Tiffany Jenkins: Art is more than brain deep

Beauty is something that has troubled theorists of aesthetics for centuries. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Beauty is something that has troubled theorists of aesthetics for centuries. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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Should interpreting how we respond to a masterpiece truly be reduced to scientific formulae, asks Tiffany Jenkins

What is beautiful artwork? Ask anyone and you will get an answer, but it will differ from person to person. For me, it’s a work that is truthful and deep, one that is inexhaustible. I can return to it time and again and find something enduring in it.

That all sounds vague and waffly, I know. For others it could be something more precise, like a painting by the recently rediscovered Scottish Colourists – the wonderful still lives and landscapes of France and Scotland by SJ Peploe on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. But while these painters are tremendously popular at the moment, they have fallen in and out of fashion and it’s probable that people will soon find them a bit naff and sentimental.

Beauty is hard to pin down. It is something that has troubled theorists of aesthetics for centuries. Now it is a question that science is investigating, by looking at what happens in our brains when we come face to face with a masterpiece. Recent developments in neuroscience – brain science – have led to interesting discoveries, including those by Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London, who is involved in the neurobiological study of what mechanisms in the brain allow us to have aesthetic experiences. He has placed people in a brain scanner, shown them various pictures and played musical pieces, and been able to identify – by looking at the scans – the works that they liked best.

Unquestionably, this is fascinating. It contributes to piecing together what it is to be a human being. Research findings could well suggest that there is something biological in our need for art – an art instinct. After all, all societies seem to have produced art across human history. We have to account for that, why it is so.

But caution is required when interpreting these results and applying them. The philosopher – and, until recently, clinical scientist – Raymond Tallis warns that increasingly ludicrous claims are made for neuroaesthetics, a field he describes as reductive, sterile and simplistic. “Works of art” he says, “are not merely sources of stimuli that act on bits of the brain. More than anything else, they engage us as human beings.” The impact of art, he believes, “will reach deep into our personal depths, which in turn will have been shaped by the culture in which we grew up”.

Studying our neurons then tells us very little, for Tallis, it’s far better to examine a portrait and the society which produced it. Although brain science indicates that there is something in our heads that responds to and needs art, what that art is and what we think about it is influenced by time, place and personal experience. A painting we loved aged 16, is unlikely to impress us when we are 64. One we see in a bad mood may have a different effect if it is glimpsed when we are happy, or after we have read, talked, and thought about it.

Whether we can locate the experience of beauty in the brain, and what this could mean for our understanding of art, are questions that I have investigated for Radio 4, for a programme called Beauty and the Brain. I, too, am on record for being sceptical about some of the claims made. I wanted to put them to the test, to separate the hype from the reality. Because the brain is big right now. Advances in science mean that it is a focus of considerable and substantial research, including €500 million (£413m) from the European Commission to the Human Brain Project to build a new “infrastructure for future neuroscience”, as well as a similar $1 billion initiative endorsed by the US president, Barak Obama. Organisations that include funding body the Art Fund, the National Gallery in London, as well as galleries in the United States, have taken an interest in the science of the brain. Some are trying to apply it in how they arrange paintings in a gallery and the lighting used.

Artists, like Professor Bevil R Conway, use the results of this science in their work. He told me that “if I wanted to make red look really red, then I’d put it on a green background because lots of psychophysical work has shown that that kind of colour contrast makes things really stand out”.

Conway also suggests it can be used in abstract work: “We know right at the outset in the retina that visual information is coded as spots of light and dark. And then at some subsequent stage we have the development of contours and then at some later stage you have some representation of highly complex objects like faces and so on.” He takes research findings into account when painting and drawing.

It’s interesting that many in the art world have enthusiastically embraced this body of research. Art critic JJ Charlesworth argues, though, that this is because of a worrying vacuum, that it has come about because of a “loss of faith in the idea that formal and emotional aesthetic experience in and of itself is enough”. Neuroaesthetics appears to provide certainty and validity for a sector that is increasingly unsure of its place and purpose. And it could be a fruitless quest, because much of art is intangible and subjective.

Our need for art may well be rooted in human nature. Evidence of this may be found in the brain. Researching this, and revealing how neural processes work, is a vital part of understanding who we are, what we are made of. But it’s crucial to recognise that human creativity is also the work – not just of the brain – but human society, culture and history, stuff that happens beyond our neurons. The brain is only part of the picture.

Painting by the brain, like painting by numbers, is unlikely to produce something very special. Artists will always need something extra. And we cannot rely on finding a beauty spot in the brain to prove the value and worth of art. That’s a case we have to make ourselves.

• Beauty and the Brain is being broadcast on Radio 4 tomorrow at 9pm