By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Virtually everyone is familiar with the phrase, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Now The Walters Art Museum and the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore, are collaborating to determine what people like, and ultimately, why they like it. Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics, which runs Jan. 23–April 11 at the museum, is both an exhibition and an experiment. Charles E. Connor, director of the Mind/Brain Institute, says, “this is the first study to quantify or parameterize what it is about certain pieces of art that drives aesthetic responses.”
Participants will don 3-D glasses to view sets of digitally transformed images of Jean Arp sculptures, and will note on a scorecard which images in each set they found most and least pleasing. The answers will be tabulated throughout the course of the show, and initial results will be uploaded to the Walters’ website on Feb. 7. (The museum also hopes to offer an online version of the test.) Connor says Arp was chosen primarily for the strongly abstract nature of his work and for the simplicity of his shapes, which are relatively easy to computerize and morph. In the interest of consistency, participants will only see Arp sculptures.
While strenuously insisting that “there is no wrong answer,” Walters director Gary Vikan says, “One image will be the thing itself. The rest will be distortions.” The logistics of the exhibit were still being hammered out in early November, but viewers might see 10 to 36 images of each Arp sculpture, in groupings of five or six. Patrons entering the exhibit first see Woman of Delos, a 1959 plaster sculpture, which exemplifies the sort of artwork visitors will encounter but is not part of the experiment. None of the Arps come from the museum’s collection, but any future experiments conducted at the Walters will probably include some of its own holdings. “We wanted the first iteration to have no representational artworks,” says Vikan. “We’re dealing only with shape.”
The patterns that emerge from the answers might reveal broad preferences that Connor and his colleagues could investigate with more targeted tests, such as placing individuals in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and noting which regions of their brains light up when presented with a specific shape. However, that’s assuming Beauty and the Brain yields meaningful results. “It’s not just an experiment, it’s an experiment in doing an experiment,” Connor says of the exhibition. “It’s a test of how interested people will be, how many people walk through, and of those, how many will participate, and finally, whether the data will turn out to be informative.” Vikan, who studied aesthetics in college and developed the project with Connor, is eager to get started. “Our core product in the museum is not education, but experience, and the definition of that experience is an aesthetic experience—that thing which happens between an original work of art and the viewer,” he says. “I want to try to discover if there’s a way to find out what’s going on.”