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Visual Perception

Aesthetics and Neuroscience in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism and the Machines

Tijen Tunali, Université de Tours

Neuroaesthetics emerged as a sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics during ‘the aesthetic turn’ in humanities in the early years of the millennium. Hence, philosophy and art history, the two disciplines that are immersed in the theory of aesthetics, have not yet shown interest in the neurological study of the aesthetic perception. The project of studying aesthetics through biology raises eyebrows and generates criticism not only because of its ahistorical and framing assumptions on art and aesthetics but also because of the lack of recognition of the social, cultural and political dimensions of the biological embodiment. For example, although there has been a great interest in the subject of “biopower”, the contemporary philosophers have not yet paid significant attention to the workings of the art and the brain in forming complex systems of influence, control, and resistance. This paper examines these issues and discusses why bridging of neuroscience and contemporary aesthetics is important for understanding the neuroplasticity of our brain in the contemporary visual culture and why a more inclusive aesthetic theory is needed to strengthen both neuroaesthetics and the artistic field.

Modulation of visual art experience by different forms of priming: an fMRI and eye-tracking study

Ladislav Kesner/Dominika Grygarová/Petr Adámek, National Institute of Mental Health Klecany/ Masaryk University Brno

This talk will introduce the current ongoing study of our group. Using a simultaneous BOLD fMRI and eye-tracking methodology, we analyze the effects of different forms of priming on neuronal and behavioural indices of visual art experience. After the first data acquisition, subjects are instructed (i) to reflect for a 10 day period on the personal significance of figural works of art they selected and (ii) read emotion/empathy inducing commentaries on another group of works; afterwards they undergo the second scanning session. The effects of these two forms of cognitive/affective priming are then compared. Functional connectivity analysis of neuroimaging data focuses on the changing pattern of interaction between components of default mode network and networks involved in affective and empathic response. Therefore, the second explicit aim of our study is to extend current understanding of large-scale network interaction during visual art experience. At the time of the meeting, we will have finalized the data acquisition, but not the data analysis. The talk will therefore provide an overview of the study, preliminary results and detail main conceptual and theoretical issues highlighted by this study.   

Using eye tracking to investigate cross-cultural differences in art perception

Hanna Brinkmann, University of Vienna

Based on Michael Baxandall’s theoretical thoughts about the “period eye”, a historical condition of art perception, this talk investigates the cultural variance in art perception. Concerning the case study of the research, which is based Japan and Austria, different arguments within the academic discourse can be found, which postulate a specific “eastasian” and “western” way of looking at works of art. Additionally to this theoretical analysis the eye-movements of 50 Austrian and 51 Japanese students looking at ten digitized artworks were recorded with an eye-tracker. This data was completed with an extensive questionnaire, which investigated for example the viewer’s personal opinion on the paintings and their emotional reactions towards the artworks. The talk will not only introduce some of the results but has special focus on the methods. Besides eye-tracking and questionnaires the visualization of the data and the challenges of a cross-cultural comparison will be discussed in a methodological reflection. Funded by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and the Austrian Science Fund (FWF).


Grasping the variety of empirical approaches to the art sciences 

“What You See, Isn’t Always Enough”: An Interdisciplinary Study of Four of Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons Paintings (1965-66)

Stefanie De Winter, KU Leuven

This talk will illustrate how an interdisciplinary approach, combining methods of art history, perceptual psychology and material analysis, can provide a more complete and correct description of artworks, which overcomes some of the limitations of traditional art historical methodology. I do this on the basis of a case study of Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons. 

Because critics and theorists have misrepresented their fluorescent dimension, these paintings have been incorrectly assessed in the literature. This is due to two factors: failure to perform a material analysis of sufficient detail, which renders a correct reading of fluorescent effects impossible. Also, interpretations of the effects were extremely subjective in character and differed for each theorist. I will help overcoming both problems. First, by providing material data, mostly gathered from (non-)destructive analysis. Then, to counteract the subjective nature of the interpretation of the fluorescent effects, I consider the results of an experiment based on four Irregular Polygons, which show that all subjects experienced the fluorescent colours as strongly protruding when combined with conventional colours. 

Towards Ontology, Epistemology, and Methodology? The Case of Early Netherlandish Art

Astrid Hobill, Queen’s University

Technical art history seeks to understand artistic techniques, creative processes and the materiality of artworks through various forms of analyses, including x-radiography and infrared technologies. Queen’s University, Canada recently established Queen’s University Mobile Laboratory for Technical Art History, the first mobile laboratory in this field. My involvement its creation has led me to consider the ways research is conducted and how findings are discussed in technical art history. As a discipline rooted in the humanities there is little engagement with the traditional research paradigm: ontology, epistemology, and methodology. In other fields that use similar methods of technical analysis such as archaeology and art conservation, there is a larger debate surrounding these three areas. Using examples of technical art history primarily in the study of Early Netherlandish paintings, this paper will discuss whether using such principles would be beneficial to this field. Does the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of technical art history create the need for such an approach to be taken in order to clearly define research boundaries and create strong methods and goals?  

The relevance of historic auction prices in determining an artist's reputation over time

Kevin Breiteneder, University of Vienna

Historic auction prices have been seldom used as the primary object of investigation for the analysis of an artist’s reputation. Despite the fact that old masters as well as contemporary artists are judged on their market value mostly represented by the hammer price of their artworks, traditional reputational analysis is mainly based on a literature-oriented approach.

Instead of examining the changing public image of an artist and therefore focusing on theoretical discourses, i.e. statements by art critics and theoreticians, an alternative method is introduced. European auction prices of the Dutch artists Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn and Gerrit Dou between 1700 and 1850 serve as an exemplary research object in establishing an empirical approach within this respective framework. Apart from defining an appropriate method as well as measuring parameters, differences between price and traditional text-based analysis are discussed thereby critically reflecting the additional value historic auction prices can add to conventional reputational analysis.

The Sun Houses of Konrad Frey: Environmental Research and Solar Design Knowledge

Ingrid Böck, TU Graz

Since the mid-1960s, the Austrian architect Konrad Frey (*1934) has conducted solar research studies and applied his design knowledge in a series of sun house prototypes – and designed the first Austrian Solar House (1972). His work comprises of climatic sundomes, greenhouses, infrastructural systems, suit-able service modules, sun houses (Fischer House, Zankel House), and the Solar Houses I–III, among others. Frey’s theoretical investigations at the Graz Institute of Environmental Research and international alliances with theorists (CERN, Arup London) are widely published and initiated the Austrian Energy Advise Service

The innovative aspects of the research will also be grounded on an interdisciplinary approach using both quantitative and qualitative research methods of the theory and history of architecture, combined with building physics as well as sociology of technology. The documentation, critical analyses, and energy evaluation uses digital measuring via fieldwork, collecting primary sources of archives, interviews, parametric simulation models and maintenance concepts of three case study houses. Therefore, Anselm Wagner (Professor of Architectural Theory/TU Graz) has established scientific co-operations with Ardeshir Mahdavi (Professor of Building Physics/TU Vienna). The FWF funded research project, “The Sun Houses of Konrad Frey: Environmental Research and Solar Design Knowledge” fills this gap in basic interdisciplinary research, first, by scientifically processing and evaluating new data, measuring and re-conceptualising the energy performance, in order to issue the catalogue raisonné with critical commentaries and a digital database. Since unpublished sources and solar performance data have not been operationalised in previous examinations, existing research does not provide sufficient means to define a consistent interpretive framework that overarches Frey’s oeuvre and critically assess his approach within the global discourse. 

The Shape of Art History in the Eyes of the Machine

Ahmed Elgammal, Rutgers University/ Marian Mazzone, College of Charleston

How does machine classification of art style relate to art historians’ analysis of style? Research in computer vision and machine learning has shown the ability of the machine to learn and predict different style categories with reasonable accuracy. Now we ask: what can machine learning tell us about how style characteristics are identified and how they correlate?

We conduct a study of several convolutional neural networks applied to the task of style classification on 67K image of paintings. We analyzed the learned representations through correlation analysis with concepts derived from art history. Surprisingly, the networks could place the works of art in a smooth temporal arrangement mainly based on learning discrete noisy style labels, without any a priori knowledge of time of creation, historical context, or relations between styles. The learned representations show that there are a few underlying factors that explain the visual variations of style. The learned representations also highlight certain artists as extreme distinctive representatives of styles, which quantitatively confirm art historians’ observations. 

The application of textual and visual data analysis tools on the text corpus of the magazine Der Sturm

Artur Šilić, Novena Digital Media Studio, Zagreb/ Ljiljana Kolešnik, IAH (Zagreb)

We employ a number of text analysis methods on the text corpus of Der Sturm articles, which represents a starting point for the exploration of the avant-garde movement in the first half of the 20th century. Our goal is to present an art historical research case study that utilizes computational text analysis and visualization tools. Furthermore, we provide a light assessment of computational and empirical methodology to art historical research against more traditional approaches.

We borrow quantitative methods from the field of natural language processing, including topic modeling, named entity extraction and linking, and network visualization. The combination of these methods allows us to explore data in innovative ways. We approach the case study by using both explorative analysis and hypothesis testing.

The use of computational methods is justified by the fact that large corpora are hard to grasp by individuals, whereas the process of reading may include human bias. With our case study we wish to show how computational tools employing language analysis seeks not to replace human interpretation, but to serve as leverages against heavy corpora otherwise left unread.

Has there always been bad press for the avant-garde in Vienna? Discourse and Networks of art critics

Maximilian Kaiser, ÖAW Vienna

For the first time Avant-garde artists exhibited in Vienna in the years preceding World War I. From the beginning on they were confronted with negative art reception through journalists and art critics in Austrian newspapers. Critics like Adalbert Franz Seligmann were campaigning against them. 1913 he wrote for instance a series of articles under the title “Wer Wind sät [sic!], wird Sturm ernten”. This quote of a biblical verse shows the dramatic effect conservative critics liked to use within their writings. During the interwar period the avant-garde started to hold more and more exhibitions in Vienna. Short living groups of artists (e.g. “Die Freie Bewegung”, “Der Bund geistig Tätiger”, “Das Auge”, “Der Regenbogen” etc.) used every chance they got to present their art. According to that art critics were challenged more than ever to cope with that and develop new approaches for art interpretation. 

This talk presents some of the findings in my Phd thesis. I would like to focus mainly on an empirical survey I have done in this context with a sample of exhibition reviews in Austrian newspapers during the interwar period (1918–1926). Based on a study of Rainer Fuchs in the early 1990s I started to search for articles in the newspapers, write short biographies of art critics and reconstruct their pseudonyms they used. As indicated through Fuchs, texts are referenced through frequently used statements. Due to this characteristic it is possible to reconstruct a so called discourse network and analyse the relations found within it. 


Workshop "Intersections. A Question of Theory?" [Schnittmengen. Eine Frage der Theorie?]

Der seit dem zurückliegenden Millennium formulierte Diskurs zwischen der Digitalisierten und der Digitalen Kunstgeschichte ist nicht hinlänglich in eine Theorie- bzw. Methodendiskussion überführt worden. Es scheint vielmehr, dass sich die Antipoden entweder in Grabenkämpfen verlieren oder resigniert mit der jeweils eigenen Vorstellung von kunsthistorischer Forschung abwenden: Optimistischer Pragmatismus im Digitalen versus klassische Kunstgeschichte as usual im Analogen.

Der Workshop-Rahmen der Art & Science Konferenz sucht nach Ansatzpunkten für eine Rückkopplung der zunehmend mit digitalen Forschungsinstrumenten arbeitenden Kunstgeschichte an bereits bestehende Theoriediskussionen. Es gilt den Hortus Digitalis in Denkmodelle einzugliedern, welche Brücken zwischen den unterschiedlichen Ansichten entwickeln helfen.

  • Introduction Anna Frasca-Rath, University of Vienna & Ralph Knickmeier, Belvedere Research Center
  • The Epistemology of Big Image Data. Method and Challenge for Art History Harald Klinke, LMU München
  • Does interactivity in virtual reality help understand architectural concepts? Dominik Lengyel/ Catherine Toulouse, BTU Cottbus
  • Eine Frage der Angemessenheit. Zugänge zur digitalen Bildwissenschaft über Kunsttheorie Peter Bell, Universität Heidelberg


Chances and Challenges of empirical approaches to the art sciences – addressing the critique

Can there be experimental reception research in art-history? Taking the skeptic seriously

Klaus Speidel, University of Vienna

It is tempting to position experimental reception research (ERR) concerning art-historical questions within the theoretical framework of reception aesthetics as adapted for art-history by Wolfgang Kemp. Kemp (1985, 208), however, considers that “being a historical method of inquiry, reception aesthetics is obliged to reconstruct the initial situation of reception”. Such a reconstruction can never be accomplished in an experimental setting, be it only because the initial audiences are gone. Is a connection between historical reception research (HRR) and ERR still possible or do we have to accept the radical implication that at best a very small portion of ERR, mainly concerning contemporary art, is relevant for art-history? Using examples from my own experimental research with narrative paintings, I will explain and illustrate two strategies to counter skepticism concerning ERR:

1. questioning the theoretical usefulness and actual feasibility of the historical reconstruction as suggested by Kemp. 

2. developing ways to evaluate the historical relevance of ERR results by testing what and how much of our current audiences’ judgments can be generalized beyond the actual context of the experiments.

Final Workshop "Chances and Challenges of empirical approaches to the art sciences – addressing the critique"

Klaus Speidel, University of Vienna

Art & Science

Department of Art History
University of Vienna

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A-1090 Vienna

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