Get the picture? Art in the brain of the beholder
July 30, 2012
“My child could have done that!” Wrong – neuroaesthetics is starting to show us why abstract art can be so beguiling
STANDING in front of Jackson Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A one day, I was struck by an unfamiliar feeling. What I once considered an ugly collection of random paint splatters now spoke to me as a joyous celebration of movement and energy, the bright yellow and blue bringing to mind a carefree laugh.
It was my road-to-Damascus moment – the first time a piece of abstract art had stirred my emotions. Like many people, I used to dismiss these works as a waste of time and energy. How could anyone find meaning in what looked like a collection of colourful splodges thrown haphazardly on a 5.5-metre-wide canvas? Yet here I was, in London’s Tate Modern gallery, moved by a Pollock.
Since then, I have come to appreciate the work of many more modern artists, who express varying levels of abstraction in their work, in particular the great Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Even so, when I tried to explain my taste, I found myself lost for words. Why are we attracted to paintings and sculptures that seem to bear no relation to the physical world?
Little did I know that researchers have already started to address this question. By studying the brain’s responses to different paintings, they have been examining the way the mind perceives art. Although their work cannot yet explain the nuances of our tastes, it has highlighted some of the unique ways in which these masterpieces hijack the brain’s visual system.
The studies are part of an emerging discipline called neuroaesthetics, founded just over 10 years ago by Semir Zeki of University College London. The idea was to bring scientific objectivity to the study of art, in an attempt to find neurological bases for the techniques that artists have perfected over the years. It has already offered insights into many masterpieces. The blurred imagery of Impressionist paintings seems to tickle the brain’s amygdala, for instance, which is geared towards detecting threats in the fuzzy rings of our peripheral vision. Since the amygdala plays a crucial role in our feelings and emotions, that finding might explain why many people find these pieces so moving.
Could the same approach tell us anything about the controversial pieces that began to emerge from the tail end of Impressionism more than 100 years ago? Whether it is Mondrian’s rigorously geometrical, primary-coloured compositions, or Pollock’s controversial technique of dripping paint onto the canvas in seemingly haphazard patterns, the defining characteristic of modern art has been to remove almost everything that could be literally interpreted.
Although these works often sell for whopping sums of money – Pollock’s No. 5fetched $140 million in 2006 – they have attracted many sceptics, who claim that modern artists lack the skill or competence of the masters before them. Instead, they see the newer works as a serious case of the emperor’s new clothes, believing that people might claim to like them simply because they are in fashion. In the scathing words of the American satirist Al Capp, they are the “product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”.
Chimp or Rothko?
We certainly do have a strong tendency to follow the crowd. When asked to make simple perceptual decisions such as matching up a shape with its rotated image, for instance, people will often choose a definitively wrong answer if they see others doing the same. It is easy to imagine that the herd mentality would have an even greater impact on a fuzzy concept like art appreciation, where there is no right or wrong answer.
Angelina Hawley-Dolan of Boston College, Massachusetts, responded to this debate by designing a fun experiment that played with her volunteers’ expectations of the pieces they were seeing. Their task was simple. The volunteers viewed pairs of paintings – either the creations of famous abstract artists or the doodles of amateurs, infants, chimps and elephants. Then they had to judge which they preferred. A third of the paintings were given no captions, while the rest were labelled. The twist was that sometimes the labels were mixed up, so that the volunteers might think they were viewing a chimp’s messy brushstrokes when they were actually seeing an expressionist piece by Mark Rothko. Some sceptics might argue that it is impossible to tell the difference – but in each set of trials, the volunteers generally preferred the work of the well-accepted human artists, even when they believed it was by an animal or a child (Psychological Science, vol 22, p 435). Somehow, it seems that the viewer can sense the artist’s vision in these paintings, even if they can’t explain why…
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