A&O READING on Empirical Aesthetics



Empirical aesthetics

“Generally, aesthetic experience can be defined as a special state of mind that is qualitatively different from the everyday experience. According to Cupchik and Winston (), aesthetic experience is a psychological process in which the attention is focused on the object while all other objects, events, and everyday concerns are suppressed. Similarly, Ognjenović () defined aesthetic experience as a special kind of subject-object relationship in which a particular object strongly engages the subject’s mind, shadowing all other surrounding objects and events. In both definitions, aesthetic situations and objects of aesthetic interest are specified as fundamentally different from everyday situations and objects of everyday use.”  (Excerpt from  Marković S. (2012) Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal and aesthetic emotion. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref])

Empirical aesthetics, the beautiful challenge:

An introduction to the special issue on Art & Perception

M. Dorothee Augustin and Johan Wagemans  Iperception. 2012; 3(7): 455–458.  Published online 2012 Jul 5. doi:  10.1068/i0541aap  PMCID: PMC3485842  PMID: 23145296



… art is the complement of science. –John Dewey (1940)

When we invited our colleagues to the Art & Perception Conference 2010, it was exactly the spirit of this complementarity that motivated our endeavour. Our own experiences in collaborative projects between scientists and artists (see Wagemans 2011), as well as the recent boom in publications on art perception and aesthetics in the vision sciences, matched our general impression that the relation between art and science bears great potential and many sources of inspiration for both sides. At the same time, we were aware of the fact that a complementarity that appears so self-evident at first sight is not so self-evident in the actual scientific and artistic practice. At least for psychology, one can say that the relation between art and science is long but not less ambivalent. On the one hand, empirical aesthetics (as the empirical study of art is mostly named) dates back to the beginnings of psychology as an institutional science, to Gustav Theodor Fechner and his Vorschule der Ästhetik (1876). On the other hand, calling empirical aesthetics a traditional field in psychology does not describe the situation adequately, either. The 20th century has seen very prominent and influential scholars of aesthetics, including the Gestaltists and Rudolf Arnheim (1974), Daniel E Berlyne with his New Experimental Aesthetics (Berlyne 1974), or Colin Martindale (1990), to name but a few. Still, empirical aesthetics remained a relatively “exotic” field within psychology, being pursued by few intensively, but lacking a spread to a wider scientific community and a line of research that is carried further systematically. In contrast to more established fields like scene or face perception, the theoretical and methodological foundations of research on art perception and aesthetics thus still have to be laid.

The challenges researchers face in this context are very special: Art is not a “standard” stimulus, and the experience that viewers have with real artworks in a museum are difficult, if ever possible, to reproduce in a lab. On the other hand, empirical research standards call for experimental control. For scientists this means that they constantly have to seek for a balance between control and realism in stimuli and setting, probably even more so than in other fields of research (see Wagemans 2011). Another important issue is of a more theoretical nature: What is aesthetics, aesthetic experience, aesthetic impressions, and what is it that we are studying’beauty, pleasingness, etc? Definitions of aesthetics-related terms differ widely between authors, and terminology is far from systematic (Augustin et al 2012b; Faerber et al 2010; Marković 2012). This makes it very difficult to compare the results of different studies and supposedly is one reason for another central problem in aesthetics: the relative lack of standardised measurement instruments. That said, should scientists keep their hands off art perception and aesthetics? But there is the other side: Humans are fascinated by art, they lose time and space when exploring artworks in a museum or listening to their favourite pieces of music, and they seek these experiences over and over again, even though they might not seem important at first sight from an evolutionary point of view. Moreover, aesthetic encounters of all kinds permeate our lives, from experiences of high art in museums and galleries to everyday encounters with fashion and other designed products. For scientists these factors (let alone their own passions for the arts) make aesthetic phenomena a highly interesting field of study’not to disenchant them, but to understand what processes lie underneath. The relative lack of theoretical and methodological knowledge in empirical aesthetics that was mentioned as a problem before (as compared to other, more traditional fields) also entails a lot of freedom for researchers and creates unique opportunities for innovative thinking and method development. It is probably this very special combination of fascination, challenge, and possibilities that has recently started to (re)attract researchers, leading to a relative boom of studies in art perception and aesthetics in the past few years (eg, Chatterjee 2011) as well as to an emergence of new conferences and conference formats (like The Copenhagen Neuroaesthetics Conference 2009, the Art & Perception Conference 2010 in Brussels, or the upcoming Visual Science of Art Conference 2012 in Alghero). Therefore, chances of empirical aesthetics to receive more and systematic attention from scientists seem to be very good, and one can be very curious as to where this development is going.

We are convinced that a key to the successful study of art perception and aesthetics lies in interdisciplinarity and open-minded discussion of different perspectives: between artists and scientists, but also between scholars of different subject areas (psychology, art history), research approaches (theoretical, phenomenological, empirical), and methodological foci (psychophysical, neuroscientific, etc.). Following this idea, our vision with the Art & Perception Conference 2010 in Brussels was to bring together artists and vision scientists from different backgrounds to exchange state-of-the-art knowledge and discuss phenomena of art and aesthetics from different perspectives, including the crucial question what art and science can learn from another. Both the quality of the contributions and the enthusiasm of the participants turned out to be so impressive that we decided to make the spirit of the conference and its ideas available to a broader public. The result is the current special issue of i-Perception. It is derived from the Art & Perception Conference, containing articles by contributors of the conference, some of which are directly based on a talk or poster, some closely related.

The artists Ruth Loos (2012) and Wendy Morris (2011) write about their process of working and how that is influenced by their interaction with experimental psychology. Johan Wagemans (2011) and Paul Locher (2011) present their visions on psychoaesthetics as a science and what methods and approaches might be most fruitful for it. The special issue includes papers about which facets make up aesthetic experiences (Marković 2012) and how this might differ between different art forms (Augustin et al 2012a), as well as theoretical approaches to pleasure, one with a focus on predictive coding (Van de Cruys and Wagemans 2011), the other with a focus on the dynamics of appreciation (Carbon 2011). Nick Wade (2011) presents his philosophical view on artworks as icons. Baingio Pinna (2012) discusses the representation of shape, colour, shade, and lighting and their role in the perception of art from a phenomenological standpoint. A completely different methodological focus is taken by Tim Holmes and Johannes Zanker (2012): How can we measure preferences through eye-movements, and how can this technique be utilised? Among the topics with the widest range of articles related to them are the perception of space in paintings (Koenderink et al 2011; van Doorn et al 2011) and the perception of balance and orientation (Bertamini et al 2011; Gershoni and Hochstein 2011; Leyssen et al 2012; Mather 2012; McManus et al 2011), loosely related also to the phenomena of transparency (Sayim and Cavanagh 2011) and occlusion (Gillam 2011). Similarly, our authors approach visual illusions from different angles: illusions as characteristics of particular artworks (Daneyko et al 2011), eye-movement behaviour related to illusions (Hermens and Zanker 2012), and the aesthetics of visual illusions (Stevanov et al 2012). The art form besides visual art that is most prominent in this issue is film. James Cutting and colleagues write about technical (and, in consequence, perceptual and aesthetic) changes in Hollywood film over the past decades (Cutting et al 2011), and Tom Troscianko and colleagues (Troscianko et al 2012) examine the effects of such simple things as screen size on something as complex as immersion.

As the reader can see, the range of topics and methods covered by this special issue is wide, as is the range of art works being studied (from Renaissance art in Daneyko et al 2011 and Gillam 2011 to contemporary art in Wagemans 2011). Nevertheless, all the articles share a common core: the question how we can understand art perception and aesthetics from a psychological point of view, and how, in turn, this is reflected in art itself. Like the Art & Perception Conference, we consider this special issue an invitation for everybody interested in art to look at it from different perspectives, and to seize some of the ideas presented here as stepping stones for new scientific and artistic work. Art will definitely always remain a challenging subject’for those who make it as well as for those who do research on it’but in both cases we can fortunately be sure that beauty lies not only on the surface but also within.

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JW receives structural long-term funding from the Flemish Government (METH/08/02). We would like to thank Pion and the i-Perception editors, Tom Troscianko, Tim Meese, and Peter Thompson, for giving us the opportunity and freedom to edit this special issue. It was Tom who brought up the idea of considering i-Perception as a target journal and who initiated communication, and we would like to dedicate this special issue to him. We hope he would enjoy the end product as much as we do. Thanks also to Lesley Sackett, Gillian Porter, and Amye Kenall, who always had an open ear and prompt help for our practical requests, to Stephanie Poot for her organisational support with the Art & Perception Conference, and to the reviewers for helping to improve the quality of the published papers. Last but not least, we are grateful to all authors of this special issue. Their contributions offer an exciting mixture of views and approaches, and we hope that readers have as much fun in reading the special issue as we had in making it.

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 M. Dorothee Augustin studied psychology and musicology in Berlin and Vienna and received a Ph.D. for her work on cognitive and affective processes of aesthetic experience. She has worked as an experimental psychologist at the University of Vienna, Charité Berlin, and K U Leuven and has many years of research experience in art perception and aesthetics. Her main research interests lie in temporal aspects of art perception and in the question how one can practically measure aesthetic impressions.

 Johan Wagemans (1963) has a B.A. in psychology and philosophy, an M.A. and a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, all from the University of Leuven, where he is currently a full professor. Current research interests are mainly in so-called mid-level vision (perceptual grouping, figure-ground organization, depth and shape perception) but stretching out to low-level vision (contrast detection and discrimination) and high-level vision (object recognition and categorization), including applications in autism, arts, and sports (see www.gestaltrevision.be).

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  • Augustin M. D. Carbon C. C. Wagemans J. Artful terms: A study on aesthetic word usage for visual art vs. film and music. i-Perception. 2012a;3:319–337. doi: 10.1068/i0511aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Augustin M. D. Wagemans J. Carbon C. C. All is beautiful? Generality vs specificity of word usage in visual aesthetics. Acta Psychologica. 2012b;139:187–201. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2011.10.004. [PubMed][Cross Ref]
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  • Bertamini M. Bode C. Bruno N. The effect of left-right reversal on film: Watching Kurosawa reversed. i-Perception. 2011;2:528–540. doi: 10.1068/i0451aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
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  • Cutting J. E. Brunick K. L. DeLong J. E. Iricinschi C. Candan A. Quicker, faster, darker: Changes in Hollywood film over 75 years. i-Perception. 2011;2:569–576. doi: 10.1068/i0441aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • Daneyko O. Stucchi N. Zavagno D. San Lorenzo and the Poggendorff illusion in Ravenna. i-Perception. 2011;2:502–507. doi: 10.1068/i0440aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
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  • Gershoni S. Hochstein S. Measuring pictorial balance perception at first glance using Japanese calligraphy. i-Perception. 2011;2:528–540. doi: 10.1068/i0472aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Gillam B. Occlusion issues in early Renaissance art. i-Perception. 2011;2:1076–1097. doi: 10.1068/i0468aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • Hermens F. Zanker J. Looking at Op Art: Gaze stability and motion illusions. i-Perception. 2012;3:282–304. doi: 10.1068/i0457aap. [PMC free article][PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Holmes T. Zanker J. Using an oculomotor signature as an indicator of aesthetic preference. i-Perception. 2012;3:426–439. doi: 10.1068/i0448aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Koenderink J. van Doorn A. J. Wagemans J. Depth. i-Perception. 2011;2:541–564. doi: 10.1068/i0438aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • Leyssen M. H. R. Linsen S. Sammartino J. Palmer S. E. Aesthetic preference for spatial composition in multiobject pictures. i-Perception. 2012;3:25–49. doi: 10.1068/i0458aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Locher P. Contemporary experimental aesthetics: State of the art technology. i-Perception. 2011;2:697–707. doi: 10.1068/i0449aap. [PMC free article][PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Loos R. Reading paths, eye drawings, and word islands: Movement in Un coup de dés. i-Perception. 2012;3:50–58. doi: 10.1068/i0446aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Marković S. Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal and aesthetic emotion. i-Perception. 2012;3:1–17. doi: 10.1068/i0450aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
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  • Mather G. Aesthetic judgment of orientation in modern art. i-Perception. 2012;3:18–24. doi: 10.1068/i0447aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed][Cross Ref]
  • McManus I. C. Stöver K. Kim D. Arnheim’s Gestalt theory of visual balance: Examining the compositional structure of art photographs and abstract images. i-Perception. 2011;2:615–647. doi: 10.1068/i0445aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Morris W. Layers of looking. i-Perception. 2011;2:577–591. doi: 10.1068/i0443aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Pinna B. Perceptual organization of shape, color, shade, and lighting in visual and pictorial objects. i-Perception. 2012;3:257–281. doi: 10.1068/i0460aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Sayim B. Cavanagh P. The art of transparency. i-Perception. 2011;2:679–696. doi: 10.1068/i0459aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Stevanov J. Marković S. Kitaoka A. Aesthetic valence of visual illusions. i-Perception. 2012;3:112–140. doi: 10.1068/i0455aap. [PMC free article][PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Troscianko T. Meese T. S. Hinde S. Perception while watching movies: Effects of screen size and scene type. i-Perception. 2012;3:414–425. doi: 10.1068/i0475aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Van de Cruys S. Wagemans J. Putting reward in art: A tentative prediction error account of visual art. i-Perception. 2011;2:1035–1062. doi: 10.1068/i0466aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • van Doorn A. Koenderink J. Wagemans J. Rank order scaling of pictorial depth. i-Perception. 2011;2:724–744. doi: 10.1068/i0432aap.[PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Wade N. J. Eye contricks. i-Perception. 2011;2:486–501. doi: 10.1068/i0442aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]
  • Wagemans J. Towards a new kind of experimental psycho-aesthetics? Reflections on the Parallellepipeda project. i-Perception. 2011;2:648–678. doi: 10.1068/i0464aap. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [Cross Ref]

Articles from i-Perception are provided here courtesy of SAGE Publications

. 2012; 3(1): 1–17.
Published online 2012 Jan 12. doi:  10.1068/i0450aap
PMCID: PMC3485814
PMID: 23145263

Components of aesthetic experience: aesthetic fascination, aesthetic appraisal, and aesthetic emotion


In this paper aesthetic experience is defined as an experience qualitatively different from everyday experience and similar to other exceptional states of mind. Three crucial characteristics of aesthetic experience are discussed: fascination with an aesthetic object (high arousal and attention), appraisal of the symbolic reality of an object (high cognitive engagement), and a strong feeling of unity with the object of aesthetic fascination and aesthetic appraisal. In a proposed model, two parallel levels of aesthetic information processing are proposed. On the first level two sub-levels of narrative are processed, story (theme) and symbolism (deeper meanings). The second level includes two sub-levels, perceptual associations (implicit meanings of object’s physical features) and detection of compositional regularities. Two sub-levels are defined as crucial for aesthetic experience, appraisal of symbolism and compositional regularities. These sub-levels require some specific cognitive and personality dispositions, such as expertise, creative thinking, and openness to experience. Finally, feedback of emotional processing is included in our model: appraisals of everyday emotions are specified as a matter of narrative content (eg, empathy with characters), whereas the aesthetic emotion is defined as an affective evaluation in the process of symbolism appraisal or the detection of compositional regularities. ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485814/ )