The Aesthetic Experience Exposed – The Science

The New York critic Peter Schjeldahl’s flip-flop last year in his opinion of a painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), by Gustav Klimt started a string of confessions by other critics about their own changes of mind. Change of mind, or heart, is certainly healthy, if not downright necessary for progress. I was alerted to this mini-stampede by Judith Dobrzynzki in this blog, where she confessed to her own blooper on James Turrell, the light artist. 

Mind-changing is standard procedure in scientific inquiry as new observations are made; and in a court of law when new evidence is presented. So why it is that art critics think it such a big deal? Is there something different about judging art? What exactly is the aesthetic experience? Perhaps a scientific, step by step analysis of what happens when a person encounters the painting in question: Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) may help.    

At a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine… [And] the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin…

After this initial, unconscious response, here’s how the image becomes edged in the viewer’s conscious memory:

As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus [the brain part responsible for memory] contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer’s memory. 

The above quotes are from a book published at the same time, in April 2012 as the Neue Museum’s Klimt show. It’s no ordinary art criticism.  The Age of Insight – The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and the Brain is by Eric Kandel, the Nobel neuro-biologist.  In it, Kandel examines the art of Klimt and his contemporaries like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, known collectively as the Viennese Expressionists, and its emotional contents – along the lines of Freud’s unconscious aggression and erotic desires, around 1900. However Kandel’s main aim is to try to understand the human mind in biological terms, molecule by molecule; his life’s work being on the cellular and molecular bases of memory. But he’s also an art lover and collector, fascinated by the confluence of  art and  science  in Vienna at the turn of the last century.

Schjeldahl’s change of heart came in June, 2012 after viewing the Klimt show in Neue Museum in New York.   What prompted his re-examination of the painting appeared to be its staggering price tag – Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics magnate and co-founder of the Neue Museum, had paid  135 million US dollars for it back in 2006. Funnily enough, Kandel’s book made explicit reference to the price tag and wondered why it is that anyone would be so moved as to pay such a price – Lauder had first seen the painting when it had belonged to a museum – beyond his reach, as a 14-year-old.

And so that explains his life-long emotional longing, which no doubt became edged in conscious memory – the need to acquire. In this sense, an art critic’s response can be equally emotional. But now that we understand better our body’s response, maybe we can be more forgiving of others’ unchangeable opinions on everything else.


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