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Ellen Winner sets out the psychological study of art in a methodical and approachable fashion. She says what she will show, she shows it, and then she summarizes what she has shown. Her approach is very much empirically based, with many experiments explained and discussed. The questions she addresses are often inspired by philosophical discussion but she sticks to the empirical issues. Most of the experiments she discusses are relatively simple and thus don't attempt to capture the sophistication of some fancy psychological theories of art (such as psychoanalytic) which are essentially untestable. But it is surprising how far the psychological experiments can go and how they come up with results that we might not have expected.
Here is a list of the questions that are addressed in the book and that Winner sets out in her conclusion.
Can art be defined?
Does music express emotion to the listener?
Does music evoke emotion in the listener?
Do pictures express emotion to the viewer?
Does visual art evoke emotion in the viewer?
Why do we enjoy negative emotions from art?
Are aesthetic judgement based on anything objective?
Do our beliefs about effort shape our aesthetic judgments?
What is wrong with a beautiful perfect fake?
Could a child have made that Jackson Pollock?
Does art make us smarter?
Does fiction make us more empathetic?
Can art be therapeutic?
Who makes art and why?
Of course, there will be semantic debates over what it means to express emotion, what emotions are, what counts as aesthetic judgment, and philosophers can debate about whether the experiments show what they claim to show. But the experiments that Winner presents are certainly worth discussing. Some of the studies look at what people believe about art or how they categorize art, or whether children can distinguish art from non-art, and it turns out that they are pretty good at it. People say that nonvocal music does express emotions, and they tend to agree on some basic emotions expressed by western music. She goes on to argue that music tends to elicit atypical kinds of emotions. And so it goes. There is much investigation of the extent to which our responses are culturally-dependent or whether they can be found cross-culturally and in both art-experts and also the artistically uneducated. As indicated, it turns out that some of our responses to art are relatively culturally-independent. Winner entertains some possible psychological explanations of that.
One of the nicest chapters is on our responses to duplicated art and its value, and our beliefs about the importance of the authenticity of the artwork. Winner argues that our responses are best explained by a belief that art is best when it has been physically touched and created by the artist themselves. It's a surprising folk theory of art value that apparently is widespread.
Maybe the most philosophically important result concerns the objectivity of aesthetic judgment. There is a fair amount of evidence that our judgments are completely explained by our familiarity with artworks and our cultural learning, and so there's little room for the possibility of an independent objective judgment explaining our reactions to art. Winner holds out for the possibility that objective judgment may still have some role to play in explaining our aesthetic responses, but admits that there is no evidence so far that it will.
The final chapters are directly relevant to social policy of promoting art and art-making. Many claims are made for the beneficial effects of listening to classical music, viewing paintings, reading novels, watching plays, and so on. It turns out that there's little empirical evidence for any of this. There is some evidence that engaging in theatre can be beneficial to people. Winner takes pains to reassure readers that she is not against the support of the arts, but she is clear that many of the arguments for why society should support the arts have no good empirical backing.
So How Art Works is a welcome book that will be of interest to empirically minded readers curious about how we think about art and the effects of immersing oneself in art. None of it going to answer aesthetic debates about the value of high art, but it can ground discussion and can help to separate out philosophical issues from psychological ones. Given the state of current philosophy of art, it is a book that could have a very beneficial impact on philosophy.
© 2019 Christian Perring
Christian Perring teaches in NYC.