Vienna 2016 Report


This was the second workshop of the Network, on the theme of ‘Neurocognitive Approaches in Art: Expertise – Complexity’. It brought together lead Network partners and their colleagues with expertise in fields spanning Anthropology, Art History, Chinese Art, Cognitive Psychology, Dance Studies, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Music, Music Psychology, Neuroscience, Philosophy, and Theatre Studies. The first afternoon featured a discussion of two pre-circulated papers from cognitive psychology. On Day 2 we began with a discussion of two further pre-circulated papers, from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience of art and aesthetics. The afternoon of Day 2 included a session that widened the debate to include local scholars and art practitioners, before we headed to the Mumok to participate in a museum study being piloted by a Network partner that is designed to explore the aesthetic experience. On Day 3 the discussion was dedicated to mapping out joint projects and research outputs.



The function of this report is to provide a written account of the proceedings of the second workshop of the Leverhulme International Network ‘Aesthetic Enquiry across Disciplines’, held at the University of Vienna, 7-9 April 2016, for the general public. It is based on transcripts of recordings from the workshop sessions.



The information is organised around five key questions developed out of the discussions from Workshop 2. These are aimed at identifying the objects of enquiry and the methods available to the disciplines in focus, here cognitive psychology and neuroscience, based on the specific papers under discussion.

These are:

  1. What do cognitive psychologists study in aesthetics?
  2. What do cognitive psychologists not study in aesthetics?
  3. What do cognitive neuroscientists study in aesthetics?
  4. What do cognitive neuroscientists not study in aesthetics?
  5. How does artistic practice relate to aesthetic enquiry?
1. What do cognitive psychologists study in aesthetics?

They study questions that are deemed to be a) scientifically interesting and b) compatible with their methods. They are interested in what the human mind is, how humans experience the world. To extract something despite all variation is the main aim of experimental research.


The primary methodology involves establishing a hypothesis and testing that hypothesis with participants (e.g. with eye tracking or facial EMG). A key initial step can be to compile validated image databanks for use in experiments. Research discussed included study of eye movements (saccades and fixations) and subtle movements in the corrugator and zygomaticus muscles, which were used to investigate expertise and complexity.


The available technology constrains possible experiments.

2. What do cognitive psychologists not study in aesthetics?

They are not interested in aesthetic judgment, which is fundamental to traditional aesthetics. Nor are they concerned with a normative approach to the definition of art and art objects. They are also not usually concerned with contextual analyses of artworks, be that production or reception.


The elision of cultural and historical contexts means that some forms of expertise are not taken into account, such as expertise in Chinese culture, where it is characterised differently.

3. What do cognitive neuroscientists study in aesthetics?

They study what is pleasurable in terms of assessing sensory values through the cognitive neuroscience of art. Neuroscientists want to understand how we go from genetics, cell biology, to the kind of behaviour we are generally interested in when we talk about art behaviour. This kind of work is an aspect of exploring the human brain and the human nervous system. More broadly, it contributes to a further understanding of human beings as biological entities.


In terms of neural biology, it’s very difficult to see that there is any difference between pleasure and beauty.


The primary methodology is imaging studies (fMRI) and sensory evaluation.

4. What do cognitive neuroscientists not study in aesthetics?

Similarly to cognitive psychologists, cognitive neuroscientists are concerned neither with aesthetic judgment, nor with contextual or normative approaches to art.


5. How does artistic practice relate to aesthetic enquiry?

Tension arose around the role of the art practitioner in the context of cognitive psychology and neurocognitive investigations of the aesthetic, which focus on aesthetic reception in isolation from the context of artistic production.


There is scope, however, for art practice to impact on scientific study. This is important not least in order to avoid a situation where one body of knowledge makes superior claims to truth. Artistic practice can facilitate fruitful interaction between different kinds of understanding as well as itself generating knowledge. Artists have developed ways of playing with complexities, rather than simply analysing them. In order to play with them, they have to be very much in contact with complexities. It is also important to account for the fact that the evocation of pleasure in the recipient is not necessarily the aim of all art, which can be concerned with intervening in discourses and worlds of meaning.


There is also scope for scientific study to impact on art practice. For instance, it could be interesting for an art practitioner to integrate the results of the narrow (theoretical) aesthetic studies into a piece of art, so that science is not only a theory about art but becomes part of art practice.


From a multi-disciplinary standpoint, an ideal approach would be to say that some people look at what the brain is doing, others look at what the arm is doing, and then they come together and write a study based on that.

6. Conclusions

This workshop followed through on the recommendation from Workshop 1 to educate ourselves about different disciplinary methods of aesthetic study by reading each other’s work. It was fruitful for the group to engage collectively with the work being done in cognitive psychology and neuroscience and for those not involved in this kind of research to gain understanding of the methods and aims of those fields. The experience gained in these fields should stand us in good stead for future joint endeavours.


A significant issue, which was already identified in the last report, concerns the question of what constitutes valid evidence. Here the perceived need for empirical testing comes up against a perceived need for a theoretical foundation for empirical enquiry. The middle ground here would appear to lie in the agreement on the need to formulate valid hypotheses and the suggestion that such hypotheses could be formulated jointly.


The question of evidence is closely related to the status of the different kinds of knowledge that are generated by different disciplines and their methods, and also by artistic practice. There was disagreement on how and even whether artistic practice should contribute to aesthetic enquiry, but there was also interest in investigating artistic expertise empirically.


In the research on expertise that was presented, experts and non-experts were shown to diverge according to whether they engaged more with the content (non-experts) or the style (experts) of the visual images. We discussed whether this could be linked with Kant’s idea that pleasure in beauty is disinterested. We opened out the definition of expertise to include considerations of the difference between professional and enculturated expertise. We also noted a distinction between disinterestedness and distance, as the ‘expert’ could be seen as more deeply engaged than the non-expert, but in a different and more informed way. Also, we noted that experts who are professional art dealers have a monetary interest in art that is not disinterested, and that the rise of aesthetics is closely linked with consumption and commodification.


The research on complexity looked at both objective and subjective complexity (properties of images and people’s judgment of them). It showed that there are different kinds of complexity in visual images that influence aesthetic judgments and also that people’s judgements of complexity are influenced not only by visual properties but by whether they experience the content as negative (more complex) or positive (less complex). This result was not predicted and shows the importance of semantic components and emotion in judgements of complexity. Also methodologically it shows that subjects participating in experiments can take account of factors other than those that the experiment is designed to test.


In discussion we considered what kinds of complexity can be measured, including complexity of the artwork itself, and the impact of timescale, such as viewing time and also memory. How can empirical research engage with complexities that are specific to an artwork, an artist, or a style? Also, how might it be possible to measure a relationship to complexity that is changing in time?


Mapping of territory featured implicitly in our workshop discussions. The mapping of areas of expertise and their boundaries can lead to different responses. One is to say that a particular approach (in this case empirical enquiry, but it could equally well be art historical or another form of enquiry) is the only valid one, exemplified by statements such as ‘this question can only be solved through empirical enquiry’, and by the view that the only solution to methodological limitations is to improve empirical methods or invent new ones. If the view is taken that a single discipline can potentially study all valid questions, then no input from other disciplines is necessary or even useful. However, another response to perception of disciplinary boundaries is to use autocritique to identify spaces where other disciplines can provide complementary expertise. It is also important to recognise internal differences within disciplines.


These issues need to be explored in practice, and a key component of the workshop was the planning of shared projects and outputs. This planning process will be taken forward between now and Workshop 3 (Glasgow, 22-24 September 2016).

7. Recommendations

It is very important for all of us to map the boundaries of our own discipline in order to make space for contributions from other disciplines. Without this no progress is possible. We are making four recommendations:


  1. Carry forward into subsequent workshops a more explicit and methodical disciplinary ‘mapping’ in a way that acknowledges limitations as well as strengths in both empirical and non-empirical approaches, and that explores how the object of enquiry extends beyond the limits of the methods of any one discipline.


  1. Take forward plans for shared projects and publications.


  1. There should be thematic continuity and progression from one workshop to the next. Workshop 3 will focus on aesthetic values across cultures, with particular reference to Chinese art.


  1. Continue to widen the disciplinary base.

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