"The interesting thing about kitsch is that it often looks like art," explains Ramachandran. "But it's not art, because it doesn't trigger the same intensity of feeling." He suggests that while kitsch often relies on the same tricks as great art—universal principles such as the peak-shift effect and the peekaboo principle—these tricks aren't as well executed. "Anybody can learn these visual rules," he says. "But you still need talent and training in order to turn them into fine art."
Attempts to define art are nothing new. But Ramachandran is seeking to define it from the perspective of the brain, and he's in the midst of a brain-imaging experiment he believes will help. Subjects lie in an fMRI machine and view examples of kitsch—art objects ridiculed for their shallowness or sentimentality—as well as fine art, like the canvases that hang in museums. A Christmas lawn ornament of Santa Claus might be juxtaposed with a Michelangelo sculpture; an image from a Hallmark card might be compared to a Rembrandt painting. By measuring brain activity, Ramachandran hopes to find out why visual stimuli that seem so superficially similar can generate such different aesthetic reactions.
This is Your Brain on Picasso 10 Perceptual Principles of Great Art
PEAK SHIFT: We find deliberate distortions of a stimulus even more exciting than the stimulus itself—which is why cartoon caricatures grab our attention.
GROUPING: It feels nice when the distinct parts of a picture can be grouped into a pattern or form. The brain likes to find the signal amid the noise.
BALANCE: Successful art makes use of its entire representational space, and spreads its information across the entire canvas.
CONTRAST: Because of how the visual cortex works, it's particularly pleasing for the brain to gaze at images rich in contrast, like thick black outlines or sharp angles—or, as in the geometric art of Mondrian, both at once.
ISOLATION: Sometimes less is more. By reducing reality to its most essential features—think a Matisse that's all bright color and sharp silhouettes—artists amplify the sensory signals we normally have to search for.
PERCEPTUAL PROBLEM SOLVING: Just as we love solving crossword puzzles, we love to "solve" abstract paintings such as cubist still lifes or Cézanne landscapes.
SYMMETRY: Symmetrical things, from human faces to Roman arches, are more attractive than asymmetrical ones.
REPETITION, RHYTHM, ORDERLINESS: Beauty is inseparable from the appearance of order. Consider the garden paintings of Monet. Pictures filled with patterns, be it subtle color repetitions or formal rhythms, appear more elegant and composed.
GENERIC PERSPECTIVE: We prefer things that can be observed from multiple viewpoints, such as still lifes and pastoral landscapes, to the fragmentary perspective of a single person. They contain more information, making it easier for the brain to deduce what's going on.
METAPHOR: Metaphor encourages us to see the world in a new way: Two unrelated objects are directly compared, giving birth to a new idea. Picasso did this all the time—he portrayed the bombing of Guernica, for example, with the imagery of a bull, a horse, and a lightbulb.