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Introductory Note to “Contemporary Psychology and Art: Toward a Debate” by Lev S. Vygotsky

From: The Journal of Aesthetic Education
Volume 45, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 107-117 | 10.1353/jae.2011.0002

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Introductory Note to “Contemporary Psychology and Art:
Toward a Debate” by Lev S. Vygotsky

The importance of an author can be evaluated by the extent to which his theoretical contribution transforms a certain area of knowledge: major researchers create new vistas. This certainly applies to Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934), one of the most brilliant authors of contemporary psychology. His work, owing to its originality, is of epistemological interest to several areas of knowledge. In fact, Vygotsky was at the center of a historical time of change in twentieth-century Russia, in which Mikhail Bakhtin, Roman Jakobson, Serguei Eisenstein, Alexander Luria, and Yuri Lotman took part. Their theoretical proposals had repercussions in several areas of knowledge: in literature, semiotics, film, and neurosciences.

Studies on theater and literature were undertaken by Vygotsky during the initial phase of his scientific work, roughly until 1925, providing him with elements for the elaboration of his theory on the development of higher mental functions, which he would come to develop in several areas of psychology. During that period, Vygotsky took an interest in, and wrote about, the symbolist poets and novelists Andrey Biely, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Nikolay Brodsky, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky. The importance he ascribed to the problems of aesthetics, and to the psychology of poetic and literary creation, resulted in a book entitled Psychology of Art (1925). This is a groundbreaking work on the psychology of art, where he explores questions related to the process of art creation and to the reception of the literary text; he speculates about the role performed by emotions in art, questions the nature of the aesthetic experience, highlights the work of art as the central object of the psychology of art, and stresses the semiotic nature inherent to the fruition of works of art.1 [End Page 107]

Vygotsky got involved in the debate on the theories of aesthetics and art of his time, led by the symbolist and formalist movements. This debate opened the way for interpretations based on other contributions and theoretical approaches coming from experimental psychology and psychoanalysis. In 1926 he published Pedagogical Psychology, where he included a chapter on the relationships between education and aesthetics (art), an innovative topic within the context of the pedagogy of the time. In 1932 he wrote another text on theater aesthetics entitled “On the Problem of the Psychology of the Actor’s Creative Work,” published by Roman Jakobson in The Psychology of Actors’ Feelings on Stage (1936).2

In between, Vygotsky published an article entitled “Contemporary Psychology and Art” in the monthly journal Soviet Art (Sovietskoe Iskusstvo). Here we present its first translation into English. The central question raised by the article comes as a follow-up to his studies on aesthetics and art. The article was written at a peculiar time in Russia, when the theorizing on aesthetics took new steps and the need arose to critically revise the theory of literature and of plastic arts. The artistic and intellectual circles were struggling to create new perspectives, as A. N. Leontiev wrote,3 at a time when the words “socialist” and “realism” had not yet been pronounced together.

Vygotsky considers it essential to clarify what makes a work of art into a work of art. Hence, he brings into discussion two psychological theories of art, as he calls them. First, he argues against the formalist theory developed by Viktor Shklovsky, for whom the perception of art was an end in itself. Second, he questions the use of Tolstoy’s psychological theory of art based on the emotional impact of works of art. At the core of this latter theory is the reference to emotion, or to the use of what we might call “emotion vocabulary”—words that refer to emotions.4 For Vygotsky the psychological problem of art should neither focus on grasping the formal qualities of objects of art nor on the emotional impact that works have on individuals because the two approaches are not able to distinguish art from nonart. True art contains in itself extraordinary possibilities that transcend emotions and form. By rejecting that literality—of the artwork, or of its effect on the reader—he introduces an unknown X...