And not a single puppy played poker

The Fark headline was snarky: How art tricks people into paying $3.6 million for an abstract painting. I followed up the link, and there was a perfectly reasonable story on the interaction between art and neuroscience, two subjects on which I am by no means an expert but which I can grasp, somewhat, on a sort-of-intuitive level.

Of particular interest was this section:

In the research of Margaret Livingstone, professor of neurobiology at Harvard University, she explored the painting “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet, which features a shimmering sun over water. Although the orange sun appears bright, it objectively has the same luminance as the background, Livingstone found.

Impression Sunrise by Claude Monet

So why does it look so bright to the human eye? Livingstone explained in a 2009 lecture at the University of Michigan that there are two major processing streams for our visual system, which Livingstone calls the “what” and “where” streams. The “what” allows us to see in color and recognize faces and objects. The “where” is … faster and less detail-oriented but helps us navigate our environment [and] is insensitive to color.

When our brains recognize a color contrast but no light contrast, that’s called “equal luminance,” and it creates a sort of shimmering quality, Livingstone said. And that’s what’s going on in a Monet painting.

Which is something apparently we didn’t know back in 1970 when I was actually studying this sort of thing: we took it for granted that the phenomenon exists, and chalked it up to good old trompe l’oeil, despite the fact that Monet wasn’t trying to fool us in the least.

And somehow, this summons another question: Does it affect my appreciation of the painting, knowing how it was done? My answer is no: even if you taught me the technique and spotted me a whole palette full of colors and a copy of Photoshop, I couldn’t come up with anything that evocative.

Then again, Impression, Sunrise, while it isn’t photorealistic, certainly isn’t abstract. Fortunately, I know a painter of abstracts, and I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t mind if I tossed a link to one of her works. I’m not about to take luminance readings over the whole sixteen square feet, of course. And I’m not quite sure what it is I see in this particular square, though the reflection pattern to the left, decaying as it moves rightward, suggests to me several layers of energy at different speeds, which are actually probably moving leftward away from the original source. (So “Nova,” the title, perhaps says it straight.) And while the Cooper (why not?) draws a different flavor of emotional response than does the Monet, it is still a genuine emotional response, and not knowing exactly What It Is bothers me not in the least. (Indeed, I am most bothered by not being able to meet her asking price just now, though it’s well short of $3.6 million, and anyway she says she might keep it for herself.)

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