Neuroscience – Connoisseurship in Art – Dr.Jan De Maere



Neuroscience is the study of the brain and how it functions.

Connoisseurship is the old (17 ct) British term for appreciation of art trough the visual pleasure of the best knowledgeable observers, a result of the physiology of their brain.



We all have pleasure when observing some forms of art. Critical visual perception listen to ‘the abstract other’ in our mind, to validate our own opinion. But, the opinion of recognized connoisseurs has a greater impact on others people’s opinion then that of non-connoisseurs. Recent scientific research shows that the body and the mind are tightly interconnected.

Four of our five senses (taste not) are addressing their signals to the same brain centers. Strongly influenced by our environment, it is impossible to distinguish separately the neuronal impact of one particular sense. They create emotion, transformed in feeling, which provide, in connection with neurotransmitters distributed by the nucleus accumbens, pleasure.

( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Five_Senses_(series) https://www.google.be/search?q=how+many+senses+do+we+have&oq=how+many+senses+do+we+have&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.11933j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

The nervous system has a specific sensory nervous system, and a sense organ, dedicated to each sense. Humans have a multitude of senses. Sight (vision), hearing (audition), taste (gustation), smell (olfaction), and touch (somatosensation) are the five traditionally recognized senses.)


EVB What is neuroscience ?


JDM Neuroscience investigates the relation between mind, body, brain and environment. Science demonstrates that we do not have a direct link with reality, only the illusion of it, created by the concepts of our brain.  Thousands of elements of yhe observed painting create the stable image in our brain, a subjective interpretation of reality.

Since Charles Darwin, beauty is seen as an innate evolutionary instinct, an advantage for all species, from plants to butterflies and  to human beings.

Neuro-esthetics studies the mutual relationship between art and the experience of beauty as a specific physiological event in an observer’s brain, taking in account the subjective aspect of this cognitive-perceptive experience. It is influenced by a great number of inferences and automatisms.

My research focuses on the notion of the emotion created by the exceptional quality of a work of art considered to be a masterpiece. Evaluated as such by a dominant peer group, it reveals to others a lasting quality that goes beyond the limits of their perception.

Neurosciences explains how the connoisseur’s brain focuses on a work of art and how his incident cognitive references define it critically as a masterpiece or not. The decision of a peer-review of connoisseurs: an informal comity of talented experts, specialized in the field, influences the viewer’s opinion as a cognitive bias.

Neuroesthetics uses neuro-scientific medicale images to understand the subjective aesthetic experience at a neurological functional level. The topic attracts researchers from many disciplines including neuroscientists, geneticians, art historians, artists, and psychologists.



JDM Neuroesthetics is a discipline that combines neurological research with aesthetics and all the different disciplines of history of art by investigating the experience of beauty and appreciation of art as a mental states.


Today’s formal definitions of what is considered “art” have broadened and they include such new media as video-art, performance art, installation art and conceptual art.


EVB Can these new art forms impress the perception of the viewer in a similar manner as the great works of art from the past as defined by conoisseur?


JDM  It depends totally of the cognitive references, the memories and emotions,  in function of the horizon of visual expectations of the observer.

The choice of a contemporary work of art created in 1994 by famous American artist Jeff Koons will try to answer this question.




EVB How does the brain perceive a work of art?

JDM More than 200 different types of neurons treat the incoming perceptive information through coded signals and connects it with memory, cognition and contextual inferences. Chemical substances (neurotransmitters) and electromagnetic activity in the synapses of neurons produce all mental activity. Neuroscience proves in a necessary and sufficient way that there is no mental activity (spirit) without an active physiology of the brain.  Information circulates in neurons by electric impulses, and in synapses by the distribution of neurotransmitters. Cortical columns are the brain’s basic processing units. They are 1,5 mm high and 0,5 mm wide elements of the cortex, that contain up to 30.000 neurons with up to 30 million interconnections, that carry out billions of calculations a second. [1]


The brain is composed of interconnected neural networks and those neuronal connections are stabilized by experience and stimulated by perception.

Our brain creates maps, known as “connectomes”. They show how brain cells link up to create the stable mental image of the object and its meaning, when we observe a work of art. Memory induces its own emotions as Marcel Proust describes in “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu”. Triggered by the taste of a ”madeleine” biscuit, unrelated emotions moved

[1] Jan De Maere, Neurosciences et Connoisseurship, Ph.D. Thesis, Universiteit Gent, Facultiet Letteren & Wijsbegeerte, 2011



EVB  How do we experience a work of art?

JDM  Our retina is sensitive to a light reflection in a spectrum limited between violet and red frequencies, but we do not perceive the work of art only through light and the retina. The laws of the brain govern our perception. A stable image of any work of art (and all observed reality) is composed of many millions of fragments cues formed by incoming stimuli, captured through eye movements of the ongoing observation, on which we project the scenarios and knowledge we keep in our memory to make the most probable sense of what we see. We only recognize what we know already, and are surprised by novelty, a major aspect of quality in art.


Our cognitive inferences, the involuntary and voluntary saccades, micro saccades and fast eye -movements, directing our focal gaze when we explore the painting or the sculpture, are combined with those of the peripheral view. The perception of a work of art is based on the fact that particles of light alter the molecular structure of the reception in the retina. They create a flash of voltage as a signal to the brain. The “photon-energy” becomes information.( https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279416938_The_Moth-Eye_Effect_-_From_Fundamentals_to_Commercial_Exploitation Dr Carl Malbrain

After a stimulus is perceived, the brain automatically triggers a wave of bodily changes that are detected by the cortex, which connects them to the sensation that caused them. In that way the body suggests a “symbolic content” to the mind, and suggests emotion to colors. The eye registers certain colors earlier than others. First red, then green, yellow, blue, orange. At the first stage we perceive only masses of indistinct color, as in paintings by Paul Cezanne. Peripheral and focal views have their own function and collaborate to build up a stable mental image of a painting.

From the photoreceptors in the retina where the first treatment takes place, information is processed in successive zones that recognize different features of the painting. There is a slow mental image which arrives in the cortex circa 0,05 seconds after the fast image. The top of the brain decides what the bottom has seen and imposes form and content in order to conform the incoming information to our expectations, leading to object recognition. Different clusters of specialized neurons process different visual information after their various parameters. [1]

The appreciation of art is not subjected to stable and formal laws. Looking at the evolution of painting in the past 150 years, some artists made steps that opened the eyes of others. Eduard Manet broke the tradition of realism by painting his subjects only in two-dimensions, refusing depth and perspective (1860) as seen in the comparison above.

[1] Jan De Maere, The Masterpiece educates the eye of the Connoisseur, Octobre 2012, p. 8


This refusal of photographic realism inspired impressionists and neo-impressionists.The race to develop new pictorial strategies began.. Paul Cezanne painted “unfinished” paintings.







Wassily Kandinsky eliminates all forms of representation and meaning in his abstract paintings. He paints melodies of line and color. He attributes specific color to each sound, and suggests movement. The symbolic and emotional value of color integrates music and dance.









The famous artist Marcel Duchamp advocated that beauty can reside solely in “any” perceptual concept decided by the artist, even in front of the most disagreeable object such as a urinal. Duchamp announces the death of future painting practice, without denying the value of ancient art. He despises painting and writes: « ..la peinture, cette ivresse à la térébenthine, une blague. »[1] Art is what the artist decides, even it is only a concept.


“He was wrong” was what Pablo Picasso said upon learning of Duchamp’s death in 1968. Picasso’s motto was:” erase the brain, use only your eyes”. It illustrates his Epicurian dimension, defying the Apollonian one.


In the 1960’s, Andy Warhol had a fascination with sensational headlines of tabloids, fame and consumer goods that stimulated his imagination. Is a Coca-Cola bottle or a Brillo box art? Yes, when it looses its original function by the transformation by the artist’s creativity!



EVB What is their degree of art-ness?

JDM :Warhol’s oeuvre is an exercise in selling art as a consumer product with a strong brand image.



Our analysis in this essay of a contemporary work of art tries to create an understanding of the context of his creation and his reception by the market and by the public: Here is “Hanging Heart (Magenta/Gold)” by American artist Jeff Koos  It has been sold at auction for $23 million by Sotheby’s in 2007.

EVB Is it considered as art and is it a masterpiece?

JDM :The definition of a masterpiece is that it has no immediate precedent. It’s a visual-cognitive amotion of a high level of abstraction in the cortex that withstands the erosion of time, known for it’s cognitive beauty. “The hanging heart” has not yet been labeled so, but in a few years time it might be, in my opinion. I love it’s novelty, it’s form, color and immediate emotional impact of its parcimony of form; all in one glance. In the eye of a certain art historical establishment (the French Theory: Bordieu, Baudrillard, Leotard, Derrida, etc..) Conceptualism and Post-Modernism represent the climax of contemporary art.   Jeff Koons is an American artist, known like Warholl, for his reproductions of banal objects—such as balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-finish surfaces. Hanging Heart is part of a series of works entitled Celebration, to honor the ardently hoped-for return of his young son Ludwig from Rome. It consists of a series of large-scale sculptures and paintings of, among others balloon dogs, Valentine hearts, diamonds, and Easter eggs. The series was conceived in 1994 but some of the pieces are still being fabricated. Each of the 20 different sculptures in the series comes in five differently colored unique versions of red bleu, Purple, Gold and Magenta. [2]

The bright magenta colored heart and gold undulating bow, which took ten years from conception to completion, is one of five uniquely colored versions of this work from Koons’ Celebration series. The perfect surface is coated in more than ten layers of paint. Executed in high chromium stainless steel, Hanging Heart weighs over 1,600 kg, is 2.7 meter tall and took over 6,000 man hours to produce. A product of Mass-production which became famous throughthe media and the hughe price, reflecting its desirable rarity as a social trophy for the super-rich.




The more virtual the world becomes, the more it needs art and creativity to escape the algorhythmic boredom of existence. Never in the history of mankind, have the market and the media spotlighted so many artists, but their reputation can be often short-lived. We have no reason to believe that there are a greater number of artistic geniuses in this century than in previous ones. There is more art since there is more money in it; art is a “social trophee”. This is  why so many new-rich billionaires (High-net worth Individuals) spend millions on it; but this was also true of the Renaissance. As then, the distance in time, real connoisseurs and the marketplace will normalize things. The basic needs and talents of humanity did not change since the rejection by radical avant-garde after 1960 of “painterly quality” as an essential element of the art-ness of the work of art. But Picasso’s and Gerhard Richter’s   primacy of the eye is now also confirmed by neuroscience. It is essential to genial artists and connoisseurs. David Hockney   , Lucian Freud and Anselm Kiefer

today dwarf a great number of “-isms” and kitsch by their painterly excellence and by the search for essential beauty, underlying all perception, in a non-conventional way, beyond formal laws.  Nowadays, the definition of art and its experience have broadened exponentially. Video-, performance-, installation- and conceptual art have created a wealth of seminal works, influencing art-education of future generations. Even if today the quest for picturesque quality is thought to be inacceptable for contemporary artists, culture is not the taste for just “ anything”. Nature tells us that appreciation of certain forms of expression considered by the French Theory as “ art” may be impossible, so art appreciation is not only a problem of education but also of quality assessment. So I forget about cognitive references. The “Hanging Hart” sculpture by Koons has an immediate grip on my emotions. It absorbs totally my consciousness during a few minutes. A gift from “heaven” through our brain.

[1] H. Richter, Dada, art et anti-art, Bruxelles, 1965, p. 86

[2] Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Sale, November 14, 2007



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