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The Psychology of Art as a Process not a Product

On the Psychology of Seeing Art as a Process, not a Product:

NOTE: This is part seven of a series of articles that examine the relationship between music and the brain by integrating scholarly work on the philosophy of music with research in the psychology of emotion and intelligence. Part eight examines a psychological argument for how art must be viewed as a process, not a product, in order to be properly understood. All parts of the series can be read independently, though they may make references to other parts. Please click here for an overall abstract and links to the rest of the parts in the series.


Music and The Brain: What is Art?

Music and The Brain: What is Art?


It did not occur to me that what I saw was a creative work of art, the result of a long, complex process during which there were ever-changing transactions between internal imagery and goals on the one hand, and an external topography on the other hand. I responded in a spontaneous, non-analytical way to a “product”, totally insensitive to and ignorant of the conceptual and personal turmoil accompanying those transactions.[1]

- Seymour Sarason, The Challenge of Art to Psychology

In this quote, Sarason is speaking of a personal experience of his that took place in 1942 at the Southbury Training School for the mentally disabled where he worked as a psychologist. At that time, Henry Schaefer-Simmern, an artist and teacher, was working with a number of students at the school on various visual art projects under the support of the Russell Sage Foundation.[2] Sarason’s first impressions of the artwork he saw produced there were fairly blasé and, by his own admission, ignorant. After he began to work directly with Schaefer-Simmern and his students, however, Sarason’s perspective changed. He began to learn howto look at the artwork he was seeing produced from an informed viewpoint, as well as appreciate the value of the processes by which those works were made; Sarason began to understand the nature and value of art.

A misunderstanding of the purpose and importance of art, such as that described by Sarason, is not uncommon in the general population. Sarason had an opportunity to learn about art and discover its value but, unfortunately, art usually remains mysterious and confusing for most people. This is true not only of visual art, but also of music, dance, theater, film, and poetry. Even though these arts surround us every day, most of us perceive them with only a limited understanding and would never dream of becoming deeply involved in them or of actually creating anything.[3]

There are many reasons for this state of affairs and we will consider a number of them. To put them in the proper perspective, however, we need to establish a basic understanding of what art and artistic activity really are.


Art as Interaction

Identifying the specific nature of all art forms is far beyond the scope of this work, however, certain common characteristics of art need to be explored.[4] First, in all cases, artistic experience involves an interaction between an individual (or group of individuals) and a physical medium. The physical medium may be fleeting and ethereal like the tones of music or the written words of poetry, very concrete like the statues of sculpture or the paintings of visual art, or a combination of the two as in a theatrical production where both the set, the words and motions of the actors become important. In each case, however, the interest of the artist is in controlling and manipulating the medium in order to give it meaningful organization.

As Sarason puts it, artistic activity involves “an individual’s choice and use of a particular medium [such as oil on canvas, the sounds of an orchestra, or the words of the English language] to give ordered external expression to internal imagery, feelings, and ideas that are unique in some way for that individual.”[5] When a musician composes, an artist paints, a sculptor carves or a poet writes, each is seeking to create meaningful form within their respective mediums.

These efforts often result in the creation of art objects for others to experience.[6] Experiencing the already-completed art of artists demands a similar kind of interaction between the experiencing individual and the organized medium--between the audience and the artwork. In this case, however, the individual is not concerned with personally shaping the work of art as the artist is, but, rather, with exploring the meanings inherent in how the artist has already shaped the artwork itself.[7] Thus, experiencing art, either as a creator or as an appreciator, involves a process of experiential interaction between an individual and a particular artistic medium.

The Centrality of Direct Sensory Experience

This interaction involves a specific focus of interest, however, that marks it as uniquely artistic in nature. An artistic interaction with any medium involves an interest in the qualities that that medium has in direct experience.[8] That is, all objects in the world have a particular kind of character in direct experience. For example, satin has a soft character in the direct experience of touching it, while sandpaper is rough. This is an obvious example of the difference in the character of experience that different objects present to us; however, there are many much more subtle differences. Consider the difference in the character of experience that exists between the color blue and the color green or between the word “Happiness” and the word “Joy.”

Indeed, there is no way to precisely describe such an experiential character difference, but that there is a difference is clear. Art functions on the principle that these various characteristics of experience can be meaningfully, and expressively organized.[9] Thus, the musician’s purpose is to selectively organize sound experiences into a meaningful form--a piece of music. Therefore, when an artistic interest is taken in an object, the focus of one’s attention is on the different characteristics of experience that are presented and on the potential meaningful relationships that can be created by the way they are organized.

While this seems very complicated from a conceptual standpoint, in practice it is fairly simple. When one goes to an art gallery to look at paintings what one is interested in is the organized visual experiences that the various pictures present and what they mean to one personally on both an emotional and intellectual level. In a musical concert, one is interested in the auditory experience of the performance.

That artistic vision involves a focused interest in the organization of experience is important to note, however, because one can take an artistic interest in experiences and objects that are not generally considered to be art in the conventional sense. Imagine looking at a dinner plate. The first consideration would normally be focused on what was on the plate, whether or not it would satisfy one’s hunger, and whether or not it would have a good taste. If one stopped to consider how the food was visually organized on the plate, however, then one would now be viewing it from an artistic perspective. Whenever one takes an interest in the meaningful organization of a direct sensory experience, be it auditory, visual or otherwise, then one is viewing the experience from an artistic perspective. Thus, in reality, art is not defined so much by the object being viewed as it is by the way in which one views it.[10]

The Art Object

The Art Object

Distinguishing Between the Artisic Object and the Artistic Experience

Unfortunately, the artistic way of experiencing things is only rarely recognized by most people, and the details of its processes and meaningful relationships are seldom clearly understood. The reasons for this are numerous, but the one to which Sarason alludes in the opening quotation of this chapter is central: a confusion of the distinction between the artistic process and the artistic product. One can clarify this confusion by looking at the way in which the word “art” is commonly used. Sarason points out that “more often than not, we use the word art to refer to a product, an end result of a process.”[11] This would not necessarily be a problem, excepting that such a use of the word “art” carries with it “culturally determined meanings and judgments that restrict our understanding of the process by which works of art are created.”[12]

One of these culturally determined judgments is suggested by John Dewey, who points out that the use of the word “art” to refer only to artistic objects like compositions, paintings, poems or plays tends to identify them in their “existence apart from human experience.” Dewey continues: “Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience[i.e., the interaction between the individual and the meaningfully organized physical experiences created by the artistic objects], the result is not favorable to understanding.”[13]

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The Art Experience

The Art Experience

Dewey’s point is basically this: any art object by itself is dead--it has no inherent meaning or value. Only in the interaction between the art object and a human being can the art object fulfill its artistic purpose. Meaning and value can be found in a work of art only in the human experience that comes from the processes involved in creating, perceiving, understanding and appreciating that work of art, not in the object itself.

This is the problem that Sarason was having when he first looked at the students’ drawings at the Southbury Training School. What he originally saw was a collection of rather unremarkable drawings. As he had “no knowledge of the artistic process, how form is created and recreated in the tug-of-war among internal imagery, medium, and the ‘out there,’”[14] he did not understand how to look at and appreciate the artistic objects he was seeing. Since the drawings he saw seemed elementary to him, he wrongly assumed that the processes involved were elementary as well--a judgment based solely on the appearance of the art objects.

The Artistic Process

The Artistic Process

By keeping an open mind, however, Sarason’s viewpoint began to change as he spent time with the students and Schaefer-Simmern. Through this experience, two things slowly became clear for him: the artistic processes by which the students were creating the drawings, and an understanding of how to look at the drawings themselves from an informed artistic point of view. What he had seen before as unremarkable drawings became remarkable to him because he came to understand the nature of the processes involved in the artistic work being done to produce them; he learned that the value of art is in the artistic process, not the artistic product.[15]

This is not to suggest that the artistic product is unimportant, however, because, as we found earlier, it is in the interaction between a human being and the organized experience that an art-object presents that artistic activity can take place. The point is that the artistic value of a musical composition, a painting, or anything else is in the experiencing of it, rather than being inherent within the object itself. Thus, art is not so much about the artworks themselves as it is about the process of experiencing, understanding, and shaping the world artistically.

In sum, using the word “art” to refer to artistic objects instead of the presence of the artistic process has caused the processes of art to be underemphasized and generally not even recognized.

Continue on to the next article in the series here...

Music and The Brain IX: What is Art?

End Notes:

[Return to Contents]

[1] Sarason, 32.

[2] Sarason devotes an entire chapter in The Challenge of Art to Psychology to Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s book, The Unfolding of Artistic Activity: Its Basics, Processes, and Implications (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1948), which contains a full report on his work with the students at the Southbury Training School.

[3] These points are extensively explored in Sarason, The Challenge of Art to Psychology; Gardner, Art Education and Human Development; Gardner, The Arts and Human Development; and John Dewey, Art as Experience.

[4] In every discussion of art that I have encountered, be it by a psychologist, a musician, a music educator, a visual artist, or a philosopher, there are a number of common understandings about the nature of art which they share, regardless of what particular form of art is being discussed. While these understandings are discussed directly only in some cases, they serve as underlying premises in all cases. For psychological perspectives, see Gardner, Art Education and Human Development; Gardner, The Arts and Human Development; and Sarason, The Challenge of Art to Psychology. For musical perspectives, see Bennett Reimer, A Philosophy of Music Education; David J. Elliott, Music Matters; and Roger Sessions, The Musical Experience of Composer, Performer, Listener. For a visual arts perspective, see Schaefer-Simmern, The Unfolding of Artistic Activity. For philosophical perspectives, see Goodman, Languages of Art; and Langer, Philosophy In A New Key.

[5] Sarason, 1.

[6] Note that the performing arts (music, theater, and dance), since they are artistic creations in time, must be re-created in order to be experienced. Therefore, the artistic works of the performing arts do not technically exist in a stable, complete form because compositions, plays, and dance choreographies are not fully realized until they are performed.

[7] There is much contention as to what the specific nature of artistic “expression” is and to what extent each of the internal elements listed by Sarason--imagery, feelings, and ideas--are present or relevant to various ways of “experiencing” art. The notion that all art expresses something personal and internal to the individual in some way is, however, always present.

[8] Dewey, 5–6.

[9] A discussion of how such an organized experience can have genuine meaning is undertaken in Chapters IV, V, and VI with a specific focus on music.

[10] Sarason alludes to a similar idea in discussing how we as a culture label people as artists based on the kinds of objects artists produce, not on the presence of the artistic process in what they are doing (Sarason, 32).

[11] Sarason, 113–114.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Dewey, 3.

[14] Sarason, 32.

[15] Seymour Sarason’s book, The Challenge of Art to Psychology, contains the story of this transformation in his own understanding, his own reflections on its broader meaning, and its implications for the study of psychology and for the general public. Additionally, John Dewey’s Art as Experience contains an extensive study of the point made here that the value of all art lies in the processes involved in creating and experiencing it, not in its products.

Music and The Brain

Music and The Brain

Series Abstract:

Important efforts in recent musical research have been devoted to exploring how music affects intellectual processing, the emotions and personality. Most of these efforts have been focused on exploring music’s effect on the neurology of the brain and its possible contributions to development in other non-musical domains such as language or mathematics. Much of this research is, by necessity, very specific and of a limited focus. A broader understanding of the positive results of music study can now be established, however, by synthesizing the theories of musical meaning provided by music philosophy and new psychological research on the nature of intelligence and emotion. This synthesis reveals that studying music has demonstrable holistic benefits on cognitive processing, emotional fluency and character development.

[Return to Contents]


Part One: On the Psychology of Intelligence

Part Two: On the Nature of Art


  • Part Three: On Symbolism in Human Thought
  • Part Four: On the Nature of Music
  • Part Five: On the Practice of Music
  • Part Six: On the Integration of Music and the Psychology of Intelligence
  • Part Seven: On Knowledge, Thought and Music

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