Science helps us understand many things in this world, but can it teach us about Art? Last month Scientific American reported a study by physicist Haroldo Ribeiro indicating that pixels, the tiniest part of paintings, can unravel the secrets of their greatness.

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Pixels,” you may remember, was also the title of a 2015 science fiction movie - the stuff of H.G. Wells and speculative fiction. Is that what Ribeiro's research is - speculation?

Gentlemen's agreement

No, says a University of Texas professor of arts and technology, Maximilian Schich. The Scientific American report quotes him saying, “You could say, 'Yeah, that's too simple – it doesn't explain all of the painting.' But it's research that is valuable.” In what way? He didn't say.

The Avenue, Middleharnis by Meindert Hobbema [Image source: National Gallery of London]
The Avenue, Middleharnis by Meindert Hobbema [Image source: National Gallery of London]

Casting doubt

How can a pixel parse a painting known to speak to people who talk in different languages, even those separated by centuries? Understanding art, interpreting it, isn't the business of science. It's personal. The art experience is a human one, not a technological feat. Consider Hieronymus Bosch's painting The Millennium, circa 1450.

What computers can't do

The Millennium is a picture of Hell, a subject that haunted people in the Middle Ages.

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It was their nightmare. But what Bosch painted was his anger against the injustices of his time, the greed, and the lies. He pictured giant ears to signal those who will not listen to the truth. But he gave us more than a rant. He gave us a silent symphony of color. He gave us art. Pixels can't track such music.

The human factor

Most of all, pixels can't interpret the most important part of art appreciation – individual reaction, the personal view.

The 17th-century Dutch landscape painting The Avenue, Middleharnis by Meindert Hobbema illustrates the point. While it appears to be an easy read for pixels, they're sure to miss the point. On the surface, the Avenue is a picture of balance, of shapes, shade, and color. It's so balanced, it can come across as mechanical.

Picture perfect

What you see is a long empty road on a coastal town in the Netherlands lined on either side with towering trees on spindly trunks.

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One side of the avenue is like the other, with an equal weight of all the picture parts. The central perspective – creating the deep illusion of distance – was an invention based on mathematics. So you'd think that Hobbema's painting would be a cinch for pixels to analyze. But something else is going on in the painting that computers can't recognize - the human experience, how one sees a painting.

Second look

Interpretation is an individual thing.

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To me, the Avenue gives off an ominous air because of the toothpick-like trees look so fragile that you imagine a brisk wind would topple them. Pixels wouldn't understand. Even art historian Kenneth Clark spoke of the personal view in his encyclopedic Book "Civilization." As he traced the history of humankind, he allowed that his understanding was from an individual perspective. If one can't talk about civilization without involving the first person, how can pixels explain art?

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