiguous; it is a sign of modesty; it is essentially sexual in nature. I discussed each in turn before analysing specific examples of blushing from Austen’s work.
Overall, the conference was highly stimulating and it was often difficult to choose from among the parallel sessions. One disappointment over the many years I have been attending these congresses has been the relatively few contributions from British psychologists even though one of the ‘presiding spirits’ of the Association remains Daniel Berlyne who, while based in Toronto for much of his career, was born in Manchester, educated at Cambridge and was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Hans Eysenck also made significant contributions to experimental aesthetics. It might be thought that the study of the arts is a fringe activity within psychology, perhaps a topic to turn to when the serious work is done, and few researchers can make an academic career with this as their primary specialism. Yet the arts make vital contributions to life, witness, to take only a few illustrations, the Edinburgh Festival, Glastonbury, the Eisteddfod, Notting Hill Carnival, the Proms and Melas and countless arts festivals and events across the country, not to mention the prominence of rock and pop music, the popularity of major exhibitions at the National Gallery, Tate, and elsewhere, the national drama companies, Dr Who, the quality of television acting and production, the international successes of architects and fashion designers, the large readership for fiction, biography and history, and on and on.
Ten of the presentations to the New York Congress involved at least one author with a British affiliation, which is encouraging, and the representation may be greater when the 24th Congress takes place in Vienna in 2016 where perhaps more British psychologists will present their research.
My contribution is published in the conference proceedings:
Crozier, W. R. (2014). The blush in fiction and psychological research. In Kozbelt, A. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Twenty-third Biennial Congress of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, New York, International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, pp. 144-147. ISBN 978-0-692-29396-6.
W. Ray Crozier