Perhaps you’ve walked beside one of the giant, gently curving steel plates that make up a Richard Serra sculpture. Or maybe you’ve spent time gazing at one of Mark di Suvero’s angular, pick-up-stick arrangements of steel beams. Which of these artworks do you immediately prefer? Ed Connor, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, might be able to predict your answer. He’s interested in whether we intuitively favor certain shapes over others—and if so, what that could mean for how we experience art.
Connor's research is part of an emerging field called neuroaesthetics, which uses techniques of neuroscience to try to understand our response to art. “Our hope is that you can discover truly new things by analyzing the brain as an information processing system, just the way you would analyze a computer,” he explains.
A few years ago, Connor joined forces with Gary Vikan, then the director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (he’s now retired). Together their team set up a two-part experiment to measure how people respond to different surface curvatures in three-dimensional shapes—in this case, shapes adapted from sculptures by the artist Jean (also known as Hans) Arp. Arp’s pieces are abstract, with full, smooth lines. If a sculpture can seem weightless, Arp’s are buoyant.
Vikan and Connor thought that using non-representational art would help viewers form opinions about the artworks free of prejudice. “If you're talking about the Sistine [Chapel] ceiling, you’re talking about God,” says Vikan. “You get sidetracked on the subject matter. If you’re talking about Arp, it’s just a blob. And Arp made better blobs than some people make.”
First, Connor’s team scanned images of Arp’s sculptures. Next, graduate student Neeraja Balachander used software that she developed to gradually alter the surface curvatures of each piece from full-bodied and rounded, to elongated and pointier. Then, study subjects donning 3-D glasses viewed arrays of these altered shapes on a computer monitor, and clicked on the ones they preferred. The researchers found that the majority of participants stated a preference for softly curving shapes as opposed to pointy and elongated ones.
In the second part of the experiment, another group of participants viewed the most noticeably modified Arp images while in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner. The researchers found that when subjects looked at softly rounded forms, there was a stronger neural response in the higher-level visual cortex, which contains regions that register shape. (The findings haven’t been published yet.)
Connor isn’t exactly sure why the soft curves elicited these stronger responses, but he says that living organisms tend to have these kinds of lines, and it’s possible that humans have evolved to favor that sort of shape as a result. “It makes sense for finding mates, finding good things to eat,” he says. For instance, “you are going to eat the grape with the nice curved surface, not the shriveled one that’s not ripe.”
|soft curves in Rabarama's marble sculpture Prest-azione|
Taking a neuroaesthetic approach to art, however, isn’t without controversy. Alva Noë is a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of a forthcoming book that discusses neurobiological approaches to art. He says that in emphasizing preference, neuroaesthetics simplifies our response to art. Such an approach leaves out more complicated feelings that art might compel in us. “That verb ‘to like’ is really broad and encompasses almost everything,” says Noë. For instance, consider your reaction to various films you’ve seen. “It can be true [that] I liked the movie even though I spent the entire time wanting to leave because it was so upsetting,” he says. “‘Liking’ sort of under-describes how we evaluate and respond to art.”
continue reading the original article here: