I have recently been reading about neuroaesthetics, a relatively new scientific field that looks to understand the “perceptual, emotional, and empathic responses to works of art.”
(Kandel 2012) I am obsessed with it and have been googling
it to death as well as padding my Kindle library with any book I can find on
the subject. As an artist and art
historian I am curious as to what it can find as far as what areas of the brain
are most involved when viewing art and whether or not different areas are more
active in artists’ brains when viewing art than in non-artist brains. And as a person just really interested in
neuroscience the combination of the two is irresistible for me. I loved watching on the Discovery channel the
praying nuns and meditating Buddhist monks under MRI machines as compared to
the brains of atheists trying to pray – completely different areas used. To me it is just incredibly interesting.
However, there seems to be a bit of controversy over the issue with some in the art world claiming neuroscience cannot possibly explain or know what an artist or viewer of art is truly feeling or that we are not just our brains (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/art-and-the-limits-of-neuroscience/) and some in the neuroaesthetics field indignantly claiming they in fact can and we are in fact our brains (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindmelding/201212/neuroaesthetics-responding-the-critics). There are many more articles out there doing battle on either side I just liked those two the best, although the one entitled “Neuroaesthetics is Killing your Soul” also caught my attention. To be honest I don’t really care about all of the debating, I just want to know what can be found out through neuroscience about art and if that will interest me in any way (because as with anything else that goes on ever I only care about it as long as it in some way relates to me).
Others seem to think that this will inevitably lead to a set criteria on how we should judge good and bad art, which would be dictated by the field of neuroaesthetics – this would be bad because we all know that good and bad art are judged arbitrarily by a select group of art critics, theorists historians as well as anyone else on earth with access to the internet. I feel pretty confident that this will not happen. I do not believe the field of neuroaesthetics will kick open the carefully guarded door to the art world and demand that this is how art should now be judged and that is final and all must comply or else! Although, that would be pretty cool and I would love to see some type of cage match between a neuroscientist and an art critic.
But I digress, what I would really love to see is what exactly the brain does when confronted with art. And does telling a person it’s art make a difference? What if you show someone a nicely designed shower curtain and tell them it is an abstract piece of work by a famous well-respected artist? Will that make a difference in their reaction to it? What if Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was imprinted on a shower curtain what would the reaction be to that? What are the different reactions to the performances of Marina Abromiovic as opposed to a Picasso? A Futurist painting to a medieval cathedral? Neolithic cave paintings to a Monet. Northern Song paintings to Meret Oppenheim’s Object. Is it possible that the same area of the brain is affected by these completely different works of art? They would all bring up a different emotion and thought and feeling but would it all be recognized in some special “art” area of the brain? This is the stuff I want to know. To me more knowledge from a different perspective on a subject is never a bad thing – how can you argue with that?