The short time that I’ve been in Paris has felt so much longer than a few weeks. Last week, I spent several hours at the Musée d’Orsay, where I finally fulfilled my dream of viewing impressionist masterpieces face-to-face. A few nights later, I was looking through the photos that I’d taken during my recent travels, when one particular photo of a building caught my eye. Something about the image irked me. The asymmetry, I realized, was throwing my mind into a sort of desire to fix the photo. I began to wonder: What makes something beautiful, and what does symmetry have to do with it?
A study by Makin and colleagues used a “gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm” to examine three factors: 1) Do people evaluate symmetry instinctively? 2) Do people prefer perfect symmetry or slightly imperfect imagery? 3) When people grow familiar with symmetry, do they lose fascination with it? Researchers employed eye-tracking technology to observe for factors that attracted 54 test subjects’ gazes (Makin et al.,2016). Observation of event-related potentials (ERPs) following exposure to abstract patterns suggested that ERPs responsible for aesthetic evaluation (beautiful vs. ugly) did not fire during evaluation of symmetry. In regards to the three questions initially posed, overall results suggested that, though symmetry was a significant factor in participants’ selection, 1) people do not automatically evaluate symmetry, and rather prefer slight imperfection; 2) people do not express marked preference for either symmetry or slight imperfection; 3) people’s interest in symmetry does not change following familiarization.
Based on this study, it seems like symmetry plays a part in all of our visual imagery preferences, though likely not to a critical extent. Perfect isn’t perfect. The question of aesthetic preference brought my thoughts back to what I’d seen at the d’Orsay. I began thinking about Cézanne and Monet, and what I’d read.
When Cézanne split from the impressionist project of “worshipping light” (Lehrer 103), he began a ceaseless quest to mimic the fleeting nature of the physical world. The images we see slowly take shape as they filter from V1 to V5. As Jonah Lehrer writes, “If the mind didn’t impose itself on the eye, then our vision would be full of voids” (Lehrer 117). Cézanne’s nonfinito technique taps into this process. Unlike the classic impressionists, Cézanne’s use of blank space mimicked the brain’s process of filling in emptiness to create meaning in otherwise meaningless sensory information.
Take, for example, a thin gray stripe, a “fragile scratch against the sprawling void” (Lehrer 115). Alongside the ambiguous forms of trees, a river, and the sky, it adopts a sensible identity as a mountain range, as our mind has already identified a coherent nature scene. Cézanne’s art alludes to the senselessness of reality and our capability — and need — to make sense of it.
Vered Aviv concludes that abstract art promotes new meaningful neural connections that lead to higher-level brain states. The brain process after viewing abstract art “is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain” (Aviv, 2014). “‘The eye is not enough… One needs to think as well.’ Cézanne’s epiphany was that our impressions require interpretation; to look is to create what you see” (Lehrer, 2008).
Research by Hochstein and Ahissar proposes that “Vision at a glance reflects high-level mechanisms, while vision with scrutiny reflects a return to low-level representations” (Hochstein and Ahissar, 2002). Impressionism attempted to recreate an ‘impression’ of nature, a fleeting moment. Though Cézanne’s works outgrew impressionism with its abstract techniques, Monet’s works remained comparably decipherable and photographic. One might compare Cézanne’s works with what Hochstein and Ahissar call vision at a glance, and Monet’s to vision with scrutiny, a prolonged observation and interpretation of a perceived landscape. If “Cézanne’s art was a mirror held up to the mind” (Lehrer, 2008), then “‘Monet [was] only an eye’” (Lehrer, 2008), a lens.
Lehrer writes that “[Cézanne] forces us to see, in the same static canvas, the beginning and end of our sight… The painting emerges, not from the paint or the light, but from somewhere inside our mind” (Lehrer, 2008). Though recent research has since revealed much more about art, visual interpretation, and various other related processes, Cézanne was an anomaly of his time, a painter with a vision that was simultaneously humanistic and scientific.
When photography first developed during the era of impressionism, French painters rebelled because “the camera was a liar… Because reality did not consist of static images. Because the camera stops time, which cannot be stopped” (Lehrer, 2008). I wonder what Cézanne would have thought in my position. Maybe he would have already identified by then the inherent futility in taking the “perfect” picture, or recognized that my disappointment in the photo lay in the inherent dishonesty of photography.
Or maybe Makin and colleagues were onto something when they suggested that symmetry isn’t a necessary condition of beauty. After all, it was the imperfections and the fleeting nature of Cézanne’s fruit and Monet’s flowers that left them floating through my consciousness long after I returned to my apartment. In the end, I guess, beauty is in the eye — and the brain — of the beholder.
Makin ADJ, Bertamini M, Jones A (2016) A gaze-driven evolutionary algorithm to study aesthetic evaluation of visual symmetry. i-Perception March-April:1-18. https://doi.org/10.1177/2041669516637432.
Aviv V (2014) What does the brain tell us about abstract art? Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 8:85. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00085.
Hochstein S and Ahissar M (2002) View from the top: Hierarchies and reverse hierarchies in the visual system. Neuron 36(5):791-804.
Lehrer J (2008) Paul Cézanne: The process of sight. In Proust was a neuroscientist (Reprint ed.). pp. 96-119. Mariner.
Image 1 (Lehrer, 2008)
Image 2 was taken by myself.