Great Art Isn’t Subjective

(The following is excerpted from The Week magazine which, by the way, is a great news magazine if you don’t have a ton of time to read the papers. Sort of a print news aggregator, of sorts, and pretty balanced politically.)

Beauty is not strictly in the eye of the beholder, a new study says. Great works of art appear to follow proportion and design that have universal appeal, at least in Western culture.

Italian neuroscientists showed images of Classical and Renaissance sculptures to by the likes of Michelangelo and da Vinci to 14 volunteers with no artistic training—some of whom had never been to a museum. Some of the images were altered so that the original proportions of the sculptures were slightly modified.

When subjects viewed the pictures of the original sculptures, scans of their brains showed a strong emotional response; they were clearly moved. There was much less response to the sculptures with subtle change in proportion.

“We were very surprised that very small modifications to images of the sculptures led to very strong modifications in brain activity,” researcher Giacomo Rizzolatti tells He believes that the human brain may have a special attraction to images that demonstrate the “golden ratio,” an eye-pleasing proportion of 1-to-0.618 that shows up again and again in art and nature. This ratio can be found in a nautilus shell and spiral galaxies, and in Michelangelo’s Pietá and the Pyramids. When the brain sees these magical proportions, Rizzolatti says, it interprets them as evidence of great beauty.