‘People studying art’
Who do you think about when you read this description? Artists, art historians and art critics might be the first people that pop up. If you brainstorm a bit longer, you might also include philosophers.
Were you also thinking about vision scientists? Probably not. There’s a subgroup of visual scientists, however, that focus their research efforts on understanding art and aesthetic phenomena.
Last week, the Visual Science of Art Conference 2017 in Berlin united all these subgroups interested in the connection between visual perception and the arts.
Visual Science of Art Conference
Since 2012, the VSAC has been organised as a satellite conference to the larger European Conference on Visual Perception (ECVP).
This year, VSAC was organised by Claus-Christian Carbon (U Bamberg) and Joerg Fingerhut (HU Berlin) and resulted in an intense program of 2 keynote lectures, 23 talks, almost 100 scientific posters, one art night and a guided tour through the private art collection of the BOROS family.
The conference was attended by around 250 participants from all over the world. I was one of them. With the risk of ignoring many important nuances, this article highlights the five key insights that summarise the conference for me personally.
1. Complexity and aesthetic appreciation
Throughout the conference, it became clear that many researchers were interested in the relationship between complexity and aesthetic appreciation. Artworks are not always easy to grasp or understand, but we still enjoy them, despite of, or is it because of, their complexity? Researchers have been interested what level of complexity in a work of art results in beauty, interest or pleasantness appreciations in the viewer.
The interest in this relationship between complexity and liking dates back to earlier times in the field of psycho-aesthetics (e.g. Berlyne’s psychobiological model of 1971). However, up until now, results have not always been consistent.
This still holds true today. Talks by several different researchers showed that the relationship between complexity and liking is, for the lack of a better word, complex.
Studies ranged in their use of stimuli to test this relationship, such as random noise patterns , (manipulated) figurative paintings , Bad Art , affective visual and musical stimuli  or semi-abstract photographs . Equally varied were the measures of complexity, from ratings by participants on perceived complexity of artworks to objective statistical calculations of image features or the amount of objects or figures in (manipulated) paintings.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that there was no single consistent conclusion. Results differed between studies and individual differences seemed to play a role in several studies (e.g. , , ).
Besides these specific studies, some theoretical accounts were introduced where complexity became part of a bigger framework. Jesse Prinz , for example, introduced wonder as the primary candidate for an aesthetic emotion. In this account, wonder consists of different components (sensory, cognitive and spiritual). Complexity finds its place within the sensory component as a possible elicitor of wonder. Artworks that are complex, ambiguous, obscure or show unexpected order engage us to explore and literally seem to make us ‘wonder’.
Claudia Muth  explains our pleasure in these ambiguous or complex works by emphasising that art experience is ultimately a dynamic process. When we, during this process of trying to grasp the complexity, move from uncertainty towards new (aha-)insights, this will provide us pleasure.
Based on the latter frameworks, complexity shouldn’t be in the way of our aesthetic appreciation, but might be an important factor in increasing our pleasure of looking at art.
2. A variety of perspectives on a relatively specific topic
An interesting aspect of this field of study is the wide variety of perspectives that can be used to study a relatively specific behaviour. Throughout the conference, this variety became very apparent on different levels:
- A variety in people. The conference brought together people from different fields. Throughout the week, we heard talks by philosophers, artists, art historians and designers, besides the (still most represented) perception researcher
- A variety in stimuli. There was a wide range in the specific stimuli that people used to study aesthetic perception, ranging from simple pixel-like images to random noise patterns, to (manipulated) works of classic and modern visual art (painting, photography, performance, dance), etc..
- A variety in methods. There were qualitative and quantitative ratings by viewers, philosophical and historical accounts, participants that had to produce new images, eye movement patterns, physiological measures, neuroscience, statistical image computations and many more techniques and methods.
3. Challenges of a visual science of art
Given the wide range of perspectives, and the elusive nature of art experiences, it isn’t always easy to navigate in this research field. Several challenges arise, such as:
- Can we study art experience within a lab setting or do we take away its essential components? Can we do reliable studies in museums? . Can we create a museum setting in a lab  and do responses differ between lab and museum 
- How can we study the dynamic aspects of art experience? 
- Is it problematic to perform studies on copies instead of actual artworks? 
- Do scientists, artists and philosophers talk about the same thing when they talk about art? How can we bridge the gap between disciplines?
This last challenge is especially important if we want to move forward to meaningful collaborations between different disciplines. Developing a common language and conference format in which different disciplines can truly come together isn’t easy (see for example  for an account on the long road it takes to truly collaborate between artists and scientists, or  for commonalities and differences between the perspectives of psychology, philosophy and neuroscience in aesthetic science)
4. Artists practicing vision science
The more I am learning on aesthetic science, the more I am amazed by the fact that artists have essentially been practicing vision science for many decennia. They have effectively guided and manipulated our perception with their works of art. Think about paintings from medieval artists, in which key figures of the painting were often painted significantly larger than what could be expected based on the rules of perspective. Robert Pepperell  suggests that these kinds of distortions are not primitive, but instead sophisticated techniques in which the painter directs our attention and emotion and shows us how we imagine and perceive visual space.
Others found that the use of fluo colours and colour combinations in paintings can influence our depth perception , while artists Margit Lukacs and Persijn Broersen showed their techniques to influence our perception of depth in their own video art .
5. Growing community
This year’s VSAC conference received almost double the amount of submissions than expected. Visual Science of Aesthetic seems to be a blooming field with many new studies, creative experiments and interesting results.
Given the agreement to put even more effort in reaching out to the artistic field, this number should only grow in future years. I, for one, am looking forward to see where this field will go. We seem to be only just scratching the surface of our complex, contextual and dynamic experience with art, there is much more to learn.
Hungry for more?
If this article got you interested, I hope to meet you during the next session of the Visual Science of Art Conference (2018), which will be organised in Trieste.
Note that the length of a blog post is too short to explain all the interesting studies, and important nuances, that were discussed during a 3-day conference. Therefore, I invite you to read the summary abstracts of all contributions, and to dive into specific studies that interest you. Here is the link to the pdf with all VSAC 2017 abstracts.
These are the references for the studies mentioned above, in order of appearance in this article. You can find the abstracts of these talks in the pdf above.