Human BrainArts

The Aesthetic of Experience

Thoughts of the ‘art world’ often conjures up this established caricature of the ‘critic’, who stares at a piece of art (often abstract), squints, and says something in their gallery – in a low voice that implies that they ‘get it’. This archetype, though somewhat generalizing and outdated, might be what continues to give galleries their air of foreignness and exclusivity to me, thus reinforcing the very untrue idea that art is not for everybody. 

I tend to spend a lot of time wondering (usually in the wake of a new influx of radio pop-bangers) whether ‘good taste’ actually exists, or if it’s just an elitist byproduct of the caricatured ‘critic’ narrative. Once you strip away knowledge of the history, the artist and the movement, what is the remaining difference between a critic’s and art-rookie’s experience of the same work, if any? The other day, I came across this Wikipedia page on Neuroaesthetics, a recent field of study which emerged out of London, England during the 1990’s. Neuroscientist and term-coiner Semir Zeki wished to bring the psychological study of art, or empirical aesthetics, together with the scientific study of the brain. This became a means to uncover how artistic experience occurred at the cranial level. 

Zeki hypothesized in his studies that the visual brain operated on two key laws, constancy and abstraction. Constancy referred to the brain’s ability to determine an object’s identity from artwork to artwork based on its core ‘essence’, despite changing variables such as perspective and form. Abstraction is then defined as a generalization that can be stretched to encompass many particulars, similar to an image of a silhouetted skyline, which presents a whole while neither depicting nor ignoring its parts. These laws in turn affect how we perceive and interpret art, and seemingly demonstrates that the way art rookies and learned eyes experience art are not so different after all, at least on this particular level. 

So how does this contribute to determining whether a piece of art is any good? This article from The Scientist uses Neuroaesthetics to further investigate the impact of art on specific areas of the brain, and indicates some of the many ways our brains react to visual stimuli. Studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex activates during aesthetically appealing experiences, which triggers a reward system and unleashes a flood of Dopamine into our systems. Emotional responses also play a giant role in our reception of art, causing us to feel things like joy and anger- emotions that are likely mirrored by the artwork itself. This doesn’t occur by fluke, though. At the same time that neurological processes influence how we experience art, artists use this knowledge as a tool in their creative process to ‘manipulate’ the viewer and create optimal aesthetic experiences. Combining properties such as light, composition and colour onto a canvas are conscious decisions, and this awareness creates a more tangible relationship between the artist and the public. The concept of Neuroaesthetics, which merges science and art in a surprisingly cohesive way seems to validate the idea that ‘good taste’, in the least, is something not entirely arbitrary. 

I find the theory that our brains go through a quasi-neurological checklist when experiencing art daunting, but kind of fantastic all at once. Perhaps what defines ‘good taste’ or whether it even exists isn’t so black and white. Maybe our aesthetic experiences do not have to answer the question of, “Is this good?”, but rather fall somewhere along the lines of, “How does this make me feel?”, and, “What can I appreciate about this?”.  Neuroaesthetics’ study of these similar cranial processes that we all share (though influenced by individual experience), is a brilliant levelling of the ‘playing field’, and reminds me that the intimidating stillness of galleries is not so often enforced, but rather a self-imposed silence.


  • Alice Yao

    Alice Yao is a human female and Arts writer for INKspire. She studies Urban Planning at the University of Waterloo and is trying her best.

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