Anatomical realism in art starts with the Classical Greeks (1). As put by the art historian Martin Robinson, the Classical Greeks innovated the portrayal of the 'rhythms of the living body — taut and relaxed muscles, straight and bent limbs –instead of the anatomical surface-patterns [of the earlier Archaic Greeks]' (1). Why they started this is a mystery.
The recent finding that the motor cortex engages in perception (2-4), however, sheds light upon this problem. Evidence comes from various sources that the motor cortex not only executes actions but sees them.
• Neurons in the F5 premotor cortex in monkeys discharge both when performing a hand action and also when seeing the same action done by another monkey or their experimenter (2).
• The patterns of motor evoked potentials in people's hand muscles during an action are also evoked by transcranial stimulation when people look at the same action done by another (3).
• PET imaging detects activation in the caudal part of the left inferior frontal gyrus of the motor cortex when people look at hand actions (4).
• This link between motor action and perception also applies to the movements of facial expressions: similar electromyographic (EMG) activations occur when people look at facial expressions as when they make them (5).
This link between perception and the motor cortex, changes how we understand the aesthetic of ana- tomical realism. Presently, realism is understood in terms of artists' capturing visual likeness — and thus surface similarity. The above research opens up the possibility that realism might also result from artists' capturing the motor look (through accurately repre- senting its muscle tautness and pose) of a body in action (or state of rest). Thus while Archaic Greek and other artists might have sought to stimulate the look of a body as recognized by the viewer's visual cortex, Classical Greek artists went further and sought to stimulate the viewer's motor cortex and so give them a sensation of a living body. It was to do this that they learnt how to detail the body not only in surface terms (as before) but also anatomical ones and what art historians call the 'rhythms of the living body'.
This proposal makes a strong prediction. If Classical Greek artists, but not Archaic ones, sought realism which activated the motor cortex, then their works should also activate the motor cortex of modem viewers. This should be detectable with fMRI or PET brain scanners by comparing brain activation in response to Archaic and Classical works.
One would further predict that good artists (both ancient and modem) discover ways to heighten the sensation of movement in a body and so the activation of the motor cortex. Thus anatomical real works should stimulate it even more than real bodies. For instance, most of us are familiar with how the work of Auguste Rodin heightens the sensation of move- ment and posture. I would predict the greater a work gives this aesthetic sense, the greater it activates the motor cortex. The recent discovery that the motor cortex engages in perception therefore could be important, not only for research into the nature of aesthetics and the history of art but also into motor perception and the functions of the motor cortex.
1. M. Robinson. In: The History of Art Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1975), p. 175.
2. G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, V. Galese and L. Fogassi, Premotor cortex and the recognition of motor actions. Cogn Brain Res 3 (1996), pp. 131–141.
3. L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, G. Pavesi and G. Rizzolatti, Motor facilitation during action observation. J Neurophysiol 73 (1995), pp. 2608–2611.
4. U. Dimberg, Facial reactions to facial expressions. Psychophysiology 19 (1982), pp. 643–647.
5. G. Rizzolatti, L. Fadiga, M. Matelli et al., Localization of grasp representation in humans by PET, 1: Observation versus execution. Exp Brain Res 111 (1996), pp. 246–252.
Medical Hypotheses 51 1998 69-70 doi:10.1016/S0306-9877(98)90257-2