A Summary Of The Housen Aesthetic Response Theory

People's responses to visual art depend upon their aesthetic development. That is the essential conclusion of the seminal work of Abigail Housen. Her aesthetic response theory is grounded in the area of developmental psychology. Her work acknowledged the tradition of researchers such as Jane Loevinger, Jean Piaget, James Mark Baldwin, among others. In her work, she addressed the questions of "What is the nature of the aesthetic response?" and "How can one best study or measure this response?" A third question she addressed is "Can studying the aesthetic response help us teach or develop it more effectively?" which points her work beyond a mere theoretical analysis but directly towards practical improvement in arts pedagogy. And her work has subtle but profound implications for working artists, and the artwork they produce.

Housen's methodology used what she termed an Aesthetic Development Interview, or ADI. The ADI operates primarily through use of a single question posed by the interviewer to the respondent looking at art: "What is going on here?" (as well as occasional use of the supplementary "Is there anything else?"). The respondent then egages these questions in an open-ended manner and without intervention from the interviewer. The analysis of responses according to various parameters points, in her view, to the existence of distinct patterns of aesthetic response to visual art.

Housen concludes that there are five primary stages of aesthetic development. Quoted directly from her summary of her research, these are:

Stage I: Accountive
At Stage I, Accountive viewers are storytellers. Using their senses and personal associations, they make concrete observations about the work of art that are woven into a narrative. Here, judgments are based on what the viewers know and like. Emotions color the comments, as the viewers seem to enter the work of art and become part of an unfolding drama.

Stage II: Constructive
At Stage II, Constructive viewers set about building a framework for looking at works of art, using the most logical and accessible tools: their own perceptions; their knowledge of the natural world; and the values of their social, moral and conventional world. If the work does not look the way it is "supposed to"—if craft, skill, technique, hard work, utility, function are not evident—if, e.g., the tree is orange instead of brown, or it the subject seems inappropriate - if themes of motherhood have been transposed into wars about sexuality—then, these viewers judge the work "weird," lacking and of no value. As emotions begin to go underground, this viewer begins to distance himself from the work of art and, simultaneously, develop an interest in the artist's intentions. The viewer decides whether the piece of art 'fits' or not, as well as deem its social or even monetary value in the larger world.

Stage III: Classifying
At Stage III, Classifying viewers adopt the analytical and critical stance of the art historian. They want to identify the work as to place, school, style, time and provenance. They decode the surface of the canvas for clues, using their library of facts and figures which they are ready and eager to expand upon. This viewer believes that properly categorized, the work of art's meaning and message can be explained and rationalized.

Stage IV: Interpretive
At Stage IV, Interpretive viewers seek a personal encounter with a work of art. Exploring the canvas, letting the meaning of the work slowly unfold, they appreciate the subtleties of line and shape and color. Now, critical skills are put in the service of feelings and intuitions, as these viewers let the meaning of the work - its symbols - emerge. Each new encounter with a work of art presents a chance for new comparisons, insights, and experiences. Knowing that the work of art's identity and value are subject to re-interpretation, these viewers see their own processes subject to chance and change.

Stage V: Re-creative
At Stage V, Re-Creative viewers, having established a long history of viewing and reflecting about works of art, now "willingly suspend disbelief." A familiar painting is like an old friend who is known intimately, yet full of surprise, deserving attention on a daily level but also existing on a more elevated plane. As in all important friendships, time is a key ingredient, allowing Stage V viewers to know the biography of the work—its time, its history, its questions, its travels, its intricacies. Drawing on their own history with the work, in particular, and with viewing in general, these viewers combine a more personal contemplation with one which more broadly encompasses universal concerns. Here, memory infuses the landscape of the painting, intricately combining the personal and the universal. The viewer knows that every detail in a work of art is there for a reason.

She furthermore concludes that "aesthetic thinking is largely a stable trait, remaining the same over many years. Change in stage happens slowly, at best over many months, but usually over years." While the stages tend to be related to age, the five stages are not specific to age. This is a key point. Research shows that younger respondents as well as older adult respondents can both exhibit Stage I response.

Integration With Other Kinds Of Development
While the five stages appear to stand alone as a unique scale of a certain kind of development, it appears to parallel other developmental conceptions. For example, Piaget's broad conception of cognitive development, for example, consists of sensorimotor, phantasmic-emotional, rep-mind, conop, formop, then postformal. Housen's aesthetic stage conception appears to develop similarly, and her descriptions of the aesthetic response stages often use language common to cognitive development. Moral development proceeds from selfish/egocentric to conventional/sociocentric to postconventional/universal care for rights and responsibility. Other important lines of development are kinesthetic, musical, logical/mathematical, emotional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

Another possible parallel is the line of values development from the speculative work of Clare Graves, popularly expressed in Spiral Dynamics (Beck and Cowan). Housen's Stage I is a bundle of Beck/Cowan's Beige, Purple, and Red; Stage II with Blue; Stage III with Orange; Stage IV with Green; and Stage V with Yellow and Turqoise. The egocentric aesthetic Stage I becomes an integrated Stage V, where a viewer has a whole set of interpretive tools at his or her disposal, and can choose to use any or all of them to investigate a piece of art.

The crucial point is that Housen's developmental line appears to be relatively independent of other lines. It can be at a higher stage, while certain other lines (kinesthetic, musical, etc.) can be at a lower stage. Here is where Ken Wilber's levels and lines conception can he helpful. A person can have higher and lower stations, depending on the line. Take cognition. A person could be at postformal cognition, yet could exhibit Stage I aesthetic response. Thus this person has high cognitive but low aesthetic response. The same can be true for certain other lines.

Piaget and other researchers demonstrated that increased cognitive development allows the person to increasingly take more and more perspectives beyond a purely egocentric perspective. For art, this means that a person can realize more of the perspectives involved in an artwork. These include artist intent, formal technique, symptomatic theories, other viewers' responses, and perspectives that range from sensorimotor to mental/rational/conceptual to essential. A provocative implication is that the more perspectives one is able to take, the more beauty one can perceive—that is the working premise.

Overall Conclusions
Taken as a whole, it appears that Housen's research points to the strong possibility of the existence of a unique aesthetic response intelligence. None other than Harvard professor Howard Gardner completely concurs. This means that aesthetic response (to visual art) could be added to the list of streams, which includes emotional, cognitive, moral, needs, Self, kinesthetic, values, and so on. In the integral model, these and other other streams (and development along each) make up artist and viewer self structure.

Of immediate importance is the question of whether Housen's stages likewise apply to other mediums of art, besides the visual. Music, for example, has what is known as arousal theory that suggests at least a passing similarity to Housen's work. But scratches are only known in motion on the surfaces of this important question. Until further research emerges, we can only speculate that similar aesthetic responses, according to Housen's five stages, emerge in response to music, dance, poetry, film, theatre, jewelry, sculpture, and so on.

Housen's research suggests a new way to teach art appreciation and this is already in motion, in schools and art museums around the United States (see These instituations use her research as the basis for art education curriculum, curatorial museum presentations, and more, because knowledge of, for example, how Stage I and Stage II responses work can directly influence the manner in which art is taught and hung on the walls. This is authentically powerful stuff. Abigail Housen, through an Harvard dissertation that sadly went unpublished, has nonetheless done a tremendous service to the world of art.

Postscript: Implications For Working Artists
The implication of Housen's work to working artists is two-fold, in my estimation. On one hand, it can help understand where people are coming from as they respond to art. Some will offer a Stage I response, and other might offer a Stage III or IV response. Knowledge of what stage of response someone gives your art can help the artist skillfully choose the people from whom you seek particular responses. Artists often need both a Stage V response (from people whom the artist deeply trusts) as well as Stage I responses from people the artist does not know very well, or at all. Knowledge of aesthetic response stages can be helpful in sorting through the thicket of responses to your art.

The other implication is has to do with artwork semiotics. The five stages of aesthetic response act as perceptual channels that a piece of artwork can potentially broadcast on. If the artist is interested in reaching a wide array of people, then Housen's theory sketches the basic spectrum by which people will generate meaning from the artist's work.

For example, if the artist wants a gallery curator to display his or her paintings, then it is clear that at least a Stage II response must be satisfied. The curator has to be able to see that the artist's work will interest gallery-goers, bring people into the gallery space, and even generate sales. The artwork has to exhibit a sense of social and financial value. Some curators will use this criteria, and this criteria alone, in determining whether to display an artist's work, not a higher stage of development, such as a Stage IV or V. In other words, even if it is a very nuanced piece of art requiring a high aesthetic development, the artwork won't get into a public venue if it doesn't show some sort of economic value, a lower but important quality (especially to a Stage II response). Housen's work catalogs the possible state of consciousness that a piece of art can bring forth, provoke, or elicit.

Of course it is vitally important that artist work to pitch their artwork to the most developed aesthetic channels. Here is how, in turn, I suggest that Stages III, IV, and V can suggest avenues of study and artisanship. To satisfy conventional concerns latent within every medium of art (i.e., the tendancies of the masters) is crucial to anything post-conventional. The artist learns then burns conventions that suggest how a piece of art is 'supposed' to be. To likewise allow ambiguity and shifting meaning in the work serves to expand what the artwork can mean to a variety of people. This is to leave some of the aesthetic experience to the imaginations of the audience, and to not do all the work. And to make artwork knowing that every detail counts is an important step towards the leading edge of artistry. This is a kind of choosing of every utterance, every marking, every gesture, every tone, every detail large and small. To realize that everything matters is to give the entirety of the artwork close scrutiny, and to then really be able to unleash intuition to flow wildy through the artwork production process.

Suggested further reading

"The eye of the beholder: Measuring aesthetic development" by Abigail Housen, unpublished doctoral dissertation, Harvard University Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, MA, 1983.
"A Brief Guide to Developmental Theory and Aesthetic Development (Draft)", By Karin DeSantis and Abigail Housen (both from
Matthew Dallman, Polysemy,, 2005
Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, Shambhala, 2001
Howard Gardner, Art Education and Human Development, Getty Trust, 1990

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