Art on the Brain

April 4, 2011 at 10:15 PM

Art on the Brain


Katie Ferrari QC’11 and Jim Stellar


Katie is a senior with a deep interest in the arts and who has been giving me some advice as Provost on how students see Queens College. I also tend to like the art she produces. I talked back to her about some of my ideas about learning from experience which seem to me to have an overlap with the kinds of experiences one has in art.  A former student and I approached a similar topic writing a blog post about poetry.  Now Katie discovers this piece from “Psychology Today”  published in January that talks about Insular cortex activation in a brain scan machine while one looks at art and enters a state that Kant called Interesselosigkeit , where the free play of imagination runs. Looking at what is activated in a brain scan while one thinks freely or focuses has been studied, but this is the first I have seen of such a state studied in art.  So, I figured we would talk about it here in the blog.


Katie, first tell us about you, what is your major, how did you come to Queens, what do you hope to do after graduation?


I am earning a BFA in Studio Art and a minor in Graphic Design. In my senior year of high school, I applied to a number of art schools including the School of Visual Arts and Pratt, and, although I was accepted and received some scholarship money, it just wasn’t enough. I’m the first person in my family to go to college, and my parents were very concerned that I graduate without getting into debt. My mother insisted I apply to the Macaulay Honors College, and when I was accepted into Queens College through MHC on a full scholarship, there really didn’t seem to be much of a choice left. So, clearly, Queens College wasn’t my first choice. But, looking back over the past five years, I appreciate all the opportunities QC has afforded me – I had a great deal of freedom in my course of study, and was able to be involved in the theatre, fine arts, and graphic design departments.


The “post-graduation” question is a very fraught one for me. My current plan is to find one or two part-time jobs and spend most of my time painting to build a strong body of work before I apply to graduate school in a year or so. Its frustrating to find myself wanting seemingly dead-end, part-time jobs instead of a ‘career,’ but I have to keep reminding myself that my ideal career – making a living off of my artwork – is not something with a blissfully demarcated career path. I’ve lived my whole life with clear goals, and have always been able to evaluate my progress towards them. Now I’ve set my sights on an unsystematic goal that very, very few achieve. Sometimes I feel like its very all or nothing. The frequently fickle art world either dubs me a fine artist, or I am a “nothing.” It can be doubly frustrating when I think about how I am giving up other, attainable, measurable career paths to pursue this highly unlikely one. But this is what I want.


Why did this article interest you?  What do you get out of it?  (Then I will say what I get.)


I found this article very interesting because, as an artist, I am continually reshaping my definition of art, with particular attention to whether it has a ‘function’ in society and how it can affect an audience. My worst fear is making art that only the art world can understand. So, to stumble upon an article where scientists study brain action while people with no explicit training in ‘art appreciation’ view art made quite a few areas of my brain light up!


I have some contentions with the study and the article, however. First, I don’t agree with Kant’s theory of “disinterested contemplation,” and don’t think that it should be the bedrock of our viewing. As an artist, I want to make work that changes and challenges myself and my audience. Just “enjoying[ing] the thing with no planning, [and] no effort to do anything except enjoy it,” as the author writes, should be the beginning of the process, not its sum total.


The concept of disinterested contemplation is a Western one, and, since it’s been around in explicit form since the nineteenth century, it’s had ample time to permeate our society and affect how we think about art. Perhaps our brains only “embody Kant’s idea” because of its dominant place in Western society for centuries. This doesn’t mean it’s the only way to think about art, or even a helpful way to do so. Instead of questioning the primacy of disinterested contemplation in our society, the study took it as a given and set up an artificial conflict and hegemony between disinterested contemplation and a narrowly defined “pragmatic contemplation,” when both should be essential stages of any art-viewing.


I think the fact that disinterested contemplation is only one of many possible phases in art-viewing is even latently expressed in the article. See, for instance, phrases where the author notes that Kant’s disinterested stance leads to “more focus on one’s own state of mind.” Focusing on one’s state of mind is already going beyond sheer disinterested contemplation of the work. To end on a more positive note, I think the study is an interesting beginning step into exploring how the mind processes art, on one level at least.


We could write a lot more about this topic, and I think we will.  But let’s end here for now with the summation that engagement is clearly what colleges are striving for with their students.  Art students are engaged because (we would say) their field requires the involvement of emotional circuits in the brain.  Some of them are mentioned in this Kant article, which appears even with nice brain scan pictures.  More is given in the article’s references.  Interestingly, in neuroeconomics, the brain area (insula cortex) mentioned in the Kant article has been associated with risk, and pleasure is said to from another brain area (accumbens).


Both of us as citizens of Queens College (in different ways) feel engaged with the institution.  That may be necessary to perform at one’s best no matter the task.  Certainly, Colleges and Universities really want their students to work at their studies and not just drift through them as one recent book argues happens all too frequently.


So to return to the point, how do we maintain flexibility, e.g. switching majors when necessary, and keep the engagement?  Do we need to teach people to “focus on one’s own state of mind” while one passionately pursues a career or a course?  Do we even need the brain areas to help this thinking?

Brain Networks: Blog 1 – The Default Mode Network

Leave a Reply