Pioneering Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Art as a Mode of Knowing and Its Four Psychological Aspects
By Maria Popova
The question of what art is has been asked and answered at least since we dwelled in caves. Every era has produced a crop of memorable answers from its greatest minds. Oscar Wilde pointed to the “temperament of receptivity” as the secret of art, Leo Tolstoy championed its “emotional infectiousness,” Susan Sontag saw it as “a form of consciousness,” and Alain de Botton considers it therapy of the soul. But one of the most insightful and dimensional explorations of the function of art in human culture comes from legendary Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016), whose influential and enduring contributions to cognitive psychology and learning theory remain unparalleled.
In an essay titled “Art as a Mode of Knowing,” found in his altogether fantastic 1962 essay collection On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand (public library) — which also gave us Bruner on “effective surprise” and the six essential conditions for creativity and myth, identity, and “creative wholeness” — Bruner considers the unique language of art and how it complements that of science. He outlines the four psychological aspects of the art experience — connectedness, which deals with the reward of grasping the essential ideas a work of art communicates; effort, which we exert to draw meaning from the ambiguity of art; conversion of impulse, which makes an object of beauty move us; and generality, which deals with the universal aspects of what we find beautiful and moving.
Bruner begins with connectedness, which thrives on our sense of “unfilled possibilities for experience”:
Whoever reflects recognizes that there are empty and lonely spaces between one’s experiences. Perhaps these gaps are the products of reflection or at least its fruits… Science, by reducing the need for empiricism with its statement of general laws, fills these gaps only partly… The general scientific law, for all its beauty, leaves the interstices as yearningly empty as before.
Our effort to bridge these gaps, Bruner argues, is driven by two psychological processes — the creation of effective, economical symbols and the construction of categories of possibility, which we fill with our specific experiences as they unfold. The latter, he points out, is common to both art and science. He illustrates these categories of possibility with an example from the history of particle physics:
The neutrino is created as a fruitful fiction. And in time the neutrino is found.
But the parallel in art, Bruner notes, is often driven by metaphor rather than strict logic, which circles back to the first psychological mechanism of connectedness, the use of symbolism:
Metaphor joins dissimilar experiences by finding the image or the symbol that unites them at some deeper emotional level of meaning. Its effect depends upon its capacity for getting past the literal mode of connecting, and the unsuccessful metaphor is one that either fails in finding the image or gets caught in the meshes of literalness.
Metaphorical thinking, as psychologists have found in the half-century since Bruner’s writing, is central to the development of human imagination. And yet, Bruner cautions, not all metaphorical thinking is created equal in terms of serving this function of connectedness in the experience of art:
There is more to the metaphor of art than mere emotional connectedness. There is also the canon of economy that must operate, a canon that distinguishes the artfully metaphoric from that which is only floridly arty or simply “offbeat.”
The economy of metaphor, Bruner argues, helps mitigate the often paralyzing mismatch between what there is to be known and what we can possibly know — something our minds automatically address by narrowing our attention into an “intentional, unapologetic discriminator” and flattening dimensional identity groups into imprisoning stereotypes. Bruner writes:
There is, perhaps, one universal truth about all forms of human cognition: the ability to deal with knowledge is hugely exceeded by the potential knowledge contained in man’s environment. To cope with this diversity, man’s perceptions, his memory, and his thought processes early become governed by strategies for protecting his limited capacities from the confusion of overloading. We tend to perceive things schematically, for example, rather than in detail, or we represent a class of diverse things by some sort of averaged “typical instance.” The corresponding principle of economy in art produces the compact image or symbol that, by its genesis, travels great distances to connect ostensible disparities.
This world of metaphor, Bruner argues, reveals the “primitive similarity” between the modes of connecting in art and science:
The prescientific effort to construct a fruitful hypothesis may indeed be the place where the art of science, like all other art forms, operates by the law of economical metaphor. May it not be that without the myth of Sisyphus, forever pushing his rock up the hill, the concept of the asymptote in mathematics would be less readily grasped? What is Heraclitus’ account but a giant metaphor on instability? He gropes for a picture of the universe. And so it is at the beginnings of insight.
He speaks to the power of intuition in science, something a number of notable scientists have championed as essential to creativity in scientific discovery. Bruner writes:
As Bertrand Russell comments, “Physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only its mathematical properties that we can discover.” And until they are “discovered” in this more rigorous sense, one proceeds by intuition and metaphor, hoping to be led beyond to a new rigor. Until then, the economical combings of the scientist and the artist share far more than we are often prepared to admit.
Bruner moves on to the second pillar of the art experience, effort, which “consists in departing from the habitual and literal ways of looking, hearing, and understanding in order to resolve the ambiguity that is a feature of works of art.” He explains:
In a deeper sense, it is the effort to make a new connection between different perspectives.
Interestingly, the “the ability to spot the potential in the product of connecting things,” or what Einstein called “combinatory play” and Arthur Koestler termed “bisociation,” is a defining characteristic of creativity — but Bruner finds in it a symmetry between what it takes to create art and what it takes to enjoy it:
What one feels is the effort to connect. It is not only for the creation of a work of art that one should use the expression unitas multiplex [unity of diversity], but for the experience of knowing it as well.
We’re willing to undertake that effort in the first place, he argues, because it generates a certain momentum of self-refinement:
Perhaps the effort of beholding art is its own reward, or the reward is the achievement of unity of experience, which is to say that it develops on itself. Taste begets better taste. Listen to enough Dvorak and a taste for Beethoven or Wagner will develop.
The amount and nature of the effort, Bruner suggests, is where the distinction between art and entertainment — something David Foster Wallace memorably considered — lies. Playing off Graham Greene’s distinction between his “novels” and his “entertainments,” Bruner looks at the contrast between the beautiful and the merely decorative through the lens of this effort to connect:
Creating new unities is not all the work. There is also control and conversion of the impulses that are aroused in the experience of art, the exercises of restraint that permit the reader to maintain a distance from the hero of a novel and the play-goer to remain on his side of the proscenium arch. Here … the distinction between the decorative and the beautiful is useful. For the decorative achieves its restfulness by permitting us to remain uninvolved, untempted. Indeed, an essay remains to be written on the defense against beauty, about those who, in the face of the awesomeness of a Gothic cathedral, can remain unshaken and find what they behold merely pleasing.
Bruner turns to the third aspect of the art experience, conversion of impulse. Noting that any impulse can be turned into art, Bruner echoes both Tolstoy’s notion of “emotional infectiousness” and Wilde’s of psychological “receptivity” as he considers how the conversion of that impulse bridges artist and beholder:
It is a necessary but not a sufficient condition in each case that the impulse be held in check and converted from its original form. It is equally true that the successful beholding of a work of art involves a comparable act of containing impulses that have been aroused. It is not necessary that there be a concordance in the impulse of the creator and the beholder, and, for our purposes, the matter of communicating an impulse from creator to receiver is not at issue.
Two types of cognitive activity propel the actual conversion of the impulse:
One is at the center of awareness as desire: it is directed toward achieving an end and is specialized to the task of finding means. The other is at the fringes of awareness, a flow of rich and surprising fantasy, a tangled reticle of associations that gives fleeting glimpses of past occasions, of disappointments and triumphs, of pleasures and unpleasures.
The latter, Bruner points out, is the stuff of James Joyce’s famous stream-of-consciousness writing and it was precisely Joyce’s ability to communicate this “scarcely expressible fringe” that makes us celebrate him as a true master of literary art. Such elegant merging of streams fueled by diverse impulses, Bruner argues, is the key to the power of art as a mode of knowing the world and ourselves:
At this level, thinking is more symphonic than logical, one theme suggesting the next by a rule of letting parts stand for wholes. Where art achieves its genius is in providing an image or a symbol whereby the fusion can be comprehended and bound.
In short, the conversion of impulse into the experience of art comes from the creation of a stream of metaphoric activity and the restraining of any direct striving for ends. In essence, the connecting of experience is given its first impetus by the simultaneous presence of several such streams of fringe-association. It is the formal artifice of the work of art itself, the genius of its economical imagery, that makes possible the final fusing of these inner experiences. The process … requires work from the beholder. Beholding an art object in a manner that may be called knowing is not a passive act. But when the beholder stops beholding, when there is too much involvement with the figures in a canvas, there is an end to the conversion of impulse, distance is lost, and in place of the experience of art there is either a daydream or merely action.
With this, Bruner arrives at the final psychological aspect of beholding art, generality, returning to those lonely gaps in our experience and revisiting the parallels and contrasts between art and science as sensemaking mechanisms:
Any idea, any construct or metaphor, has its range of convenience or its “fit” to experience, and this is one feature that art and science as modes of knowing share deeply… Our techniques for finding out about the range of convenience of ideas in science are rather straightforward, though it requires much ingenuity at times to devise operational techniques for verification. There is no direct analogue of verification in the experience of art. In its place, there is a “shock of recognition,” a recognition of the fittingness of an object or a poem to fill the gaps in our own experience. In this sense, and it is a limited sense, we may say that art is not a universal mode of communication, for each man who beholds a picture or reads a poem will bring to the experience a matrix of life that is uniquely his own.
And yet there is a deeper, more immutable universality to the experience of art — a work of art, Bruner argues, is scarcely “a function entirely of time, place, and condition,” for if this were the case, such ancient masterworks as the cave paintings of Chauvet or Lascaux or Altamira would leave us cold, failing to produce the “shock of recognition” that they still do. Bruner speaks to this universality:
There are features of the human condition that change only within narrow limits whether one be a cave dweller, a don in medieval Oxford, or a Left Bank expatriate of the 1920s: love, birth, hate, death, passion, and decorum persist as problems without unique solution.
Can it ever be said, then, that life imitates art? If so, then art is the furthest reach of communication. There are perhaps two ways that are somewhat more than trivial. One is the effect of art in freeing us from the forms of instrumental knowing that comprise the center of our awareness; from the tendency to say that this figure here represents Christ, that over there is an apple; apples are good for eating, Christ for worshipping or admiring. When we see the possibility of connecting in internal experience, we strive to recreate it and to live it.
But life imitates art in another, arguably even more important sense:
The experience of art nourishes itself, so that having sensed connectedness one is impelled to seek more of it.
Bruner concludes by returning to the yin-yang of art and science:
The intent of the scientist is to create rational structures and general laws that, in the mathematical sense, predict the observations one would be forced to make if one were without the general laws… Governed by principles of strict logical implication… prediction becomes more and more complete, leading eventually to the derivation of possible observations that one might not have made but for the existence of the general theory. Surely, then, science increases the unity of our experience of nature. That is the hallmark of the way of knowing called science.
Art as a form of knowing does not and cannot strive for such a form of unification. In its most refined form, the myth of Sisyphus is not the concept of the mathematical asymptote. The elegant rationality of science and the metaphoric nonrationality of art operate with deeply different grammars: perhaps they even represent a profound complementarity. For, in the experience of art, we connect by a grammar of metaphor, one that defies the rational methods of the linguist and the psychologist. There has been progress in interpreting the metaphoric transformation of dreams, rendering the latent meaning from the manifest content, progress to which Freud contributed so greatly. Yet to interpret a dream as “a wish to be loved by one’s rejecting mother” or to interpret Marlow’s pursuit of Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a man pursuing a bride, neither of these exercises, however revealing, catches fully the nature of metaphor. What is lost in such translations is the very fullness of the connection produced by the experience of art itself.
On Knowing: Essays for the Left Hand is remarkably insightful and wide-ranging in its entirety, exploring such aspects of the human quest for knowledge as the act of discovery, the notion of fate, the role of identity in creativity, and more. Complement this particular excerpt with a contemporary look at the seven psychological functions of art.
Published October 1, 2014