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What Is the Connection between Perception and Art?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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Many factors can affect the relationship between perception and art, including a viewer’s psychological makeup, genetic predisposition, education and religious background. In the past many cultures developed systematized ways of creating art, which has made it easier for viewers to comprehend works of art. The development of the postmodern art movement and mass media have complicated the connection between perception and art.

The psychological makeup of a person may influence how he or she views art. A person with a generally sunny, upbeat personality probably will not be attracted to some of the gloomy, tortured paintings of monsters eating people that Francisco de Goya painted. He or she might be more attuned to some of Goya‘s portrait paintings.

Genetic predispositions like color blindness and other visual abnormalities can also have a bearing on perception and art. A person with color blindness may not distinguish all the colors in a painting. Someone who has a problem with depth perception will view a painting differently than someone with normal eyesight.

Education and previous exposure to visual art might influence perception and art. A person educated in art history might visit the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa and appreciate the artistic skill and patience required to depict skin tones the way Leonardo da Vinci did. On the other hand, a person without a knowledge of art history might think, “Gosh, that’s an awfully small, dark painting all those people are crowded around. What’s the big deal?”

Even a person’s religion can be a factor in how a work of art is perceived. If a devout Catholic who does not like the color red views a painting of an upside down red crucifix on a black background, he or she is apt to think the painting sacrilegious and would not understand or agree with the artist’s intentions. The painting’s price tag and the artist’s reputation would not sway that viewer’s opinion.

Throughout history many cultures have developed systematized aesthetics, or principals of beauty, as well as standard subject matter that simplified the perception of art. The Egyptians painted people in a very specific style to which viewers were accustomed. The subject matter of Renaissance paintings and sculptures were almost always based on religious stories with which most people were familiar. Renaissance artists also used principles of aesthetics, like unity, repetition and balance to create pleasing compositions that the human brain liked to see.

After the Renaissance, many Western painting academies, like the ones in France for instance, relied on aesthetics as the foundation for creating paintings that were deemed beautiful. The rise of modern art in the early 20th century brought a major shift in thinking about perception and art. One of the best known modern painters was Picasso, who along with Georges Braque, developed the abstract art style known as Cubism. Even though Picasso’s artwork was abstract, he still relied on systematized aesthetic principles.

Postmodern theory and ready Internet access have markedly changed concepts about aesthetics as well as perception and art. Some postmodern artists create digital art just for the Internet, and other artists produce computer games that are considered fine art. Conversely, some low-tech methods of creating art, such as writing on tobacco leaves with a black pen or making a sculpture out of tampons, are also considered art. These varied art forms exist alongside traditional art like painting and sculpture and have produced a great deal of controversy about the perception as well as the definition of art.

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Discussion Comments

By MrsPramm — On Apr 06, 2014

@irontoenail - We can argue about the influence of perception all day, but I do think that some things are meant to portray a particular thing. The figure in that painting is actually crying and the tears are visible. I would say that anyone who didn't see them just wasn't looking hard enough.

By irontoenail — On Apr 06, 2014

@croydon - I wonder how much a person's perception might influence how they classify art. I mean, psychologists even use perception as a way of looking into the psyche through those ink blot tests and they are essentially a form of art that the viewer creates on their own.

It makes me think of that scene in Pleasantville when one of the characters shows another a painting by Picasso and is surprised when she tells him that the figure in the painting isn't sleeping, she's crying.

Perhaps the figure is obviously crying, but perhaps it just depends on the point of view of the person experiencing the art.

By croydon — On Apr 05, 2014

This is not always going to be simple. Someone with a sunny disposition, for example, might actually be more attracted to dark art, because they enjoy experiencing the opposite extreme to their own emotions. Likewise, someone who is often depressed might love bright and cheerful art that can help them to alleviate their own moods.

And sometimes it's difficult to even classify a work of art as representing one emotion or another.

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