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Great works of art are those to which we are compelled to return, and which repay further visits by revealing things we didn’t perceive before. Such artwork is rich in information, and this information tends to be structured (if it was disorganised, it would lack coherent meaning). Artwork like this is complex. My PhD research project investigates complexity as an aspect (or ‘dimension’) of art whose effects have rarely been studied explicitly. The project will focus on the visual complexity of contemporary art, and as such this is a question of aesthetics. This constitutes a field of enquiry that must cover both objective and subjective phenomena involved in perception, therefore external forms and internal percepts, affects and concepts (Deleuze & Guattari 1994) are the objects of study.

Approach to Problems

The few published papers on questions of complexity and visual perception tend to be located in the areas of psychology or neurology, not in the arts. In other words, the subject of my research has thus far been identified as a problem whose answers are to be found through the use of scientific method. It may be said that artists create work in order to elicit a certain response in the mind of the audience. According to the neurologist Semir Zeki, who pioneered the field of neuroesthetics:

It is for this reason that the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. (Zeki 2004)

This is an interesting position, but I don’t agree that aesthetic experiences can only be understood scientifically. In fact, Zeki’s statement that artists effectively act as neuroscientists suggests that an artistic form of activity may offer something different than a scientific approach. Science may be able to explain a phenomenon, but art is able to impart its experience (for example, no explanation of redness can equal the experience of seeing red). It is for this reason that my project will include my own art practice as the basis for one of the research methods that will be employed in addition to the use of scientific method – in this case functional neuroimaging, which will reveal the activity of the brain whilst perceiving images. Both methodologies will be evaluated in terms of their contribution to knowledge. I have experience of scientific work in industry and education, but since I am no specialist in neural imaging, I intend to collaborate with scientists to carry out experiments on perception using fMRI and/or EEG technology.

The artistic and scientific methodologies will be mediated by an analysis of artworks and categorisation in terms of their complexity. In order to do this, I am testing-out content analysis and some of the many different methods of quantifying and qualifying complexity that have been proposed.

Research Questions

  • How does the visual complexity of an artwork affect our aesthetic percepts?
  • What is the role of these aesthetics in the creation of art?
  • Is complexity an unrecognised influence (characteristic?) of grouping amongst the plethora of contemporary artistic styles?
  • If art practice is to be proposed as a valid basis of research, what is the nature of this type of knowledge-production, and on what terms should its validity be constructed?


I have used the word ‘complexity’ in its normal meaning as the opposite of simplicity, but this project will also draw on the work of research in the field of complexity theory, where the word has a more specific meaning that does not equate to ‘complicated-ness’: A jet aircraft is complicated, but an insect is complex. Complexity theory studies dynamic processes or systems that display characteristics such as emergence (‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’) and self-organisation (autopoiesis, Maturana & Varela 1980). The classic examples of complex systems are ants’ nests, the stock market and the brain. In agreement with Niklas Luhmann (2000) I would describe the art world as autopoietic, and so class it as a complex system. Ideas from this multi-disciplinary science are gaining currency beyond its original field, e.g. in business and management, but apart from the methods used by some ‘generative’ artists, they have yet to reach their potential in the world of art.


Aesthetics is now an unfashionable term in the art world, mainly due to the politicisation of art and the post-modern reaction to 19th. century Western ideas of beauty and taste. The post-modernists are right to question the authority of this idea, but I believe that what it refers to is still a significant element of creation and perception in the art of every culture insofar as we share the same cognitive structures. It could be said that the multi-disciplinary complexity theorists share a cognitive structure in their anti-reductionist approach to complex questions – could this approach shed new light on aesthetics?

In this project, aesthetics is identified as the interaction between three ‘sites’ of the image: the artistic practice; the artwork itself; and the audience (see diagram below). Relating to each of these sites, the project comprises three distinct elements: Firstly, my own art practice will form the basis of an investigation into the aesthetics involved in the making of complex artwork, i.e. between sites of the artist and the artwork. Second, my work and other contemporary artwork will be categorised in terms of its aesthetic complexity in order to create a framework of reference for use in describing both the artistic and scientific results. At this early stage in the project, I am thinking of using the technique of content analysis, although the suitability of this methodology is still under question. Lastly, the scientific work aims to provide an objective account of aesthetics ‘in action’ in the perception of individuals.

Art Practice

My art practice will be studied reflexively and some of these artworks will be used for testing in the experiments. Images from the experiments will not be used as a component of my art, because I think it is important to keep the art practice ‘honest’. The relation of my art practice to complexity is that it is by, of and for complexity: I create images by using simple cellular automata programs (i.e. tools from complexity theory); the content of the work is to do with aspects of complexity in the space and time of our reality; and the artwork will be used for testing in the scientific experiments. Is this enough to justify the position of practice as a basis of research in my project? Can an artistic methodology really be used as a tool for knowledge-production that can ‘compete’ with science? And in general, on what terms should practice be proposed as a method of research by institutions? These are questions I hope to answer in this project.

Scientific Method

The practical artistic work will have a dynamic relationship with the scientific investigation into the aesthetics of perception – a second arena of aesthetics between the sites of the artwork and the audience. The basis of a collaboration with a neuroscientist and a physicist has been established. Both are keen to offer their experience with neuroimaging technology to facilitate this research.

A set of patterns will be generated through the use of cellular automata programs. These will be categorised into the four classes of complexity, following Stephen Wolfram’s model (2002), and these categories may be refined as the experiments progress. Using functional neuroimaging techniques, initial experiments will record the neural responses to images. Results will be correlated with measures of preference gathered via interviews or questionnaires. The combined results may then be used to calibrate responses to contemporary artworks in later experiments with the aim of objectively quantifying the perceived complexity of visual art. Subjects of these experiments will include groups of artists and non-artists to determine if there is a difference in response. If time and resources permit, I would also be interested in performing similar experiments to study the differences in neural response to original artwork and (mechanical) reproductions – a test of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘aura’ of handmade artefacts. As is the case with the art practice, it is important to ‘play by the rules of the game’ to allow a fair evaluation.


The outcome of the project will comprise a body of artwork (probably paintings) and a written thesis. The written work will include a literature survey, images and results from the scientific tests, a reflexive account of my art practice, an evaluation of methodologies, and a cohesive review of the theoretical background of the project including applications of complexity theory to art issues.

Diagram of Relations

The diagram below illustrates the relation of the main concepts of the project. The central axis is the Artist-Artwork-Audience process that reflects the three ‘sites’ of the image. Many of these processes (together with processes of marketing and exhibition, for example) make up the art world as a whole, which also functions as the mechanism of feedback to the artist. This structure reflects the conception of the art world as an autopoietic organisation. Dashed boxes denote sites of complexity.


  1. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994). What is philosophy? Colombia University Press: New York.
  2. Luhmann, N. (2000). Art as a social system. Translated by Eva M. Knodt. Stanford University Press: Stanford, Calif.
  3. Maturana, H. R. and Varela, F. J. (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition. D. Reidel: Dordrecht, Holland.
  4. Wolfram, S. (2002). A New Kind of Science. Wolfram Media, Inc.: Champaign, Illinois.
  5. Zeki, S. (2004). "Statement on Neuroesthetics." [online] Wellcome Laboratory of Neurobiology, University College London. Last modified 15 November 2004. Available at Accessed 23/10/2006.

Last modified 18 February 2008 at 1:13 pm by hodie