Magical thinking

On the ever inspiring TED site, I recently viewed the talk ‘The origins of pleasure’ in which Psychologist Paul Bloom investigates our love of art and wonders why we like an original painting better than a forgery.

In his opinion is has to do with the history of the piece of art that somehow enriches our experience. Human beings are essentialists, he claims, and our beliefs about an object interfere with how we experience it. Before we can fully appreciate something, we need to know what it is, who made it, and where it comes from.

I don’t disagree with his theory, but I think that something is missing. Why do we feel betrayed when we discover that we have been looking at a forgery? Not only because our assumptions were wrong, and we are staring at an object with a different, less interesting, history. It’s also because we are magical thinkers.

When I’m standing in front of a painting in a museum and I observe the details from up close, or when I place my hand (when allowed) on a marble statue, I secretly believe that the genius of the artist is still present in his or her work, and that by approaching it, a bit of that genius might jump over to me. An original work of art could therefore inspire us, as a forgery cannot.

But perhaps we have become too rational to admit to this type of thinking. Being an essentialist is much easier to accept.