Week 2 Response: Neuroaesthetics and the Experience of Art

Black Square by Kazimir Malevich
Is this black square art?

The first two weeks of material covered something we all implicitly understand: defining and experiencing art is subjective. One person may look at a piece and ask, “You call that art?” while another might view the questioned work as a masterpiece. Reactions to art essentially cover the entire range of possible emotions— art has induced fear, anger, sorrow, euphoria, and more. There are even psychological conditions defined by hysterical and visceral reactions to art: Stendahl Syndrome and Lisztomania. Stendahl Syndrome is characterized by experiencing “rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion, and even hallucinations” as a reaction to seeing a particular artwork. Lisztomania is the term for the hysterical “ecstasy” displayed by the audience members who attended Franz Liszt’s concerts in the mid 19th century.

Our textbook defines art as, “intentionally made or assembled by humans, and usually consists of intellectual, symbolic, and sensual components”  (Wilson 17). I personally find this to be problematic because there are artistic works created by non-humans that elicit artistic appraisal from humans and animals alike.

Male pufferfish  sand sculpture
Male pufferfish sand sculpture

The male pufferfish, for example, painstakingly builds sand sculptures at the bottom of the ocean floor as a part of a mating ritual. The pufferfish even adds different colored sediments and crushed shells as embellishments to his design! Humans, specifically the ones who wrote the article that I have linked, have described these art pieces as having: “fascinating movement with geometric motifs and radial patterns bursting from the center… captivating play of shadow and light on the undulating peaks and valleys… nice balance and symmetry.” Already our textbook’s definition of art has been negated. And let’s not forget the animal appraisal. The female pufferfish will only mate with the male if she “likes” his sculpture enough.

This leads me to a topic from this week’s lecture: neuroaesthetics. It is clear that experiencing art is subjective, but there is biological proof as to why that is so. John Onians explains that our neural networks are built and shaped by repetition of experience and therefore these networks are personal and individual. Because of this, artists living in similar environments and time periods are likely to produce similar works because they have been shaped by the same experiences. Nancy Aiken claims we can appreciate art because it is a means of bonding with other humans for survival.

UCSD Cog Sci professor and leading expert on neuroaesthetics, Vilayanur Ramachandran
UCSD Cog Sci professor and leading expert on neuroaesthetics, Vilayanur Ramachandran

One neuroaesthetician that was not mentioned in lecture is UCSD’s very own Vilayanur Ramachandran. Along with his research assistant William Hirstein, Ramachandran came up with the Eight Laws of Artistic Experience. He explains how certain common characteristics of art are neurologically responsible for eliciting the many emotional responses that art can induce. Two of the eight, contrast and symmetry could explain why humans enjoy the sand sculptures created by the pufferfish. Edges, highlights, and shadows provide contrast and thus more information to the brain compared to a “smooth gradient”. Symmetry has always been aesthetically pleasing because it is found naturally in biology and asymmetry could be “associated with infection and disease”. Clearly much research has been done into neuroaesthetics regarding humans, but now I would like to know how certain elaborate mating rituals have evolved over time and what that means for animal aesthetics. Why do female pufferfish enjoy sand mandalas while female peacocks enjoy grandiose iridescent plumage? Mating rituals prove that animals experience and extract meaning, i.e. whether a partner is suitable, from aesthetics. Is human-made art simply an advanced mating ritual? Perhaps the aesthetics that human artists create are subconsciously intended to neurologically appeal to other humans and make the artist seem like a suitable mate.

– Rebecca Fisher

I will be presenting on week 10 about week 9’s material (virtual reality).

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