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Arte e Cognizione: Introduzione alla Psycologia dell'Arte.

By ALBERTO ARGENTON. Cortina. 1996. pp. 350.

Although Argenton's book on art and cognition is written as a mere introduction to the psychology of art, it is of interest to those familiar with the field. Argenton, who teaches art psychology and literature at the University of Padua, offers a well-organized bird's-eye view, and he bases his presentation on thorough references to the literature, both historical and contemporary. As a part of his European and American material he has a large resource of all but unknown Italian writings. There is also a conspicuous difference between the more empirical Anglo-Saxon approach and the more conceptual Latin way of treating psychological subjects. Much care goes to the definition of terms. It is a useful complement of what is being written in English.

The book is conceived strictly from the perspective of cognitive psychology, which alms, however, at covering the entire range of intellectual, motivational and emotive aspects. Thus, after sketching briefly the Freudian approach, Argenton takes care of gestalt psychology by embarking on ample citations of my own work. His historical account discusses experimental aesthetics, as introduced by Fechner and Wundt, and covers the school of Daniel Berlyne, much dependent on information theory. To deal with aesthetics, these experimental studies relied on the hedonistic expedient of asking observers to state their preferences--an approach much favoured at the time, even though it neglected to enquire what exactly it was that aroused the pleasure or displeasure.

Argenton's book assumes the universality of aesthetic form, which can be derived from the physical equipment of the human body and the inherent formal principles of simplicity, symmetry and equilibrium. These conditions of the organism must respond, in turn, to the particular characteristics of the medium employed by the artist.

The universality of the basic principles shows most purely in the early stages of art. Argenton selects as his prototypes not only the artwork of young children but especially the Paleolithic wall paintings of Lascaux. This is a dubious choice, because although these paintings display some of the universal formal features, they are clearly not the products of a truly early style. Also, next to nothing is known about the social and ritual motives to which they are due, and therefore no reliable generalizations can be derived from them.

The Italian language has to cope, just as does English, with the twofold meaning of the term `representation'. On the one hand it means a man-made figuration of an experienced observation; on the other it is best called a mental image. Here we meet what psychologists have called cognitive maps, namely organized structures serving as a guide for orientation. To be useful, such a map must be more than an inventory of elements; it must be a truly interactive gestalt of all the components, operating as a whole. This applies particularly to the artist's mental images, which grow at various levels of completeness to test versions of a possible solution.

Gone are the days when the doctrine of Benedetto Croce banned, in Italy, the approach `from below', as Fechner called it; but Argenton supplements his cognitive presentation with the rich heritage of Italian literature. I was delighted to see that he describes the artistic process with the same quotation from Dante's Purgatorio that I also used for decades to this purpose:

E io, a lui: I' mi son un che, quando

Amor mi spira, noto e a questo modo

ch' e' ditta dentro vo significando

which is roughly translatable as `And I told him: I am one who when Love breathes with its inspiration I take note of what he dictates in me, and I go significating'. Argenton also relies on the prose statements of Eugenio Montale and other writers.

As a psychologist he is quite willing to describe art as functional. He refers to the ornamental shape of Indian mandalas as a means of concentration and meditation, and he gives Freud's interpretation of what the analyst saw as the mission of Michelangelo's Moses. As an example of the function fulfilled by highly abstract shapes he describes Nalewitch's Suprematist Black Square as a conveyor of `staticity' and the Black Sphere as conveying dynamics.

In her useful Preface, Lucia Pizzo Russo, professor of developmental psychology at Palermo, notes that Argenton titles his first chapter `Cognition and Art' and the last one `Art and Cognition'. Historically, most psychologists have used the arts simply as demonstration material for their theses, but increasingly art theorists and art historians have relied on what they have learnt from perception and other psychological findings. Argenton gives us an example of how to use a balanced contribution of both to convey a larger image embracing science and art.
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Author:Arnheim, Rudolf
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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