The Science of Art


daya dissanayake

Human Art was first taken over by political and religious leaders, and then by businessmen. Art was no longer Art. They had their own reasons for the takeover. Next it was the turn of the scientists to attempt a takeover, which would originally have been out of the thirst for knowledge and out of curiosity. Someday soon Art could become a science.

Man had begun to use art as a form of communication among men, and later Art may have taken a symbolic turn. Such art was not meant to convey messages or to satisfy the aesthetic senses of animals. Just as with other scientific experiments, scientists are using monkeys and other laboratory animals to study their physiological and psychological reactions to art.

V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein, in 'The Science of Art, A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience' described an experiment in 1998 to 'empirically investigate the question of how the brain responds to art'.

Ramachandran and Hirstein, talk about an experiment with rats to test their reactions to a square and a rectangle, and end up saying "all art is caricature", but adding "it is literally not true". Art amplifies the 'rasa' (very essence) of the object resulting in a super stimulus. They also argue that "an outline drawing or sketch is more effective as 'art' than a full colour photograph, and offers a scientific explanation. This principle may reflect the fact that cells in the visual pathways are adequately stimulated by edges and are indifferent to homogenous regions.

The authors continue with the view that "we have an aesthetic preference for symmetry", based on claims by evolutionary biologists that animals and humans prefer symmetrical features in their mates, because asymmetry is often due to genetics or infectious defects.

Another scientific investigation is on the artists and their mental health, like giving a name 'Savant Syndrome' when autistic children create beautiful drawings. Scientists attempts to link artistic talents to mental defects.

Ramachandran and Hirstein proposed an experiment to measure how much we like or admire or enjoy a painting using the Skin Conductance Response SCR, because emotions cause changes of the electrical resistance on our skin. The reason they give is that if a person is to express his impression or emotion it is "filtered, edited and sometimes censored by the conscious mind". Someday soon, the judgement and evaluation of all art works, and awards for such creative works, could be done by measuring the SCR and other physiological responses by the judges, rather than their comments.

Niels Bohr, the physicist philosopher, collected cubist paintings, and enjoyed explaining his interpretation of the art to visitors. Bohr compared the electrons to "one of Picasso's deconstructed guitars, a blur of brushstrokes that only made sense once you stared at it". It could be that these abstract paintings helped him understand the structure of the atom.

Then the archaeologists and anthropologists got in on the scene. The Chinese archaeologist Wang Binghua discovered the 3000 year old bas-relief carvings in a massive red-basalt outcropping in the remote Xinjiang region in China. Today we are trying to interpret these petroglyphs scientifically, considering them as erotic art or fertility rituals.

Gestalt was one early attempt to take over Art. Gestalt is a psychological term which means 'unified whole', referring to the theories of visual perception developed by German psychologists in the 1920s, originating with Wilhelm Wundt and Max Wertheimer. They claim that people try to see objects as groups, and not as individual elements. This may have been a new theory for the Europeans, but it was known in the east for several thousand years. Anyway the beginning of the 20th century was when everyone became interested in science and technology and there was the merging and overlapping of one science over another, and also over philosophy and religion.

When even religion was to be interpreted as a science, it was inevitable that all arts too fell under the microscope. In our country, the double Chartered Engineer (Mechanical and Civil) R. G. de S. Wettemuni published 'Buddhism and its Relation to Religion and Science' in 1984, because he also had gathered a vast knowledge on Buddha Dhamma. Claudio Naranjo finds a close connection of Gestalt with Buddhist and Sufi philosophy.

The takeover of the Arts by science is happening, all over the world. There had been a 4-day Visual Science of Art Conference in September 2012, in Alghero, Italy, which was the 35th such conference.

Science of Art also leads to the question whether animals can make and understand art. The Newscientist reports about experiments done by Keio University psychologist Shigeru Watanabe, "to see if other animals, provided with enough training, could grasp the human concept of beauty". Watanabe had also claimed that "pigeons could learn to discriminate Picasso paintings from Monet", and he won the 1995 Ig Nobel price for this study. (Ig Nobel is an award to honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think).

While the pigeons could discriminate Picasso from Monet, how many of us could really discriminate or even understand these paintings! Some scientist could be at this very moment studying if the pigeon has a higher evolved mental capacity and aesthetic sensibility than man. Then we would have to accept that pigeons too appreciate Rasa, and that Art amplifies the Rasa in them too, and we are too far behind them in our mental development that we cannot recognize the creative Arts by the pigeons and other animals.

Yet there is still a glimmer of hope, that scientists will not take over art, because in the concluding section Ramachandrana and Hirstein say, "..much of art is idiosyncratic, ineffable and defies analysis..."

And there is also the Art of Science, for us to think about.

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