Ellen Winner, Professor of Psychology, on Picasso’s Head of a Woman.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
EW I love this sculpture because it’s so beautiful. It is also puzzling why anyone would find this beautiful, and this intrigues me. If you saw this face coming towards you while walking down the street you’d want to turn away from someone so distorted – almost grotesque. But one of the things that makes this sculpture able to be beautiful is that it’s not done in a realistic fashion. Contrast this to a portrait by Lucian Freud who painted distorted faces in a fairly realistic style – so that we feel we are looking at a real person with a grotesque face. I do not ever find a Lucian Freud painting beautiful. With the Picasso, the forms are simplified and abstracted, which tell you straight away that this isn’t what the person really looked like. Then you can focus on the form themselves, the way they’re so rounded and the way they repeat themselves contrasts with the linear graceful form of the next. And there’s something about the texture; you can almost see that Picasso’s touch is there.
GB So you’re an essentialist?
EW That’s right. I believe we respond to art works as if they contain something of the artist’s essence (or mind).
GB There are over 200 interviews for Gilded Birds now and no one has chosen a Picasso. Does that surprise you?
EW I did notice that some people said they didn’t choose art because it seemed obvious. You can look at anything with an aesthetic attitude. Ned Block chose a pair of pliers and I can see why – the ones he chose have a beautiful simple form. I chose the Picasso because it makes me wonder how we can find something beautiful when in real life we would find a face like this horrifying.
GB Would you still find it beautiful if you found out it was a fake?
EW This is something we have thought about in my Arts and Mind Lab. We seem to be able to separate our beauty judgments from how important we think a work of art is. We showed people two identical images, one labelled a copy and one an original, and asked people to rate the copy on a variety of dimensions relative to the original. People found these two images equally beautiful. How could they not since they were identical? But people found the original (totally identical) as more innovative. So, the fake may be equally beautiful, but I don’t want to look at it. When we look at an artwork we are communing with the artist. We don’t want to commune with a copier or a forger. If the master didn’t make it, it loses its appeal.
GB Supposing it was by an artist other than Picasso? Does knowing it’s by a famous artist affect your view of the beauty?
EW I might not be able to say the painting became less beautiful if I found out that someone after Picasso made it. But I would feel less interested in it. I would see it as made by a lesser mind because it is derivative. Just think about the cave paintings. One of the things that makes the experience of looking at them so powerful is to think about who made them and when. If we saw similar images made today, we might find them pleasing, but there would not be so astonishing.
GB Do you think Picasso was aiming for beauty when he made it?
EW Probably. I find all of his works beautiful. I think he was aiming for beauty in the forms and I think he was aiming to capture the beauty of this woman, who I think was one of his many lovers. It does capture something about this woman’s inner and outer beauty. Look at the mouth, slightly smiling. It’s so sensitive, the way it’s shaped. I love the contrast of the linear eye with the big, rounded forms.
GB How would you feel if Picasso had told all his lovers that this one was of them?
EW He may well have! That raises the issue of whether or not the morality of the artist affects the work. In the New York Times today, there was a story about Hitler’s paintings being sold in Germany for a lot of money. If you know that a work of art was produced by somebody who was morally repugnant, my guess is that it makes you feel a little disgusted, looking at the image. I would not want to own it, or look at it. Picasso wasn’t morally evil in the sense of belonging to hate groups. But he might be considered personally immoral due to how he treated the women in his life. I would separate that kind of immorality from belonging to a hate group. My guess is that we forgive genius creators for being terrible spouses and parents (unless we are the spouse or the child!!), but we couldn’t forgive them if we found out they were a guard in a concentration camp. The really interesting question is, do you start to see their evilness in the work? Does it become contaminated?
GB Can we talk about aesthetic distance? You talk about it a lot in your book. When people perceive something to be a work of art, they look at it with a different attitude. But beauty is different because it applies to all sorts of things that aren’t art.
EW Aesthetic distance is a concept much discussed by the philosopher, Kant. When we look at a work of art (like the Picasso head) we know we are looking at something that is not “real” and has no “real-life implications” for us. This gives us distance. This is what allows us to focus on the flow of the forms rather than to think of this as a realistic representation of a person with a distorted face. So, we can adopt aesthetic distance towards a pair of Wellington boots by attending to their form rather than their function and practical use. I am pretty sure I’m right when I say that humans are the only species that steps back and adopts an aesthetic attitude towards objects. Chimps may make paintings when given paint brushes, but I doubt they step back and look at their works, and decide when they are finished.
GB It seems that with beauty there’s a large part of the response that’s emotional.
EW When we see something we find beautiful we feel moved. And the feeling of being moved is a powerful emotional experience. But note that we can also learn to find things beautiful. Think of how the Impressionists were initially reviled, how Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ was at first hated, and now many of us feel moved by the beauty in these works. So it’s not always an automatic positive emotional response. Much depends on what we become used to, what we find acceptable in art.
GB When I read your book, I was really surprised to learn that there are certain structures that we see in art that convey emotions that we can’t help but see.
EW Yes. The phenomenon of visual forms (whether in nature or art) expressing emotions has been investigated by psychologists such as Rudolf Arnheim, Heinz Werner, and Charles Osgood (inventor of the “Semantic Differential” scale), among others. Simple visual stimuli connote (rather than denote) certain kinds of feelings (agitated, excited, or angry for jagged lines, depression for downward moving lines, energy for upward moving lines, positive valence for bright colors, etc.). These have been investigated cross-culturally and appear to have some universality. Just like with music there is a universal perception of fast tempo as more positive and energetic than slow tempo, loud tones as more energetic than quite tones, etc.
GB And even a computer can be trained to recognise these forms?
EW Yes, showing that there are clear physical differences that separate forms that convey for example, high versus low arousal.
GB Does this lead you to believe that there’s such a thing as objective beauty?
EW I would like to be able to say that there is and that some works of art are more beautiful than others but it’s very difficult to prove this kind of claim. In terms of beauty, there is so much cultural variability. Look at the changing ways in which female beauty was portrayed from the Middle Ages onwards. Evolutionary psychologists find a few principles that are universally pleasing in the female body, like the waist-hip ratio, or in the human face, like symmetry, but so many movie stars who are considered beautiful have faces that are slightly irregular. You can come up with rules for what makes something harmonious but not for what makes something beautiful.
GB In your book, you talk about reactions to the grotesque. It’s interesting that it’s possible to find beauty in the grotesque.
EW I think that’s possible only if you’re looking at it as art. I saw a dead, mangled squirrel on the sidewalk the other day and I felt an immediate sense of disgust, and I looked away. But then I thought about paintings of corpses and how we might gaze at these paintings without a desire to look away. Aristotle said that we get great pleasure from understanding, which is why we want to look at pictures of things like corpses. It would seem perverse to find a real dead squirrel beautiful, but when you’re looking at a work of art or a painting it’s okay to savour what could have been horrifying.
GB Can you remember the first time you ever saw this Picasso and break down how much of your reaction was emotional or intellectual?
EW I think my first reaction was an emotional sense of beauty. I had an immediate gut reaction, then I had to analyse why I found it so beautiful. There’s something about that mouth and the eye and the way the nose turns into the forehead. I could eat it up, it’s so beautiful.
GB This is a difficult question. Do you find it more beautiful than the Picassoesque picture by your son that you reproduced in your book?
EW I love my son’s picture because it’s charming and I love children’s art but I do prefer the Picasso. Picasso once said. “I used to paint like Raphael and it’s taken me my whole life to learn to draw like a child.” If you look at his childhood drawings, they are very typical of gifted children. They’re very realistic. Children who are gifted at art master how to draw things then go back to abstraction.
GB Do you ever feel that your work on art takes some of the mystery out of it and therefore some of its beauty?
EW When I was an English major in college people told me not to analyse poetry or it would lose its beauty. I think it helps you see the beauty.
GB Do you think that beauty gives us a sense of wellbeing?
EW Yes certainly! Yesterday morning I was taking a walk with my husband around a pond and the pink light on it was stunningly beautiful. I remember saying that it was making my headache go away.
GB You quote some of the neuroscience on art. How do you feel about that whole field?
EW I think that the neuroscience of art often teaches us more about the brain than about art. But here is an example of a neuroscientific investigation of art that tells us something about art: when people find a work of visual art moving, the default mode network of the brain is activated, and that area is known to be related to introspection. If this is borne out, this would tell us that when we are moved by art, it resonates with us personally and causes us to introspect. That’s interesting!
GB Have you ever cried in front of an artwork?
EW No I haven’t. And I’ve really tried. Works of visual art (unlike music) rarely even make me feel sad. I can walk into a James Turrell space or a Gothic cathedral and feel that it’s powerful or transcendent, but it doesn’t make me sad. I haven’t cried to music either, though I admit to feeling sad when for example I listen to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”
GB Do you care if other people find your Picasso beautiful or not?
EW I would like them to find it beautiful and I would try to convince them that it was beautiful. I wouldn’t be angry if they didn’t, I would just think that they were missing something.
GB Would you think less of them?
EW If someone I cared about said that he (or she) hated Picasso or hated Mozart, I would be upset, and yes I might well think less of them. What you love is part of your identity. I want someone to whom I feel close to share my aesthetic. If someone I did not care about had such dislikes, I would probably think less of them but not be particularly upset. I know this makes me sound like a hopeless snob.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
EW Beauty is very different from prettiness or pleasantness. Let me steal from my husband’s (Howard Gardner’s) definition of beauty in his book Truth Beauty and Goodness Reframed. He talks about beauty as an experience, and says that beautiful experiences are interesting, they are memorable in form, and we want to repeat them. I think the Picasso head fits all three of these criteria.
Read Professor Winner’s book, How Art Works
And her website is here.