Nature versus nurture: can art appreciation be measured?

Starry Night
Artworks are created by human agents so it is legitimate to ask why the artist responsible did what he or she did. Art appreciation is not exclusively represented by a person’s psychological response; it is also connected with the viewer’s understanding of the subject matter.
Professor Rolf Reber
An Australian-Norwegian research team has devised a method to measure art appreciation...

What is it that makes us appreciate art? Why do we like some artworks but not others? Why don’t all people like and dislike the same pieces of art?

One might argue that science has no business asking these questions. In light of the subjective nature of art, perhaps such issues are best left to the philosophers. An article published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, however, suggests otherwise.

A team of Australian-Norwegian psychologists has set out how one might go about measuring art appreciation. By combining psychological and historical approaches to the problem, the researchers believe that it is possible to gain fresh insights into the extent to which – and why – individuals favour certain pieces of art over others.

The underlying drivers of art appreciation have long since been debated by neuroscientists and historians. The former typically argue that biological processes occurring in the brain determine whether or not an observer likes or dislikes a particular artwork. The latter, on the other hand, contend that external factors – such as what the observer knows about the artist’s intentions – significantly influence art appreciation.

Researchers at the University of Bergen and Macquarie University contend that both of these arguments have merit. However, they argue that neither can offer a complete explanation on its own. The psychologists believe that a combination of innate taste and acquired understanding determines whether or not an individual appreciates a piece of art.

To learn more about the relationship between the historical and the psychological, I spoke to participating researcher Professor Rolf Reber from the University of Bergen’s Faculty of Psychology. I began by asking whether or not it is possible to say which of these factors has the greatest influence over the artistic assessments that we make.

Psychologists versus historians

"That, of course, is an empirical question, and there isn’t really much evidence to provide a conclusive answer," Professor Reber replied. "The message that my colleagues and I are attempting to convey is that both aspects have to be considered. Historians tend to argue that in order to truly appreciate artwork, a viewer must understand the intentions of the artist. Conversely, psychologists usually contend that artistic appreciation is nothing more than the biological processes that take place in the brain when artwork is viewed. Essentially, historians side with the artist and psychologists, with the audience."

Professor Reber and his colleagues believe that by measuring brain activity, interviewing people about their reactions to art, and charting their knowledge of the subject matter, researchers could reveal more about the nature of art appreciation.

The psychologists are confident that their model can be used to gauge appreciation of visual art, music, theatre and literature. A viewer’s immediate reaction to a piece is clearly an important indication of how he or she feels about it. Even so, previous studies have demonstrated that paintings that require effort to be interpreted are often thought of as more meaningful than those that are immediately understandable.

‘Artists include difficulties strategically’

"Conventional wisdom suggests that if you are able to process something easily, you like it more," Professor Reber explained. "If you can process a statement easily, for example, you are more likely to believe that it is true. However, when it comes to art, things are not so simple. Our hypothesis is that sometimes, artists include difficulties strategically to make us think. They build challenges into their work to express particular ideas.

"As an experiment, we showed participants a mixture of paintings that were easily interpretable and ones that were more difficult to decipher," he continued. "Afterwards, we asked the respondents to tell us what they thought of the artworks. We recorded what they said about the artists and how well they understood the intentions behind different pieces. We actually found that when participants were required to think about these factors, they had a greater appreciation for the artwork. Indeed, they reported how important it was to have access to this type of information in order to fully understand a painting."

It appears that when it comes to art appreciation, psychologists would be unwise to ignore historians, and vice versa. The extent to which an individual understands an artwork can have a significant bearing on their appreciation of the piece, but is this appreciation measurable? Is it possible to formulate objective standards against which we can judge how much a person likes a piece of art?

‘The big picture’

"Objectivity in itself is very problematic," answered Professor Reber. "One could, for instance, use psychological tools such as electromyography (EMG) to rank artworks in terms of how much they are appreciated. Our argument, however, is that objectively measuring these phenomena without accounting for external factors, would be to miss the point. In order to see the big picture, one must also consider normative aspects."

Professor Reber ended our conversation by offering a mathematical analogy to shed further light on the relationship between nature and nurture. Art appreciation, he argued, cannot be fully explained without reference to both of these components.

"If you were to ask a schoolchild whether or not they like mathematics, they might answer in the affirmative," he said. "However, what if they were to go on to say that two and two are equal to five? It is meaningless to measure the child’s ‘liking’ of mathematics if they do not understand the subject.

"Art appreciation should be treated in a similar manner," concluded Professor Reber. "It is meaningless to assess the extent to which a person likes an artwork if they do not understand the artwork itself. Of course, it is more complicated than this analogy suggests. In the mathematical example, there is only one correct solution. When it comes to art, numerous viewpoints can lead to valid conclusions. There are differences, but by and large, it is fair to say that there are accurate and inaccurate interpretations of art. Artworks are created by human agents so it is legitimate to ask why the artist responsible did what he or she did. Art appreciation is not exclusively represented by a person’s psychological response; it is also connected with the viewer’s understanding of the subject matter."



Agree that multiple factors need to be taken into account in mapping the connection between a work of art and its reception. These include the medium and the formal characteristics as well as the artist's 'intentions'. As discussions of 'the intentionalist fallacy' have shown, the verbal account of an artist's intentions cannot fully account for the art work that has an autonomous existence that extends beyond its creation or reception.

Kate McLuskie - Shakespeare Institute
Now that non-Western countries are submitting research, the theories are so adolescent and basically infantile in logic and misogynistic prejudice, it's appalling.

Commented Christina Richter on
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