Engaging With Art

Do we like great art? It depends.

William House
May 14 · 6 min read
Las Meninas By Diego Velázquez — The Prado in Google Earth: Home — Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

What makes visual art engaging, and why do we like some works of art but not others? It would be unproductive to ask a person if they like great art. Because the subjective meaning evoked by a piece of art is unique to each individual’s rational and emotional response to the artwork itself, we can view great art but not like it. It’s probably safe to say the Prado Museum in Madrid is filled with great art. Multiple paintings by Velázquez are on display there, including the celebrated Las Meninas. Presumably, if someone likes great art, they will enjoy all the paintings on display. But alas, we are a fickle species, and some particular works are more appealing to us than others.

Art evokes responses from people that encompass more than just visual recognition and analysis. The brain’s visual cortex is naturally involved in viewing art, but researchers at the University of Toronto detected more in a 2014 study. Our anterior temporal lobes get in on the action. This part of the brain integrates visual information about an object with how the object works and functions. This sort of higher-level integration means each person will assign a different functional meaning to what they see.

The research also detected how art stimulates the part of our brain linked to emotions. It is no wonder that two people can look at the same artwork and walk away with very different feelings about what they have seen. An image evoking a pleasurable experience for me could produce distress for someone else.

The basic components of a painting are color, tone, line, shape, space, and texture. Combining line, shape, and space into the term “form” leaves us with form, color, tone, and texture. How these four components are combined defines the uniqueness of a work of art. These four components also determine an individual’s response to that artwork. The research defining which parts of the brain respond to art is interesting but leaves us with the unanswered question of whether one of the four components carries more influence than another in our responses to viewing the art. This question may be unanswerable, but it opens the door for a bit of experimentation.

Color

I have taken a watercolor called Bleak Beauty and created two transformations — one is a rendition using color inversion and the other is a gray-scale conversion with no color. The underlying form and texture remain the same for each image, but they produce strikingly different images as color is altered or removed. The personal question for the viewer is, do they each engender different responses when viewed? It also becomes a subjective judgment when we ponder whether we have three aspects of a single piece of art or three individual works of art.

If each image creates a different impression for the viewer, it would be interesting to understand what part of the brain is most active in the viewing process. Perhaps more magnetic resonance imaging of brains-on-art will provide some insight.

Bleak Beauty by WM House — Original Watercolor on paper
Arctic Magic by WM House — Effects of a color inversion on Bleak Beauty
Approaching Storm by WM House — Gray-scale version of Bleak Beauty

Form

We could take another approach and view changes in form only. In this case, we take a scene from Iceland where a mountain range is reflected in a perfectly still lake. Color, tone, and texture remain the same, but form changes by rotating the image 180 degrees. Due to the mirroring effects of the lake, up and down are easily reoriented. But the resulting images are significantly different. Whether one view is better than the other is a purely subjective issue.

Reflections V1 by WM House
Reflections V2 by WM House

Back to Velázquez

The feature image for this article is a mirror image of the actual painting, Las Meninas. I presented it this way because it is the view I first encountered when visiting the Prado. I strolled through a long gallery at the museum, and the end of the room was dominated by an opening to the next gallery. From my vantage point in the first gallery, Las Meninas filled most of the view of the entranceway. I was awed at what I saw, and the painting seemed to come alive in an unexpected way.

When I entered the next gallery, I realized I was viewing a mirror reflecting the actual painting. I shuffled back and forth several times taking in the mirror reflection versus the actual artwork. For reasons unknown to me, I much preferred the mirrored view over the actual painting. Of course, since Velázquez is in the painting, his mind’s perspective was of looking at the scene out of a mirror just beyond the canvas.

Las Meninas is a celebrated masterpiece and one of the most analyzed works of western art. Its complex composition, use of reflections, and multiple focal points are beyond the scope of this article but suffice it to say it is great art, and for many, the greatest creation of Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez. But in my wanderings through the Prado Museum, I encountered another painting by Velázquez that resonated more deeply with me — The Triumph of Bacchus, more popularly known Los Borrachos (The Drinkers).

Los Borrachos (The Drinkers) by Diego Velázquez — Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The mixture of mythology and working peasants, along with sublime changes in lighting across the painting, appealed to me. But what really caught my eye was the scene in the center of the piece. Poor common laborers, shirking their work for midday wine. Velázquez perfectly captures the moment in the faces of two peasants in the center of the painting. The glow of the wine has built to a peak. They are precisely at that euphoric stage of enjoyment before messy drunkenness sets in. This painting captures the moment in a way that no photograph could ever portray. Do I like Las Meninas? Yes, but I like Los Barrachos more.

Insert from Los Borrachos

As I said initially, we are a fickle species, and while the Prado is filled with great art, some pieces touch me more than others. Perhaps viewing art is a quintessential example of an existential endeavor since we engage with art through the lens of our own experience and emotional makeup. We give the art a unique meaning that is a direct reflection of our conscious and subconscious existence. The full explanation of why we prefer some artwork over other pieces is forever obscured in our subconscious.

Also see:

Art and Empty Space

Art Disappearing into the Ether

Early Artistry of the Standing Stones

See more about art on ArcheanWeb

Read more on Medium publications:

Environmental Articles on EarthSphere

Stories, Life Observations and more on Dropstone

Read my recent fictional adventure on the origins of life

Sources:

Neural correlates of viewing paintings: evidence from a quantitative meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging data (by Oshin Vartanian & Martin Skov — Brain cognition, 2014) Abstract

The Elements of Painting (By Marion Boddy-Evans; The Spruce Crafts)

DropStone

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William House

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Exploring relationships between people and our planet — Stories and articles promoting science, art, environmental awareness, and human insights.

DropStone

DropStone

A dropstone falls to the ocean floor, becoming buried where it doesn’t belong — an exotic newcomer to an otherwise homogenous terrain. The DropStone publication is a home for creative stories, dropped into an environment where they can spark new ideas and insights.

William House

Written by

Exploring relationships between people and our planet — Stories and articles promoting science, art, environmental awareness, and human insights.

DropStone

DropStone

A dropstone falls to the ocean floor, becoming buried where it doesn’t belong — an exotic newcomer to an otherwise homogenous terrain. The DropStone publication is a home for creative stories, dropped into an environment where they can spark new ideas and insights.

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