New open-access paper just published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience:
Redies C (2015) Combining universal beauty and cultural context in a unifying model of visual aesthetic experience. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 9:218. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00218
In this work, I propose a model of visual aesthetic experience that combines formalist and contextual aspects of aesthetics. The model distinguishes between two modes of processing. First, perceptual processing is based on the intrinsic form of an artwork, which may or may not be beautiful. If it is beautiful, a beauty-responsive mechanism is activated in the brain. This bottom–up mechanism is universal amongst humans; it is widespread in the visual brain and responsive across visual modalities. Second, cognitive processing is based on contextual information, such as the depicted content, the intentions of the artist or the circumstances of the presentation of the artwork. Cognitive processing is partially top–down and varies between individuals according to their cultural experience. Processing in the two channels is parallel and largely independent. In the general case, an aesthetic experience is induced if processing in both channels is favorable, i.e., if there is resonance in the perceptual processing channel (“aesthetics of perception”), and successful mastering in the cognitive processing channel (“aesthetics of cognition”). I speculate that this combinatorial mechanism has evolved to mediate social bonding between members of a (cultural) group of people. Primary emotions can be elicited via both channels and modulate the degree of the aesthetic experience. Two special cases are discussed. First, in a subset of (post-)modern art, beauty no longer plays a prominent role. Second, in some forms of abstract art, beautiful form can be enjoyed with minimal cognitive processing. The model is applied to examples of Western art. Finally, implications of the model are discussed. In summary, the proposed model resolves the seeming contradiction between formalist perceptual approaches to aesthetic experience, which are based on the intrinsic beauty of artworks, and contextual approaches, which account for highly individual and culturally dependent aspects of aesthetics.