Feature

Exhibit of the week: Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics

The Walters Art Museum&rsquo;s newest blockbuster is &ldquo;equal parts art exhibit and science experiment,&rdquo; said Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore <em>Sun.</em>

The Walters Art MuseumThrough April 11

The Walters Art Museum’s newest blockbuster is “equal parts art exhibit and science experiment,” said Mary Carole McCauley in the Baltimore Sun. Beauty and the Brain consists of just one work of art—Jean Arp’s abstract marble sculpture Woman of Delos—and 25 computer-generated images. “Reminiscent of the old Rorschach inkblot tests,” each image shows a variation on Arp’s form: some rounder, some pointier. “The two-legged test subjects known as museum visitors” put on pairs of 3-D glasses, view the images, and note which they like best. From such responses, researchers hope to determine “whether humans are hard-wired to find some shapes and forms inherently more pleasing than others.” It’s a theory that has long intrigued scientists, though artists may worry about its unintentional implications. After all, “it could be just a small step to conclude that art based on these ideals is good and art that deviates from them is bad.”

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, said Candace Jackson in The Wall Street Journal. Critics of this methodology say it’s not even possible to directly study innate reactions to art, since too many of our opinions are culturally conditioned. “We may like a sculpture by Michelangelo not just because it pushes the right buttons in our brain, but because we associate it with other works we’ve seen.” To their credit, the researchers and curators behind this show have minimized that effect by using abstract images, “emphasizing how the brain reacts to the shape, not the actual work.” They also plan to follow up with a study directly observing subjects’ brain activity.

In the meantime, consider one particular test subject: myself, said Michael O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. “I pretty quickly noticed a pattern in my preferences, which tended toward rounder, more organic shapes—a teardrop, the swell of human flesh.” Still, I’m not quite ready to conclude that this is so because “there’s something innately appealing” about curves and contours. After all, I went into the exercise well aware that all the images were based on a work by Arp, an artist “known for creating sculptures that resemble smooshed gummi bears.” I’m also an art critic, so perhaps I’m simply “drawn to the most Arp-y shapes.” In a fascinating way, Beauty and the Brain turns the usual museumgoing experience inside out, by causing you to reflect on yourself, as opposed to on the art. So, though you can see the whole show in about 15 minutes, it leaves you contemplating many questions that “linger a bit longer.”

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