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How Science Made Me Think Again About How to View Art

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When it comes to our appreciation of art, who cares what we're meant to think? Who cares what the critics or art historians tell us we should feel? As far as I'm concerned, when we look at a piece of art, what matters way more than anything else is our gut reaction to it, the way it connects with us emotionally, the way it moves us.

Now the artist in question might have worked into his or her piece several references to Greek mythology or the history of Renaissance painting - which is all well and good for those of us lucky enough to spot and understand them. But those who aren't shouldn't be excluded from enjoying the art. And if they don't enjoy it, they shouldn't be afraid of saying so.

This has always been my policy when viewing art - and I haven't been afraid of sharing it with others. But it was called into question recently during filming for my new TV series What Makes a Masterpiece?, which begins this weekend on More4.

The series explores the controversial neuroesthetic movement, a new field of scientific research which aims to explain how the arts work. In each episode I took part in a series of scientific experiments - often wired up to scary-looking equipment - to examine exactly how cinema, painting and music can produce physical and emotional responses from our bodies and brains. The idea is to then take this knowledge and see if I can use it to create a series of masterpieces of my own.

Now I won't spoil things by telling you whether or not I succeed here. But what I will say is that my televisual journey ended up revealing much more than I'd expected - and made me re-examine my fundamental beliefs about art.

For one experiment, Professor Semir Zeki of University College London scanned my brain whilst I was looking at photographs of several pieces of art - or as he preferred to call them, "visual stimuli". He wanted to demonstrate his theory that there is a place in the brain where beauty is perceived, but the experiment also threw up an intriguing finding.

I had to rate each piece according to how beautiful or ugly I found it. This was then matched against the recorded activity in the orbitofrontal cortex of my brain - the area scientists believe is concerned with emotion and reward - to see how my brain was responding to the paintings and, by implication, whether I was telling the truth when I said I liked a painting. And while things got off to a good start, with my brain activity backing up my love of Lucian Freud and Caravaggio, we ran into a problem when I was shown Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of Saint John the Baptist. Because. although I rated it very highly on Professor Zeki's beauty scale, my orbitofrontal cortex wasn't activated in the slightest - and this lack of response perhaps suggests that I didn't actually like it at all.

Perhaps the knowledge of Leonardo's immense importance as an artist was interfering with my response to the work. How embarrassing.

I felt like I'd been busted. Here I was banging on about how we should trust our instincts when it comes to art and not listen to what people say we're supposed to think - and I'd just been exposed as doing the exact opposite myself! I wasn't even sure what it meant anymore to say I liked or didn't like a piece of art. Or whether I could trust what I thought were my instincts.

But the experience did teach me a valuable lesson - that science alone can't explain how the arts move us. Because, whether we like it or not, each of us, and each of our abilities to appreciate art, at least in the conscious mind, is formed and shaped by various cultural factors - from peer pressure to pressure from critics and art historians, to a simple desire to want to appear sophisticated or having good taste. Which is why the same piece of art can provoke a range of different responses from a range of different people.

So, while I won't tell you how I got on using the scientific principles I'd learnt to create a pop song, a short film and a painting, I will reveal that since filming the series I've had to modify my policy on viewing art. Because, however much I'd like us all to respond according to our gut instinct alone, this will never truly be possible. We can never totally avoid the intrusion of other cultural factors - however hard we try.

I'll remember that the next time I lecture someone on how to view art - and when I'm viewing it myself.

What Makes A Masterpiece? begins 9pm, 7 January, More4