Mirrors of the soul and mirrors of the brain? The expression of emotions as the subject of art and science

In Gary Schwartz (ed.), Emotions. Pain and pleasure in Dutch painting of the Golden Age. nai010 publishers. pp. 81-92 (2014)
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Is it not surprising that we look with so much pleasure and emotion at works of art that were made thousands of years ago? Works depicting people we do not know, people whose backgrounds are usually a mystery to us, who lived in a very different society and time and who, moreover, have been ‘frozen’ by the artist in a very deliberate pose. It was the Classical Greek philosopher Aristotle who observed in his Poetics that people could apparently be moved even by the imitation of a person or an act. And although we are usually well aware that it is a simulacrum, not a real situation, it nevertheless sometimes seems as if we ourselves are standing there on the stage or in the painting, so intense and emotional is our response, even though we are just spectators. Aristotle concludes from this that we have intellectual capacities which allow us put ourselves in another’s place and consequently to react to simulated situations as though they are actually happening to us, here and now. In this process, he contends, observation, memory, imagination and emotions are crucial elements. In the past it was not customary to invoke human mental faculties to explain our response to works of art. The Ancient Greeks, after all, knew little about the human body or brain and usually referred to the extended world of the gods in their endeavours to comprehend the ‘inner world’ of human beings. In our time the situation is completely different—such an allusion to the brain no longer surprises us. Whether it is about the mystery of the consciousness, the question of free will or accounts of bizarre psychological aberrations or disorders, we have become accustomed to references to parts of the brain, to images of brain scans, to reports about neural networks and the like. However, because there are so many factors that play a part in our appreciation of works of art we need a complex explanation for it, and it is not enough to look only at certain properties of the brain that are determined by evolution. Those properties are shared by every human being, and so are rather useless in explaining people’s different reactions to the same work of art. Evidently the brains of individuals differ so much that they make it possible for people to respond differently to one and the same artwork. This, of course, raises questions concerning the painted emotions that can be seen in this exhibition. Virtually everyone, after all, is fascinated by such paintings and usually recognizes the emotions they represent. The reactions to these painted emotions are also often similar. This is probably why artworks like this are generally highly valued, then and now, here and elsewhere: from the enigmatically smiling Egyptian Queen Nefertiti and the startled Rembrandt to a seemingly despairing African mask. Aristotle observed that in the theatre players imitate actions that are associated with emotions in a number of ways and that these emotions are shared in a particular fashion by the playwright, the actors and the audience. The audience may even be carried away by these emotions to such an extent that they are in a sense purged of them and can subsequently leave the theatre relieved. Are such emotional reactions perhaps related to the fact that emotions are universal and that brains respond similarly to them? Is this why we can so readily identify painted emotions? May we therefore also assume that the properties of the brain determined by evolution help us to explain these emotions? In answering these questions we shall discuss a number of insights into emotions in psychology and brain science and explore some theories about the possible function of emotions and their expression.

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Machiel Keestra
University of Amsterdam


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