A surprising question posted on Arts Journal’s daily newsletter last week came with surprising answers from an array of experts as if the question was never asked or answered.
The question posted: “Can You Actually Get High From Looking At Art?… Can it cause a chemical change in our body? Can it affect our perception of reality? Can it serve as a stimulant, a hallucinogenic, a depressant, or anything that mimics these effects?”
Paddy Johnson, art critic, curator, founder and editor of Art F City, doesn’t think so: “I guess you could get high on a very wet painting or some sort of experiential-based art work that required viewers to take drugs. But generally speaking the answer is no.”
Dr. Elena Agudio, Berlin-based art historian and curator, curator for Association of Neuroesthetics impugned whatever she had to say by beginning her answer this way: “I don’t think a work of art is essentially something aesthetic, I’m not interested in the beauty of the artwork.”
In contrast, Christopher Tyler, Visual neuroscientist, head of Smith-Kettlewell Brain Imaging Center, professed that looking at art caused him to look at the rest of the world in a different way: “I go into a state of appreciation for these artworks that convey different senses, emotions, different empathetic complexes or aesthetic experience somehow, then I go outside and it seems like everything I look at is an artwork…In that sense, you have an altered state of consciousness from going to an art gallery.”
But whether these experts answered yea or nay, none seemed to know that the question was already answered 198 years ago. Sensory reaction to art was recorded in 1817 when Henri-Marie Beyle (penname Stendhal), known as “France’s last great psychologist,” wrote how he was bowled over on seeing Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence: “I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
The vibes he experienced were named after him – “the Stendhal Syndrome” – by Dr. Graziella Magherini, Italian psychiatrist in 1989, who described similar symptoms – even fainting – in 106 tourists stretchered to hospitals after looking at art in Florence.
Subsequent studies have demonstrated that visiting an art museum anywhere, not just in Florence, can be an emotional experience affecting both brain activity and heart rates. The Smithsonian noted a study of ten people asked to focus on Adam’s wrist in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting “Expulsion from Paradise,” which shows Adam attempting to keep an angel’s sword at bay by bending back his wrist.
Monitoring brain activity, researchers saw that Adam’s wrist action stimulated the part of the cortex that controls the viewers’ own wrists; “Just the sight of the raised wrist causes an activation of the muscle,” reports David Friedberg, the Columbia University art history professor who worked on the study.
Then there was a team of researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland who placed special gloves that measure physiological responses on 373 visitors perusing the halls of Kunstmuseum St. Galen, a Swiss museum that collects paintings by artists like 19th century Expressionist Edvard Munch. The visitors also answered a questionnaire that demonstrated racing hearts were part of their experience.
But even if you don’t know the latest research into the art experience, there can be no excuse for an art or psychology expert not knowing about the Stendhal Syndrome. Something Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park” famously said applies here: “If you don’t know history, you are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” The experts cited by the Arts Journal’s newsletter are like those leaves, unconnected to a tree – in their case to the tree of common knowledge.