“The Psychology of Art,” by Lev Vygotsky

I was apprehensive at first when I was reading this book, that was said that Vygotsky himself did not intend to publish. Nonetheless, I was new to art and I am reading books to get an understanding of art’s embodiments and meanings.

As someone who is already quite well acquainted with Activity Theory, The Psychology of Art struck me as an extraordinary work considering that it first appeared in Soviet Russia in 1928. Vygotsky, as he was sicked at the time of his writing, had no opportunity to perform empirical work. Yet his argument were made with such care that the lack of fresh data seems secondary to what we can learn from his analysis.

Vygotsky’s argument goes like this. Art was (still is to many of us) generally thought of as irrelevant to our reality. From this perspective, art is a expression of an emotion that belongs to the author. It is contagious, but not exactly useful. Yet, Vygotsky raised the question: Why are art works generally representing emotions that are lacking in immediate social reality? That is, why do we enjoy seeing paintings of nature in cities? Why do we need music of courage in the eve of battles? The reason, as Vygotsky argued, is that art works are antithesis of social realities. In daily life, whether at work or at home, there are much feelings we cannot appropriately expressed. For example, feelings of being oppressed or of morale conflict with work demands are better hidden from your boss and most co-workers. In life, there are even larger contradictions such as oppression of social classes, economic poverty, or loss of love ones. While art cannot lead to resolution of these problems, it is a carthasis, or outlet, of such feelings.

Vygotsky argument here, which leads well into his later work towards Activity Theory, is that art is not simply an emotion of the author. That emotion arises out of contradictions inherent in the social realities. These are contradictions that may be resolved, and usually would take a long time. But art may conjure emotions that ready people for actions. In this respect, art is a tool, just like language or hammer. It mediates future social actions. Thus, arts are not just artifacts irrelevant to our reality. It is the embodiment of our reality.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to get acquainted to an Activity Theory perspective of the art.