In my retirement I end up spending a considerable amount of time pursuing art. This includes learning about art (paintings, music, photographs), admiring what the masters have created, and doing my own little art creation (in the form of photography and digital imaging). As I do that, I ask myself why is art such an important aspect of our existence? What makes it so?
I found that this is an active area of investigation by all types of people: Neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, evolutionary biologists, behavioral economists. Here are some interesting nuggets I discovered.
According to a story in Huffington Post (5/18/2011), “New research by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroesthetics at University College London demonstrates that viewing a beautiful work of art creates the same chemical response as love. Both experiences trigger the feel-good chemical dopamine.” Aha, there you go. Good old dopamine. “There is a reason why art has served as a means of soulful self-expression for centuries upon centuries. All forms of art, from painting to dancing to music, are very personal and emotional experiences — both for the artists and the viewers. While it is a common experience to fall in love with a certain artwork, scientists now have evidence that shows the brain reacts similarly when viewing artwork and when falling in love.”
A more scholarly explanation is found in a paper written by Mohan Matthen (“The Pleasure of Art” in Australasian Philosophical Review, 2017). He writes that art appreciation is a “facilitating pleasure”, or f-pleasure, that is learned. This is distinct from f-pleasures that nature provides, such as what you get out of drinking cold water when you are thirsty. He distinguishes f-pleasure from a more primitive relief or r-pleasure, which includes things like coughing, sneezing, defecation, relieving an itch or orgasm. (I am relieved to note that the pleasure of viewing art is different from what I get when I go potty J)
He further proposes that a necessary ingredient for deriving f-pleasure is a “nexus” — — a coordinated group of mental and bodily ‘preparations’ that encourage, ease, and optimize the physical act. The learned f-pleasure, which includes art or music appreciation, requires formation of its own nexus. He goes own to say, “Aesthetic pleasure arises from a difficult and costly mental engagement with an object and activates a learned nexus that seeks to maximize the pleasure of this mental engagement. We judge objects to have aesthetic merit when they are a good fit for our aesthetic psychology. Aesthetic pleasure comes from contemplating something intellectually and, in the case of visual and performing arts, perceptually as well — focusing on the object and its properties.”
OK, so now I know why I like certain types of music and not others, or why I find appreciating the more recent Western Classical music difficult — -because it does not fit with my aesthetic psychology.
Dr. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University is author of a book titled “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.” Ira Flatow, the host of Science Friday on NPR, interviewed him.
According to Dr. Bloom, “The starting point for a lot of our pleasures is that they’re biological adaptations. It’s why we like food. It’s why we like sex. It’s why we like the company of other people. And it’s also why we have a curiosity. It is very beneficial for an animal like we are to be motivated to explore the world and to get a flush of pleasure from discovering new things.” It is this curiosity that has brought art as a way of getting pleasure.
Dr. Bloom has an interesting taken on the importance of the “essence” of art in the degree of pleasure we get out of it. “We get pleasure from something, it’s not merely based on what we see or what we hear or what we feel. Rather, it’s based on what we believe that thing to be. So, in general when we look at a painting, you don’t just look at the patterns of color and the shapes and the perceptual input. Rather, you try to reconstruct what went on its creation. What’s its history? What’s its real nature? And that determines how much you like it.” This is why an original work of art fetches a lot more money than a copy although they both look identical.
“If you think you are drinking an expensive wine, you get a far more pleasurable reaction, even at very low-level pleasure circuitry in the brain, than if you think you’re drinking cheap swill. So another way of looking at it is you can enhance your pleasure simply by learning more about something, where it comes from, how it works.”
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can increase pleasure by knowing more about a work of art (or wine). On the other hand, your propensity to pay more for what you think to be an authentic item makes you susceptible to deception.
In summary, I can go on and enjoy a work of art because it will be just like falling in love. In doing so, I will get involved with difficult and costly mental engagement while further developing my learned f-pleasure nexus. Finally, I will increase my pleasure by learning that the painting I bought for $10 at the neighborhood pawnshop is an authentic Monet.