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VAST Discussion, Round 1

Text: Editorial Team | Section: On ‚Art and Science‘

Abstract: The first round of the discussion on the Visual Aesthetic Sensitivity Test developed by Karl Otto Götz includes texts from Gerhard Stemberger, Herbert Fitzek, Nils Myszkowski, Riccardo Luccio, Thomas Jacobsen/Barbara E. Marschallek/Selina M. Weiler and Roy R. Behrens.

Preface

As outlined in Vast-Discussion: The Plan, only psychologists and psychology-related scientists participate in the first round. The six statements will be published in the order chosen by Brigitte Boothe. To ensure a level playing field for all, these statements were not shared with the other participants before publication. All texts should be in the form of a direct reaction to the VAST as well as to the two w/k articles published in March: Karl Otto Götz as Psychologist by Karin Götz (as the painter Rissa) and Discussion with Karin Götz about VAST, a conversation with Peter Tepe. After publication, the participants are encouraged to use the comment section to react to each other’s texts. Of course we would also like to encourage readers who are interested in joining the discussion to do so.

The publication in the German section of w/k also contains English texts; the core editorial team allowed this by way of exception. On the other hand, the publication in the English section — which appeared at the same time — consists only of English texts.

Participants were given the following task: We are curious as to whether today, after so many years, there is renewed interest for the Visual Aesthetic Sensitivity Test, and whether the discussion around it as well as the idea it pursues could become fruitful. w/k aims to evoke a technical discussion in written form surrounding the test, the questions it poses and its implications, and to review its relevance and potential. Is Götz’ test, developed in the 1970s, still relevant to psychology today and if yes, how so? The scientists’ texts should be short and concise, meaning no more than one A4 page. w/k aims to make its articles as accessible as possible to the general public. Therefore, the submitted texts should also be accessible to a broad readership. Any essential technical terms should be accompanied by a short explanation.

Several statements mention the revised VAST (VAST-R) developed by Nils Myszkowski. Its main focus is to try to modify the application of VAST in such a way as to clarify what the test actually measures. The second round will take place in August 2020: Karin Götz will react to the statements from round 1. VAST-Discussion: The Plan explains what will happen in September and October.

The table of contents can be found at the top of each page, with the corresponding text that follows highlighted in bold:

  1. A Problem of Order by Gerhard Stemberger
  2. K.O. Götz and the Psychology of Gestalt Perception by Herbert Fitzek
  3. Is the Visual Aesthetic Sensitivity Test (still) relevant to psychology researchers? by Nils Myszkowski
  4. Discussion on VAST by Riccardo Luccio
  5. The VAST in Psychology today by Thomas Jacobsen, Barbara E. Marschallek, Selina M. Weiler
  6. A designer’s view of (and qualms about) the VAST by Roy R. Behrens

1. A Problem of Order

Text: Gerhard Stemberger

Abstract: The original intention and the basic assumptions on which Karl Otto Götz based the development of the VAST are opposed to aesthetic relativism. The central assumption that visual things have an inherent, inner order which may or may not be perceived in a given situation, will outlive the fate of VAST in the narrower sense.

In her interview Karin Götz points out that some people apparently do not even notice when a picture is hanging crooked on the wall. In doing so, she addresses one of the irritations that inspired the creation of VAST many years ago. In my opinion, the questions involved with this go far beyond the field of aesthetics. They touch on existential issues of mankind. It is not merely a question of crooked pictures on a wall. Why is it that people can live apparently undisturbed in an environment full of tastelessness, injustice, and mistreatment of the most basic requirements of surviving in their own living conditions?

In the area of aesthetic image perception, Karl Otto Götz apparently proceeded from several assumptions that also form the basis of the VAST idea: The first is that to clarify such questions, one must first determine the perceptual capabilities of people with regard to certain aspects of the things that they encounter. To put it simply: Does the person even notice when something is wrong with a picture, that it is not balanced, or is inharmonious?

Götz connects this question with the postulate that one should distinguish such “cognitive judgments” from judgments that are based instead on feelings of pleasure. It makes a difference whether someone is pleased by an inharmonious motif, even though he or she perceives disturbances in the motif (is possibly even pleased by them), or whether he or she likes it without even being aware of those disturbances.

This postulate implies a basic assumption by Götz that I would consider decisive: Namely that the good order of a motif, which a person may or may not perceive in a given case, does not originate in the preference of the viewer, but in the nature of the motif itself. Karin Götz speaks here of the concern “to enhance the visual-aesthetic dimension and to emphasize elements of objectivity in the visual-aesthetic area.”

The term “objectivity” may seem objectionable to many in this context because it is ambiguous, in the past having been misused too often. I myself don’t have that much of a problem with it. The meaning is sufficiently clear: If we have in front of us a harmonious, balanced motif, are its harmonious qualities in the design of the motif itself, or have they been introduced by our individual preferences and inclinations? Götz’s question about a person’s ability to perceive the harmony or disharmony of a motif only makes sense on the basis of the former assumption, and I consider it well founded.

With the assumption of an internal order of our perceptual content (Gestalt psychology speaks of praegnanz) and his skepticism towards relativism even in aesthetic matters, Götz shows himself in fundamental agreement with central positions of Gestalt psychology.

To the extent that I am familiar with the literature about the VAST in our own time, I share Karin Götz’s judgment that Götz’s intentions and original questions were later largely misunderstood or ignored. This may well have been due to the question of “objectivity in the visual-aesthetic field”, which was seemingly eliminated in the further applications, modifications, and interpretations of VAST.

If one perceives that a picture is tilted, there is at play a frame of reference that the viewer may not be aware of. The inner order of other percepts also has to do with their being embedded in reference systems. In the case of the VAST motifs, the assessment of balance or imbalance is contingent on their relationship to the borders of their image plane. In other circumstances, including most works of art, the larger context which influences whether we see a thing as balanced or imbalanced (harmonious or inharmonious) is not limited to the boundaries of the image, but encompasses dynamic aspects of the entire environment, including the various viewers themselves. This explains the enormous diversity of objective responses, but it does not make them arbitrary. With this as its starting point, VAST might have the potential to survive its fate in the narrow sense, as a test, for a long time to come.

Go to K.O. Götz and the Psychology of Gestalt Perception by Herbert Fitzek

Picture above the text: Test image from the VAST (1970—1981). Photo: Till Bödeker.

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