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Artists, academics explain art’s appeal

Monday January 14, 2002

By Paul Glader 

The Associated Press 


BERKELEY — Artists, proverbially struggling and eclectic, may not be as haphazard as once thought. A flowering scientific movement suggests that art appreciation and production starts in the brain, not the heart. 

“All visual art, from execution to perception, are functions of the visual brain,” said Semir Zeki, professor of Neurobiology at University College London. 

His research in “neuroesthetics” suggests the reason Claude Monet’s “Waterlillies” may stir one person’s soul and not someone else’s is explainable by science, more than sentiment. 

Cultural upbringing, cultivated tastes and personal interests do affect how people see art. But certain works of art have a universal appeal because of how the human brain works, Zeki said. And artists often unwittingly stumble upon those triggers. 

Piet Mondrian, a Dutch painter who used a lot of straight lines in his work, appealed to people because straight lines with ordered space are stimuli appealing to the eye and visual brain cells, Zeki said. 

“He was discovering a physiological truth,” Zeki said. “He did not know it was the brain, but it was.” 

The same was true of American artist Alexander Calder who built mobiles, which stimulates brain physiology. 

Zeki suggests that understanding how the brain works helps us understand how we perceive art. 

French Fauvist painters in the early 1900s experimented with bold colors, perhaps unwittingly triggering responses from the brain’s color center. 

Oakland Sarah Filley, 30, was among about 250 artists and academics who attended the first International Conference on Neuroesthetics Saturday at the University of California, Berkeley. 

“Science is at the forefront as to where we are going as a culture,” she said. 

The one-day meeting, sponsored by Berkeley-based Minerva Foundation and the Institute of Neuroesthetics in London, included speakers who shared research explaining why people are attracted to certain types of art. 

Filley, a sculptor and photographer, said she’s glad more artists are embracing a more scientific approach. 

Zeki, who coined the term neuroesthetics in his 1999 book “Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain,” and others say studying art’s relation to neurology explains what makes people value art. 

He said one-third of the brain relates to visual knowledge. Although most is in the brain tissue in the back of a person’s head, the brain cells responsible for recording, scanning and imaging colors and matter are distributed in different parts of the brain. If we understand the brain, we better understand behavior, Zeki said. 

But beauty itself is a very individual ideal. “There is no yardstick for beauty except what’s in our own brains,” he said.