Beauty and the Brain; A Neural Approach to Aesthetics at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore is a joint exhibition and science experiment. Teamed with the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institue at the Johns Hopkins University, this exhibition sets out "to analyze how 3-D shape characteristics define aesthetic preference."
The narrow parameters have been set. The experiment is to examine how taste is determined with 3-D objects. Setting aside recognizable imagery, knowledge of content and context of the individual art piece-rather, it is simply whether the viewer likes or dislikes the 3-D form.
Before entering the gallery, one of Arp's actual pieces is on display. La Dame de Delos, 1959, is one of the sculptures that is used in the exhibition. The work is interestingly not in the gallery space. It is not to be viewed within the gallery.
Once entering the gallery, you are presented with a clear step-by-step directional guide, and 11 panels resembling eye charts at an opthalmologist office. Each panel included 24 small computer-generated images. Following directions entailed grabbing a clipboard, survey, and 3-D glasses. In order, the viewer was to examine each chart and mark on the survey which form was most pleasing and least pleasing to view.
In each panel, the 24 variations morphed a different Arp sculpture. The form was manipulated so it appeared sharp-edged and angular in some images and, in others, bulbous and soft. The appendages of the sculpture were stretched in some images and compacted in others. In my opinion, this was not an exhibition. The only actual piece of work was a Jean Arp sculpture located outside of the gallery. This screamed science experiment. In no instance were there going to be a critical analysis or discussion about the execution or beauty of the computer printouts. It was not designed, imagined, or created by artists. An art piece was simply used to demonstrate a point of view. This was a scientific arena.
Because of the non-existence of actual artwork, this must be written as a review and critique of the content of the experiment and its placement in the Walters Art Museum.
In the first place, the experiment was incredibly wide. Nowhere on the survey did it ask for a name, age, gender, or education level. So it was presuming that there was a common brain function in every single person in terms of aesthetics. It assumes that every person would exhibit similarity in taste whether they were artists, non-artists, old, young, male, or female. Nor did they figure in the height of the viewer. In wearing 3-D glasses, the height of the viewer greatly affects what is seen. Even standing on my tiptoes altered the 3-D forms and affected my preference.
Then there was the question of Jean Arp's work. Knowledge of Arp's work was not required or encouraged. And the example of Arp's sculpture was strategically placed outside the gallery so it would not affect the results of the survey. But would people who had knowledge of the work gravitate towards 'liking' the computer image that manipulated the original the least? Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post did feel that his answers were influenced. He states, in his review, "Or could my choices have been influenced by the fact that I know what Arp looks like -- after all, there's one of his sculptures at the entrance to the show -- and am drawn to the most Arp-y shapes?" I guess the idea of taste or aesthetic beauty isolated into its own realm seemed a bit superficial. Museums often present an educational environment where understanding of work and process is embraced. The understanding of the context of the work is stressed in plaques that specify the date, name of artist, etc. Jean Arp's sculptures here are stripped of their contextual significance. Arp's participation in Dada and Surrealism is completely overlooked. The sculpture on display is titled "La Dame de Delos", (The Woman of Delos), whose sensuousness and femininity is supposed to be expressed through the sculptural form. However, this 'scientific' experiment excludes all of this. O'Sullivan crudely remarks that the show's motto could be "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like".
I believe that this is a disservice to the understanding and education of art. Furthermore, to propose that there is a certain neurological process that determines a better piece of art than another solely based on aesthetic experience is oversimplifying the artistic experience. I would have a more positive opinion of the entire experiment if they were to computer generate an image that included certain forms and angles that were of interest to be studied in relationship to the brain’s processes. But because the work of Jean Arp was used, this experiment seemed to make the leap that context and content could be stripped away from the aesthetic exerience. I disagree greatly with this.
In an article written in ArtNews titled, “Is Beauty in the Brain of the Beholder” the example of the Mona Lisa was used. Margaret Livingstone, professor at Harvard University, proposes that the allure of the Mona Lisa is due to the bluriness of the smile itself. The smile is received by peripheral vision, and she feels that the play between receiving information both from central and peripheral vision creates the dynamic quality of Mona Lisa’s face. I understand that there might be a neurological response to the order that one receives information. However, to credit the allure and interest in the Mona Lisa to this principle alone would be far-fetched.
I also felt a disconnect between the museum atmosphere and the experiment. The first being that there was no actual art pieces in the gallery. But secondly, the Walters Art Museum, according to their website, “presents an overview of world art”. Though their collection stops with 19th Century European pieces, contextual understandings of artifacts and antiquities are stressed. And in using Arp’s sculptures without understanding the historical context or intent, and promoting the idea that taste in art is an ingrained and neurological experience, why is there a need for further understanding?