Post No.: 0130
Lots of people consider visual art and aesthetics to be a subject that can never be truly investigated and understood by science because it’s beyond the language of science or should not be reduced to this clinical, emotionless language – that it’s more a subject for philosophy or plain connoisseurship.
Others argue that when we say something is ‘more of an art than a science’, it only means that this something just hasn’t been sufficiently investigated or understood via scientific methods yet – maybe like food and understanding that cooking and dining experiences can be enhanced by greater scientific approaches has led to the rise of the sub-discipline of molecular gastronomy.
Whatever the case, even artificial intelligences are creating art that is increasingly harder to discern from human output. And where there are patterns in the data rather than randomness (i.e. there are pieces of art that people independently agree are more visually appealing than other pieces) then this suggests that art is a candidate for scientific investigation.
These patterns will be based on variables; some of which will stem from exploiting genetic instincts that evolved to aid the human specie’s survival and reproduction (or is an over-firing by-product of such instincts). And there may potentially be hundreds of variables involved that complexly interact to determine how individuals decide to like, dislike or be indifferent to a piece of art. Some variables will have nothing to do with what’s on the canvas or plinth too e.g. its provenance story, or people just following what their peers like or what experts say we ought to like in order to seem like ‘sophisticated’ persons! Indeed, pieces that are considered as valuable or great art today weren’t always so despite nothing having changed on the canvases themselves. And so such an exercise may only ever in practice produce controversial and fallible (over)simplifications of what makes ‘great art’, or at least highly-valued art.
However, the neuroscientist Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran and philosopher William Hirstein once attempted to come up with several ‘principles of art’, and these were as follows…
Peak shift – this occurs when we’re rewarded for responding to particular stimuli whilst not rewarded for responding to others. Moreover, we’ll respond proportionately more greatly the greater the stimulus is. Therefore, we’re more drawn to things that are more exaggerated in what we like. So the more caricatured the abstracted ‘essence’ of something is, such as its shape, colour, femininity (less male in shape), masculinity (less female in shape) or motion, the more we’ll find it aesthetically pleasing (up to a point).
This fits with what people generally find physically attractive about other people (e.g. most heterosexual male humans prefer to see larger breasts compared to smaller breasts on women, all else being equal; albeit only up to a point). We will also generalise this intuition (e.g. if someone naturally likes to see the sensuous curves of a fertile woman, then he/she’ll also likely like to see similar curves on the body of a motorcar). When Pablo Picasso combined two views of one face that can be seen simultaneously, this arguably served as a similar kind of ‘super-stimulus’. A lot of art is not meant to be strictly representational but instead aims to highlight a particular viewpoint or series of viewpoints, and then amplifies the salient features of those viewpoints. So find out what people like then amplify its essence.
Perceptual grouping and binding – humans evolved to try to detect signals of coherent patterns because this helped the specie’s survival (e.g. to spot potential predators or prey in the environment). Thus it became instinctive and rewarding to search for and find such correlated features amidst the noise – even within pictures on the wall – and to cognitively bind them together. We receive a rewarding feeling, possibly a hit of dopamine, when we find what is perceived to be e.g. a figure amongst the random or abstract blotches. It’s then often difficult not to notice the figure again, to ‘un-see’ it.
So the presence of found and bound groupings on various perceptual dimensions in art (e.g. of brightness, colour, space, depth, motion or higher-order items such as a figure that is partly naked and partly clothed) tends to produce aesthetically pleasing experiences.
Perceptual problem solving – in addition to grouping and binding to try to detect coherent signals within noise, we also use completion i.e. mentally filling in the gaps with assumptions from our visual imagination. You can again imagine how this generalised instinct helped with survival and thus is rewarding (and where a false positive, such as wrongly assuming a predator was behind the tree when one wasn’t, is less costly than a false negative – hence humans tend to intuitively jump to the wrong conclusions and hold many erroneous assumptions that err on the side of fear or caution).
We combine visual elements and look for ways to put often-disparate elements together. A nude behind a veil tends to be more alluring than an image of the nude in the open because we have to imagine the rest of his/her form i.e. a tease is more seductive. When we have to work at ‘deciphering the puzzle’ of a picture where the meaning is implicit rather than explicit, and when we find the/an answer, we find it very rewarding. So with a piece of art where the meaning or form is elusive and not plainly obvious – forcing us to search for it and work it out can be a rewarding experience. It brings us from tension to release.
Contrast – an edge (i.e. a step-change in luminance, hue and/or saturation) stimulates the brain more than homogenous surfaces. According to brain imaging, line drawings are as stimulating as half-tone photographs. Information exists mainly in regions of difference or change (e.g. of brightness, colour, motion, position). Therefore such regions of high contrast will be more attention-grabbing and interesting. This is why ‘chiaroscuro’, or utilising strong contrasts between light and dark, tends to be visually appealing.
Symmetry – you may already know that symmetrical faces and bodies are generally considered more attractive (albeit research also shows that there’s far more to physical attraction than symmetry). Since most biologically salient objects (e.g. potential predators, preys, mates, fruits) have a degree of symmetry (at least relative to background items like trees, rocks and mountains) – spotting symmetry might be a way to grab our attentions so that we can investigate properly whether something in the environment is a threat or opportunity. Thus noticing symmetry arguably evolved to be rewarding because it helps the specie’s survival again. An emerging pattern is that a lot of what we find ‘interesting’ in the world ultimately has a basis in aiding our survival or reproductive success. Aesthetically, when the symmetry of something is just slightly off though, it looks worse than it being way off because the former looks like a mistake whereas the latter looks deliberate.
Isolation – refers to isolating a single visual ‘modality’ (e.g. form, depth, colour, brightness, motion) before you can amplify the signal of that modality. An example is an outline or block-coloured drawing of a figure. ‘Less is more’, as minimalists and impressionists believe. We have limited attentional resources for the different visual modules, thus the isolation of a single area or visual modality allows us to direct our attentions more effectively onto that isolated modality, and allows us to notice any ‘enhancements’ introduced by the artist more clearly. Certain autistic people or stroke patients often produce vivid pieces of art due to their minds tending to allocate all of its attentional resources to one focused channel, to the exclusion of others that may or may not be relevant. Isolation often works in conjunction with peak shift.
The preference of generic viewpoints and a dislike of coincidences – the human visual system uses Bayesian inference. Bayes’ theorem expresses how a subjective degree of belief should rationally change to account for any available evidence/information. In short, our visual system should pick the most likely interpretation out of all the possible interpretations of a particular visual stimulus. This implies that we prefer generic viewpoints e.g. interpreting an image where it seems like circle A is partially obscuring circle B to make B look like a crescent shape, even though shape B could in fact be a crescent shape and isn’t being partially obscured by A at all. This is because the probability of shape B being so coincidentally perfectly aligned at our viewpoint to be such that it looks like shape A is partially obscuring it is lower than if it were actually partially obscuring it.
This also implies that we dislike believing things are mere coincidences because coincidences are unlikely, thus they, and unique viewpoints, are less rewarding (even though many things that happen in the world are indeed mere coincidences). Slightly offset compositions can therefore look more natural and pleasing than perfectly aligned ones. Violations to this principle can be appealing if other principles are utilised though.
Visual metaphor – these may provide a way for efficient communication or a way to encode the world more economically. Through analogy, problems and novel situations can be understood in terms of already familiar ones – this helps us to learn things faster, which again aids our survival. So our visual systems evolved to notice connections between inputs, and we find this search and the realisation of these connections rewarding, hence any piece of art that stimulates this feeling is pleasurable to see. Likewise, poetry that uses vivid perceptual metaphors is more appealing than poetry that does not.
So a work of art, through metaphor, is less a statement with its own meanings but a sign that points to many potential meanings and their associated feelings, which therefore allows such works to elicit a more powerful aesthetic experience. A masterpiece arguably should not mean, but be.
Repetition, rhythm, orderliness and balance – patterns that have order and rhythm relieve tension, as opposed to those that disrupt the order and look chaotic. A balanced composition is more settling. The centre of an image is also the most powerful place as this is where we will tend to look at first and mostly. Dynamic visual elements or the feeling of motion also appeal by adding the extra dimension of time. But these are some of the weakest principles because strict repetition and order is sometimes boring, and eliciting tension due to a lack of balance might be the desired effect.
…So these are some identified patterns of elements that people generally find appealing in visual art. The same kind of approach could be taken for trying to identify what makes certain pieces of music appealing or emotive (e.g. the pace of a song’s beat and its ability to modify our own heartbeats).
Yet these above principles are highly debateable because they seem incomplete or non-universal i.e. you could produce a piece of art that ticks all these boxes yet it still might not be aesthetically moving, or vice-versa; hence many people would prefer to stick with a philosophical or gut-feeling approach to this subject. And I guess there’s a lot of room for individual subjectivity when your own opinion won’t (directly and instantly) kill you i.e. if two people disagree whether a piece of art is great or not – one or both of them isn’t going to get taken out of the gene pool! Hence what is a ‘correct’ answer? It’s not like two people disputing whether jumping into a fire burns or not, where one of them will be taken out of the gene pool, along with all of his/her erroneous intuitions and views about fire!
Whatever your furry thoughts about it and however it’s achieved though – good artists are masters at directing our visual attention, and making us think.