Scientists claim that beautiful paintings can induce pure pleasure in the beholder.
So that’s why I always feel so good after visiting London’s National Gallery. A scientific study claims to have shown that beautiful paintings produce the same brain activity we feel when we see someone we love: biologically, great art is pure joy. It’s nice to have scientific confirmation of something I already knew.
Recently I took a Slovenian journalist, who specialises in reporting from trouble spots such as Gaza and Sudan, to see some of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery. He commented on how moving it was to see all this beauty, all these noble peaks of human achievement, compared with the horrors and violence he spends a lot of time thinking about. He was in London on a flying visit – during which he also tried various drugs – but (and I want you to picture me as a clergyman here) you know, I think Titian’s Noli Me Tangere touched him more deeply than those horse tranquillizers.
I find great art so uplifting that if I have not seen any first-rate works of art for a few days I notice the difference in my mood. So I know I am lucky to live in London with its great free museums. The National Gallery is most effective because it is full of the kinds of art the researchers say are most innately pleasurable – they recorded especially high pleasure hits from paintings by Constable, Ingres, and Guido Reni.
They would be wrong to assume that modern art cannot produce sheer bliss: James Turrell’s art can transport you to a psychedelic heaven. Still, the old masters are so luscious. I would personally say Titian has to be one of the most pleasure-inducing of all artists, but that is probably because I am currently looking at his work a lot and tuned into him. But this brings us to a potential problem with the study. It ignores the cultural equipment and contexts in which someone responds to a work of art. The researchers say they deliberately tested people with little knowledge of art so as to get reactions unmediated by fashion or ideology. But in practice, the pleasure of art is shaped by your reasons for looking at it, the ideas and experience you bring to it – even the receptive or unreceptive mood you are in.
In spite of that objection I cannot dismiss findings that so closely match my own autobiographical knowledge. I think the pleasure of paintings is vastly enhanced or damaged by what you know or think you know, and how you look at them. But I also know that a couple of hours in a museum of great art can be intoxicating and ecstatic beyond belief. If it got out how much bliss I get from going to galleries no one would pay me to write about art. They would make me pay them. So essentially I think this research rings true.
Was David Cameron serious about making happiness a political issue? If so, someone in government should think about the sheer joy that art brings. The free museums and galleries of Britain are temples of happiness, founts of joy. Do yourself a favour and spend time in them. The feeling will hit you after a while and it is unbeatable.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010