Your Brain on Art

Your Brain on Art

Maybe it's in the eye of the beholder. But, a new book says, we can't live without it.
Ellen Winner How Art Works book 1

How would you define “art”? As one of the most complex human endeavors, it’s a particularly thorny concept, psychology professor Ellen Winner says. There is no single set of characteristics shared by all works of art. Furthermore, lots of research shows, even experts don’t agree about what is and isn’t art. In fact, Winner points out, some philosophers argue that art is an entirely open concept; they believe “anything can be art,” she says.

In her new book How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration, Winner doesn’t examine art only from a philosophical angle, asking “What is art?” Instead, citing reams of research, including her own, she explores art from a psychological perspective, asking “What do people believe is and isn’t art?” If that approach sounds esoteric, think again; How Art Works makes for fascinating reading.

“Any object can function as art if we attend to its formal and expressive features,” Winner says. “But that same object can stop functioning as art if we look right through it to what it ‘stands for.’ ” Essentially, art is anything – a minimalist painting, a piece of sculptural furniture, a gorgeous glass vessel – that prompts an “aesthetic attitude” in the viewer, she says. That appreciative state of mind leads to some of the most interesting, pleasurable experiences people can have.

Every culture has art; so it’s ironic that, despite its universality, art is hard to define. We asked Winner to explain why the concept is so slippery.

Gerard DuBois illustration
Gérard DuBois

In the book, you describe an art installation that a cleaning crew thought was trash. What does that example tell us about art?
Yes, a pile of empty bottles and other debris were part of an art installation in a museum in Italy. The cleaning crew didn’t know it was part of an installation, so they treated it as non-art – trash. But for viewers, the pile of debris functioned as art; they probably tried to ferret out the expressive meaning of the piece. That example shows how something can function as art for one person but not for someone else.

It’s important to separate the art/not art distinction from the good art/bad art distinction. You might think that kind of conceptual art is bad art, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s “not art.” Anything that people treat as art is art, whether or not we think it’s good art.

You’ve said that artworks spark an “aesthetic attitude” in the viewer. Can you describe what happens in the mind when someone encounters art?
Art is decoupled from any practical concern. When we look at Goya’s painting of a firing squad, we do not run away; we know we are entering an imaginary space. The emotions we feel from art do not prompt us to act – they just invite us to savor and think about them. Believing that something is art changes our emotional response. Looking at a real firing squad, we would feel only horror. Looking at Goya’s painting stimulates negative emotions (pain and horror) but also positive ones. The positive ones come from the beauty of the art and the feeling of being moved, which is a pleasurable feeling. This is why we actually enjoy listening to sad music, looking at depictions of tragic scenes, and going to very sad films and theater. The elicitation of both positive and negative emotions from art with painful content has been demonstrated in many studies.

In my book, I show a picture of a Picasso sculpture of a woman’s head that is very distorted. If we saw someone with this head walking down the street, we would be horrified. But treating it as art completely changes our emotional response, and we see beauty in the head. In short, we can’t define it, but we can activate our concept of “art,” and this affects how we respond to what we have just classified as art.

You write that art museums are not very conducive to emotional experiences. Why is that?
Studies have shown over and over that when people listen to music, they have intense emotional responses. We don’t see these findings with people looking at visual art. The painter Mark Rothko said that his paintings were meant to convey and elicit powerful emotions in the viewer, but this is not what most people report. This lack of emotional reaction to visual art is not necessarily because of the art museum; it’s because of how people behave in art museums. People often go in groups and talk to one another as they look, diluting their focus. The galleries are often crowded, and people typically spend just a few seconds with each work of art – as if they are just trying to check off each artwork. In contrast, when we listen to music, we cannot “skim,” because music extends over time. If people looked at a few visual artworks for extended periods of time, they might report stronger emotional experiences. Ideally, museums should guide people to experience a few works deeply rather than many superficially. Less is more.

Music envelops us. We cannot turn away from it. But with most visual art, we can look away. That said, artworks by James Turrell [who creates environments using light] also envelop us because we don’t stand apart and look – rather, we enter the space he has created. Hence we have strong emotional responses – at least I do.

You write that what people believe is good art is shaped by expertise.
Studies always show that, when pressed, people believe that conflicts in aesthetic preferences are just matters of opinion. What we don’t yet know is whether art connoisseurs believe that there is objectivity in aesthetic judgments. I quote the art critic Kenneth Clark saying that he felt that his pronouncements about what is good and bad in art were kind of a con job; he didn’t think his past pronouncements had objective truth value. But I also quote literary critic Helen Vendler, who said that when she [considers] one poem by Milton better than another, she knows she’s right; it’s just that it’s hard to prove.

One way to demonstrate objectivity, I think, would be to see whether you can guide people who like landscape paintings by Thomas Kinkade (whose sentimental work is considered kitsch by art critics) to prefer paintings by Millet or Corot or Constable, but not the reverse.

You argue that works that stand the test of time are arguably higher in quality. The abstract expressionist sculptures of midcentury ceramist Peter Voulkos were derided by potters in his day. But Voulkos is clearly in the pantheon of great craft artists. What role does longevity play in our assessments?
I believe strongly in the role of time. Often, works that we now consider great (e.g., Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring) were mocked and derided when they first appeared, probably because people are shocked by things that are too new and too different. Later, we come to recognize these works as great. Standing the test of time, being revered for centuries (whether or not they were first loved or hated), seems to me to be an important metric in determining which works are better than others. But this is my opinion; it’s hard to prove scientifically. It’s always possible that what we love is just a function of what the gatekeepers have put in museums and stamped with their “great art” seal of approval.

Visual qualities alone don’t make an artwork great, you write. We need to detect effort and talent to be impressed.
When people are told that a work of art took a very long time to create, their evaluations of that work go up. But if you prime people to think about talent, then works that are made very quickly are valued more. Our aesthetic judgments are malleable and sensitive to context.

Anything else?
Yes. We have studied people’s responses to abstract (entirely non-representational) work, and we find that when people perceive higher intentionality in the pieces (as opposed to randomness), they value the work more highly. We like to see the mind behind the work.

You take apart the arguments that arts education somehow makes kids smarter about subjects such as science and math. But you say there are important habits of mind that come from arts education. Describe those.
When we videotaped high school visual art classrooms, we saw eight habits of mind being fostered: learning technique and care of materials; finding engaging problems to work on and persevering through frustration; learning to imagine and plan a work by generating mental images; learning to go beyond technique and make art with meaning; learning to look closely and see things you have not noticed before; learning to become aware of one’s working process and decisions, and learning to evaluate what is working and what is not working in one’s own work and in the work of others; learning to experiment and take risks and learn from mistakes; and making connections between what one is doing in an art class and what professional artists are doing.

Are there other reasons arts education matters?
Yes. Work by [psychology professors] Eleanor Brown and Jennifer Drake shows that making art relieves stress and enhances mood. There is also evidence that when we are powerfully moved by works of art, the default mode network of our brain is activated – and this area is associated with introspection. This suggests that engaging with works of art helps us learn about ourselves.

Education should teach children about the most important human inventions. The sciences are one of these. The arts are another. An education without the arts leaves out one of the most important and universal human inventions. The arts emerged with earliest humans – long before the sciences. And cultures are remembered for their art – think of ancient Greece, Egypt, the Mayans.

Arts education is also important because it makes it more likely that people will go on to enjoy the arts throughout life – and we know that engaging with art is often a joyful and very meaningful experience.

Finally, arts education is important because students with talent in an art form will discover this strength in themselves. Without exposure to the arts, such students might never discover their strengths and their passion.

It’s important to note that only the arts are forced to justify their place in our schools. We never demand such a justification from the sciences, from history, or from math.

You describe the U-shape development of art skills and argue that museumgoers might be fooled by a 5-year-old’s work but never by a 10-year-old’s. Explain that.
Children’s drawings between ages 3 and 5 are wonderfully inventive and aesthetic, often reminding us of paintings by artists such as Paul Klee or Joan Miró. Preschoolers do not care if their colors and forms are realistic, and that is what charms us (at least those of us with eyes shaped by 20th-century Western art).

Children around 8, 9, or 10 strive for realism, and, as a result, their artwork looks conventional and far less interesting – and nothing like the art of great artists. Later, adolescents who go on to become artists are willing to break those rules.

Do you believe art serves a survival function for humans? If not, why is it present in all cultures?
This question has long been debated. We can always make up some kind of survival function for art – maybe it got early humans fired up for the hunt; maybe it helped in social bonding.

The problem is that we will never be able to test these kinds of hypotheses, so I call them fairy tales. What I would say is that any behavior that is universal must be part of our biological makeup, an emanation from our brains, and not just something we learn in some cultures to do.

In short, art is something our big brains make us do. The evolution of a larger and more complex brain had a survival function, and art may just be a spin-off from the fact that our brains evolved.