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Reviewed by:
  • Le arti e la psicologia
  • Ian Verstegen
Le arti e la psicologia by Lucia Pizzo Russo. Il Castoro, Milan, Italy, 2004. 221 pp., illus. Trade. ISBN: 88-8033-300-3.

Lucia Pizzo Russo's new book is dedicated to Rudolf Arnheim on his 100th birthday, and his spirit everywhere pervades it. The book, however, is not so much an exposition of Arnheimian theory as a deep reflection on the relation between art and psychology. It is composed of five chapters on theoretical issues, mental images and color. Chapters One, Two and Five form a natural group as a powerful meta-theoretical reflection on the relation of art and psychology.

Pizzo Russo's book would seem to appear at a time when the psychology of art is receiving new interest, as in works by brain researchers such as Margaret Livingstone, V.S. Ramachandran and Semir Zeki. However, Pizzo Russo rains on this parade with one of her first questions, asking whether a psychology of art can even be said to exist. Even granting the subject exists in a theoretical sense, institutionally it is marked by a very precarious existence. Who, after all, is a true psychologist of art? Arnheim, certainly. But who else? Or more importantly, how does a researcher consider art? What is its relation to general psychology?

Pizzo Russo is worried more about the way the psychology of art is treated when taken up rather than its marginal status in general. The way that the discipline of psychology fails to mobilize its worthiest and most central principles does not bode well. For example, one of the few strong research programs in the psychology of art, the psychobiology of Dan Berlyne, bases itself on hedonics, that is, non-cognitive principles.

Following a not uncommon Italian belief that American cognitive science carries on many scientific ideas of the Behaviorism it is almost universally considered to have replaced, Pizzo Russo reflects on the impossibility of understanding art through a science that seeks to model thinking on a computer's functioning and takes its explananda from theories of scientific [End Page 167] thinking. Pizzo Russo stops to marvel that the hero of cognitivism is still David Marr, who never sought to understand human vision directly but instead to develop machine vision.

In an enlightening discussion, Pizzo Russo discusses the works of Howard Gardner and points out the way in which his thinking frustrates the placement of artistic thought in any mainstream context. Gardner, who posited the existence of numerous intelligences, effectively created a barrier of commonality between scientific and artistic intelligence. The way that a basic notion of intelligence is translated through various media—preserving a common definition of intelligence while at the same time respecting the difference of its manifestation—is instead captured in Arnheim's idea of representational development. This preserves general notions of intelligence that only find a particular manifestation in artistic products. Ironically, a psychology of art turns out to be an eminently general psychology of cognition.

Pizzo Russo's reflections on mental imagery in Chapter Three are equally negative, noting as they do the Pyrrhic victory of the imagists over the symbolists. According to Pizzo Russo, Philip Johnson-Laird, for example, insists so vehemently that his mental models are not visual that the possibility of a final overcoming of symbolism is impossible. The chapter on color stands quite well alone and treats several issues facing those interested in art and psychology. This book is the fruit of many years work at the intersection of art and science. Working in the Italian tradition, Pizzo Russo does not have to worry about the American feel-good narrative of the "Mind's New Science" of cognitivism. If we have learned so much about the mind, why is our understanding of art so poor? The ideology of mainstream psychological science accords Arnheim a respected position, but only historically. Perhaps if cognitivism is a true science, we will have to remember with Newton that a science is built on the shoulders of giants.

Ian Verstegen
University of Georgia Studies Abroad, 52044 Cortona (AR), Italy. E-mail: <>


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pp. 167-168
Launched on MUSE
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