There are a range of cliches that hover around the art world. A Jackson Pollock painting that "my kid could have done". Or a urinal that is just a urinal, regardless of whether an artist tries to suggest otherwise.
As it turns out, that suggestion is important in how we perceive images. A recent pilot study run by neuroscientists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, Holland, has shown that our emotional response to an image will vary according to whether we are told that it's reality or art.
If we are led to believe that we are seeing reality, our emotional reaction is stronger. If it's called art, we stay calmer. Makes sense: most people would react far more viscerally to a photograph of nine-year-old Kim Phúc running naked from a napalm attack than to Edvard Munch's The Scream. Horrific reality should affect us more than a posited horror, and it seems very human to be moved more by real joy than a fictional depiction of happiness.
Lead researcher Noah van Dongen believes that the study shows that Immanuel Kant was on the right track about appreciating art: "Kant’s two century old theory of aesthetics, where he proposed that we need to emotionally distance ourselves from the artwork in order to be able to properly appreciate it, might have a neurological basis," which in turn means "that art could useful in our quest to understand our brain, emotions, and maybe our cognition.”
But, as The Guardian's Jonathan Jones reminds us, that emotional distance is not a complete severance: reacting with less urgency is simply not the same as remaining cold and emotionless. Anyone who has ever lost their sense of time in front of a sculpture or a painting will tell you that art can evoke strong emotions, and while they may be of a different nature to the emotions we feel toward real images, they help us figure out how we feel about that world. Art, when it is successful, is about more than fulfilling a 'This Is Good Art' checklist; it takes us a step away from our world in order to deposit us back with an enhanced sense of where we stand in it, and that is a powerful emotional journey.