The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1757 that beauty “is most often some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the sense”. Burke thus distinguished art from beauty; but beauty and art were later brutally separated by Marcel Duchamp, with his urinal (see Fontaine). Thus, not all artistic work, however interesting, is necessarily linked to the experience of beauty.
Neurobiologist Semir Zeki explained in his lecture “The Neurobiology of Beauty” that there are no specific characteristics to define beauty, so in his experiments on beauty he targeted individuals representing different ethnicities, cultures and upbringings. Semir Zeki excluded ‘insiders’, such as painters or musicians, so that knowledge of the subject would not influence the answer. His idea was to show paintings and play music so that everyone could assess the beauty they sensed. Then he scanned the subjects and showed them the same works again, this time monitoring brain activity. The flow of blood detected by the scanner allows us to see the activity and the areas stimulated. He conducted these experiments using a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres that most people (but not all) like – La Grande Odalisque – and another painting that many (but not all) people consider ‘ugly’, painted by Lucian Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. The latter work does not provoke an experience of beauty for most subjects. In music, a majority found Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony ‘beautiful’, and many subjects described a work by György Ligeti as ‘ugly’.
By observing the stimulation of brain activity, and especially the areas that are active when subjects experience beauty through the eyes, we notice that in addition to the visual areas, the medial orbitofrontal cortex – the emotional area – is also active.
In musical aesthetic experiences, the orbitofrontal area is very active. There is also an isolated area that is mobilised, which is always corollary to the experience of beauty. There are characteristics that define beauty, but the response comes from the brain and not from the artworks. By observing the area of active visual beauty, there is a strong activity in the relationship to the work: the intensity of the experience is great for the observer. In his book entitled Du vrai, du beau, du bien, Jean-Pierre Changeux states that our brain associates beauty with truth and goodness. Recognising the beautiful thus initiates a process of reconstruction, and the observer will strengthen his or her desire to live.
But what about ugliness? Faced with ugliness, the observer also activates stimuli, but differently. The amygdala is active, and the cortex mobilises the motor that protects us against ugliness. The essential function of the amygdala is to ‘decode stimuli that could be threatening to the organism’. Joseph LeDoux, director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety in New York, illustrates the action of this circuit very well: “A hiker in the wilderness sees what he thinks is a snake. The short circuit activates an instantaneous jolt and recoil response of fear.”
We have a filter that selects between the ugly and the beautiful, and then sends the information to different parts of the brain.
Semir Zeki affirms that beauty is desire and love, and that there is a mirror link with beauty. When people look at a person or an object they desire, they use the same pathway as for the beautiful. So there is a common area of activity located in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and these areas are activated when we experience beauty; but they can also sometimes be activated when a person looks at individuals they really like.
If, for the observer, the beautiful reinforces his or her desire to live and stimulates more activity than the ugly, this implies that a work of art must stimulate our desires, love and beauty. The significance of a work of art is therefore not measured by itself, but by the effects it produces in the viewer.