'Beauty and the Brain' at the Walters

Visitors to "Beauty and the Brain" at the Walters Art Museum are asked which artwork is the most appealing and which is the least.
Visitors to "Beauty and the Brain" at the Walters Art Museum are asked which artwork is the most appealing and which is the least. (Walters Art Museum)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010

The Walters Art Museum's latest exhibition includes 276 sculptures. But don't worry. "Beauty and the Brain, A Neural Approach to Aesthetics" shouldn't take more than 15 minutes to get through. Most of the art works are no bigger than a lemon. The larger questions the show leaves you with might linger a bit longer.

True to its title, "Beauty and the Brain" is a hybrid. Billed as part exhibition and part experiment, the single-gallery installation features only one actual object: a 1959 abstract sculpture, in white plaster, by Jean Arp called "La Dame de Delos (The Woman of Delos)."

The show consists of 11 wall panels -- one based on "Delos" and 10 on other examples of the artist's work. It is a collaboration between the museum and the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University. Created with a laser scanner and computer morphing software, each panel is a kind of virtual reality chart featuring the original and 24 variations of a single sculpture. You'll need 3-D glasses to view the pictures which morph Arp's work from round and blobby to pointy and attenuated, and back again.

Your assignment is to pick the version of each artwork you like best.

That's the experiment part. Put on a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses provided by the museum -- they're the old-fashioned red-and-blue kind -- and grab a clipboard. As you walk through the show, you'll mark down on an answer sheet the form of each sculpture that appeals to you the most and the form that appeals to you the least. The idea is that, through a statistical analysis of thousands of answers, which visitors are encouraged to deposit in a box, the Mind/Brain Institute's researchers may learn whether there is such a thing as what critic Clive Bell called "significant form." In other words, is there a specific shape -- or kind of shape -- that most people like?

So much for "There's no accounting for taste."

Visitors who leave an e-mail address on the answer sheet will receive access to the Mind/Brain Institute's Web site, where the current distribution of results will be posted, along with an indication of where their choices fell. You might not need to wait that long.

Going around the room, I pretty quickly noticed a pattern in my preferences, which tended toward the rounder, more organic shapes -- a tear drop, the swell of human flesh -- and away from the sharp, spiky ones.

But here's a question: Are my preferences due to the fact that there's something innately appealing about those shapes? Or could my choices have been influenced by the fact that I know what Arp looks like -- after all, there's one of his sculptures at the entrance to the show -- and am drawn to the most Arp-y shapes?

The exhibition makes it clear that there are no right or wrong answers. "I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like" could be its motto.

The possibility that we may be hard-wired to appreciate the same basic shapes is an intriguing one -- and not all that far-fetched. After all, studies have shown that we are attracted to baby animals whose facial proportions most closely resemble those of human infants. Puppies, yes. Baby lizards, no. There's something about a creature with that look that makes us want to take care of it. Cuteness, in other words, is a huge evolutionary advantage.

Those and other thoughts stayed me after I left "Beauty and the Brain," and wandered past Antoine-Louis Barye's 1850 "Jaguar Devouring a Hare."

Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics Through April 11 at the Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-547-9000. http://www.thewalters.org. Hours: Open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission: Free

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