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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Love Lessons from Stoppard

From “The Invention of Love,” a play in which Stoppard focuses on Latin-scholar Housman’s life and his relationships with his peers and professors (including Pater, Wilde, and Ruskin).

He postulates on the catalysts for this crazy little thing we call love:

“They loved, and quarreled, and made up, and loved, and fought, and were true to each other and untrue. She made him the happiest man in the whole world and the most wretched, and after a few years she died, and then, when he was thirty, he died, too. But by that time Catullus had invented the love poem.”

A great deal of the play concerns itself with the importance of education – even outside of the typical confines of the university. This passage is easily one of my favorites:

“The Renaissance teaches us that the book of knowledge is not to be learned by rote but is to be written anew in the ecstasy of living each moment for the moment’s sake. Success in life is to maintain this ecstasy, to burn always with this hard gem-like flame. Failure is to form habits. To burn with a gem-like flame is to capture the awareness of each moment; and for that moment only. To form habits is to be absent from those moments. How may we always be present for them?—to garner not the fruits of experience but experience itself?”

This play was another one of my gifts from the holiday season. While not as famous as some of his other works (Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), I’ve found it to be immersive and quite moving. If you’re in the mood for an intellectual and imaginative journey with Mr. Stoppard, this one is a good bet.