Collector Beatrice de Gelder and how neuroscience can be a game changer in art

Piero Bisello

Art collector and neuroscientist Beatrice de Gelder takes stock of the situation in neuroaesthetics and explains why scientists are still missing the right question to answer.

We first met Beatrice de Gelder in Brussels in late 2017, on the occasion of an event held at Harlan Levey Projects gallery focusing on art and science. Invited as a moderator, de Gelder, who is director of the Brain and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Maastricht, led the conversation between artist Marcin Dudek and social psychologist John Rijsman, who gave a scientific overview of theories of crowd control and group dynamics, which were somehow the underlying topics of Dudek’s artistic project. We also learned a further chapter of this event with social psychologist Mark Levine would be held in London a few weeks later. In early February we sat with de Gelder over a drink in a busy café in Brussels downtown, discussing about her interest in art, her work in cognitive neuroscience, and the fruitful link between the two.

How did you first become interested in art?

Often you read that people meet a person, or see an artwork, or hear a piece of music, or go to a play, or go to a concert, and that’s the trigger for them to become interested in art. I can’t remember anything specific like that, I could not construct a personal narrative about myself and art, it just wouldn’t be true. Somehow art was always there but not much talked about.

What about your collection? How did you start collecting art?

I don’t really see myself as a collector, it is a dreadful word somehow, it only evokes owning objects and that sounds a bit like owning dust.

In a recent interview on CFA, author Orhan Pamuk told us that for him art collectors are followers of a logic. They are obsessed by a certain characteristic of things and they collect things that have that characteristic.

It’s interesting, it’s almost a definition taken from a clinical psychology book. It has this streak of absolutely wanting to appear as rational. For me, whatever it is that makes me buy some artworks is nothing so rational, unless of course you view passion as rational (which it is). I’m not in search of a logic linking a series of decisions about objects. Yet I do see the temptation of wanting to build up a personal narrative about collecting, something that allows you to say “I am the person that does X”. Human beings want to see themselves as rational in their behaviour, which is tempting because it gives you comfort and assurance in a world that is otherwise very chaotic. If accumulating things follows a set logic, it becomes hoarding and not collecting, and hoarding is a pathology.

So there is no criterion that defines what is in your collection?

An external observer looking for it might be able to find this criterion, but it is not put forward as principle for me to decide whether I should buy an artwork or not.

Maybe we can try to find this one principle starting from examples of artworks that you have bought.

When I started to buy art I was still working in philosophy at Leiden University, and you can’t really afford much with an academic salary. Yet I had some spectacular works in my house that friends in Antwerp wanted me to buy and that I lived with for a couple of years. I eventually managed to hold on some works on paper by, for example, Sol Lewitt, some of which were even accidentally trashed by the cleaning lady. I had some other works also by Sol Lewitt or Kosuth, Twombly and early works by Jan Fabre, as well as magnificent works by Broodthaers and Art & Language. I haven’t kept everything though, for example a large piece by Broodthaers is at MoMA in New York. Of some other work I have only the pictures left. From these examples I guess you can say that I tend to collect conceptual art (that great misnomer) but I don’t see it that way.

How did you discover that scene of conceptual art in Belgium?

In the early 1970s I had an off-the-record art gallery in Antwerp. The art world back then was very different from today’s art world, there was raw passion, it didn’t have this aspect of financial extravaganza that you see these days. I was just friend with some artists who could use some cash.

Is collecting the only way you are involved in the arts?

I run an art and science initiative with gallerist Harlan Levey called Fundamental Research. We organise talks, exhibitions and residencies in my lab and presentations in a new space here in Brussels. (www.gluon.com)

Are you ever impressed with manual skills in contemporary art?

It is a very difficult issue of course. I could answer with a radical “yes” and a radical “no”. I take it that when you say that an artist is very skillful, you are not saying something positive about that artist, it wouldn’t be an expression of admiration. But that doesn’t mean that aspect cannot be positive. Skills are not a decisive aspect of good art for me, as it also the emotional and intellectual effort of an artist that contributes to the quality of the art. To use a difficult and vague word, it is about the “meaning” of the artwork that makes it interesting or not. In that sense, the artwork has to sustain a meaningful dialogue with me. Yet I certainly don’t like art that speaks loudly, and I don’t like art that is often seen as having a clear philosophical meaning such as Magritte’s. For me, it smells of bad philosophy.

You’re the director of the Brain and Emotion Laboratory at the University of Maastricht. Could you tell us a bit about your research there?

I moved from philosophy to neuroscience almost twenty years ago because I wanted to do very straightforward experimental work unrelated to a philosophical agenda. Initially I worked on integration of vision and auditory perception, I discovered some interesting facts about perception outside consciousness, that is how we perceive some stimuli as a unity, and later into face perception. Finally, about ten years ago, I got really intrigued by the fact that when we talk about communication signals, it is either language or facial expressions. All of a sudden I asked myself how is it that we communicate with the rest of our body. At the beginning, this was just a side project, but it turned out to be an entire new field of discovery. So for the last ten years I have been working on how we perceive body expressions, both visually and tactually, and how we communicate through these non-verbal, non-facial expressions in ways that are crucial but often outside consciousness and control. We mainly use brain imaging methods, complemented by work with patients that have brain-damage, or individuals with dementia, schizophrenia, autism. In these last years our research on bodies has acquired a whole novel dimension with the developments in virtual reality, avatar embodiment and robotics.

Have you also been involved in so-called neuroaesthetics, the branch of neuroscience that deals with the perception of art?

Yes, I have organised a few meetings on the occasion of TEFAF and the Venice Biennale around the broad theme of the body in the art and science. Now, the situation specifically with neuroaesthetics is complicated and the entire idea of neuroaesthetics has been heavily criticised and probably much misunderstood since its very creation by Semir Zeki, when he talked about the basis of beauty perception in the brain. The first critique was about the idea that certain parts of the brain are responsible for certain artistic functions, an idea that at least the first neuroaesthetics efforts embraced. This view is now rejected. Second, many people, especially philosophers, but also art historians still believe that neuroaesthetics represents a problematic reductionist approach to art. It is a pity that neuroaesthetics got such bad press so soon, as really interesting things have been done in the field. Vittorio Gallese and David Freedberg for example have done research into our bodily reactions to artworks, from analyses of classical sculptures to Fontana’s slashed canvases. Art deals in sensory concepts and in emotions, all the affairs of the body. My group recently submitted a paper that looks at dance movements, bringing together a computational analysis of movement features and subjective judgments by the viewers. All this does not mean that I believe that there should be an overarching neuroscientific theory of art.

Perhaps another critique against neuroaesthetics is that it mostly deals with formal properties of an artwork. For example, beliefs about a painting in the mind of a person perceiving that painting often change her experience of that painting, even though the formal properties of the painting don’t change. It seems that if neuroaesthetics merely focused on the formal properties of an artwork, it would leave out important considerations about the experience of that artwork.

Yes, I agree. For example, the early Zeki’s studies looked at how the brain would respond differently according to different paintings that were considered more or less beautiful. That just doesn’t teach you much about the experience of the painting. What is missing in neuroaesthetics today is formulating the right questions. In general I think neuroaesthetics, or neuroscience of art, is really important, because art is really important in our lives akin to hunger and desire and neuroscience must deal with it. Yet, neuroscientists of art are still looking for the right agenda, finding out what are the good questions. I sometimes wonder whether we should all sit down and define a research agenda for neuroscience of art. This is of much broader importance than people realise. It touches on creativity, innovation, technology and morality, or as philosophers put it, leading the good life.

Do you think that if neuroscience of art advanced so much to the point that all the rules connecting formal beauty to brain stimulation were discovered, artists could start exploit these rules to make artworks that are perceived as more beautiful? This might be a scenario that resembles behavioural economics, where our cognitive biases are discovered and then later exploited by policy-makers to nudge people toward making certain decisions.

No, I don’t believe that. Compare the issue you’re raising with filmmaking. A filmmaker knows all the rules about making a formally correct film. I don’t think that a film that follows all those rules would be especially liked or disliked. Just like a scientific study that plays by all the rules of methodology is not automatically interesting or novel. Also, the comparison with behavioural economics may be misleading because nudging is done in order to trigger a predefined behavioural reaction.

Coming back to your personal interest in art, do you see any connection between it and your work as a neuroscientist?

I think one obvious connection is that, as an art collector, I analyse my preferences after they have informed my choices. I see what I liked and bought to see if there is anything that explains those choices. Moreover, I might reject some of those choices as there are things that I no longer like. This process is very much what happens in my scientific work, where I am looking for something but I don’t exactly know what it is in advance. After experimental findings have come in, I make sense of them. Moreover, in both art and science, it is important to remain curious, as the opposite of curiosity is boredom. You should always keep your eyes open for something you trust is there but you don’t yet see clearly, for something you don’t know what it is, until you find it. Curiosity is addictive, it is like a fire that wants to be fed all the time. Scientists as well as people who are passionate about art are addicted to the attitude of asking “maybe there is something behind that closed door”. For those like me who are both scientists and passionate about art, one’s curiosity in one field is not extinguished by remaining curious in the other field. Of course, so much curiosity often leads to frustration, which again has its good and its bad sides.

Do you think scientists should be more interested in art, and if so, why?

I think so, as scientists should live with uncertainty and keep an open mind. They should live with the unexpected, and art provides that. What fascinates me about art is the ambiguity, which is at the heart of scientific research just as well. Scientists might also feel some kind of camaraderie with artists, as both fields are characterised with the frustration of not satisfying one’s curiosity, of never really getting it right. Yet, there are of course important differences between art and science. Scientists do have some rather objective criteria that tell them when findings should be accepted or rejected. Artists don’t have those same objective criteria for what they want to achieve, and the practice of an artist is more difficult than that of the scientist in that respect.

March 14, 2018