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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