By Christine Wong Yap
What follows is a fragmentary and speculative attempt to synthesize proposals informing my object-based art practice with established psychological research. My aims are to advance my understanding of the relationships between artists, viewers, and art objects, and share observations about well-being and obstructionist tendencies in art viewing. A conceit: I am a maker of objects, hence dematerialized projects fall outside of the purview of this particular thought experiment.
1. I make art to investigate optimism and pessimism.
2. Indicators of optimism and pessimism can be found in social behaviors.
3. Art engagement is a forum of social behavior.
4. Optimism and pessimism are enacted in the forum of art engagement.
5.The relationships within art engagement reflect viewers’ optimism or pessimism.
Q: What is the nature of the relationships among artists, art objects, and viewers? A: Since viewers project their optimism or pessimism onto works of art, perhaps the work of art operates in terms of co-creation and mutual investment.
6. Art objects mediate relationships between artists and viewers.
Q: What is the impact of mediation on the relationship between artist and viewer? A: The relationship is indirect and abstract, transcending time and space for better or worse. Artists traditionally invest time and intention into their objects at a studio, while viewers typically interact with works at exhibition spaces at later dates. The advantage is that viewers can encounter works in finely tuned settings at their own discretion; the disadvantage is the risk of little to no dialogue. Q: Is there a more direct relationship that is more readily examined? A: The viewer’s relationship with the art object is more direct and delimited.
7.The aesthetic experience facilitates a relationship between art object and viewer.
8. Experiences are compounded of feelings and thoughts, and encompass a continuum of sensation, perception, and conception. i
9. Experiences may be subjective, yet the field of psychology offers tools for objective analysis.
Psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson conducted interviews and quantitative analysis of surveys with museum professionals. Their findings suggested strong correspondences between aesthetic experiences and Csikszenthihalyi’s concept of flow, a state of activity and optimal experience. ii
10. Aesthetic experiences can engender flow and enhance the quality of lived experience.
Q: How is the aesthetic experience like a relationship? A: To form a relationship, one devotes attention towards a non-self entity.
“When a person invests all her [attention] into an interaction, she in effect becomes part of a system of action greater than what the individual had seen before.”
“It’s almost as if the viewer has to have courage enough to undertake the task of dealing with objects seriously and attentively.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson 158
11. Relationships between viewers and art objects begin with the viewer’s directed attention.
Q: What makes the relationship work? A: Skills.
“The aesthetic experience is not a gratuitous epiphany; viewers must bring their knowledge and training to the encounter with the work of art.” “The skills of the viewer—what it is that he or she needs to bring to the aesthetic encounter—are very much at the center of what leads to aesthetic experiences.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 79, 150
Flow “is something we make happen.”
12. After directing attentions at art objects, viewers must invest.
13. Skills are necessary for rewarding interactions.
14. To thoroughly engage a work of art is a demonstration of adequate skills.
15. The challenges of an artwork and the skills of the viewer can produce an enjoyable productive tension.
Q: What skills are necessary for this relationship? A: Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson identified four dimensions of aesthetic experience: perceptual, emotional, intellectual, and communicative.
“Some people apparently resist using intellectual skills to interpret objects, for fear that attending to historical or sociological dimensions may interfere with the sensory interaction…. [But] when people become confident in their intellectual skills, they can seamlessly integrate the intellectual dimension … [and] the experience becomes inevitably more complex and profound.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 180
16. The productive tension in relationships with art objects can span many dimensions—perceptual, emotional, and communicative, as well as intellectual.
17. Conceptual or cognitive engagement does not diminish sensory experience.
18. To reiterate: experiences are compounded of feelings and thoughts, and encompass sensation, perception, and conception. Thus, intellectual engagement is valid and valuable.
19. By extension, relationships with art objects can be enriched with artistic discourse.Q: Art objects are usually static or inanimate. At best, they are encoded artifacts. How do objects contribute to a dialogue or uphold a relationship with a viewer? A: The best aesthetic experiences are durational. Successful art objects offer new information, complexity, and feedback to viewers who bring the appropriate skills, contributing to an evolving dialogue.
“It is not enough … to be simply … initially captivated by [an art object]; it is important that it serve, in some sense, as a provocation as well, an opportunity for the viewer to enter into the work and deal with it over time….”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 49
“If the work is not changing, … revelations, … insights and epiphanies, must come from changes in the viewer.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 133
20. Works of art may be static, yet experiences with them can be dynamic.
21. Given time, works of art can spur viewers to find new meanings or associations.
22. When this happens, the work of art becomes enriched in the viewers’ eyes. Yet the viewer, in changing through his or her relationship with the art object, has in some sense been activated in kind.
23. The close association between time and significance in art viewing is likely attributable to the correlation between the duration of a relationship with an art object and one’s accumulated experiences and internal developments.
24. Because they have the potential to trigger and sustain experiential relationships, even static art objects can be considered relational.
“Viewing art is no only a receptive process… but a creative one as well.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 153
Q: Art objects are unaware if a viewer engages it or not. What fuels this relationship? A: Viewers with adequate skills find aesthetic experiences intrinsically rewarding due to the internal changes mentioned above.
“The aesthetic experience occurs when information coming from the artwork interacts with information already stored in the viewer’s mind. The result of this conjunction might be a sudden expansion, recombination, or ordering of previously accumulated info, which in turn produces a variety of emotions such as delight, joy, or awe.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 18
25. In the best instances, the viewer and art object have a symbiotic relationship.
26. This symbiosis can lead directly to positive affect (emotions).
“…encounters with works of art present feasible goals which can be reached … [resulting] in a deep involvement in the transaction, which leaves the viewer in a state that is experienced as autotelic—that is, intrinsically rewarding.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 73
27. Art viewing has autotelic potential.
28. Autotelism has a self-sustaining nature: not only does it fuel relationships with specific art objects, it encourages the expansion of art viewing skills in general.
29. The circular effect increases knowledge and helps viewers have rewarding aesthetic experiences more frequently.
Q: Are there motivators that exceed the art object itself? A: The art object can also be a proxy for the artist, people, or humanity.
“The aesthetic encounter inevitably involves some realization that humanity is communicating with humanity.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 132
“Perhaps this human [communicative] dimension of art explains why many individuals liken their aesthetic experience to interpersonal dialogue, friendship, and love.”
—Csikszentmihalyi and Robinson, 149
30. By interacting with a work of art, viewers are communicating with other humans—echoing the notion that art objects mediate relationships between artists and viewers.
31. The relationships between art objects and viewers may also encompass viewers’ relationships with other people.
32. The two relationships are not distinct, but overlapping.
Q: Do viewers get any other rewards from this relationship? A: Perhaps aesthetic experiences fulfill, to some extent, basic psychological needs.
Self-determination theory “maintains that an understanding of human motivation requires a consideration of innate psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.”
—Edward Deci and Richard M. Ryan v
33. Relationships with art objects allow viewers to express competence by meeting challenges with adequate skills.
34. Viewers exercise their autonomy by controlling which works they interact with, when, and for how long. If they choose to engage deeply, the activity can be autotelic.
35. The relationship supports relatedness with the artist or humanity via the art object’s communicative capacity.
36. Viewing art can increase optimal experience and positive affect.
37. Art viewing can fulfill, to some extent, basic psychological needs.
38. Seen pessimistically, art objects’ complexity and challenges are barriers to viewers.
39. Perceived optimistically, art objects’ complexity and challenges are opportunities for development, flow, and self-determination.
40. Relationships with art objects can lead to significant aesthetic experiences.
41. Such relationships also embody the potential for profound personal and interpersonal experiences.
* Artwork by Maine-based multidisciplinary artist Alicia Eggert. She says she aims “to make work that instigates a conversation… My work is never made by me alone. Rather, it is like a puzzle that I put together, of which each piece is an opinion, action or idea that has been contributed by another person…” See more of Eggert’s work at aliciaeggert.com.
i Yi-Fu Tuan. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, 1977.(back)
ii Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Rick E. Robinson. The Art of Seeing: An Interpretation of the Aesthetic Encounter. Malibu, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts (1990)(back)
iii Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. New York: Harper Collins (1996) 33(back)
iv Ibid. 3(back)
v Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan. “The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior.” Psychological Inquiry (2000) Vol. 11, No. 4, 227–268. Deci’s and Ryan’s theory came to the author’s attention thanks to support from the Jerome Foundation. (back)