chapter  9
22 Pages

Beauty, pleasure, and emotions: reactions to art works

Introduction Aesthetic taste emanates from neural activity but its representation is mysterious. There are several directions of inquiry. What are the cytoarchitectural and excitatory principles on which aesthetic responses might rest? What role do aesthetic standards play in the neural response? What is the biological purpose of aesthetic taste in the first place? No easy neuroscientific answers are currently available although the topic is debated in evolutionary circles (Aiken, 1998; G. Miller, 2000). Humans react to perceived visual beauty regardless of its format in nature or on canvas. The former is threedimensional while the latter is two-dimensional. The latter does not have to faithfully represent reality in order to elicit beauty-related reactions. We respond to the beauty we perceive in paintings by the Cubists, modern abstract painters, or Surrealists as well as to classic Chinese and Japanese art where there is little attempt to depict three-dimensional space. So beauty reactions are independent of the degree to which reality is represented. It is quite remarkable that photographic close-ups of a hand, a glass, and a variety of visual images can elicit beauty reactions, and at the same time so do wideangle vistas such as what we see from mountain tops, high-rises, driving in the desert, and sitting on a beach. Visual angle is not crucial here. And there are specialty scenes in films that are relevant, described by a leading film critic, Roger Ebert (2002):

three films [the Apu Trilogy] were photographed by Subrata Mitra, a still photographer whom Ray [the director] was convinced could do the job. Starting from scratch, at first with a borrowed 16mm camera, Mitra achieves effects of extraordinary beauty: forest paths, river vistas, the gathering clouds of the monsoon, water bugs skimming lightly over the surface of a pond.