An information processing model of aesthetic appraisal

This is a brief version of the aesthetic appraisal model sketched in my PhD dissertation. Draft, comments are welcome.


My aim in this paper is to explain how an aesthetic judgement and an aesthetic evaluation are formed from an interdisciplinary perspective. I present an aesthetic appraisal model from an integrative perspective of aesthetics and psychology, with special attention paid to evaluative relevant properties of artwork. I propose that aesthetic evaluation is a function of the perceiver’s processing dynamics: The cognitive appraisal processing of art produces affective experiences and bivalence-based, i.e., positive and negative, aesthetic attitudes. This model will represent different processing stages and variables that are involved in cognitive and aesthetic experiences. I reconsider variables observed to influence aesthetic evaluation, such as figural goodness, figure-ground contrast, symmetry, and prototypicality in evaluation processing. My proposal provides an integrative structure for the study of aesthetic evaluation and aesthetic pleasure, and sheds light on the interaction between subjective preferences versus cultural influences on aesthetic taste, preferences, and values.

Keywords: Aesthetic appraisal; Emotion appraisal; information processing; aesthetic experience; artwork; aesthetic evaluation.

I.   Introduction

This paper deals with the affective responses to art which is curiously standing apart from the psychology of emotions, and inversely, the psychological and cognitive aspect of art appreciation which is ignored by art theorists. It is suggested that aesthetic emotions should be considered as constituting some subcategories of emotions, alongside with affective experiences such as being happy, or angry, and that they shall be integrated in empirical studies of emotions. However, although the perplexing power of artwork to evoke emotions has called attention to some emotional appraisal theorists like Nico H. Frijda (1986, 1989), both theoretical considerations and empirical studies on the nature of aesthetic affective experience are quite marginal. Nonetheless, some problems concerning art and affect have been particularly prominent both in aesthetic theories and recent empirical studies of art. The first concerns what are apparently hedonic reactions to perceptual properties of a work of art, while the second concerns the cognitive mediation factors or value-expectancy characters of aesthetic judgements. Both problems can be viewed from a theoretical consideration on the aesthetic evaluation of art. Therefore, my intention in this paper is first of all to propose an interdisciplinary model on the basis of the aesthetic processing model of Helmut Leder et al. (2004) and of the component process model (CPM) of Klaus R. Scherer (1984, 2001), from the point of view of an art theorist. My aim is to put forward a model of aesthetic appraisal processing that helps in studying hedonic reaction, cognitive operation and affective evaluation in aesthetic judgement of art. In adopting a factor-analysis based appraisal method, I would like to show how a dimensional approach can help to look for the determinant factors of aesthetic experience.

Leder and his colleagues describe aesthetic experience as based on a continuous cognition-affect interaction process. (Leder et al. 2004)  According to his model, aesthetic experiences involve five basic processing stages: perception, implicit classification, explicit classification, cognitive mastering and evaluation. The model of Leder is designed to understanding art-specific cognitive experiences and affective reactions, especially in the domain of modern art. It differentiates consequently between aesthetic emotion and aesthetic judgments as two types of output. This model gives us a basic framework for a dynamic vision of aesthetic processing, yet it needs more subtle theoretical considerations about the structure of aesthetic processing and the variables that determinate the aesthetic evaluation.

Another way to think of aesthetic processing lies on the appraisal theory of emotion. A noticeable aspect of this approach is that emotional appraisals are described in terms of a relatively small set of appraisal dimensions and in terms of synchronizing processing stages, as described by Scherer (1984, 2001). Each emotional experience is therefore thought to match an appraisal structure consisting of a particular pattern of values based on these dimensions and on different levels. The appraisal approach claims to provide a dimensional account of different emotion antecedents and different experiential contents of emotions which shall be analysed in a more fine-grained way. Appraisal theory and research have been so far focused on the questions of appraisal patterns of different emotions, such as: what distinguishes emotional experience from other kinds of experience such as cognition? How to determine the patterns of appraisal characteristic underlying different experiences of emotion? In considering artworks to be the antecedent par excellence of aesthetic reactions, and aesthetic experiences to be emotional reactions constituted by multiple determinants, I then turn to the component process model of Scherer which gives us a fine-grained analysis structure of affective experience. I define aesthetic emotions as a specific kind of affective experience, which depends on the result of evaluation processing of affective stimuli or emotional antecedents in terms of its significance for the concerns or the well-being of the individual. Building on the model of Scherer, aesthetic experience, like emotional experience, is reconsidered to be an episode of interrelated, synchronized changes in the states of subsystems of affective processing in response to the presence of an emotion elicitor, i.e., an artwork (Scherer, 1984, 2001). In this view, aesthetic experience is thought to be a dynamic process, or a psychological happening, of which the goal is to produce an adaptive reaction to an external artistic event. I hope that the present model will serve as a heuristic basis for future researches in empirical aesthetics, as well as further interdisciplinary reflections on art.

II.   An aesthetic processing model of Leder

The aesthetic processing model of Leder is originally designed to understand aesthetic experiences of modern art, in order to identify what cognitive-processing stages are involved in the information-processing of the aesthetic experience (Leder et al., 2004). The model is based on Leder’s observation and analysis of modern art, and is intended to describe the processing stages from where the formation of aesthetic experiences and aesthetic judgments is actualized. The model of Leder combines both cognitive and affective processing and presents aesthetic experience as a continuous cognition-emotion interaction process. Aesthetic experience is therefore constructed as a cognitive appraisal process under the influence of the constantly upgrading affective states, resulting in two distinct outputs: an aesthetic judgement based on the cognitive information processing of an artwork, and an aesthetic emotion based on the affective state of satisfaction. In this view, cognitive operation and affective experience are thought to be connected reciprocally at the functional level.

As it is shown in the model of Leder, the input for the processing model is a work of art which is assumed to be situated in an art context and classified formerly by its contextual cues provided by the museum and the experts of art. The model defines five processing stages, and each of them is concerned with different cognitive analyses. For the first two levels, Leder and his colleagues propose a list of important variables: the factors like complexity, contrast, symmetry, order, and grouping on the perceptual analysis level, and those such as familiarity, prototypicality, and peak-shift principle on the implicit memory integration level. On the third level, explicit representations such as content and style of a work of art are analysed. We should take notice that Leder’s model postulates a cognitive mastering level which is closely linked to an evaluation level and that these two levels build a feedback-loop. For “the results of the cognitive mastering stage are permanently evaluated in relation to their success in either revealing a satisfying understanding, successful cognitive mastering or expected changes in the level of ambiguity. Thus, the evaluation stage guides the aesthetic processing by measuring its success. Moreover, through the backwards-loop, it further initializes information processing. When the evaluation is not subjectively experienced as successful, the information processing can be redirected to the previous stages.” (Leder et al., 2004) Leder claims that expertise should be reflected in the quality and the result of this feedback-loop. He notices correctly that “art experts process artworks using style and visual features of the artwork, while naïve viewers more often refer to content or external referents.” (Leder et al., 2004, p.499) Finally, the model proposes two types of output in the end of processing: aesthetic emotion from affective state (satisfaction) and aesthetic judgment from cognitive state (understanding). The outputs of the aesthetic processing then enter into the intersubjective dialogues of social interaction which is going to take part in the context of another upcoming artistic perception.

The model of Leder gives a sketch of aesthetic processing, yet too simplified to take account of the complexity of aesthetic phenomena. Moreover, Leder’s assumption of aesthetic experience as affectively positive and self-rewarding is for me a partial vision of art and does not take account of the negative aspect, the antinomy, and the variety of art experience. An alternative and more accommodating conception of aesthetic processing based on philosophical consideration of art, as well as on the appraisal model of Scherer, is proposed in this article to take in both the positive and negative reactions to artworks and to offer a more fine-grained vision of aesthetic processing.

III.   Scherer’s appraisal model of emotion: Component Process Model (CPM)

The Component Process Model (CPM) is Scherer’s major theoretical contribution to the study of emotions. Since its first coming in 1984, this model is still submitted to continuous update and empirical test. Scherer considers emotional experiences as a psychological construct consisting of an overall process of the sequential synchronisation of different components or subsystems, i.e., cognitive appraisal, physiological activation, motor expression, motivational tendencies, and subjective feeling state. The experience of emotion is considered as the result of the multilevel sequential evaluation checking of an emotional stimulus or event. Moreover, the appraisal process is thought to be part of general information processing system. In the executive space (working memory), the core evaluation operations proceed the appraisal registers – defined as novelty, pleasantness, relevance, consistence, urgency, control, power, adjustment, internal standard and external standard – according to predetermined appraisal objectives  – defined by three subsystems : NES (neuro-endocrine system), ANS (autonomic nervous system), SNS (somatic nervous system), and in relation to its relevance, implication, coping potential, and normative significance. The appraisal outcomes then separately drive peripheral support systems and produce action tendencies.

According to Scherer’s model, different emotional contents should be differentiated by distinctive appraisal patterns determined by the combination of certain cognitive, appraisal and motivational components. That explains why some situational elicitor may evoke different emotions at different time and at different places, and why some given emotional content could be elicited by various emotion antecedents. Because it is the evaluation of the events and the combination of different cognitive and motivational components, rather than the events per se, that determines the content of an emotion. Similar emotional events may elicit different emotions if they are processed and evaluated in different ways, and dissimilar events may cause the same kind of emotion if they are processed by similar appraisal pattern. To be brief, a certain kind of emotional content is produced by a certain kind of appraisal pattern, rather than an outer emotional event per se (Frijda, 1989; Roseman & Smith, 2001).

Furthermore, like Leder, the appraisal model of emotion postulates both automatic and deliberate processing. Scherer claims that, like other cognitive and psychological processes, appraisal of emotional events can be preceded both by automatic or controlled processing (Scherer, 2001). An emotional content or an expressive behavior may be generated effortlessly and unconsciously. However, they may also be examined consciously by the emotional individual in more controlled processing. In this way, it is possible for an emotional individual to select among some potential emotional responses and to make adequate decisions according to his internal needs and outer situations. In this way, contrary to our common sense of emotion, the emotional responses are actually adaptive and even quite rational. The emotion reactions are biologically pre-programmed mechanisms that help us to adopt adaptive solutions to an urgent situation. I believe that the appraisal model of Scherer is not only suitable for the explanation of common emotions, but it is also possible to develop an appraisal model of aesthetic emotions on the basis of the framework of appraisal processing. In what follows, I am going to present an appraisal model of aesthetic emotions based on the appraisal theory of Scherer and the aesthetic processing model of Leder.

IV.   Aesthetic emotions

Aesthetic emotions are defined to be emotional responses to works of art. I consider the aesthetic emotions as belonging to some subcategories of general emotions: The feeling for beauty, the sublime, and the melancholy are aesthetic emotions par excellence. Philosophers or theorists of art, such as Leo Tolstoy (1897), Clive Bell (1914), Benedetto Croce (1902), John Dewey (1934), Susanne Langer (1953), Robin G. Collingwood (1965), and Nelson Goodman (1976), claim that the value of works of art lies in their ability to move us, their magic power to make us feel into the deep ocean of emotions. Art should be our most powerful emotive expression. For Bell, what arouses our emotion in the visual arts is a certain combination of lines and colors in a pictorial space that he called “significant form.” In our appraisal terms, an aesthetic affective response to certain significant form is to be identified as some emotional responses to some emotion elicitors. In this way, we may consider a significant form – i.e., a certain combination of lines and colors according to Bell – of a work of art to be the antecedent of a certain aesthetic emotion. Our aesthetic response to pictures is therefore intensely emotional. It is suggested that an aesthetic emotion should then be understood as the outcome of this interplay of artistic medium (or significant form), cognition, imagination, and appraisal processing.

Let’s take for example the painting of Caspar David Friedrich, Monk by the Sea (see Fig. 1), which evokes some calm sensations and melancholic feelings in most people who contemplate it. Those feelings are actually sensations that emerge in us – the beholder of the painting – rather than intrinsic properties in the figure of the monk, the person seen in the painting. In fact, the figure of the monk is minimized in such a way that we do not even see his gestures and facial expressions, not to say his thoughts or feelings. The extreme formal simplicity makes it a neighbor of Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings. In reality, our feeling of silence, mystery and melancholy comes from the pictorial composition and the arrangement of colors and lines in this painting. The figure of the monk is almost miniscule, if not redundant. The pictorial composition breaks down the land, the sea and sky into four horizontal blocks, which express a sensation of stillness and a feeling of silence; the infinite nuance of the blue colors, the pale white, gray and dark black dominate our vision, and from that comes all its emotional force. Actually, our aesthetic feelings to this picture are responses to the formal elements and relations of forms themselves, rather than its representational contents, or symbolic meanings. It is about emotions of great profundity, a kind of transcendental feelings, akin to the great emotions felt in religious meditation. In this way, the emotional meanings of the work are communicated by the pure significant form which is the elicitor of our aesthetic affective responses which causes the fallowing process of cognitive and appraisal processing. It is then assumed that the power and value of works of art is tied into this cognitive appraisal processing of pictorial meanings, and that their perceptual, formal properties, such as a certain kind of arrangement of lines and colors, should be considered as emotion antecedents which invite aesthetic feelings to come into play in a given aesthetic context.

Building on the appraisal theory of Scherer, I propose that aesthetic emotions, such as beauty, sublime, melancholy, magnificence, grace, garish, etc., should be processed like ordinary emotions, such as joy, sadness, rage, and shyness. The felt content of aesthetic experience is thought to be the outcome of multiple cognitive, appraisal, and motivational processes that involve distinct psychological mechanisms and occur in sequential synchronisation of cognitive and affective components. However, while Scherer emphasizes the conceptual and semantic analyses of emotional events, I will highlight the perceptual processing in aesthetic experiences. This is not to deny the functional role of conceptual processing in aesthetic experiences, but to call attention to the importance of pure formal and visual elements of works of art that should be taken account as vitally as their semantic elements and conceptual contents. Actually, a lot of studies in experimental psychology related to artistic experience have focused on perceptual features specific to artworks (Berlyne, 1970; Solso, 1994; Shigeko Takahashi, 1995; Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999; Zeki, 1999; Margaret Livingstone, 2002; Winkielman, 2004). A number of perceptual features, such as order, luminous and chromatic contrast, grouping, and symmetry, have been observed to be in relation to aesthetic preferences. That is to say, some perceptual features and some aesthetic appraisal patterns tend to produce positive emotions and thus aesthetic preferences. Those empirical studies may help us to bring together perceptual variables that affect aesthetic judgements and to show in what perceptual conditions beholders of artworks tend to prefer one work to another. Based on the models put forth by Scherer and Leder, we are then beginning to consider how aesthetic appraisal processing mechanisms are underlying in the aesthetic emotions.

V.   An appraisal model of aesthetic emotions

The aim of current version of aesthetic appraisal model is to understand and to explain why particular aesthetic appraisals patterns elicit particular aesthetic emotions. The Fig. 2 presents a schematization of the appraisal processing model of aesthetic emotion that I am going to enumerate in the following sections. As shown in the sketch, arrows symbolize the direction of information flow. This model presumes that information flow between long-term memory and working memory is bidirectional, and that there is a constant exchange of information between the two.  From a perspective of affect-cognition interaction, this model presumes that information flow between the cognitive operation and affective evaluation is bidirectional, too, and that there is mutual influence between the two operational systems. In what follows, our discussion will focus on sensory, schematic and conceptual processing, because art theories have lots to say about what determines aesthetic appraisal in sensual aspects of visual stimuli.

Fig.2. Sketch of the information processing model of aesthetic appraisal

1.   Input and output

The input of the overall processes of aesthetic processing is a work of art. According to this model, a particular aesthetic emotion is the outcome of reciprocal interaction of cognitive and appraisal processing elicited by an emotional antecedent, or an emotion elicitor – a work of art, to be precise. Building on the model of Leder, the final output of our processing model is a judgement about a work of art which is composed of two kinds of content: (1) a cognitive judgement, or judgement of knowledge, with respect to the perceptual, physical properties, and factual, conceptual or semantic content of the work of art; (2) an aesthetic (affective) judgement, or judgement of taste, with respect to the subjective satisfaction resulted from the affective evaluation processing. The evaluation of the work of art drives the motivational state or action tendency, which results in some motor output, i.e., some behavior or action. Like those of other behaviors, the basic patterns of the action tendencies related to aesthetic experiences are those that reflect the approach and avoidance motivations. They consist of the direction of the visual attention to some details, while ignoring others, the behavior of approaching to the work of art for more meticulous scrutiny, staying for a while to enjoying the beauty of the object, or on the contrary, going away and never wanting to see it again.

2.   The context of aesthetic appraisal processing: the Artworld

In our model, the context of works of art is defined as Artworld, a philosophical notion originally given by Arthur Danto (1964, 1981) to define a network of theories and discourses of art which make possible the assignment to an object as art. While originally Danto considered the Artworld to be constituted mainly of abstract and conceptual entities, such as art theories and discourses, our model extends the boundary of Artworld to include scientific and empirical testing of art theories (Leder et al., 2004), as well as substantial entities and physical spaces, such as museums, galleries, experts of art, and spectators, which constitute the physical supports of abstract art concepts. In the Artworld, circulate theories and philosophies about art; there are art exhibitions, book publications, and discussing forums, that make possible social interaction between members. Furthermore, I consider the Artworld to be a virtual or substantial space where art concepts, cultural norms and artistic values are kept in storage. Artworld defines what should be a work of art, and the way how it exists affects both the production and consumption of artwork. It is both a virtual and substantial space where individuals, artworks and art concepts meet each other and are getting into interaction.

To be brief, the functional role of Artworld in our model is twofold: on one side, it keeps art values and cultural norms in storage, and provides the pre-classification of artwork and object of aesthetic interest; on the other side, it is a recipient of art discourses and art judgements which are products of a complex aesthetic appraisal processing of individuals in a given society. As suggested by Gerald Cupchik (1992), an aesthetic processing model should take account of socially, individually, and psychologically interrelated organization. Our model is such an aesthetic processing that situates psychological aesthetic processing in a global context which is Artworld.

3.   The space of aesthetic information-processing

As sketched in Fig. 2, our model presents the space of the appraisal process as part of a general information processing system, confined by dashed lines. As presumed by Scherer (2001), the major part of aesthetic appraisal processing occurs in an executive space, i.e., the working memory, described by the cognitive model of working memory, put forth by Cowan (1988, 1999). As represented in Fig. 2, the space of working memory is confined by dotted lines, where the contents of sensory registers are to be processed by a range of perceptual, schematic and conceptual analysis procedures, from simple and automatic pattern matching to complex and controlled logical inference, each one based on schemata or representations activated in long-term memory, confined by dotted lines in the sketch of Fig. 2. The cognitive information processing is presented here as an overall processing process consisting of four stages, which begins in the automatic sensory registers and then gives rise to a more elaborate logical inference and controlled processing – i.e., conceptual processing of work content and art style, coping potential processing about the self-estimation of available art knowledge and problem-solving ability. Building on the model of Scherer, our model suggests that the content of cognitive information processing undergoes constant renewing, and the result is to be delivered immediately for affective appraisals, which then keep motivational state updating. The constant updating motivational state is a kind of action tendency that is going to guide adaptive motor actions of the aesthetic perceiver in response to an artwork.

As defined in the model of Scherer, appraisal registers are small unities of rapidly accessible storage space for intermediate evaluation as a result of previous cognitive information processing. The model defines appraisal registers as small unities of evaluation testing, that he calls SECs (stimulus evaluation checks), consisting of novelty check, intrinsic pleasantness check, goal/need conduciveness check, coping potential check, norm/self compatibility check, etc. (Scherer, 1984, 2001) As mentioned previously, the model of Scherer is designed mainly to take account of emotions of ordinary social interaction, while aesthetic emotions might differ slightly from daily affective experiences. To keep the model in tune with our aesthetic evaluation goals, it is suggested that alternative appraisal checks shall be investigated by theoretical inquiries and empirical testing both in the fields of art and experimental psychology. Our model highlights especially the sensory and schematic aspects of aesthetic appraisal processing, for the reason that these aspects are generally considered as less important factors in ordinary emotion elicitation, while they are at the heart of a majority of aesthetic experiences. Unlike the appraisal model of ordinary emotions in which conceptual and propositional contents are unilaterally highlighted, it is therefore suggested that we should emphasize both perceptual and conceptual content analyses in an appraisal processing model of aesthetic emotions. Our model suggests that future research both in experimental psychology and art studies on the sensory and schematic aspects of art perception will still have a lot to say about the nature of aesthetic experiences.

4.   Sensory appraisal processing

It is suggested that there is a continuous updating in the affective state resulted from the appraisal of sensory and cognitive information analysis. A number of perceptual features such as brightness (Livingstone, 2002), contrast (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999), color (Martindale & Moore, 1998; Zeki, 1999; Livingstone, 2002; Solso, 2003), pictorial complexity (Berlyne, 1970), figure-ground organization (Arnheim, 1954; Winkielman, 2004), perceptual grouping (Arnheim, 1954; Solso, 1994; Locher, 1999; Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999), order (Gombrich, 1979; Tyler, 1999; Winkielman, 2004), symmetry (Gombrich, 1979; Tyler, 1999, 2002), and perspective (Solso, 1994, 2003; Livingstone, 2002), have been investigated with respect to aesthetic preferences. The processing of the perceptual features begins in sensory registers, defined as a kind of sensory memory capable of retaining sensory information temporarily. The sensory processing of stimulus is immediate, without effort. As shown by Leventhal (1984) and Scherer (2001), sensory appraisal of stimulus proceeds through largely innate and hard-wired feature detection, appraisal operation, and reflexive motor responses, which are specialized for determining the affective meaning and activating adaptive reaction to specific stimulus patterns. Our model suggests that the sensory analyses of visual stimulus should be seriously taken into account, because the sensory appraisals may be decisive to the following up procedures and take major part in resulting aesthetic emotions, especially in the case of abstract paintings, design objects, or other modern artworks, where the conceptual and semantic meaning may be absent or relatively unimportant.

Furthermore, it is suggested that hedonic quality of an aesthetic emotion depends mostly on sensory appraisals of perceptual features of artwork. Nevertheless, it does not necessarily mean that semantic and conceptual elements are insignificant in art appreciation, but that unlike ordinary emotions which rely mostly on interpretations of eliciting situations, aesthetic emotions depend largely on sensory impressions that we have of an artwork. I think Daniel Berlyne, Semir Zeki, and Vilayanur S. Ramachandran are right to call attention to sensory aspects of artwork rather than its semantic meanings. After all, it is the sensory evaluation of an artwork rather than its conceptual content that makes art experiences distinctive with respect to ordinary emotional experiences. On the appraisal processing level, some perceptual features of an artwork are intrinsically pleasant, and the distinction of some art forms are rewarding. That means that some perceptual patterns are evaluated by our information appraisal system as positive and becoming pleasant and satisfying, while others are evaluated negatively, felt unpleasant and pushed away. The present model aims to keep bringing this subject to the attention of scientists who are interested in perceptual experiences of art.

5.   Schematic appraisal processing

Schematic appraisal processing in our model is equivalent to what Leder calls “implicit memory integration.” Like sensory appraisal processing, it is also conceived as rapid, automatic, and without conscious awareness. Schematic appraisal processing is similar to conditioned responses. It is based on the repeated elicitation of aesthetic emotions in concurrence with the perception of artworks which results in some storage of nonverbal, schematic memory representations that we may call aesthetic emotion schemata. “On the schematic level,” suggests Scherer, “checking criteria are composed of schemata based on the learning history of the individual, which can be conceptualized as abstract representations of learned responses to specific stimulus patterns.” (Scherer, 2001) Appraisal variables on this level are considered to include familiarity (Winkielman et al., 2004; Hekkert et al., 2003), prototypicality (Martindale et al., 1990; Hekkert et al., 2003), novelty (Berlyne, 1970; Hekkert et al., 2003), and peak shift effect (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999; Zeki, 1999). Besides those variables, this model proposes that posture, body schema, and body image should be added to take account of schematic processing of aesthetic appraisal.

(a)   Familiarity, prototypicality and novelty

Although familiarity, prototypicality and novelty are variables that affect aesthetic experiences, their effects with artworks are not always consistent (Bornstein, 1989; Hekkert et al., 2003; Leder et al., 2004). Furthermore, while “mere exposure effect” enforces the familiarity of a stimulus, and results in an increase in positive affect toward it, Bornstein (1989) points out that “painting/drawing/matrice stimuli do not produce the robust exposure effects associated with other types of stimuli.” On the other hand, Hekkert et al. (2003) investigate that not only typicality, familiarity, novelty and originality could have highly complex relations from one to another – i.e., familiarity correlates positively to typicality, while inversely correlates to novelty and originality – but together, four of them have a joint influence on aesthetic appreciation. A mathematical function seems to underlie in phenomena of aesthetic liking relative to familiarity, typicality, novelty, and originality. The effect of familiarity and novelty on aesthetic liking seems uncertain, and needs further scientific investigation to determine their real relative nature.

(b)   Peak shift principle

Zeki (1999) notes that artistic creation relies on the repetitive self-stimulation reward pattern of the brain. This phenomenon is in accordance with that of “brain stimulation reward (BSR)” discovered originally by James Olds and Peter Milner (Olds & Milner, 1954). In the observation by Olds and Milner, rats are found to perform arbitrary operant behaviors to obtain electrical stimulation of some brain regions, such as septal area (Olds & Milner, 1954), medial forebrain bundle and lateral hypothalamus (Olds, 1962), which are then thought to be the reward center of the brain. From a similar perspective, Ramachandran and Hirstein (1999) apply the “peak shift principle” to the explanation of art, such as caricatures and Hindu arts. Peak shift principle predicts that if a human is rewarded for discriminating an art form from another, he will respond even more vigorously to an amplified form than to the prototype, as they say:

Indeed, as we shall see, what the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object. As the physiologist Zeki (1998) has eloquently noted, it may not be a coincidence that the ability of the artist to abstract the ‘essential features’ of an image and discard redundant information is essentially identical to what the visual areas themselves have evolved to do. (Ramachandran & Hirstein, 1999, p.17)

The peak shift phenomenon is therefore thought to be a basic learning principle that goes into play with some specific perceptual features, such as grouping, contrast, symmetry, which are thought to be rewarding and, for that reason, reinforcing. They are thought to be used by artists to optimally stimulate the brain, analogous to some kind of visual morphine.

(c)   Body schema

I suggest that besides to familiarity, prototypicality, novelty, and peak shift effect, the variables such as human position, body schema, and body image should be taken account for the aesthetic appraisal processing at the schematic level. These are explicit or implicit representations of the brain to monitor the body position and to guide its movement in relation to nearby objects through space. The main concern of aesthetic appraisal processing will be the question of how the presumed body schema and body image have their influence on aesthetic preferences.

Regarding definitions of a body schema and a body image, there is a lot of dispute on what they should be. Shaun Gallagher (1986, 1995) has rightly noted that a clear conceptual distinction between these two terms should be helpful for theoretical and functional purposes. He defines the concept of body image to be a reflective intentional state “in which the intentional object of such states is one’s own body.” (Gallagher, 1995) In contrast to the conscious and reflective intentional state of the body image, a body schema is an unreflective and unconscious body awareness that “involves a system of motor capacities, abilities, and habits that enable movement and the maintenance of posture (Gallagher, 1995).” In a simpler way, let’s say that a body image is a conscious representation of some perceptual, conceptual or emotional aspects of the body, while a body schema is an unconscious, subpersonal representation that depends on information provided by proprioceptive, kinesthetic, muscular or other senses about the spatial position and the internal state of the body. Phenomena associated to body schema are those such as the postural vertical, the postural horizontal, and the “oblique effect” (Appelle, 1972), which we think to be very influential on the pictorial compositions. Yet as the case in the control of body skills and body movements, their dominant power on pictorial compositions is implicit and unconscious. We think that body images should be as prominent as body schemata, although their influence could be both conscious and unconscious. It is suggested that an ideal image of body causes aesthetic liking and aesthetic positive emotions in normal conditions, while an impaired, amputated body image causes aesthetic suffering and aesthetic negative emotions, which can be called “sublime” in a Kantian way (Kant, 1790). A pictorial representation in accordance with our ideal images of body is beautiful, while the contrary is unpleasant or even terrifying. Images in paintings of Salvador Dali or Francis Bacon can be considered as an impaired body image that give the spectator a very wrong idea of their own amputated body and then express a feeling of uneasiness, pain, sufferance, or even terror. The tortured, amputated body in paintings expresses artists’ feeling pain in such a way that can be so enormous and driving spectators suffered because of it.

Unlike sensual processing, schematic processing, though unconscious, is highly influenced by habits and cultural practices that contribute to our learning history. Unconscious, while culturally and socially differentiated tastes may be explained on the basis of the processing on this level.

6.   Conceptual processing

The higher conceptual level of aesthetic processing, which Leder calls “explicit classifications,” is particularly affected by expertise and knowledge of the perceiver. The expert effect in aesthetic liking has been observed by Hekkert and his colleagues (Hekkert & van Wieringen, 1990, 1996a, 1996b, 1998), and Locher and his colleagues (Locher et al., 1999). Conceptual aesthetic processing is explicit, deliberate and can be verbalized. Leder accurately points out that an aesthetic experience involves both a processing of meaningful conceptual content and that of perceptual stylistic information, and that analyses on this level should be classified in two categories to include content and style. He draws our attention to style-related processing because it is so emphasized in aesthetic appreciation of modern art. According to Meyer Shapiro (1994), one of the most influential American historians of art in the 20th century, style refers to the formal qualities and perceptual characteristics of a work of art. The questions of style concern both the personality of the artist and the cultural environment – i.e., the Artworld as it is defined in our model, and in which an artist works and gets his inspiration. The questions of style reveal not only the personal characters, but also cultural assumptions and normative values that exist both outside and inside of the mind of the artist. As rightly noted by Leder (2004), although the stylistic processing can be automatic, and the stylistic knowledge can also be acquired implicitly, the learning about art style and its outcome is deliberate and conscious, because explication of an artist’s style constitutes one of socialization processes held at school, or otherwise the style knowledge is acquired with expertise training both in exercises and discourses on art. The recognition of a classical art style or the distinction of an innovative art style is usually based on this deliberate learning process of art knowledge and internalization of artistic norms.

The appraisal processing on this level is mainly determined by the expertise, knowledge, social norms and cultural values that an individual acquires through a long process of learning and socialization. As one of the most influential art theorists in the 20th century, Erwin Panofsky (1939) takes seriously account of the search of artistic meaning in a work of art, both on a work interpretation level or on a level of cultural, historical and sociological understanding. He defines the meaning of artwork to be understood on three levels: (1) primary or natural subject matter, consisting of recognition of the work’s primary subject on the basis of simple perceptual characteristics, for example, a dark figure of a person standing by the sea in the painting of Caspar David Friedrich (see Fig. 1); (2) secondary or conventional subject matter, i.e., iconography, consisting of conceptual interpretation of work meanings according to cultural and iconographic knowledge, for example, the figure in the painting of Friedrich interpreted as a monk because of his clothing; (3) intrinsic meaning or content, i.e., the iconology, which takes into account the personal, theoretical, practical, social and cultural environment for the interpretation of a work. On the basis of the concept of Panofsky who looks at art not as an incidental creation, but as the product of the artist’s interaction with his cultural and historical environment, our aesthetic processing model suggests that more conceptual processing variables shall be found by detailed investigation in social psychology, sociology, art theories, and more other social sciences.

7.   Coping potential processing

The final stage of evaluation is to determine whether the individual attains a satisfying understanding of the artwork, and whether the available knowledge and problem-solving ability are sufficient for cognitive mastering of art interpretation. As suggested by Cupchik (1992), painting should be viewed as “a kind of interpretative problem to be solved rather than something to be experienced.” Successful comprehension of the meaning of an artwork provides self-rewarding cognitive experiences and pleasure. We see the problem-solving challenge as one important element that invites people for contemplating artworks and for enriching their knowledge in the relative domain. With an increase in declarative knowledge and artistic expertise, more solutions to the question of meaning and content are probable, and consequently, more pleasure we will get in contemplating artwork, while inversely, insufficient knowledge in art is a cause of negative evaluation of the individual’s coping ability, and the feeling of being unable to solve artistic problems may cause consequently negative reactions such as unpleasant experience and eventually the behavior of pushing away the artwork.

8.   Cognitive and affective integration

Our model proposes that the final stage of aesthetic processing is the integration of outputs of previous cognitive and affective evaluation processing which is going to be delivered to formulate final judgement on the artwork. At this stage, the cognitive information processing results in objective understanding of the artwork and is going to formulate the objective knowledge content of a judgment on the artwork, while on the other hand the affective appraisal processing results in subjective satisfaction, or dissatisfaction in case of overall negative evaluation at previous processing stages, and is about to make up the affective content of an aesthetic judgement. Unlike Leder, who postulates the appraisal outcome to be necessarily positive, our model suggests that the processing structure shall allow both positive and negative outcomes, according to the result of previous processing. The reasons are as following. Firstly, since the variety of personal taste in aesthetic appreciation is a reality known to both lovers and experts of art, there shall not be any reason to obligate a judgement of any given artwork to be positive, and so to restrict the experience of it to be necessarily pleasant. An aesthetic appraisal processing model should be tolerant about negative opinions and unpleasant experiences of an artwork, and not impose any judgement beforehand. Furthermore, it is the function of the model to explain the reasons why the same work of art evokes divergent opinions and distinct hedonic reactions in different persons, and in different situations. The model should tell us why there is such divergence in taste, and shall not define in advance what the aesthetic tastes and artistic preferences should be like. The model shall explain the phenomena as they are, and not define beforehand what they should be. Secondly, Scherer and many other appraisal theorists do not exclude negative emotions from their appraisal models. On the contrary, in these models, the negative and positive outcomes of a given emotional situation are to be determined according to the previous evaluation processing. More exactly, the role of appraisal models is to process and to predict the resulting emotion with given emotion antecedents, or in an inverse direction, to find out the possible emotion causes while an emotion experience is given. Our model suggests that an aesthetic emotion appraisal model should be functional in the same way as it is shown in appraisal theories. We shall not consider a work of art to be necessarily a positive emotion elicitor. The opposite reactions and the reasons of such reactions interest us, too. That’s the reason why we need an appraisal processing model to help us to understand aesthetic emotions in a more tolerant, dynamic and fine-grained way.

VI.   Conclusion: the future of studies on aesthetic emotions

Aesthetic affective experiences deserve more attention of scientists of mind and of emotion. It shall be a study field that greets scholars coming from all horizons – aesthetics, social psychology, cognitive and affective sciences, neuroscience, and many others. While empirical studies in aesthetics since Gustav Fechner and Daniel Berlyne often revealed inconsistent results and call forth numerous critiques from both sides of scientists and art theorists, this should not be seen as the cause of pessimism in establishing empirical method for studying aesthetic experiences. I see the rather disappointing results of empirical aesthetic studies as a natural consequence of a lack of communication and absence of mutual comprehension between scientists and art theorists, while empirical studies on aesthetics shall constitute a research domain that requires real trans-disciplinary cooperation. I hope that our aesthetic processing model presents this effort and offers a working basis for future creative interdisciplinary considerations and empirical studies.


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~ by lihsianghsu on January 30, 2009.

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