Art for Love’s Sake

Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.

The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:

I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art

Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself. Continue reading “Art for Love’s Sake”

Dutton on Darwin: The Biology of Art

Image: The Yorck Project 2002

The world of digital media rested its scrutinising eye on philosophy late last year, as the late Denis Dutton, philosopher of art, delivered a talk to TED, the American-based conference organisation dedicated primarily to its eponymous fields of technology, entertainment and design, as well as more broadly business, global issues and science. Dutton, who held the position of professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand until his death last month after losing his fight with prostate cancer, gave a taster of the evolutionary theory of art appreciation developed in his 2009 book The Art Instinct. Since 1984 the TED audience have been addressed by speakers such as Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, Al Gore and Michelle Obama, and even Jamie Oliver. In keeping with the theme of the aesthetically pleasing, the whole lecture has been stylishly illustrated by animator Andrew Park and released for all to admire on YouTube.

Continue reading “Dutton on Darwin: The Biology of Art”

The Beauty of Distance in Kant’s aesthetics

I was lucky enough to have recently visited the 17th Biennale of Sydney with this year’s theme THE BEAUTY OF DISTANCE: Songs of Survival in a Precarious Age. One aspect of the theme is the intention to consider the distance between Australia and other major countries in a positive light by comparing it with the notion of distance that has been held central to the experience of beauty in traditional aesthetic theory. This is exemplified by the notion of disinterestedness in Kant’s theory of the beautiful described in The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790).

Finnish film and photography artist Salla Tykkä explores the relationship between the colour white and beauty in two films presented at the biennale: Victoria which shows the life cycle of a giant water lily and Airs Above the Ground which records the training of magnificent Lipizzaner stallions. Her investigation is inspired by the aesthetic theory of Victorian artist John Ruskin. Continue reading “The Beauty of Distance in Kant’s aesthetics”

Defining Beauty: Dürer and Hume

“Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan” is a new exhibition currently being held at The Morgan Library and Museum. On display are drawings, prints and illustrated books which showcase the development of Dürer’s artistic style. Works include the engravings Adam and Eve (1504) and Melencolia I (1514) as well as a copy of Dürer’s “Four Books on Human Proportion” (1532-1534).

Dürer thought that he had attained artistic perfection with a number of his works. In a letter to a patron for whom Dürer had created a woodcut he says “Please let it be as it is. No one could improve it because it was done artistically and with care. Those who see it and who understand such matters will tell you so.” Dürer obviously considered himself to be a fine judge of the beautiful even though he could not explain what it was in particular that made an artwork beautiful. In another quote he says “What beauty is, I know not, though it adheres to many things.”

Two centuries later the philosopher David Hume was similarly interested in judgments of beauty. In his 1757 essay “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume investigates whether objective judgments of taste are possible and also how these judgments might be justified. Continue reading “Defining Beauty: Dürer and Hume”

“Beautiful” artwork wins the Turner Prize

The 2009 Turner Prize has been awarded to the painter Richard Wright. Wright’s winning work is a site-specific wall painting with gold leaf applied using a medieval technique. Dr Stephen Deuchar, director of Tate Britain, summing up why Wright was selected as this year’s winner said “in the end we just all felt that it was because it was a really beautiful work of art.” Poet Carol Ann Duffy reaffirmed the status of Wright’s untitled work as beautiful, as did Alan Yentob (Creative director, BBC) and Anouchka Grose (psychoanalyst and writer.)

The repeated description of Wright’s work as beautiful stands out because beauty is not usually a term that is applied to Turner prize winning pieces. In 2002 Culture Minister Kim Howells described that year’s nominees as “cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit.” The connection of the Turner prize to conceptual art seems to have left many prize commentators unable to describe Wright’s work using any perceptual aesthetic terms other than “beautiful” (however I should mention that 2001 Turner prize winner Martin Creed did not use the term beautiful and instead repeatedly described both the 2009 show and the works as “nice.”)

Fortunately philosophical aesthetics treats beauty as one of its prime subjects and also engages with many other aesthetic properties like integrated, delicate, graceful, and splendid, all of which may also be used to describe Wright’s work. Given Wright’s win an examination of the nature of these aesthetic properties and of aesthetic taste looks set to be a worthwhile pursuit even for Turner prize enthusiasts.

You can view reaction to the 2009 Turner prize winner here.

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