The “Mona Lisa,” one of the world’s most famous works of art, hangs on a featureless tan wall in a large, sparse room in the Louvre. There’s little to draw one’s eye away from Leonardo da Vinci’s small painting. Now a psychologist argues that this design scheme, common in traditional art museums from the early 20th century onward, actually plays into human psychology—because humans that aren’t distracted are better able to appreciate beauty.
"Museums have often tried separate art from life and to create a pure, neutral environment," says Ellen Lupton, senior curator of contemporary design at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum.
This so-called "white cube" layout isn't how things always were, however. Throughout the 1800s, patrons would often find art crammed from floor to ceiling. But by the late-19th century, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink model was under fire. “The general mental state produced by such vast displays is one of perplexity and vagueness, together with some impression of sore feet and aching heads,” wrote one William Stanley Jevons in an 1882 essay titled “The Use and Abuse of Museums.”
To combat this “museum fatigue,” art scholars recommended that, among other things, institutions displaying art should simplify. Boston Museum of Fine Arts secretary Benjamin Ives Gilman, for example, recommended that curators avoid the “perpetual variety of wall coloring, found in many newer museums,” in favor of a neutral, standard color. By the early 20th century, the cleaner, sparser style had become in vogue.
“You would create a very clean environment for displaying objects,” Lupton says.
At the time, museum professionals weren’t conducting scientific studies on their patrons. But a study published last week in the journal Current Biology vindicates their efforts by finding that appreciating beauty takes conscious thought—and therefore, distracting a person can prevent them from fully taking in the work of art before them.
Aenne Brielmann, a graduate student of psychology at New York University, got the idea to study the effects of distraction on art appreciators after dropping out of a painting program in Europe. Inspired by her time at art school, she has turned her focus to the growing field of neuroaesthetics, which aims to understand how our brains decide whether things are aesthetically pleasing using psychological experiments, brain scanning and other tools of neuroscience.
"It would be wonderful if I could combine these two passions and do a psychological and scientific investigation of this phenomenon," Brielmann says of her motivation.
Given that neuroaesthetics is a relatively new field, Brielmann and her adviser, NYU psychologist Denis Pelli, turned instead to philosophers, who "have been talking about this topic for thousands of years." They came across the work of the influential German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that beauty is not an inherent property of an object, but is instead subjective to the person observing it.
Kant’s argument, in Brielmann’s interpretation, depends on the idea that a person must exert conscious thought to determine whether something is beautiful or not. So it follows that, "if we do need thought to experience beauty, you should not be able to experience beauty any more if we take your thoughts away from you," she says.
For her study, she had more than 60 people look at photographs they considered “movingly beautiful,” along with ones characterized as “neutral” or “beautiful.” All were sourced from an international database of images calibrated to different emotions. (The subjects themselves sent her the “beautiful” pictures beforehand.)
Using an iPad app, the participants were asked to rate the aesthetic pleasure they felt from the images they saw. Subjects moved their fingers back and forth on the screen to indicate where their reaction fell, on a scale from “maximum pleasure” to “minimum pleasure.”
Next, to distract their focus from the images, Brielmann had the participants do verbal memory tasks while looking at similar images. These tasks required the person's attention to stay focused on what they were hearing and saying, thus distracting them from what they were looking at. "Your thoughts are on the task even though you're still experiencing the object," Brielmann says.
Compared to how they ranked the images while simply looking at them, the researchers saw roughly a 15 percent drop in how beautiful participants ranked the study's beautiful images. Meanwhile, there was little change in how they ranked the neutral images.
“Perhaps one of the greatest puzzles is that of beauty: What is it, and why do we experience it?” says Bevil Conway, a neuroscientist at the National Eye Institute who was not involved in the study, but has also previously asserted that beauty requires attention. This study "provides some of the first empirical data to support the theory," says Conway, who has long studied how the brain processes visual information.
However, Conway isn't quite sure whether it really backs up Kant's assertions, because the experiment's conclusion doesn't quite address what Kant was claiming. "Kant’s claim was really that beauty inspired rational thought; his position was that to experience beauty, we needed to adopt a state of disinterested contemplation," Conway says. "It’s not clear that the authors’ paradigm makes Kant’s hypothesis tractable."
He also questions what exactly the participants thought when they were asked to rank beauty, saying that there are many outside factors to consider such as where the people live and their cultural backgrounds. "Beauty is pleasure, pleasure beauty," Conway says. "But is that all you need to know?"
For the study, Conway points out, researchers did not pre-define for their subjects what counted as “beautiful.” Instead, they simply asked participants to rate how they felt personally about the image, Brielmann says: "We did not superimpose definitions [of beauty] from our side."
Brielmann also tested another of Kant's assertions: that pleasure from the senses is separate from beauty. “The characteristic of the object called beautiful is that it betrays a purposiveness without definite purpose,” Kant wrote in his 1790 treatise “The Critique of Judgment.” “The pleasure is a priori, independent […] of the charms of sense or the emotions of mere feeling.”
To do this, she gave the participants a piece of candy to eat or a teddy bear hidden in a pillowcase to touch, and asked them to rank how “beautiful” the experience was. Surprisingly, Brielmann says, the participants overwhelmingly ranked these experiences as beautiful.
"The big idea here is to build a computational model that can explain the underlying psychological processes of beauty," Brielmann says. This model, which Brielmann will present at the annual meeting of the Vision Science Society this week, is meant to help psychologists predict for future experiments how beautiful or pleasurable people will find certain images, tastes or other stimuli.
"That's one of the big goals," Brielmann says, "to have a good understanding of that."