Experimental Aesthetics or the Science of Art

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    Experimental Aesthetics or the Science of ArtAuthor(s): F. MolnarSource: Leonardo, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. 23-26Published by: The MIT PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1572732 .Accessed: 17/06/2014 05:45

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  • Leonardo, Vol. 7, pp. 23-26. Pergamon Press 1974. Printed in Great Britain



    F. Molnar*

    Abstract-The author discusses the part of philosophy called aesthetics and points out the difference between factual science and the philosophy of essence. He finds that the philosophy of essence is of no use in helping artists or other creative individuals to find really valuable paths to follow among the vast number of theoretically possible paths. He finds that such guidance can be found only through a better understanding of relevant facts by resorting to controlled experiments.

    The difficulties of applying the principal method of science to experimental aesthetics are reviewed and some of the positive achievements of this new science are mentioned. Hefinds that it is the right and duty of those working in experi- mental aesthetics to take advantage of the knowledge accumulated by experi- mental psychologists in collaboration with physiologists, biologists and mathe- maticians. He ends with the hope that the science of art will become a part of the science of human behavior.


    The part of philosophy dealing with works of art is called aesthetics. It involves discussing, giving an opinion, approving or disapproving, having a feeling of satisfaction or simply perceiving a painting or sculpture as a work of art. Valery said that aesthetics and ethics are the two wings of philosophy [1]. The first preoccupation of a philo- sophy is ontology. Beauty becomes the incentive towards being, according to Hegel, just as enflamed enthusiasm is the romantic's incentive towards truth.

    Now being, in this sense, is no more a necessary element of an art object than fiery enthusiasm is an ingredient constituting truth. One knows that existence is problematic. But faced with an art work, the real existence of this work is hardly questioned in aesthetics perception. Husserl makes a clear distinction between factual science and the science of essence [2]. Factual science can be analyzed by starting with the natural world, whereas the science of essence cannot be. Nevertheless, there exists a close relationship between these two sciences. The science of essence underlies factual science but does not give it precise indications and through studying facts one never manages to understand their essence. The knowledge of the truth concern- ing essence does not contain the least reference to facts and, thus, from essence alone one cannot derive the slightest truth about facts.

    A philosopher thus examines an art work by

    * Aesthetician living at 54 rue Halle, 75014, Paris, France. (Received 10 February 1973.) (Original in French.)

    turning immediately to questions of essence. I do not know if I have succeeded in clarifying the reader's knowledge of essence but one says nothing new about facts if one says that all that an artist knows comes from his body, his body becomes music or an art object, and then he takes liberties...

    The last statement could be true for a music virtuoso but one does not always like virtuosos. It has no value whatsoever in the case of the painter Cezanne, for example. Can one imagine the elderly Cezanne hesitating, drawing awkwardly and struggling more with his body than with the medium in order to paint a masterpiece ? It is true that the young Cezanne tried sometimes to be a 'virtuoso' but one does not find the least trace of one in the older Cezanne.

    A phenomenological explanation of art, however pleasant, also does not satisfy me. Husserl speaks of aesthetics in his book [2]. He contemplates the engraving 'Knight, Death and the Devil' by Diirer. Firstly, he sees an engraved plaque. Secondly, his experience permits him to see, for example, the knight and the horse. But in aesthetic contempla- tion of an art work thoughts do not turn to subjects as they are in reality but to their pictorial represen- tation. But, if when contemplating an art work one only considered what was represented of reality, there would be no problem as to what is art but there would be no art either. Husserl does not contemplate Diirer's work as such; he only sees what it represents and not what turns it into a work of art. For him, the engraving does not consist of an arrangement of forms capable of provoking an aesthetic response by their very arrangement but


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  • F. Molnar

    it is an object that refers to another object. Husserl has hardly advanced Plato's method of analyzing art works. I recall Plato writing first of the idea of a bed, of a carpenter making a bed (he copied the idea) and an artist drawing a bed (he copied the idea, so to speak, to the second degree).

    Again in his book [2], Husserl, after a long analy- sis, writes: 'It is important to follow these analyses with care, if we wish to understand objective axiological (and practical) essence and, conse- quently, if we wish to deal with the problem of their meanings and their ways of knowing and judging the origin of the concepts and knowledge of ethics and aesthetics.' He is searching for the essence of art. But cannot one see that, according to him, there is little hope of drawing from essence the slightest truth that has a bearing on facts ?

    Husserl is a philosopher and his book does not really deal with aesthetics. Let one not despair. One can, perhaps, find something more practical in a more specific study of aesthetics. In 1950, Heidegger published a book [3] in which at the beginning he asked the question: 'What is the origin of a work of art?' From the eighth page on he enquires about the essence of art. At the end of his book one knows less about art than at the beginning. From time to time, however, in Being and Time (Sein und Zeit) he comes down to earth from the clouds of essence to discuss a specific art work. He describes a well-known painting by Van Gogh in the following terms: 'The dark openings of the shoes, revealing their worn interiors, are marked by the fatigue of heavy steps. The heavy and rough shoes have condensed the tenacious firmness of the slow walks across fields constantly swept by the fierce winds. Their leather is marked by the mould and the richness of the earth. Their soles have accompanied the solitude of steps that crossed fields as night approached. These shoes reflect the secret call of the earth, the quiet ripening of the grains and their rejection of the desperate nakedness of winter fields. These shoes are penetrated by the silent worry of daily bread, by the quiet joy of victory over need, by the fear one faces before the birth of a child and by trembling before the menace of death. These shoes belong to the earth . .' [3]. One wonders if it would not have been preferable for the author to have remained in the world of essence instead of writing mediocre poems. For- getting the poetic qualities of the description, I wonder why Heidegger expects me to see the same thing as he in Van Gogh's picture of old shoes.

    In reality, one can see in a work of art almost anything one wishes to see and this has been proved experimentally. Since Van Gogh's work is appre- ciated today, why did art critics not appreciate it while he was alive? Were they 'blind' or fools? And who can assure me that I am neither 'blind' nor a fool when I face the works of certain contem- porary artists? One looks for guidance to philo- sophy but finds none. What then is the use of philosophy, even of the most brilliant kind ?

    An artist about to make a painting or when judging

    the work of another needs facts. The truth of facts, however limited. An artist is similar to any indi- vidual who must make complex decisions. Each faces, at least in theory, an infinite number of possible ways to proceed. A choice must be made and the choice is rarely justified (or, in the best of cases, only later). In reality, on the level of facts, there are but very few valuable possible paths. The point in question is precisely this, can one determine, through a better understanding of relevant facts, which are the really valuable paths among the vast number of theoretically possible ones? The only way to make this determination is by resorting to tests by the method of trial and error, that is, one must make experiments.


    The principal method of science involves the following steps: observation, classification, formu- lation of hypotheses and verification of hypotheses by experiments to learn if they satisfy the truth of facts.

    The above method immediately poses a difficulty when applied to aesthetics because subjective factors rather than objective external physical factors are of primary importance. One becomes concerned with what Mach calls experiments on thoughts or ideas (Gedanken-experiment) [4]. Such experimentation is used to the highest degree in intellectual develop- ment (and put into practice, according to Mach, by those who carry out projects, propose utopias and by poets, and one can add Surrealist artists).

    Another real difficulty is encountered when one tries to define the term human experience. Most often experience is considered as a kind of extension of thought. William James in his discussion of religious experience described the difficult experience of patient endurance [5]. But one also calls exper- ience all mental manifestations resulting from individual and collective life. In fact, one dis- tinguishes between an individual's experience and an experience of the human species (ancestral experience).

    In the theory of knowledge the term has still another meaning, for external experience (percep- tion) is distinguished from internal experience (awareness) and neither are an aspect of memory.

    One speaks of experience when, after starting from well-defined conditions of a phenomena, one makes an observation that sheds light on the charac- ter of the phenomenon or on the law governing it. (Indeed, in this sense it includes moral experience.)

    It should be understood, however, that in experi- mental aesthetics one wishes to use only verifiable physical and psychological experiences. It thus aims at being a science that depends on experimentation as opposed to purely speculative aesthetics ('arm- chair' aesthetics), just as experimental psychology is opposed to introspective and clinical psychology.

    However, experimental psychology itself has put the objectivity of scientific experiments in doubt.


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  • Experimental Aesthetics or the Science of Art

    It seems, in the light of research of the recent past, that experiments are much less objective than was once thought. There is evidence that the behavior of animals under controlled conditions in a labora- tory is influenced by the experimenter. Even the results of strict statistical treatment appear to depend on the experimenter. Certain theorists (Edwards [6]) therefore advise the use of several different statistical methods in order to arrive at dependable conclusions.

    The subjective aspects of research have been of concern to scientists for a long time. Galton (1822- 1911) already showed that some observations made by astronomers were influenced by subjective interpretations [7]. K6hler [8], after analyzing an experimental situation, does not differentiate between subject, experimenter and measuring instrument. Even a physicist who observes some- thing on the screen of an instrument that is a part of his visual field has a direct experience of the instru- ment. This direct experience is as much a part of the objective conditions of the experiment as the mechanism of the instrument. As K6hler says, the physical phenomenon under study, the measuring instruments used and the eyes of the experimenter form a linked system in which each component is hierarchically equally important. Thus, one can conclude that experimental aesthetics is as objective or as subjective as any other field of science. One cannot attach an absolute value to the results of experimental aesthetics but then one can be satisfied with approximations to the truth of facts.

    Philosophy allows one to maintain this attitude. Husserl [2] admits explicitly the legitimacy of science being related to facts as opposed to pheno- menology being related to essence. Modern logic admits approximations to the truth of facts. In stochastic logic, a proposition can be more or less true, that is, more or less near to 1, where 1 is true and 0 is false. The considerations in this section lead me to conclude that experimental aesthetics can legitimately claim to be a science.


    It remains for me to deal with one more obstacle. Experimental aesthetics, especially that of the English school, evokes empiricism. The term, at least in philosophy, is based on the conception that knowledge is based only on experience and obser- vation, without due regard for system and theory. When I speak of experimental aesthetics, I mean, on the contrary, that it is systematic and that it involves the elaboration of hypotheses subject to experi- mental verification.

    To avoid the ambiguity of the term experimental aesthetics, it has been suggested that it be called the science of art. I, myself, prefer the latter desig- nation. But what's in a name? The science that experimental aesthetics is concerned with is a fact- finding science in the sense of David Hume. Further- more, it depends mainly on statistical approxima-

    tions to truth obtained by systematic experiments. In any case, there does not appear to be any other choice, either one accepts the approximations of experimental aesthetics or one returns to uncon- trolled speculation, to poetry.

    Experimental aesthetics is about one hundred years old. During this time, an impressive quantity of facts has been accumulated. A large number of studies has dealt with the subject since the publi- cation in 1876 of the pioneering book by Fechner entitled Preparatory Schoolfor Aesthetics (Vorschule zur Aesthetik) [9]. Recently, important books on the subject have been published by Berlyne [10] and by Pickford [11].

    Experimental aesthetics has succeeded in resolv- ing certain essential problems of aesthetics that have eluded traditional aesthetics or have led it to arrive at incorrect conclusions. For example:

    (1) It has now been proved that personal artistic taste depends only on nonessentials in a work of art. As soon as the deep structure of an art work is considered, individual judgements are much more in accord than was formerly thought possible. This is also true for individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

    (2) Works of art have been shown to have a universal character for the human species. Since art of some kind is a manifestation of nearly all societies, it has been concluded that art must be in accord with the human nervous system. This does not imply that experimental aesthetics is a kind of a subjective idealism, for it accepts the objective existence of a work of art before a human being becomes conscious of it.

    (3) There are indications that in the subcortical part of the human brain there is a center specifically responsible for pleasure, in general, and, therefore, of aesthetic satisfaction.


    Although these results are of the greatest interest and other valuable results are being added to aesthetics knowledge, experimental aesthetics is often condemned for not fulfilling its promises. For example, experimental aesthetics is condemned for not being operational in the sense of being of direct use to artists. Paradoxically, this criticism comes from traditional aestheticians who, in prin- ciple, believe that aesthetics should not be opera- tional!

    I believe some expect too much from the young science of art. After all, physics took almost 400 years to become what it is today. Since scientific knowledge has been accumulating roughly at an exponential rate over the past few centuries, one can predict that the science of art will also produce results at an ever increasing pace. Experimental psychology, which serves not only as the basis but as well as a model for experimental aesthetics, after two periods of crisis, only began to produce important results in the last few decades when the


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  • F. Molnar

    boundaries between psychology, physiology and biology became less rigid.

    A justified fear of falling into philosophism leads some research workers to avoid problems that are likely to raise questions of a philosophical character. Thus experimental aesthetics has concentrated on matters that are, without doubt, interesting but that are, nevertheless, of secondary importance. Sociology and social psychology, for example, can give good descriptions of facts without having to ask beforehand such basic questions as what is the nature of art or what is the nature of aesthetics feelings. It is sufficient to determine by methods of the social sciences what a society (or a subgroup of a society) at a given time considers to be works of art by purchasing them or otherwise indicating approval of them.

    It is interesting to consider an example of this approach. Koffka, in a paragraph of his book [12] headed 'An Excursion in Aesthetics' considers a picture Pab that is looked at by two individuals A and B. Generalizing the idea, one obtains the equation P =f(P,N), which is basic for gestaltists, according to whom, human behavior depends on external information and internal reactions of the individual. Experimental aesthetics should examine the effect of a work on a large number of individuals whose case histories are known and take also into account essential aspects of the work. Sociology has limited its interest primarily to the examination of the reaction of groups of normal individuals without considering the nature of the image and of the

    physical stimulus provided by the work. In view of the progress that experimental psy-

    chology has achieved, it is the right and duty of

    experimental aesthetics to study problems of aesthetics on the basis of the fundamental knowledge available. First of all, although it is 40 years old, I accept the proposition of Koffka illustrated in Fig. 1. This proposition states that although a viewer of an art object is influenced by society, the effect on the viewer of the object is a privileged one. It is the viewer who gives indications of his reactions to a researcher needed to study the character of the stimuli that produced the reactions, although account must be taken of the society of which the viewer is a member.

    Thus, in experimental aesthetics one must con- sider a work of art as a complicated visual stimulus, a special kind of luminous source that does not reflect light received uniformly. Different parts of the art object send back different parts of the received light and this object may acquire or have a meaning, in the case of a picture, depict something.

    Fig. 1

    This is what Maurice Denis affirmed in a more poetic manner when he said that 'a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or any other anecdote, is a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order'. Of course this descrip- tion is not complete, for it neglects factors such as the viewer, his visual system, including the eyes and brain, and memory [13, 14].

    Kohler [8], as I have pointed out, has drawn attention to the fact that one cannot completely separate the measuring instrument and the person who uses it, in my case, the picture and the viewer. The two are part of linked system with feedback. Thus, if one considers a linked system consisting of part of a picture and of its projected image on the complicated tissues of the retina, it is understand- able that some researchers might readily give up such a difficult study, even though aesthetic pleasure begins on the retina.

    Studies of the retina of certain fishes and of the optic paths and visual cortex of cats and monkeys have shown that special neurons play a prepon- derant role in the perception of form. And the perception of form is a basis of any hypothesis of aesthetics. A few years of physiological experi- mentation, carried out in collaboration with psychologists, biologists and mathematicians, have brought more knowledge to aesthetics than hun- dreds of years of reflection on it.

    I have said that boundaries between various sciences important for understanding human beha- vior were beginning to disappear. One must hope that one day the science of art will become a part of these fruitful activities.

    REFERENCES 1. P. Valery, Varite' III (Paris: Gallimard, 1953). 2. E. Husserl, Idees directrices pour une phenome-

    nologie, Trans. P. Ricoeur (Paris: Gallimard, 1950).

    3. M. Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (Frankfort: Helzwege, 1950).

    4. E. Mach, Analyse der Empfindungen (Jena: Fischer, 1906).

    5. W. James, Principles of Psychology (London: Macmillan, 1890).

    6. E. Edwards, Information Transmission (London: Chapman and Hall, 1964).

    7. F. Galton, in, for example, M. Reuchlin, Histoire de psychologie (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1959).

    8. W. Kohler, Psychologie de la forme (Paris: Gallimard, 1964).

    9. G. Fechner, Vorschule zur Aesthetik (Leipzig: Breithopf, 1876).

    10. D. E. Berlyne, Aesthetics and Psychobiology (New York: Appleton, 1971).

    11. R. W. Pickford, Psychology and Visual Aesthetics (London: Hutchinson, 1972).

    12. K. Koffka, Principles of Gestalt Psychology (New York: Harcourt, 1935).

    13. F. Molnar, The Unit and the Whole, in Module, Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm (New York: Brazil- ler, 1966).

    14. F. Molnar, Aspect temporal de la perception de l'oeuvre picturale, Sciences de l'art 3, 136 (1966).


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    Article Contentsp. 23p. 24p. 25p. 26

    Issue Table of ContentsLeonardo, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Winter, 1974), pp. i-ii+1-96Front Matter [pp. i - ii]Articles by ArtistsKinetic Art: On the Use of Subliminal Stimulation of Visual Perception [pp. 1 - 5]Transformable Paintings and My Mystical Outlook [pp. 7 - 11]Sculpture Incorporating Electric Lights [pp. 13 - 17]

    Some Thoughts on the Sense of Smell in Analogy to Language [pp. 19 - 22]Experimental Aesthetics or the Science of Art [pp. 23 - 26]A Course in Technology for Artists [pp. 27 - 29]NotesA Program on Art and Science at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, Israel [pp. 31 - 32]A Comparison of the Artistic Theories of Leonardo da Vinci and of Wassily Kandinsky [pp. 33 - 35]Collage Works of Layers of Japanese Hand-Made Paper Produced as Print Editions [pp. 37 - 39]Visualizing Conceived as Visual Apprehending without Any Particular Point of Observation [pp. 41 - 42]Psychophysics of Time [pp. 43 - 45]Kinetic Art: Two Installations with Flashing Electric Lights [pp. 47 - 48]Parts of British Buildings as Sculpture by Architects [pp. 49 - 52]Paintings Based on Atomic Spectra: 'Quantum Realism' [pp. 53 - 55]Some Physiological Limitations on Aesthetic Experience in the Visual Arts [pp. 57 - 59]

    DocumentsCan Science Lead to an Understanding of Beauty? [pp. 61 - 64]

    Terminology [pp. 65 - 67]International Opportunities for Artists [pp. 69 - 70]Calendar of Events: 1974 [pp. 71 - 72]Booksuntitled [p. 73]untitled [pp. 73 - 74]untitled [p. 74]untitled [pp. 74 - 75]untitled [pp. 75 - 76]untitled [pp. 76 - 77]untitled [pp. 77 - 78]untitled [p. 78]untitled [p. 79]untitled [p. 79]untitled [pp. 79 - 80]untitled [pp. 80 - 81]untitled [p. 81]untitled [pp. 81 - 82]untitled [p. 82]untitled [p. 82]untitled [pp. 82 - 83]untitled [p. 83]untitled [pp. 83 - 84]untitled [pp. 84 - 85]untitled [p. 85]untitled [p. 85]untitled [pp. 85 - 86]untitled [p. 86]untitled [p. 87]untitled [pp. 87 - 88]untitled [p. 88]untitled [pp. 88 - 89]untitled [p. 89]untitled [pp. 89 - 90]Books Received [pp. 90 - 91]

    LettersOriginal Animals by an Artist? [pp. 93 - 94]Astrology and Modern Science [p. 94]

    On Book ReviewsCybernetics [p. 94]Holography [pp. 94 - 95]The Tamarind Book of Lithography: Art and Technique [p. 95]The Technique of Kinetic Art [pp. 95 - 96]Great Ideas in Information Theory, Language and Cybernetics [p. 96]Outsider Art [p. 96]

    Back Matter


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