It's Personal

12 May 2014

Any artist who has exhibited their work to the public has probably wondered why a certain fine art oil painting seem to excite people and others don't. Or, why some people love a piece of work and others don't even find it interesting? Often, we come away from such experiences wondering what we did wrong, or feeling that perhaps our work isn't good enough to be appreciated or understood. Of course in the case of a truly flawed work, a little introspection can lead to improvement the next time. But when a work is inspired and seems to have no apparent flaws, this can lead to self doubt, depression or worse. 

Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1781.
Still Life with Lobster by Anne Vallayer-Coster, 1781.
Recent research into brain function is discovering the mechanisms which govern personal taste, specifically, what process powers aesthetic preferences. This new information should give heart to all artists who have suffered rejection of one sort or another. It all takes place in an area of the brain called the default mode network (DMN), which formerly was thought to be active only during periods of rest and rumination and suppressed when we are actively dealing with the world. 

The research team, led by Edward Vessel of New York University's Center for Brain Imaging, found that the DMN is stimulated when we encounter specific artworks that resonate with our unique sense of self:  "Certain artworks, albeit unfamiliar, may be so well-matched to an individual's unique makeup that they obtain access to the neural substrates concerned with the self - access which other external stimuli do not get."

This activation allows the poem, play, or painting "to interact with the neural processes related to the self, affect them, and possibly even be incorporated into them," the researchers write in the journal, Frontiers in Neuroscience. "This account is consistent with the modern notion that individuals' taste in art is linked with their sense of identity and suggests that DMN activity may serve to signal "self-relevance" in a broader sense than has been thought so far."

In simple terms, this research seems to indicate that people's tastes in art are similar to their tastes in food. Should the chef question his skills if the person who just doesn't like shellfish ignores the wonderful lobster thermidor? 

This information gives strength to the strategy of not placing much importance on a small sample - a single exhibition in a location, say. Tastes in art, like food, can be regional, and the only sensible measure of the actual interest in a work of art can only be obtained by placing one's work in front of the largest audience possible. Fortunately, the Internet gives artists unprecedented access to the entire world. 

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--John and Ann

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Don Paint wrote
on 17 May 2014 10:12 PM

Thanks John and Ann.  It is great to understand why different viewers will have different interests on the art piece.  I paint for some years, and even myself, I change my taste of art from time to time.  In the beginning, I appreciate very much on water-colour media and like to paint a lot of physical scene and objects.  Time goes by, I try to paint in oil, and note that only oil painting will impress me.  The interesting object is no longer the physical one, but some abstracted things in different form and structure.  It is amazing, but viewers' comment tend to change from appreciation to "ok".  It really frustrated!