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Computers Identify What Makes Abstract Art Move Us New Scientist Wall Art.

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This is reinforced by research which suggests artists tend to enjoy abstract art more than non-artists. Another study has recorded the electrical rhythms occurring in the brains of both groups, by using electrodes glued to the scalp.

Mark Rothko said of his artworks, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on”.

Kandinsky, widely credited as the first abstract artist, called it the ‘science of the soul’ and his art explored the relationship between colour and form.

In Kandinsky’s case, he said he could ‘see’ sound and ‘hear’ colour. He described a trip to the opera in Moscow by saying he saw, “All my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.”

Parts of the brain involved with memory were stimulated more – it might be that remembering information about art and culture gives us greater pleasure.

Kandinsky was keenly interested in psychology, a relatively new discipline when he began painting abstract art in the early 20th Century. This had a significant impact on the art he produced.

Consider the art of Mondrian, whose work consists exclusively of horizontal and vertical lines encasing blocks of colour. (His conviction in this principle was so strong that fellow artist Theo van Doesburg’s decision to use diagonal lines ended their friendship.) Mondrian’s art is deceptively simple, but eye-tracking studies confirm that the patterns are meticulously composed, and that simply rotating a piece radically changes the way we view it. In the originals, the volunteers’ eyes tended to linger for longer on certain places in the image, but in the rotated versions they would flit across the piece more rapidly. As a result, they considered the altered images less pleasurable when they later rated the work (Journal of Vision, vol 7, p 1445). Changing Mondrian’s colours has a similar effect: in one example, a large square of red in one corner is offset by a small dark blue square on the opposite side, which contrasts more strongly with the surrounding white. When the researchers swapped these colours, it threw off the balance, leading the volunteers to take less enjoyable journeys around the piece (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol 5, p 98).

One study showed that people liked paintings less if they thought they were made by a computer rather than a human artist, even when the pictures were actually identical.

This showed that the artistic background of the individual considerably influenced how abstract art is processed. The pattern of brain activity in artists revealed focused attention and active engagement with the visual information. This may be due to making use of memory to recall other artworks in order to make sense of the image.

Of course, each artist’s unique style will speak to us in a different way, so there can be no single answer. Nevertheless, a few studies have tackled the issue from various angles. Robert Pepperell, an artist based at Cardiff University, UK, for instance, has worked with Alumit Ishai of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, to understand the way we process ambiguous figures. They may look familiar, but “don’t add up to something immediately recognisable”, Pepperell says. Like the work of Wassily Kandinsky or certain pieces by Gerhard Richter, Pepperell’s paintings, which sometimes take the composition of older masterpieces (see images here and here), are not entirely abstract but neither can they be readily interpreted like a representational painting.

Once the AI had produced a series of images, members of the public were asked to judge them alongside paintings by people in an online survey, without knowing which were the AI’s work. Participants answered questions about how complex or novel they felt each image was, and whether it inspired them or elevated their mood. To the researchers’ surprise, images produced by their AI scored slightly higher in many cases than those by humans.

So a liking for abstract art can’t be explained by peer pressure. Yet Hawley-Dolan’s experiment didn’t explain how we detect the hand of the human artist, nor the reason why the paintings appeal to us. With a realistic picture, we might relate to the expression on a person’s face, or we might find symbolism in a still life. But how does the artist hold our attention with an image that bears no likeness to anything in the real world?

How our brains process visual information is not the only factor to consider.

Claudia and neuroscientist Dr Luca Ticini discuss how our brains process visual art. Our natural response to artworks can be altered by science. When magnetic pulses are applied to specific parts of the brain, our enjoyment can be raised or lowered.

Walker also notes that creative machines are already producing work for galleries. For example, two of his students are experimenting with AI that can learn from their drawing style to produce its own images. One, Anna Ridler, has used this technique to develop frames for a 12-minute animated film.

This doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the more abstract work of Rothko, Pollock or Mondrian, since these artists do not offer even the merest glimpse of a recognisable object for the brain to latch on to. But they may instead catch our attention through particularly well-balanced compositions that appeal to the brain’s visual system.

It was known that these cells fire when carrying out and observing actions. Recent research suggests this applies not just to actions we observe, but also to actions used by the artist to create works of art.

The idea is to make art that is “novel, but not too novel”, says Marian Mazzone, an art historian at the College of Charleston in South Carolina who worked on the system.

Besides the balance of the composition, we may also be drawn in by pieces that hit a sweet spot in the brain’s ability to process complex scenes, says Alex Forsythe, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool, UK. She used a compression algorithm to judge the visual complexity of different pieces of art. The program tries to find shortcuts to store an image in the smallest number of bits – the more complex the piece, the longer the string of digits used to store the painting on the hard drive, offering a more objective measure that human judgement. The results suggested that many artists – from Edouard Manet to Pollock – used a certain level of detail to please the brain. Too little and the work is boring, but “too much complexity results in a kind of perceptual overload”, says Forsythe.

But Walker thinks the lines will soon get blurry. “Imagine having people over for a dinner party and they ask, ‘Who is that by?’ And you say, ‘Well, it’s a machine actually’. That would be an interesting conversation starter.”

Although Pollock moved away from this style of art, he continued to be interested in the processes of the brain. He said his famous drips were an example of an artist allowing his unconscious mind to determine the form of a painting.

“Our mind notes the careful arrangements of these pieces and senses the artist’s intention, even if we are not consciously aware of the fact”

Could the same approach tell us anything about the controversial pieces that began to emerge from the tail end of Impressionism more than 100 years ago? Whether it is Mondrian’s rigorously geometrical, primary-coloured compositions, or Pollock’s controversial technique of dripping paint onto the canvas in seemingly haphazard patterns, the defining characteristic of modern art has been to remove almost everything that could be literally interpreted.

The studies are part of an emerging discipline called neuroaesthetics, founded just over 10 years ago by Semir Zeki of University College London. The idea was to bring scientific objectivity to the study of art, in an attempt to find neurological bases for the techniques that artists have perfected over the years. It has already offered insights into many masterpieces. The blurred imagery of Impressionist paintings seems to tickle the brain’s amygdala, for instance, which is geared towards detecting threats in the fuzzy rings of our peripheral vision. Since the amygdala plays a crucial role in our feelings and emotions, that finding might explain why many people find these pieces so moving.

Art and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Rutgers University

The clever twist is that the generator is primed to produce an image that the discriminator recognises as art, but which does not fall into any of the existing styles.

Abstract art offers both a challenge and the freedom to play with different interpretations. In some ways, it’s not so different to science, where we are constantly looking for patterns and decoding meaning so that we can view and appreciate the world in a new way.

It’s still early days for the field of neuroaesthetics – and these studies are probably only a taste of what is to come. It is intriguing, for example, that some scans have registered the brain processing movement when we see a handwritten letter. It is as if we are replaying the writer’s moment of creation in our brain. That may be down to our mirror neurons, which are known to mimic others’ actions. The results have led some to ponder whether the work of Pollock might feel so dynamic because the brain reconstructs the energetic movements the artist used as he painted. This hypothesis will need to be thoroughly tested, though (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol 11, p 197). Others have speculated that we could use neuroaesthetic studies to understand the longevity of some pieces of artwork. While the fashions of the time might shape what is currently popular, works that are best adapted to our visual system may be the most likely to linger once the trends of previous generations have been forgotten (Spatial Vision, vol 21, p 347).

How do we decode images to give them meaning? Context is crucial, particularly when viewing postmodern, ready-made art like Marcel Duchamp’s famous installation, Fountain, which placed a urinal in an exhibition – much to the dismay of the artistic establishment.

When we visit an art gallery, traditional landscapes and portraits are easy to enjoy. We recognise the subject from our own knowledge of the world. Abstract art is more difficult. We are often unsure about what we are seeing. And uncertain of what response is expected.

Much of Kandinsky’s art was an attempt to capture and represent how he experienced the world.

Looking at beautiful artworks activates the pleasure centres of the brain. Applying small magnetic pulses that interfere with the neural activity in the prefrontal cortex decreases aesthetic appreciation for both abstract and representational art. But applying this to just the posterior parietal area decreases enjoyment of representational art only. This is because this area is more involved in the recognition of objects, showing that the brain processes representational and abstract art quite differently.

Images featured: The Hay Wain by John Constable, National Gallery; Small Horizon with Orange, Lime, Lemon and Cherry: June 1957 by Patrick Heron. © The Estate of Patrick Heron. All rights reserved, DACS 2014. Bridgeman Images

An artificial intelligence has been developed that produces images in unconventional styles – and much of its output has already been given the thumbs up by members of the public.

We certainly do have a strong tendency to follow the crowd. When asked to make simple perceptual decisions such as matching up a shape with its rotated image, for instance, people will often choose a definitively wrong answer if they see others doing the same. It is easy to imagine that the herd mentality would have an even greater impact on a fuzzy concept like art appreciation, where there is no right or wrong answer.

Science can offer another stopping point on this journey of understanding. “Art gives us knowledge about the world. Some is emotional knowledge, some is the knowledge held by the creator and for the neurobiologist it gives us a means of understanding how the brain is organised,” says Zeki.

The results of the survey are interesting, says Kevin Walker at the Royal College of Art in London. “The top-ranked images contain an aesthetic combination of colours and patterns in composition, whereas the lowest-ranked ones are maybe more uniform,” he says (see image above).

Although these works often sell for whopping sums of money – Pollock’s No. 5 fetched $140 million in 2006 – they have attracted many sceptics, who claim that modern artists lack the skill or competence of the masters before them. Instead, they see the newer works as a serious case of the emperor’s new clothes, believing that people might claim to like them simply because they are in fashion. In the scathing words of the American satirist Al Capp, they are the “product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered”.

The team – which also included researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Facebook’s AI lab in California – modified a type of algorithm known as a generative adversarial network (GAN), in which two neural nets play off against each other to get better and better results. One creates a solution, the other judges it – and the algorithm loops back and forth until the desired result is reached.

“You want to have something really creative and striking – but at the same time not go too far and make something that isn’t aesthetically pleasing,” says team member Ahmed Elgammal at Rutgers University.

Many other abstract artists have been influenced by psychology. Jackson Pollock began Jungian psychoanalysis in the late 1930s, in an attempt to cure his alcoholism. During these sessions, he created a series of drawings.

It would be foolish to try to reduce art appreciation to a set of scientific laws, of course. While the research helps us to understand the way the technique used to create an artwork may appeal to the brain’s visual system, an artist’s ingenuity also depends on their ability to develop or confront the ideas of those before them. Benno Belke, a German sound artist and cognitive scientist, points out that we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the style of a particular artist and understanding their place in art history or the culture of their time, for instance. This is where expertise comes in to help you appreciate works you would have never enjoyed before, he argues. Pepperell agrees. “Art is about heightened sensitivity and awareness,” he says. “If you’re a connoisseur, you’ll be looking for subtleties.”

Brush-strokes are a major feature of abstract art. Unlike figurative paintings, where there is an attempt to capture an object from the natural world, they are a means within themselves.

Art such as Ridler’s still relies heavily on human guidance, however. So will we ever value paintings generated spontaneously by a computer?

What’s more, many pieces showed signs of fractal patterns – repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or zoom out of a canvas (British Journal of Psychology, vol 102, p 49). Fractals are common throughout nature – you can see them in the jagged peaks of a mountain or the unfurling fronds of the fern. It is possible that our visual system, which evolved in the great outdoors, finds it easier to process these kinds of scenes. The case for this theory is not watertight, though, since the fractal content in the paintings was considerably higher than you would normally find in natural scenes – to the point that, in other circumstances, it would be considered too busy to be pleasant. Forsythe thinks that the artists may choose their colours to “soothe a negative experience we would normally have when encountering too high a fractal content”.

Angelina Hawley-Dolan of Boston College, Massachusetts, responded to this debate by designing a fun experiment that played with her volunteers’ expectations of the pieces they were seeing. Their task was simple. The volunteers viewed pairs of paintings – either the creations of famous abstract artists or the doodles of amateurs, infants, chimps and elephants. Then they had to judge which they preferred. A third of the paintings were given no captions, while the rest were labelled. The twist was that sometimes the labels were mixed up, so that the volunteers might think they were viewing a chimp’s messy brushstrokes when they were actually seeing an expressionist piece by Mark Rothko. Some sceptics might argue that it is impossible to tell the difference – but in each set of trials, the volunteers generally preferred the work of the well-accepted human artists, even when they believed it was by an animal or a child (Psychological Science, vol 22, p 435). Somehow, it seems that the viewer can sense the artist’s vision in these paintings, even if they can’t explain why.

Mondrian’s neat lines, blocks and primary colours divide critics. The artist intended his work to “express general beauty with the utmost awareness”.

With this in mind, I recently wandered down to an art exhibition at University College London’s Grant Museum, where chimp and elephant art is exhibited alongside artworks by abstract artist Katharine Simpson, whose blocky pieces are reminiscent of Rothko’s, but on a smaller scale and with more variety of colour. Challenging myself to guess the professional work, I wandered the gallery looking at the paintings before reading the captions. I managed to get it right every time.

The same is probably true of many other works. Oshin Vartanian at the University of Toronto, Canada, for example, recently asked volunteers to compare a series of original paintings to a set in which the composition had been altered by moving objects around within the frame. He found that almost everyone preferred the original, whether it was a still-life painting by Vincent van Gogh or Joan Miró’s abstract Bleu I.

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STANDING in front of Jackson Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A one day, I was struck by an unfamiliar feeling. What I once considered an ugly collection of random paint splatters now spoke to me as a joyous celebration of movement and energy, the bright yellow and blue bringing to mind a carefree laugh.

An electroencephalogram (EEG) can be used to record impulses in the brain.

He carried out ‘psychological tests’ of students and staff at the Bauhaus art college in an attempt to prove that the mind pulled certain colours and shapes together.

In the art AI, one of these roles is played by a generator network, which creates images. The other is played by a discriminator network, which was trained on 81,500 paintings to tell the difference between images we would class as artworks and those we wouldn’t – such as a photo or diagram, say.

Kristian Tylén at Aarhus University in Denmark recently looked at the way the setting of an object can alter our perception of its message. He found that an understanding of intent activates areas in the right hemisphere of the brain that are traditionally associated with linguistic understanding. This holds whether that intent is conveyed through unusual incongruities in the image, like seeing a urinal in a gallery, or through use of accepted symbols such as a bunch of flowers by a doorway. It is almost as if we “read” the unusual arrangements in the same way that we read meaning in the arbitrary signs of a language.

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“My child could have done that!” Wrong – neuroaesthetics is starting to show us why abstract art can be so beguiling

The discriminator was also trained to distinguish different styles of art, such as rococo or cubism.

Scientific studies indicate that we derive more or less pleasure depending on what we know about the subject. This applies to our enjoyment of, for example, food and drink as well as art.

Riedl points out that the human story behind an artwork is often an important part of what endears us to it.

In addition to his interest in psychology, Kandinsky had a neurological condition known as synaesthesia, where stimulation of one sense produces experiences in another.

Since then, I have come to appreciate the work of many more modern artists, who express varying levels of abstraction in their work, in particular the great Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee, and contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. Even so, when I tried to explain my taste, I found myself lost for words. Why are we attracted to paintings and sculptures that seem to bear no relation to the physical world?

Robert Pepperell has taken the composition of Valerio Castello’s Moses Striking the Rocks (below) for his ambiguous artwork, Paradox (see image)

What’s more, Vartanian found that manipulating the objects reduced activation in areas of the brain linked with meaning and interpretation (NeuroReport, vol 15, p 893). The results suggest that our mind notes the careful arrangements and senses the intention behind the paintings, even if we are not consciously aware of the fact. It is unlikely, to say the least, that the chimps or children would ever hit upon such carefully considered structures. That may explain why the volunteers in Hawley-Dolan’s study tended to prefer the work of the experienced artists.

Kandinsky lived with synaesthesia from childhood. He claimed that mixing colours in his paintbox created a hissing sound, with each colour on his palette making a different noise.

For example, when looking at the painting on the right our brain can imagine the movements performed by Kandinsky in its creation.

Learn about the future of AI: See DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis speak at New Scientist Live in London

In one study, Pepperell and Ishai asked volunteers to decide whether they saw anything familiar in the piece. In a quarter of the cases they claimed to recognise something real, even when there was nothing definite to pick out. They also had to judge how “powerful” they considered the artwork to be. It turned out that the longer they took to answer these questions, the more highly they rated the piece under scrutiny. And this delay seems to be filled with widespread neural activity, as revealed by later fMRI scans. From these results, you could conclude that the brain sees these images as a puzzle – it struggles to “solve” the image, and the harder it is to decipher the meaning, the more rewarding we find that moment of recognition (Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol 5, p 1).

Little did I know that researchers have already started to address this question. By studying the brain’s responses to different paintings, they have been examining the way the mind perceives art. Although their work cannot yet explain the nuances of our tastes, it has highlighted some of the unique ways in which these masterpieces hijack the brain’s visual system.

AIs that can tweak photos to mimic the style of famous painters such as Monet are already widely available. There are even apps that do this, such as DeepArt. But the new system is designed to produce original works from scratch.

Can modern science play a role in helping us understand the processes happening in our brain when we view a piece of abstract art? And can it predict whether we will like what we see?

The Starry Night is one of Van Gogh’s best-loved paintings. Some critics have suggested it reflects the artist’s mental state.

It was my road-to-Damascus moment – the first time a piece of abstract art had stirred my emotions. Like many people, I used to dismiss these works as a waste of time and energy. How could anyone find meaning in what looked like a collection of colourful splodges thrown haphazardly on a 5.5-metre-wide canvas? Yet here I was, in London’s Tate Modern gallery, moved by a Pollock.

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Scientific research suggests that the human brain unconsciously simulates the brush-strokes of an artwork due to cells known as mirror neurons.

“I like the idea that people are starting to push GANs out of their comfort zone – this is the first paper I’ve seen that does that,” says Mark Riedl at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Now and then, a painter like Claude Monet or Pablo Picasso comes along and turns the art world on its head. They invent new aesthetic styles, forging movements such as impressionism or abstract expressionism. But could the next big shake-up be the work of a machine?

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