December 21, 2011 1 Comment
Went with my lovely wife today to see a terrific exhibit at the NC Museum of Art on Rembrandt. A major theme of the exhibit was the ongoing effort to determine actual Rembrandt’s from those attributed to him that were actually painted by others.
How timely then, that I had just read this latest Jonah Lehrer piece on the neuroscience of real vs “fake” art:
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. [emphasis mine] The man is a potent brand.
So neuroscientists did experiments where subjects looked at actual vs. “school of Rembrandt” works. Not surprisingly, there was no difference in brain response (under fMRI). Additionally:
However, the scientists did locate a pattern of activity that appeared whenever a painting was deemed to be authentic, regardless of whether or not it was actually “real.” In such instances, subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain. (According to the scientists, this activation reflects “the increase in the perceived value of the artwork.”) Interestingly, there was no difference in orbitofrontal response when the stamp of authenticity was applied to a fake Rembrandt, as the brain area responded just as robustly. The quality of art seemed to be irrelevant.
Looking at the works in the gallery I think I could see what the differences were in many of the paintings as to why they were not authentic. But maybe I was just fooling myself. Many of these “school of Rembrandt” paintings have been thought to be “genuine” Rembrandt’s by actual art experts for hundreds of years. The larger point being, they were mostly all brilliant works of art, regardless of who actually painted them. Some were just more brilliant than others. I have to admit most of my favorites were actual Rembrandt’s. Were they actually better, or did my brain just tell me so? Kim and I actually discussed how this was much like how people perceive wine based on the costs– as Leher himself points out later in the article.
Short version: you should appreciate art (and wine) simply for what it is. Unfortunately, when you have more information, your brain won’t let you.
[Oh, almost forgot. One really cool thing was that the museum let you download a podcast of the audio tour that you usually have to pay $5 for. I just took my Ipod– after downloading in advance– and was able to listen at the 2x speed. Very cool.]