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۱٫ The scientific approach to aesthetics

A century has passed since experimental aesthetics was founded by Gustav Fechner (1876). Daniel Berlyne (1971, 1974), who established the ‘new experimental aesthetics’, continued Fechner’s theoretical and empirical tradition. This tradition is closely related to that of general experimental psychology. They both originate in the study of psychophysical processes with an attendant emphasis on stimulus-response relationships. The experimental approach to psychology reflects a natural science viewpoint (Giorgi (1970)) and is empirical, quantitative, deterministic, and reductionist in its analysis of phenomena. Fechner’s tradition in aesthetics has come under criticism from various quarters because of these biases. Amheim (1985), the noted Gestalt psychologist, has expressed concern about the limited questions which it addresses and its narrow methods. Philosophers have similarly criticized its methodological constraints (Dickie (1962)), and lack of sensitivity to cultural or historical factors (Margolis (1980)). A fresh consideration of the status of experimental aesthetics in the light of these criticisms will help to ensure the integrity of its future.

۱٫۱٫ Gustav Fechner (1801-1889)

Fechner’s work (1876) represents a transition from traditional humanistic approaches to aesthetics to a scientific and experimental approach. He replaced the philosopher’s speculative and abstract aesthetics ‘from above’ with a concrete and factual aesthetics ‘from below’. Thus, insights of single individuals were replaced by averaged responses of groups of subjects. Instead of exploring single artworks in depth, large numbers of objects were used to establish the collective attributes of stimulus classes. Subject responses were primarily concerned with preferences for simple physical properties of stimuli. Fechner’s work on preference for the golden section proportion exemplifies this research approach. Subjects were presented with a series of paintings varying in the ratio of length to width. The preferred proportion was Fechner’s prime object of inquiry. Fechner developed various procedures which permitted an objective comparison among carefully selected stimuli. The ‘forcedchoice’ method of discriminating preference or physical similarity is basic to current research in the discipline (Berlyne (1974)). Fechner’s thinking anticipated both the motivational and cognitive traditions in modem psychology. The motivational aspect was expressed in his belief that the search for pleasure is an important dynamic in aesthetic response. However, he also acknowledged mental processes which may be associated with aesthetic responses including the effects of relative similarity, intensity, context and sequence. Relative similarity between stimuli and stimulus intensity have been dimensions of great importance to behaviourally oriented aestheticians (Berlyne (1971, 1974)). This is consistent with an emphasis on the aesthetic effects of isolated features or dimensions of stimuli. The effects of context and sequence have been central to the thinking of Gestalt psychologists (Arnheim (1969, 1971)). These factors emphasize a holistic view of the aesthetic stimulus and its evolution over time against the background of cultural and experience. Fechner was basically a reductionist and this indirectly accounted for his preoccupation with all forms of stimulus measurement. He believed that events in the mind are isomorphic with processes in the nervous system. He also assumed a close relationship between physical stimulus and physiological response. Since ‘the physiological counterpart to conscious experience was inaccessible to research’, (Amheim (1985: 858)) he focused on the relationship between physical stimulus and perceptual response. This ‘external psychophysics’ was associated with the analysis of stimuli along dimensions such as intensity. The stimulus could be equally physical in aesthetics, one example being the ratio of length and width in the dimensions of a painting. In modern aesthetics the ‘physical’ stimulus is measured along abstract dimensions such as informational ‘uncertainty’ (Moles (1958), Berlyne (1971, 1974)). Fechner also developed a variety of theoretical principles to account for aesthetic preferences. For example, his ‘principle of the aesthetic middle’ states that people ‘tolerate most often and for the longest time a certain medium degree of arousal, which makes them feel neither overstimulated nor dissatisfied by a lack of sufficient occupation’ (Fechner (1876, Vol. II: 217 and 260) cited by Amheim (1985)). This principle bears close and ‘noteworthy’ (Berlyne (1971: 124)) similarity to the inverted U-shaped curve found in Twentieth Century research on the relationship of uncertainty to preference through the mediation of arousal level. Berlyne (1971) mentions another of Fechner’s (1876, I: 53) principles, the ‘principle of unitary connection of the manifold’. This principle suggests that pleasing stimuli must provide a proper balance between complexity (‘a multiplicity of points of attack’) and orderliness (‘unitary connection’). Fechner’s principles imply that aesthetic pleasure is closely related to the feelings which result from the search for meaning in artworks.

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