The Beholder’s Share

What is The Beholder’s Share?

From Kandel’s The Age of Insight:

“In studing the group paintings of seventeeth-century Holland, such as Frans Halls’s A Banquet of the Offedcers of the St. George Militta Company and Dirck Jacobsz’s Civic Guards, Riegl discovered a new psychological aspect of art:namely, that art is incomplete with out the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer.  Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likenesses on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the visual word, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture.  Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement” (Gombrich later elaborated on it and referred to it as “the beholder’s share”).

This conception -that art is not art without the direct involvement of the viewer – was elaborated upon by the next generation of Viennese art historians: Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich.  Based on ideas derived from Riegl and from contemporaneous schools of psychology, they devised a new approach to the mysteries of visual perception and emotioal response incorporated that approach into art criticism.  This radical change was described many years later by the Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who wrote:
With the turn towards psychology, the theory of art began to take cognizance of the  difference between the physical world and its appearance, and, subsequently, of the further difference between what is seen in nature and what is recorded in and artistic medium… What is seen depend on who is looking and who taught him to look.” (The Age of Insight, 189 – 190)

“Kris argued that when an artist produces a powerful image out of his or her life experiences and conflicts, that image is inherently ambiguous. The ambiguity in the image elicits both a conscious and unconscious process of recognition in the viewer, who responds emotionally and emphatically to the image in terms of his or her own life experiences and struggles.  Thus, just as the artist creates a work of art, so the viewer re-creates it by responding to its inherent ambiguity.  the extent of the beholder’s contribution depends on the degree of ambiguity in the work of art…Kris argues that ambiguity enables the artist to transmit his own sense of conflict and complexity to the viewer’s brain.” (The Age of Insight, 192)

“Modern cognitive psychology, which came into full bloom in the decades following the Kris-Gombrich collaboration, continues to be concerned with analyzing the process by which sensory information is transformed by the beholder into perception, emotion, empathy and action – that is, with evaluation how stimulus leads to a particular perceptual, emotional, and behavioral response in a particular historical context.  Only by uncovering how this transformation occurs can we hope to understand the relationship between a person’s actions and what a person sees, remembers, or believes.” (Age of Insight, 213)

In addition…
Our response to art stems from an irrepressible urge to re-create in our own brains the creative process – cognitive, emotional, and empathic – through which artist produced the work…This creative urge of the artist and of the beholder presumably explains why essentially every group of human beings in every age and in every place throughout the world has created images, despite the fact that art is not a physical necessity for survival.  Art is an inherently pleasurable and instructive attempt by the artist and the beholder to communicate and share with each other the creative process that characterizes every human brain – a process that leads to Aha! moment, the sudden recognition that we have seen into another person’s mind, and that allows us to see the truth underlying both the beauty and the ugliness depicted by the artist.” (Age of Insight, 393)

Another perspective…

Building on this idea is the discussion “Perception and the Beholder’s Share” on The Science Network.  Tom Albright talks with Roger Bingham about visual perception, his research into how cortex represents features from images, what schizophrenia can teach us about perception, and his interest in art and architecture.

Tom Albright is Professor and Director of the Vision Center Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological studies. His laboratory focuses on the neural structures and events underlying the perception of motion, form, and color.

View that lecture here:

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