What is "Art"?


By Dr. Rodney Chang, 1980


"What is Art?" is often asked. My reply is -

Art is psychological. It can be reduced to a perception of a subject of a constructed visual stimulus, predictable in regards to probable response of its intended target spectators. Art is an experience based upon interrelationship between people and their world. Art includes such relationships as between viewer and art object, artist and viewer, society and artist, and the unconscious and the conscious. Thus, as Gestalt psychologists envision a sense of wholeness that the human mind provides to the static and isolated nature of real world stimuli, artists engineer things which capture this sense of unity among the apparently disparate things or events of our environment. Like the scientists, the artists search to discover a new reality through accomplished means of extending the limitation of today's reality. Science does this through advancing technology whereas artists use these new techniques to expand creative awareness of their contemporaries.


Art only exists in the minds of its selected perceivers. Some of these psychological factors influencing the perception of art include culture, sex,, age, formal art education, politics, economics, and value systems. Besides these variables of aesthetic perception are biological components like the way our consciousness functions, as an end product of evolution. Art thus includes the perceptual cognitive factors of the unconscious and psychophysical sensory mechanisms of the human body. There is also the influence of time and materials used in fabricating the art. Some aesthetic factors identified from these variables include the following: "boredom", "surprise value", "familiarity", "novelty" and "nostalgia".

Together all the above are interactive within the perceiver's brain, resulting in an immediate reaction to the artwork affixing attention. One "feels" whether he likes it or not. Some call this the intuitive way of "knowing what I like". "Art appreciation" as defined can then be described as an aesthetic perceptual model built upon interrelationships of these variables of perceiving art:



formula.jpg (12598 bytes)


AA = Art Appreciation or aesthetic perception

r = the readiness or mental set to receive or create (awareness, temperament, mood, motivation, attention span, receptivity, the situation, etc.)

P = psycho-physical elements of perception, such as the optical system of man

U = the unconscious of the mind

K = knowledge of social origin and teachings, such as art education and morality

I = individual perceptual and cognitive framework, for example his unique personality and existential position with life

d = debilitates

f = facilitates

o = observer

a = artist or creator

G = goal or purpose of the aesthetic stimulus

M = material or matter manipulation

t = time passage of interaction/observation of art object and time's effect on the art stimulus

m = medium used

What the above presented model professes is that upon the perception of any art object, the complex interactions of the factors of this formulation operate and function to produce a holistic overall response (or perception) to the aesthetic stimulus. Like a computer, the mind inputs the data and comes up with a conclusion or decision as output.

As an artist, the model provides me a systems approach so that my art pieces have a broader meaning outside of its specific visual and conceptual content. I remain aware of how all components affect the perception of others toward my work, and as such, attempt to fit my work into the expected social reaction to the completed artwork. I can also select to intensify the effect of any one aesthetic variable in order to make a "statement" of its influence as an aesthetic determinant of our perceptual processes. For example, the emphasis that characterizes one style of art from others, like the importance of the optical system of the viewer in Kinetic Art and the free expression of the unconscious in Abstract Expressionism. Selective manipulation of a specific variable of the work of art can also be adjusted to make subtle differences to the targeted affect of the work or even its meaning (content) to the observer. The formula for an art making modality also de-emphasizes the importance of the specific art medium used, freeing the creator to use whatever material or technology is available for his perusal.

To sum up, this particular model of aesthetics emphasizes the transient nature of art, for like anything else, change is inevitable even in the creative expression of ourselves in relationship to a changing world. The model also claims the essence of art to be in the "eyes of the beholder" rather than permanently fixed, quantitatively and qualitatively, within the aesthetic object. "What is art?" It is a special human behavior towards aspects of one's world that are determined to best give one the experience of feelings and meaning of great intensity, relative to other objects or aspects of our world/environment. The qualities of these "aspects" of our world that conjure up the feelings and perception of "art" include the masterful ability of the artist to include, in his aesthetic stimuli formation for others, the qualities of "comprehensiveness" (the degree to which the work creates the feeling of integration and unity in the viewer), "consistency" (elements of the work form a compatible whole, like in graphic or digital composition), "intensity" (the creation of emotional intensity through both the form and content of the work), and "originality" (the value of novelty through creativity which leads to new aesthetic experience for the beholder). The success in perceiving these universal properties in an art object is tied to 1) the developed sensitivity and aesthetic awareness of the spectator (from art critic all the way down to naive spectator) and 2) the ability and intent of the artist to produce such a stimulus that provokes these feelings from the viewer without the presence or further help of the creator. The artist facilitates aesthetic perception of the viewer, the latter of which must take responsibility for the carryover of aesthetic appreciation, from that of the artist that created the stimulus, to his own feelings and internalized relationship with the art object.

There is also societal interactions among artist, art object, viewer and the community-at-large. The artist fabricates a stimulus which others react to emotionally and intellectually. If the majority of observers identify their feelings elicited from the perception of the object as aesthetic, and of rare quality, then the artist's work becomes associated as "art" by others besides the artist. The reaction of society thus provides feedback to the artist as to the effectiveness or success of his effort to make "art", leading to categorical approval or rejection. If it does not meet communal consensus as "artistic", the creation can still be aesthetic although not "fine art". For example, commercial art and the conventional view towards interior decorating is not considered "art" by most in North American society. This feedback loop to the artist in turn affects how he views society and the world in general and hence plays a contributing role in the future direction of the artist's work. Acclaimed aesthetic objects of all the artists of a time and place then combine to provide the aesthetic climate and culture for the group at-large, which in turn becomes standards of excellence or acceptance by which to judge future (and reevaluation of past) works of art.