Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Oxford Researchers Note Trees, Miss Forest

I've read some pretty poorly designed research regarding art in my time-- or possibly merely poor reporting of valid research, or poor reporting on poor research-- but of those turds this one is pretty steamy.

According to The Telegraph researchers conducted brain scans on people while they showed them portraits by Rembrandt (prints or actual paintings were not specified). Some viewers were told the portraits were fakes, some were told they were "real." People generally reacted to the "real" ones using the same part of their brains that appreciates pleasure, like food and gambling. When people were told the paintings were fakes they scrutinized the picture to try to see why scholars regarded them as such.

Interesting premise, right? According to Nadia Khomami, who wrote the short article, the study ..."suggests that when we make aesthetic judgements on things like art, we are influenced by many different parts our brain- including what others have told us." So far so good.  And then:

Professor Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at Oxford University, and one of the conductors of the experiment said: “It is always better to think we are seeing the genuine article. Our study shows that the way we view art is not rational, that even when we cannot distinguish between two works, the knowledge that one was painted by a renowned artist makes us respond to it very differently. [...]The fact that people travel to galleries around the world to see an original painting suggests that this conclusion is reasonable.”
 Not quite, sir. Let me explain:

Behold! the electronic device you are using to view this blog post. It's pretty neat, right? Now what if I told you it was manufactured by highly trained monkeys? Does that change the way you feel about the device? Would you stop and examine it? Or: think of a song you like. Now what if I told you the songwriter was trained not as a rock musician but in traditional Japanese opera? Would you go back and listen to that song, examining it for the Japanese influence? People have sort of similar reactions to the information that Alicia Keys and Tori Amos were classically trained. Guess what? Your appreciation of something has been altered by "what others have told us."

But then the researchers added art and authenticity to the mix, along with all the classist, Eurocentric, elitist social baggage that comes along with it. We are a society where people are not generally well educated in art except the privileged few who attend universities, a society where art is generally seen as a hobby for a wealthy elite, where galleries and museums are associated with intimidation and snobbery. Where venturing an opinion about art is, frankly, terrifying. Moreover the general art world has spent the last three or four centuries spreading the myth that art is a magical phenomenon of powerful genius. The same art world that has built up a mythology of the Original (and just so happens to benefit financially from such an attitude). So perhaps-- just perhaps-- the enjoyment of a pretty painting is cut short when the viewer is presented with these pressures?

Or perhaps the act of examination versus pleasure-center appreciation is not a "better" or worse proposition. The researchers or writer did not mention if the part of the brain used to examine a fake painting is the part of the brain reserved for stuff that sucks.

Wouldn't it have been interesting to examine the idea that "the knowledge that one was painted by a renowned artist makes us respond to it very differently," by designing an experiment where similar obscure paintings are shown in a neutral fashion, some by artists the viewer will not recognize and others by, say, Mondrian? When you remove the real/fake better/worse premise I wonder, people will react to unrecognizable artists using the pleasure center referred to above? Or upon hearing that the art is the early work of a famous artist, will the examination process kick in?

And to address the last bit of the remark, about visiting galleries to see the originals, that is a misleading analogy. The reproductions to which we are accustomed are not similar paintings or drawings that we can view three-dimensionally; they are photographs of the work, usually printed in a completely different size, on flat shiny paper. Originals can sometimes look the same as their reproductions but they tend to look different and can actually be quite surprising in person, therefore you have to visit museums to observe the materiality, the brushstrokes, the size, sculptural angles, etc. It's not just an attitude toward the authenticity of the piece, it is an observable difference.

To compound the wrongness of this article it is titled, Our Brains Respond Differently to 'Fake' Art. As if to imply that it is the fakeness of the art which causes a chemical reaction due to its sheer inferiority, like magic, as opposed our attitudes being swayed by social pressures related to the authenticity of art.

I'm not holding my breath for Science and/or Research to approach art from a rational place of deeper understanding. Judging by the heaps of either smug or starry-eyed research, science-related people seem to take particular pleasure in debunking (and sometimes confirming) the elitist magical thinking that surrounds art (and fine wine), probably because they've bought into such thinking in the first place.

Sheldon and Leonard from The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon has an Idea; you can tel because he's pointing at his head. Leonard responds like a sad sack.

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