How a urinal changed art for us

today2019.09.03. 623


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Art isn’t always beautiful nor is aesthetics: a contradiction?

The year is 1917: The society of independent artists (SIA) has just been founded in New York City and is preparing for its first exhibition. Their credo is to accept any artwork of their members without restricting or grading them. Despite of this, one submitted piece isn’t displayed as it lacks the characteristics of “real art”. This piece ended up radically changing the way people see art, aesthetics, and beauty today and was voted the most influential modern artwork of all time in 2004. What happened and how did one piece of art cause such severe change even though it was declined to be shown publicly?
​Marcel Duchamp, participant and member of the SIA board, supposedly submitted the said art piece: a urinal from a sanitary house, turned upside down and signed with the words “R. Mutt 1917”, labelled later: “Fountain”. Using a fake name to disguise his identity, he was fully aware that his work would challenge the society’s own rules. Something like that had never been done before, the significance of art had always been attached to the artist’s role of making it – Duchamp shook that image. As a photo of the urinal was published it caused a public outrage. For the first time in history, art and aesthetics (the study of beauty) were separated. It questioned the old structures of art, ridiculed the meaninglessness of the modern world and started a new era of postmodern art by introducing “ready-mades” (common objects declared to be art even though they don’t appear interesting at all), which laid the groundwork for movements like Dadaism or the work of Andy Warhol.

​Aesthetics, Art and Beauty – a separation

​Today, art can be ugly, provocative, and even boring – it is very versatile. Similar to the strict definitions of art, aesthetics was only seen as the study of beauty, though our perception of aesthetics affects way more than that: if an unknown place looks scary to you, you categorize this place in a certain way – judging by its appearance. Aesthetic perception is present in our everyday life and it is localized in our brain, influenced by multiple factors like genes, emotions, education and cultural environment [1,2]. This is why we are not only able to identify the Mona Lisa as a painting of a woman with a puzzling facial expression, but also admire it as a piece of art by Leonardo da Vinci.

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​Our taste, basically a translation from aesthetic perception into daily life, also helps you pick washing powder for instance, when you choose the prettier one between identical-seeming products [3]. Your brain does this all the time: whom you are going to ask for directions on the street depends on who appears friendly. First impressions rely on your aesthetic perception, which is not the same as finding the person attractive. For this reason, separating aesthetics from beauty is helpful when investigating how these concepts are linked in our brains. Which brain area is responsible for liking a song so much you immediately turn up the radio when you hear it? And is looking at an incredible artwork comparable to eating your favourite meal? Neuroaesthetics, a fairly new scientific study introduced about a decade ago, wants to get to the root of these questions.

What Neuroaesthetics can do

​Art is a universal phenomenon, regardless of age or ethnic group, everywhere in the world, ever since the first sign of social life, humans have been producing and admiring art. Humanists believe that art and aesthetics are cultural phenomena, providing an “interest-free pleasure”, a condition Immanuel Kant associated with aesthetic experiences. The question whether it has a biological origin and how to define aesthetics are still ongoing debates.
​It is not just our emotions that are influenced while we are focusing on a piece of art, but our whole body is affected by this experience, as it was shown while examining people’s neurological responses to looking at a painting by Michelangelo in the Sistine chapel in Rome [4]. The fresco depicts Adam getting expelled from paradise by a sword-holding angel. Interestingly enough, viewing Michelangelo’s piece increased the activity of neural pathways involved in the control of wrist movement, indicating that the participants felt an urge to bend their own wrists in defense as if they were fighting off the angel themselves, just like Adam does in the painting. Another explanation for the bodily wrist-bending reaction could be that viewing the portrayed action in the fresco activated the so called mirror neurons. These brain cells are activated both while an individual is performing an action and while observing someone else performing the same action, “mirroring” the behaviour [5].
​Scientists even managed to locate a few brain areas, which responds to a visual or auditory experience of beauty. Listening to a good song and viewing an amazing painting both activate the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain which appears to play a role in all value judgments [6, 7]. When it comes to evaluating art, there are two different regions in our brain: one for responding to beautiful and rewarding stimuli – the other to negative and rather ugly things. Furthermore, experiencing beautiful things like art is linked to the activation of reward circuitry of the brain [8]. But it doesn’t stop there: even the artistic status of an image is enough to activate this reward centre – yet another reason to believe, that there is an evolutionary benefit of producing and admiring art [9].


​Investigation of that kind and multiple other processes of our aesthetic perception is the substance of neuroaesthetic research: getting to the neuroscientific base of aesthetic experiences with the help and support of other disciplines like philosophy, psychology or history. But not everyone is convinced, some people have criticized the interdisciplinary approach. Do many cooks spoil the broth or does teamwork rather unlock the next level? Biggest object of criticism is the mainly subjective nature of an aesthetic experience with many outside factors taking part. This calls for a careful handling of any statements –  and this may interfere with the very idea of scientific research, as critics predict, or it may deliver a fresh perspective into the debate.

A hot topic – not just for scientists

​In the year of 2019, questions like “What defines art?” or “What is beautiful?” are still discussed today, even though we are constantly telling ourselves not to. Philosophy didn’t bring the overall answer, nor did biology (yet). I don’t say, that we need another “Fountain” to open up the discussion for new perspectives, but a new outside approach towards these topics, when copy and paste, photoshop, and the art of reposting blur the defined lines of beauty and authenticity, is definitely exciting. Neuroaesthetics wants to provide this by combining the knowledge of multiple disciplines with the tools of neuroscience.
We have already learned, that there is no shame in admitting what you like – you can blame it on  neuroscience. Which also means that you can listen to Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’ without being judged. Well, sort of.

If you are interested in similar brain-related topics, you must join us at the Brainstorms Festival in March. Listen to talks from leading neuroscientists, take part in discussions, and network with like-minded people from around the world.


  1. Nadal, M., & Skov, M. (2015). Neuroesthetics. In J. D. Wright (Ed.), International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences (2nd ed., pp. 656–663). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
  2. Nadal, M. Chatterjee, A. (2019) Neuroaesthetics and art’s diversity and universality. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 10(3) e1487. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1487
  3. Pearce, M. T., Zaidel, D. W., Vartanian, O., Skov, M., Leder, H., Chatterjee, A., & Nadal, M. (2016) Neuroaesthetics: The cognitive neuroscience of aesthetic experience. Perspectives on Psychological Science.11(2):265-279. doi: 10.1177/1745691615621274
  4. Battaglia F., Lisanby S.H., Freedberg D. (2011) Corticomotor Excitability during Observation and Imagination of a Work of Art. Front Hum Neurosci. 5:79. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2011.00079
  5. di Pellegrino, G., Fadiga, L., Fogassi, L., Gallese, V., Rizzolatti, G. (1992) Exp Brain Res. 91:176. doi:10.1007/BF00230027
  6. T. Ishizu, S. Zeki (2011) Toward a brain-based theory of beauty. PLoS ONE 6(7): e21852. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0021852
  7. Grabenhorst, F., Rolls, E.T. (2011) Value, pleasure and choice in the ventral prefrontal cortex. Trends Cogn Sci. 15(2):56-67. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2010.12.004.
  8. S. Lacey et al. (2011) Art for reward’s sake: Visual art recruits the ventral striatum. NeuroImage. 55:420-33. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.027
  9. Kirk, U., Skov, M., Hulme, O., Christensen, M.S., Zeki, S. (2009) Modulation of aesthetic value by semantic context: An fMRI study NeuroImage 44(3):1125-32. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.10.009

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