Baby Colin, 11 months old, sits on his mother's lap. Pictures flash up on two computer screens. One is a painting by Mark Rothko. The other is a slightly altered version of the painting – a black line has been removed. On a nearby video monitor, his eyes flick back and forth. But a few seconds later he begins to fidget and fuss. After 10 seconds, a new set of pictures: this time a painting by Joan Miro, next to a darkened version of the same.
Colin is looking at abstract art in the Baby Lab in Seattle Pacific University's School of Psychology, Family, and Community as part of an experiment designed by Ursula Krentz, assistant professor of psychology. By measuring the amount of time Colin looks at each image, Krentz and her undergraduate research assistants can identify which he prefers: original or altered artwork.
The experiment is designed to see how early in life our perceptions of beauty begin. Krentz is interested in the big questions. For instance: How do the arts contribute to what makes us uniquely human?
"Some people say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but some aspects of art are universally pleasing," Krentz says.
Adults asked to compare the original and altered versions of the same works preferred the original works.
And so far, so do the infants.
"I am fascinated by how and when these uniquely human capacities develop," Krentz says. "My study is one little part of trying to answer that huge mystery."
When it comes to the arts, we're often not much different from baby Colin. We know what we like instantly, and may feel bored or exasperated with art we don't understand. So, how can we go deeper with the arts, to better understand what makes us uniquely human?
Response asked people with a deep knowledge of the arts – both those who study them and those who create them – to tell us how to get to know the arts better. These arts experts and artists provide some tips on how to listen, look, understand, enjoy – and even create – a range of art forms.