The Psychology of Art and Digital Art


Pygoya (Rodney Chang)

November 15, 1999


As a graduate student in aesthetics I concluded art is psychological at its core. Fun explorations included imaginary interviews with famous deceased 20th century artists such as Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse. This entailed reviewing their autobiographic writings and published dialogue with interviewers during their lifetime. Besides this approach in my quest to answer for myself, just "What IS art?",   I reviewed psychological models and theories of the human psyche. From such an idiosyncratic approach to the study of art I reaped a personal insight into what I wanted to accomplish, to be, as an artist - for life. This was 1980. Thereafter I held faith in an art philosophy to guide my creative efforts to fulfill my potential talent. For the scientist in me I selected the phenomenological experimental approach to invent new art. Such an operational platform freed me to start anew, disregard the past, and exploit any means by which to create new vision.

Finding the time to pursue a personal answer to "what is art," a luxury of time while also confronting the demands of life, was five years before my introduction to the personal computer as a promising art tool. During this interval between theory and practice (1980-84) I courted traditional art media in search of a commitment to a specific art medium. I believe my style of visual expression is embedded in all of my digital art, the same that developed during these formative years of dabbling in painting, printmaking, photography, ceramics and mixed media. In 1984 I had finally "committed" to bronze sculpture, only to have my interest completely divorced with a serendipitous introduction to computer graphics. Thereafter it really never mattered to me that it was "digital" rather than some other, more socially acceptable, art medium. I had long before started a quest to develop as a professional artist, producing work worthy of public recognition due to its honest manifestation of my unique feelings and personality.

My initial approach to creating with a computer was to start with a blank screen, to me a tabula rasa. I remember staring into the mysterious blank screen of pitch black. It was the exciting discovery of a three-dimensional space, not phosphorous ignited on a surface but to me uncharted virgin territory in the fine arts. I felt like a pioneer with the golden opportunity to stake out aesthetic turf, years prior to the arrival of the Internet's WWW. Some maintained the commercial graphics tradition of starting a project with a scan of physical world reality captured through photography, then do graphic editing work to make an altered statement. Conversely I was intrigued by the novel mere building block for making art, the solitary pixel. This visual element, like a particle shot from an airbrush, was paired with my ready-made philosophical and psychological models from Transformative Psychology, a part of my adopted  Art Psychology.

Most artist depart to explore their talent from the safe and proven harbor of art history. New works can thus be explained and accepted as part of an established tradition of aesthetic worth. Knowing and using such an accepted visual "language" make new works extensions of the historical precedents, progressing art in a natural continuum from an approved starting point.

I instead choose to jump off the edge of familiarity, create without history clouding my creative intuition, start with a tool which had no mark in art history. Instead of history I selected psychology to navigate my journey through the maze of time and self discovery to formulate a creditable new fine art. Art not just "new" because it had a totally different appearance (stereotypical early computer graphics) but because of the guidance of a new psychology as the alchemy for an eccentric mind.

I, as artist, of course harbored no prejudice against the computer, although in the beginning I must confess a paranoia of the computer someday replacing me, and even possibly destroying my developed artistic sensitivity from previous work in painting and sculpture. But after all this risk taking I stand at the eve of 2000 as a survivor of the process, with the realization that I have been fortunate, that such a maverick approach for an artist searching for inspiration has been heuristic, not detrimental, to my achieved current results.  The work I exhibit in the 1999 India exhibition is the harvest from seeds of thought and action planted as far back as 1975 when I was a graduate student in both art and psychology,  as well  as persistent effort in the cyberstudio.

Just what is the psychology that contributes to the appearance and content of my digital Web-based art?

The theories of Transformative Psychology are published in my book, Mental Evolution and Art (Exposition Press, New York, New Work, 1980). The main tenet is that "mental ontogeny recapitulates mental phylogeny." Or more simply stated, as living organisms duplicate past primordial forms of life during its embryonic stages in urtero, the morphological structure may be paired with yet undiscovered   neurological function compatible to support the physical form observed. In other words, could not the embryonic fetus that, during the period looks like a fish (gills and tail apparent), also process environmental information like a fish? From this radical thought (would be interesting to conduct neurological research that did comparative brain activity studies for different species during the same embryonic fetal facsimiles) came the idea of the existence of infinite levels of consciousness   within the human brain, many of which remain latent and unexplored, remnants of our long lost ancestral past. For example, the levels we identify as the "subconscious" (Freud), the unconscious, the hypnotic state, day dreaming, dreaming, hallucination, mental telepathy and the different levels of sleep as depicted by brain wave recordings. I hypothesized that such a "human nature" affect the way people "see" and "feel" what we call art. Such a theory would explain submerged past experience as the source for statements at art shows like "I don't understand art but I know what I like" or the artist just knowing that "it works" and therefore when a work is complete. Or the instincts of early elementary school children to place figures of animals or humans on the bottom border of a drawing on paper, no matter what culture the children reside in. Or conflicting preferences by the same individual in judging art when in the hypnotic state as opposed to choices made during the usual conscious state. Or the natural affinity of children towards bright primary colors versus the more subdued tertiary colors which we later find in more "sophisticated", "mature" works of art.

Using such a psychology as my launching pad, I attempt to create on the computer without specific subject matter in mind. Somewhat akin to automatic doodling and letting loose feelings similar to the Abstract Expressionists, I hope to capture imagery that triggers not only my deeper levels of consciousness but also strike similar chords within the audience, no matter how illiterate they are in the canons of art history. I desire to create art that takes the viewer to the most common denominator of aesthetic response, the awakening of deep seeded feelings he or she never knew existed. Do that and there is a natural attraction to my imagery, worthy of holding the viewer's attention. Through such a strategic approach do I hope to bring forth for all a common reaction that only fine art can precipitate.  By such artistic intent the ground is somewhat leveled for both the uneducated with no formal art education and scholar of aesthetics.  A universal response is summoned that suggests we are all the same.

In conclusion, realize that I consider the adaptation of my creative efforts to the medium of computers as secondary in the judgment of my output of art's worthiness as significant contribution to culture.