cognitive neuroscientist Arthur Shimamura tackles art appreciation in his book "Experiencing art: in the brain of the beholder"
By Joe Ferguson
One of the most useful tools for students of the health sciences is David Sackett’s model for evidence-based medicine. The model proposes student approach their future practices through a three-domain venn diagram—clinician experience, patient needs and expectations. All domains converge in the center to form new research, representing an ideal clinical practice.
For those trained in the sciences, approaching the arts can be daunting. A few of us may have taken an Introduction to Art History course, but more than likely, the most we got was an English class that taught us how to write a vaguely-critical essay. It would have been useful to approach art through a Sackett-like model. Fortunately, such a model was recently theorized by cognitive neuroscientist Arthur Shimamura in his book Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder.
Dr. Shimamura proposed a conceptual framework for how we experience art, which he defines as a science of aesthetics that integrates perception, emotion and knowledge. He calls his diagram the I-SKE model.
The I in the model stands for intention. While many art historians and critics believe it is better to approach an artwork without any reference to the intention of the artist, Shimamura feels differently. He suggests that it is better to consider the artist’s intentions in the same way we would consider any other aspect of the work. He believes a better understanding may be gained when we know the historical, cultural, and political forces that underlie an artwork.
Three psychological responses one has when viewing a work of art follow Intention--Sensation, Knowledge, and Emotion. How a piece stimulates our senses, how it makes us think, and how it drives our emotions must be considered when viewing art. When sensation, knowledge, and emotion are driven to their extremes, Shimamura asserts we experience that wow feeling.
One of the things I appreciate about Shimamura’s model is that it is inclusive—it does not force a particular outcome, but offers a schema for thinking about many approaches to a work of art. It is up to the viewer, or beholder, to consider how an artwork affects the various psychological components of the model.
There is much more to the book. After an introduction, the primary chapters are divided into three sections that correspond to the I-SKE framework: The Art of Seeing, The Art of Knowing, and The Art of Feeling. In the final chapter titled Coda, Shimamura outlines how the I-SKE model can be put to use when you visit the museum—he has gone so far as to create a table with a series of questions for each area of his model that you can ask yourself when viewing a piece of art.
While I think Dr. Shimamura’s book would be of value to anyone interested in advancing the field of aesthetics, I found it particularly refreshing as someone with a background in the sciences. Too often we are confronted with a text that relies on outdated philosophical arguments and refuses to consider contributions outside of artistic circles. Experiencing Art is written in an approachable style, and it provides the science-inclined with a rational means of confronting, and ultimately, appreciating art.
Experiencing Art: In the Brain of the Beholder
by Arthur Shimamura
Hardcover: 312 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (July 10, 2013)
Purchase the book on Amazon here