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Why are we attracted to some art but not others?

Why are we attracted to some art but not others?
A woman stands looking at art pieces on a wall. Image: Zalfa Imani / Unsplash

Humans love art, and we put it everywhere. We hang photographs in our living rooms and posters in offices, queues of people weave out of the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa and we are captivated by sunsets painting the skies. Scientists believe there’s a reason for this attraction, and it goes deeper than preference.

“Art is a symbolic language,” says Dr Kirti Ranchod, a neurologist with the Global Brain Health Institute, jointly based at the University of California, San Francisco and Trinity College Dublin.

This means that, much like speaking any language, you have to use various parts of your brain to access the information art conveys and try to interpret it. Even if you don’t understand it, particularly with abstract art, you are developing new neural pathways when you are viewing art, she explains.

“It gives new ways of looking at and interacting with the world, and that’s (why) I think it has such a profound impact,” Ranchod says.

This symbolic nature of art is what fascinates experts on a neurological level. When we say an artwork “spoke” to us, in a way it really did, just without words.

“Art expresses thoughts, ideas and experiences in ways that sometimes are more effective than language,” says Professor Dahlia Zaidel, an expert in the neuropsychology of art at the University of California, Los Angeles. Art is a communicative system, she says, using aesthetics instead of words to speak.

“What attracts us to look at a piece of art is the aesthetics, and aesthetics is attraction for attention. It’s a biological aspect of our brain that we have inherited from our biological ancestors; to pay attention to all sorts of aesthetic things and to the signals that emanate from objects of beauty,” she explains.

When people view art, alone or with other people, that work communicates a language that we can all speak, and we are united and connected through it.

“When you go to a gallery and you relate to the art, you almost have the sense of belonging to a community. There’s an engagement that happens. By creating that community, you feel supported, and feeling supported changes a whole host of things in terms of the way we function in the world,” Ranchod says.

What is language without a conversation?

For Cape Town artist Gavin Rain, his art is a way of communicating thoughts, ideas, feelings and emotions with those who view his work. This, he believes, is what drives people to buy art: People want to invest in the conversation.

“It’s a way of saying that this conversation has value, and the way to be a part of that is to own the by-product of that conversation, which is the piece of art. It’s the artist having an idea, putting that into an art form, selling it, and then [the buyer has] this sort of encapsulated idea that they can then move through and have,” he explains. It’s a social investment, he says, when you give of yourself to take part in something.

“I think that that’s at the heart of purchasing art, even if people don’t realise that at the time. Often, it’s a purely aesthetic purchase or decision, but I do still think that there is that participatory narrative that is a part of that purchase. Yes, there’s a commercial transaction, but the way I see it is that you’re buying into a conversation,” Rain says.

The conversation between artist and buyer, the narrative that takes place when viewing art, is why fake art is so concerning in the art community, he believes.

“Really, it’s an imitation of a conversation, without the conversation.

“Because fake art isn’t part of that conversation, it hasn’t really understood the whole impetus for that conversation in the first place. You know, art has value because creativity has value.”

Professor Anjan Chatterjee, who specialises in neuroaesthetics at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees, saying that fake art lacks the agency of the creator that people want to see when they view art.

“People care about authenticity, and the idea that there’s agency behind something. It matters to people, even though you can have a fake that is indistinguishable to the average person and even to many experts,” Chatterjee believes.

But what exactly attracts us? What draws us into art galleries to begin with? Chatterjee explains that the way our brains respond to art depends on the type of art we see.

“If it’s portraiture, then parts of the brain that are responsive to faces and bodies get activated. If it’s landscapes, parts of the brain that are responsive to natural landscapes get activated. If it’s art with a lot of movement, there are parts of our visual brain that are selectively responsive to movement – over a static image – that are engaged.

“At the same time, parts of our brain that respond to pleasure – and they are more in the front of the brain and deep in the brain – those get activated simultaneously. So it seems that there’s this combination of our visual system and our pleasure system responding simultaneously in one biological expression of our appreciation of art.

“There is something at that level that people are drawn to, at the very least, people get pleasure out of art.” It might vary from person to person over what art gives someone pleasure, but it’s pleasure all the same. And it’s not limited to physical art either – it can be felt in listening to music or eating your favourite meal.

“Is art the same as sticking a spoonful of ice cream in your mouth? To get pleasure out of that, is that the same thing? In some ways, perhaps it is,” Chatterjee says, explaining that the “reward circuitry in our brain that responds to art encompasses the same kind of pleasure centres when people eat something that they like”.

Why are we attracted to some art but not others?

To a certain extent, this depends on our own knowledge, context and subjectivity, Chatterjee says. When you know more about a specific artwork, other parts of the brain are engaged, too, and semantic memories come into play.

But Chatterjee also believes that art goes deeper than that, that it is more than just a momentary good feeling when you taste something sweet or an intellectual connection. When we have the most moving experiences of art, there is a particular circuit in the brain that is activated – the default mode network – which typically tends to be more active when people are not taking in information from the outside world.

“Kind of when you’re daydreaming and you lose track of everything around you,” he explains.

“It throws the viewer into an internally driven state. So the impact of the art is to make people turn inward rather than outward. The art is a vehicle; what’s happening in the brain is a reflection of a self-reflective state that is induced by the art,” Chatterjee says.

The default mode network, which Ranchod calls the daydream network, allows for a deeper connection with art, beyond the paint and canvas. Because the network is the same that is activated during meditation, the experience of art can, she believes, help us find healing and self-awareness.

“This network is important for understanding self and understanding the perspective of others, and that helps us to understand ourselves. I think that’s how art actually works; I think that’s why we are attracted to some art and not to others,” she says.

“When activating this network, you are accessing parts of yourself that help you to understand yourself, but not necessarily in a conscious way. It’s helping us subconsciously to understand and process a conflict, a memory, a thought or an experience. And this allows us to heal going forward. Art is actually developing the self-awareness network and that then helps you to process not just art, but also how you relate to other aspects in your life.”

Rain agrees, saying that art is meant to make you feel something and have an experience when you view artwork.

“At its fundamental, art is inspirational. That inspiration [can be] changing one’s mood or putting one in a specific intellectual mental framework,” he says. And those feelings, Ranchod believes, can be incredibly healing, physically and mentally.

“Art increases psychological resilience. By activating that network and other parts of the brain, it increases your ability to cope with stress, decreases your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels – all of which go up when you’re stressed.” DM/ML

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