How you see a piece of art can change what it actually is

Eric Kandel: We don’t have a deep understanding of the Beholder’s Response, but it’s interesting that if you put together what we know from disorders of brain function and the normal physiology, we begin to understand an outline what the beholder’s response is. And this is so important because in 1906 when Freud was active and Klink, Tolkuchka and Sheely, the artists, were active, there was a major person at the Vienna School of Artistry called Alois Riegl. And he said that the problem with art history is, it’s going to go down the tubes because it’s too anecdotal, it’s too descriptive, it doesn’t have enough of a **** in space. It’s got to become more scientific. And the science it should relate itself to is psychology. And the key problem that it should address right off is the beholder’s share. You have a painting, that painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it.

It’s obvious once you say it, you know, this is why it was painted in the first place. But he pointed out; this has become more explicit in the history of art. If you look at Renaissance art, particularly early Renaissance art, it’s very inner directed. And he points to a painting in Florence of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella painted by Masaccio, which has one of the early paintings to show you a wonderful sense of perspective. You see Christ on the cross, you see Mary and Joseph, they’re turning toward him. God is above, he looks down, the two donnas at the side, they’re looking – they’re all looking at Christ. It’s a very inner directed picture and it doesn’t really recruit the involvement of the beholder dramatically. But as art evolved, particularly when you move to Dutch art, which Riegl was very impressed with, you see that there’s a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you. And that made him aware of the fact of how important the beholder was and to try to understand how does the beholder’s response works.

He had two very gifted students, Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, and they began to put this on a really rigorous basis. Ernst Kris said, “Great works are great because they are ambiguous.” They allow for alternative readings. So you and I look at that Masaccio painting, we would have somewhat different responses to it which means that the beholder’s share varies for each of us because we see somewhat different things in the painting.

Now, what does that mean? He said, if that means that beholder’s share varies, it means you and I must be creating different images in our brain about that particular portrait. So even though you and I are looking at the same object in the world, we are creating slightly different visual impressions in the mind. Emotional impressions in our mind are looking at this. And they began to document it. First he and then Gombrich showed you how you can trick the mind into alternate interpretations with illusions of various kinds. And they began to realize that when you look at a painting, you’re undergoing a creative experience that is at least an outline similar to the painter.  The painter exercises a dramatic amount of creativity in doing a portrait, but you, yourself, generate a fair amount of creativity in reconstructing it in your head and reconstructing it in a way that is unique for you and it’s slightly different for me. This was a remarkable insight and has really given rise to the sort of the current understanding of what goes on in our head.  

The painting, the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci is generally considered one of the greatest masterpieces in western art. And the reason it’s so great is for the same reason we talked about before. It has a great deal of ambiguity. And ambiguity is what brings out difference of interpretation. It makes – it contributes to work being great. And with her, one of the very specific points of ambiguity is the nature of her facial expression. Is she smiling or is she not? And there’s been endless discussions about this. And we want to understand why does that ambiguity arise? And there are two major interpretations. One is, it’s the form of painting that Leonardo used in which he purposely paints over the edges of the mouth, a technique called Sfumato smoke. So it’s a little bit hazy and not clearly outlined, and that gives rise to the ambiguity. And Marge Livingston has made the point, it’s how you focus on it. If you focus on it with central vision, which sees detail, you don’t see the smile. If you focus on peripheral vision, which sees the broad outlines, you do better at seeing the smile.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

The idea that a painting is not complete until the viewer responds to it was conceived of by Alois Riegl. He determined that as art evolved, you see there’s a conscious attempt on the part of the painter to paint people who look at you, who interact with you.

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