Can Science be used to determine quality in art?


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When judging art, whether it is visual art, music, performing arts, or literature, quantitative judgments (such as literal measurements of supposed quality) tend to be discouraged. The method of attributing value to something, especially with pieces of culture that can have many subjective readings, is so without rhyme and reason, and so limited by biases, that it makes scientific studies of "quality" very difficult. However, there is one scientific basis for value judgments, and that involves the biological mechanisms within the brain.

In recent years, a scientific practice has emerged in Neuroscience that is simply referred to as Neuroaesthetics. Scientists have been conducting a variety of studies in which they scan and observe the brain activity that goes on while either viewing art, or while doing something creative. One study invited participants to read examples of both narrative fiction, or "prose" at the article calls it, and poetry, all while analyzing areas of the brain activated by such readings. As it states, the study found that "The experience of reading contrasting texts is associated with differing patterns of brain activation, the emotional response to literature shares ground with the response to music, and regions of the right hemisphere are engaged by poetry." Much can be discussed about whether or not there was enough variety in the works of "prose and poetry" read by the participants. Ultimately, there was enough there to indicate that creative or non-linear writing affected the brain in a different manner, and that content will effect the nature of biological response.

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The above image gives an idea of what the scientists doing these studies are dealing with. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has so far been the standard of Neuroaesthetics

The experimental design/methods for many of these studies are roughly similar in the sense that they are based upon exposure to a selection of cultural materials (visual or otherwise) while the results are then analyzed through an fMRI. What does vary tremendously is the selection of material that is used, and what that has to say about how representative the selections are about visual culture at large. One study that specifically tested aesthetic judgments of beauty and symmetry did so through a series of generic patterns that resembled simplified compositional forms.

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 9.16.56 AM.pngScreen Shot 2013-12-06 at 9.28.19 AM.png

Another study that dealt specifically with painting, dealt with a sample of about 120 images of both representational and abstract paintings that included both the original images of the paintings, and edited or blurred versions of some of the same images. The results of this particular study revealed a general preference for unedited, representational images, with activity in certain parts of the brain (left cingulate sulcus, bilateral fusiform gyro, and bilateral cerebellum) increased in accordance with the preferred work.

With regards to the purpose and benefits of these studies, there should be a distinction that Neuroaestheticism is not necessarily concerned with determining and absolute point of quality. Brain activity is the primary component of the aforementioned studies, and scientists in this field of research are generally more concerned with how brain activity occurs in response to external stimuli such as the viewing of paintings, dance, poetry, etc...

Generally speaking, assessments of aesthetics, beauty, and so on are plagued with biases based on taste (which could be seen as a third variable), all of which are present in the judgements and preferences of some work over others in certain studies. One particularly critical analysis of Neuroaesthetics, appropriately titled "Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul" argues that "aesthetics is partly a question of culture and circumstance, not a fundamental quality of the brain. Reducing it to what is shared and general recalls exercises in producing the 'perfect' picture or song from poll averages, the results of which are (intentionally) hideous and banal."

Whether or not the studies are there to test brain activity, or emotional response, a lot of this ties into the question of whether or not science has a place in the understanding of culture. These studies are interesting in the sense that they are able to link something as subjective and vague as art to specific biological functions. As with religious phenomenon, such as the study on prayer that was discussed by Andrew Read, I would say that art is just another one of the infinite number of subjects that can be approached with a scientific methodology.

Sources:

http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/imp/jcs/2013/00000020/F0020009/art00008

http://www.nature.com/news/neuroaesthetics-is-killing-your-soul-1.12640

http://www.yorku.ca/vgoel/reprints/Vartanian_Goel_art.pdf

http://www.neurohumanitiestudies.eu/archivio/Brain_correlates_of_aesthetic_judgment_of_beauty..pdf

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