Almost Better than the Real Thing

Our culture gives great weight to authenticity. We are constantly reminded to “be true to ourselves” and to “be original” – whether we choose to heed this advice is up to us. In the case of fine art, we want to know a piece’s history, its origin. It’s what differentiates the multimillion dollar gallery painting from the one that never makes it out of the garage.

But who are we really to decide what marks one for fame and the other for obscurity?

In a new Oxford study, a set of researchers set out to explore how much of out perception of “great art” is tied to seeing a famous name grace the museum placard beside the work.

Their research experiment was relatively simple: 14 subjects were placed in an fMRI machine and told the following:

In this experiment you will see a sequence of 50 Rembrandt paintings. Before each image appears, an audio prompt will announce whether the upcoming painting is ‘authentic’ or a ‘copy.’ A blank screen will appear for a few seconds after each image to allow you to relax your gaze.

But of course there’s no experiment unless they shake it up some. The scientists told half of the participants that the authentic Rembrandts were actually forgeries and vice versa.

The results blew them away. They discovered that there was no detectable difference in the response of visual areas to Rembrandt and “look-alikes.”  All of the paintings garnered identical sensory responses.

However, what is interesting is that the scientists were able to pinpoint brain activity that occurred whenever a painting was said to be a real Rembrandt.  When this happened,  “subjects showed a spike in activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a chunk of brain just behind the eyes that is often associated with perceptions of reward, pleasure and monetary gain.” This orbitofrontal response happened even when a forgery was labeled a true Rembrandt – suggesting that the quality of the art itself mattered significantly less than the name attached.

All this to say that great art can be found in more places than you think. The finest painter in the world may not have made it to the galleries yet. The best show on earth may not be on Broadway with the highest ticket price. The world’s best musician may be scrambling for rent this month and busking in the streets to help make a few bucks.

So look around. Keep your eyes peeled and courageously decide who the most inspirational artists are for you. Then support them passionately. Who knows, you may end up with one of their works before they start selling for $3 million a pop.

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19 thoughts on “Almost Better than the Real Thing

  1. Wouldn’t it be nice if that chunk of brain that focuses on monetary reward could be re-wired to facilitate appreciation and subsequent monetary reward of new artists?

  2. This reminds me of an experiment undertaken by former Python John Cleese in his Food Network special “Wine for the confused.” He throws a wine tasting party and gives his guests samples of different wines, some priced less than ten dollars a bottle but ranging upwards of a hundred dollars a bottle, without telling them which is which. They taste them – out of sports bottles so they cannot see the wine – and then rate each one, and everyone rates the one hundred dollar bottle differently. Just goes to show that high prices do not ensure that something will satisfy everyone – or anyone.

  3. Thank you for finding my site, you are so welcome. We have much in common. I did study theater in NYC and was immersed in the wonders and depth of the art. I salute your site, your passion and purpose-bite-sized wisdom is a special delight- so beautifully done and selected,

  4. Brilliant and profound post; and oh so true. In some way it is sad that some of the most brilliant artists never make it to larger recognition. But, maybe they are meant to inspire only those who are observant enough to notice and show appreciation.

  5. What makes art great? As an art educator, I understand it is complicated. As an artist, I often wonder what really goes through the minds of the “experts”. So much is subjective. I once heard a statement from an art show judge that if an artwork is different/unique, the winning choice does not have to be justified. But unique does not automatically mean “good.” I’ll go back to my obscure studio and quietly create artwork, and maybe someday someone will see it and smile.

    • Thank you for sharing that poignant antidote. I think the best thing you can do is continue to create things that are true to you – that honesty cannot be duplicated it art. Keep on sharing your gifts!

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