The Psychology of Art
Lev Semenovich Vygotsky.
1971. [English translation]
The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA.
This book contains the research Vygotsky conducted between 1915-1922. It was submitted as his PhD in 1925 but not published in the Soviet Union until the 1960s (posthumously). The research conducted is not from the point of view of a trained psychologist, but from a student of the humanities whose interest lay with literature, theory, criticism and philosophy and the role of psychology in relationship to these. It introduces concepts that Vygotsky would put aside for the next ten (remaining) years of his life as he delved actively into the methodology of psychology, however, he would return to these in his last writings which comprise Thought and Language.
The following are notes from the Introduction to the original Russian publication (in English translation) by A.N. Leontiev.
Leontiev recommends to read as the psychology of art and the psychology of art while keeping in mind the historical context in which Vygotsky wrote this book.
“The main problem to which he addressed himself was of broader and more general significance: just what does an artistic creation do, what transforms it into a work of art?” (p. vi)
This question Leontiev has Vygotsky asking is quite similar to the question Wollheim asks of painting.
Leontiev has Vygotsky writing from the POV of a psychologist, however more recent research disputes this position and it is important to look at the relationship of Leontiev and Vygotsky.
However, Leontiev builds on the above with the following:
“His method is objective and analytical. He believes that in analyzing the structure of a work of art one must recreate the response, the internal activity to which it gives rise.” (p.vi)
This again gestures in the direction of Wollheim.
Leontiev further expresses Vygotsky’s aim as:
“...devoted to criticism of one-sided views of the specific qualities of art, its specific human and social functions. He is opposed to reducing the functions of art to a purely perceptive, gnostic function. If art does have a perceptive function, it becomes a function of special perception carried out by particular means. Art is not simply a matter of visual perception.” (p. vii)
Hmmm….that noise sounds familiar...more than retinal? Vygotsky was focused on the literary arts yet writing of art in general which led to addressing the divisions in schools/fields of psychology at that time by means of developing methods for a ‘general methodology’ of psychology.
“The essence and function of art are not contained in form itself, for form does not exist alone and has no independence. Its true validity appears only when we consider it in relation to the material in which it informs or “incarnates”, as Vygotsky puts it, by giving it new life in the context of the work of art. From this standpoint, the author expresses his opposition to formalism in art,... But is the specific quality of art perhaps embodied in the expression of emotional experience, the communication of feelings? Vygotsky rejects this solution as well.” (p.vii)
-of the material
-of the feelings: from individual to a generalized/sociological
“...the nature of the process itself is hidden from the investigator, just as it is concealed from the observations of the artist himself. What the student of art has before him is not the artist’s work but its product -the artistic creation, the work of art in whose structure is crystallized. This is a very precise thesis: human activity does not evaporate or disappear from its product; it merely changes with the work of art from a form of motion into a form of being, or state of existence as an object (Gegenständlichkeit).” (p. vii-viii)
This ties into Wollheim’s description of the artist-object-spectator relationship which he describes as necessary for painting to occur as an art. It is what is happening in the spaces between the three points.
“...with Vygotsky, form is not separated from content; rather it penetrates into it. For the content of artistic production is not the material. Its real content is its effective content -that which determines the specific character of the aesthetic experience to which an artistic creation gives rise. Thus the content we have in mind is not simply injected into the work of art from the outside, but is created in it by the artist.”
Adding Wollheim’s thoughts to this mix content does also come from the outside...the spectator... but through the artist.
Vygotsky uses the term to designate the internal movement -”movement of opposite feelings” that is formed into the structure of the work of art. Catharsis is “...the resolution of a certain, merely personal conflict, the revelation of a higher, more general, human truth in the phenomena of life.” (p.ix)
Essay by Vygotsky to be on the lookout for: “On the Problem of the Psychology of the Actor’s Creativity,” in R.M. Jakobsen’s book The Psychology of the Feelings of the Actor, Moscow, 1936. P. 204
Note: Vygotsky was influenced by the writings/work of Stanislavski and Shklovsky during the period he researched/wrote this book.