Art, Neuroscience and Reception was the theme of the latest symposium organised by Robert Devcic, Director of GV Art, London's foremost gallery dedicated to artists working at the nexus of art and science, and Garry Kennard, director of Art and Mind, a charity producing events exploring the relationship between brain sciences and contemporary culture.
The guest speaker was Martin J. Kemp, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at Oxford University. A prolific writer, broadcaster and speaker, Professor Kemp presented the results of a scientific paper on which he collaborated in late 2011. He emphasized that it was a small-scale project that he did not wish to 'oversell', but which had nonetheless inspired considerable media interest.
The research concerned the issue of reception, an area Kemp considered to be one of the more tractable areas of art historical interest that could be looked at through a neuroscientific lens. Its conclusions were particularly aimed at neuroscientists, given that they were very much what art scholars and professionals would have intuited. At its most elementary, the study indicated that "aesthetic judgments are multi-faceted and multi-dimensional in nature". More specifically, it suggested that received knowledge of a work's authenticity or otherwise conditions reponses to art.
A group of 14 participants were shown a series of Rembrandt and Rembrandt-style paintings, 25 of which were announced as 'authentic', 25 of which were announced as a 'copy', and 3 of which were announced as neither. Rembrandt was chosen due to the vast number of portraits by or mimicking the style of Rembrandt. The labels 'authentic' and 'copy' were randomly assigned to the paintings, and the participants chosen on the basis that they did not have any specialist knowledge art. The responses were recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI).
The visual cortical areas of the brain - the regions sensitive to face and object recognition - were activated for all the works to much the same degree, irrespective of whether they were designated as 'authentic' or 'copy'. However, other brain regions beyond the visual cortex were activated differently in response to the two designations. When looking at the 'authentic' works the region of the brain activated was associated with reward and monetary gain. Meanwhile, when viewing a 'copy', the part of the brain that deals with memory and hypothesis building was fired, and led to more complex neurological activity. Ultimately, this loosely translates into the conclusion that the 'authentic' work was more straightforwardly received, while the copy prompted more elaborate processing. Expectations - what we are told we are looking at - clearly has a profound influence on how we process a work of art.
Professor Kemp hoped that such research could be extended to examine reception in a less homogenous set of viewers - including expert and 'alternative' viewers. He cited the intriguing example of conducting a comparison between participants with an Eastern orthodox religious culture viewing an icon vs. art critics seeing the same object. Furthermore he looked forward to taking the research out of the lab and into the art gallery itself, a more natural setting for such experiments to occur.
Despite its intriguing possibilities, Professor Kemp underlined the limitations of neuroscience in such areas. The dilemma of testing is the difficulty of removing all the 'messy' variables that impact on one's perception. Whilst complete removal would make the test wholly artificial, if not sufficiently removed they would compromise the findings. Scientific research looks to order things to get clean results whilst looking at art is a very 'untidy' business, contaminated by a whole host of contextual and cultural baggage.
In the Q&A that followed a predictable split revealed itself between the 'art' and 'science' invitees. One science writer confidently asserted that neuroscience would eventually tell us why 'x' is more beautiful than 'y'. This assertion was met with some antipathy from the artists present. Kemp himself responded that beauty is an intuitive generalisation that can't be precisely tested. The perceived threat from neuroscientific reductionism was voiced by one artist, arguing that "if you reduce aesthetics and everything we do to an excel spreadsheet then we'll all be redundant." Another scientist reasoned that we simply don't know what neuroscience can teach us about these fuzzy areas of human experience in the long term. The uncertainty of prediction, she argued, was "the beauty of science". This apparently paradoxical phrase contains the hope that the conversation between the 'two cultures' can and will continue. With GV Art as an ideal space to convene such cross-disciplinary exchange, events such as this symposium are precisely the forum in which such conversations can be held.
Professor Kemp's research paper was published in November 2011 in the journal Frontiers in Human Neurology. His latest book is Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon (OUP, 2011)
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