How Does the Brain Perceive Art?
Do you think you know what you are looking at? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t!
Consider the exhibition of real and ‘fake’ Rembrandt works (some of which were produced in his atelier by apprentices and students).
Are responses to art conditioned? Is art ‘lesser’ if we find out it is not original?
In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a controversial exhibition entitled “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt,” in which works considered to be genuine Rembrandts were displayed alongside those done by his students and admirers. (These lesser paintings are often dismissed as “the school of Rembrandt.”) The point of the exhibition was to reveal the fine line between genius and imitation, authenticity and fakery.
A hundred years ago, about 700 works were attributed to Rembrandt. Over the course of the 20th century, that number declined by 50 percent, as critics and historians began searching for those tell-tale marks that distinguish the old master from his young pupils. Such critical distinctions have massive financial consequences: While a painting by celebrated Rembrandt pupil William Drost might sell for a few hundred thousand dollars — his best canvases can go for a couple million — a genuine Rembrandt is worth many times more. In 2009, a lesser Rembrandt portrait sold for $33 million.
What accounts for this staggering difference in value? One possibility, of course, is that there’s something inherently special about a real Rembrandt, that the Dutch painter filled his art with discernible flourishes that can be detected by observers. Although we might not be able to explain these minor differences, we still appreciate them at an unconscious level, which is why we hang Rembrandts in the Met and consign his imitators to the basement. Great art is not an accident.
The second possibility is that our aesthetic judgements are really complicated. While Rembrandt was an astonishingly talented artist, our response to his art is conditioned by all sorts of variables that have nothing to do with oil paint. Many of these variables are capable of distorting our perceptions, so that we imagine differences that don’t actually exist; the verdict of art history warps what we see. The power of a Rembrandt, in other words, is inseparable from the fact that it’s a Rembrandt. The man is a potent brand.
To test these competing hypotheses, a team of researchers at Oxford University, including Mengfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Martin Kemp and Andrew Parker, set up a simple experiment. They recruited 14 volunteers who were familiar with Rembrandt but had no formal training in art history. The subjects were then put into an fMRI machine and given the following instructions: