First PhD year in empirical aesthetics

I cannot believe it has been a year since the start of my PhD. One year ago, I dove into the field of empirical aesthetics. It’s been an intense year: I learned a lot and took part in several projects. While I was settling into this new position, I did not have much time to share my insights in the form of blog posts. Now it’s time to come out of the office, take a breath and give you a better idea of what I have been doing throughout the last year.

Understanding beauty, an impossible quest?

Understanding something as ‘elusive’ as beauty can feel like an impossible quest. What determines whether we find something beautiful, touching, impressive, interesting? Is there accounting for taste?

Despite the ease with which we seem to make judgments of beauty, it’s much more difficult to explain how they are formed. Many factors play a role, both in the aesthetic ‘object’ (artwork, photograph, clothing, environment, …) as well as in the viewer.

Throughout my PhD project, and building upon the knowledge that already exists, I hope to uncover some of the characteristics that play a role and I will do this through research methods of psychology. But should psychology focus on something as elusive and complex as aesthetics?

Some are not convinced, or in the words of ‘anonymous reviewer 1’ of my proposal for PhD funding:

I am sure some may consider this the prime example of trying to unweave the rainbow.

© Nathalie Vissers

That psychology can be one of the disciplines or perspectives on our understanding of art, might not be obvious to everyone at first sight. However, if you start thinking about the aspects that play a role in how we are perceiving art & photography (visual perception, memory, emotion, cognition, individual differences, cultural differences), it almost reads like a textbook of psychology 101. And then we are not even talking about the psychological factors that play a role in making art (creativity, imagination, …). Rudolf Arnheim summarises it as follows, in his introduction to his book of collected essays: ‘Toward a psychology of art’:

The papers collected in this book are based on the assumption that art, as any other activity of the mind, is subject to psychology, accesible to understanding, and needed for any comprehensive survey of mental functioning. (Arnheim, 1966)

In fact, empirical/experimental psycho-aesthetics, or the domain studying what factors contribute to our aesthetic experience, is one of the oldest domains in psychological science. It orginated with Gustav Fechner - one of the founding fathers of experimental psychology - writing ‘Vorschule der Aesthetik’ in 1876. Now, more than 40 years later, the field of psycho-aesthetics still exists, along with many mysteries of beauty that have not been discovered yet.

Back to the anonymous reviewer. He continued to say that it could be studied in principle, but then strikes back with:

Big question is whether they will interest many people: maybe not the artists because they don’t want their work ‘explained’, not the scientists because they do not think the results are very innovative/interesting.

I think this is a statement that deserves another future blog post. However, I would like to add that, in general, aesthetics play a major role in our everyday life and wellbeing (including, but not limited to : being moved by a beautiful landscape, movie or book, to the clothes you decide to wear, the objects you surround yourself with and the art you visit in the museums, …). Moreover, photographs and other visual images a major role in our current society, so understanding how we are perceiving and reacting to photography should definitely deserve attention in the scientific psychological literature.

A knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterates of the future will be ignorant of the use of the camera and pen alike. (László Moholy-Nagy)

Daily life of a PhD student

Now that you have an idea about the field that I will be studying, you might be wondering what this means concretely in terms of my working days. Or, in other words, am I just pondering the meaning of ‘beauty’ while sitting at my desk? Unfortunately, or probably luckily, not. It has been a varied year, in terms of content, activities and skills.

Content-wise, I have had a great introduction in the field of empirical aesthetics over the past year, by being able to collaborate on three studies that were very varied, both in the image type they used (photographs, paintings, stop-motion animations) and the questions they tried to answer. Note that these projects are still ongoing and I am only one of the collaborators, you can find more information in the references below (and probably also in future blog posts):

  1. How does complexity in the photographs by Dominique Genin influence people’s aesthetic reactions to them?
  2. How do people experience a complex artistic contemplation (several stop-motion animations from charcoal drawings, different soundscapes, ..) centered around a historical fact (the sinking of a boat with South-African laborers on their way to assist in WWI) by artist Wendy Morris?
  3. How does the use of fluorescent paint influence the perception and instantaneous quality of Frank Stella’s Morrocan series paintings?

Practically, this means I have been in a learning trajectory of many different skills, such as: reading the scientific literature, thinking about and designing study designs and questionnaires, freshing up my statistical skills, writing many lines of code in R (statistical software) and getting even more errors as a result, interpreting results, writing and presenting, managing different projects at once, being on top of administration, making 100s of to-do lists, etc ….

So instead of seeing me quietly pondering the meaning of beauty, you wouldd more often see me struggle with a new to-do system, being with my nose pressed upon the screen to figure out an R-error, or typing furiously as I am trying to make notes of previous research or write up certain results.

Arriving in the office in the morning. On the right, you can see my newest to-do system

Ready for the next year

In conclusion, it has been a very varied, challenging and interesting year. However, while being completely absorbed into all the small details of doing research, I sometimes forgot to take a step back and take some time to do that meaning-of-beauty-in-all-things-photography thinking.

Therefore, I am glad to have this blog and you - the reader on the other side- to reflect upon ideas, get inspired by the worlds of images out there, and make meaning of all the fascinating things these images tell us.

I hope you’ll journey along!


References to the presentations of the scientific projects described above (clicking the link will open the full VSAC program in which you can find the summaries for the specific presentations)

Read & See: