I have been reading an interesting paper in which some researchers from the University of Oxford scanned the brains of people using fMRI while they were looking at paintings.
Now we have to be a little careful here. FMRI is a technique that shows which areas of the brain are most active, and there are correlations between brain regions and certain tasks that the brain carries out, but caution is needed before too many conclusions are drawn.
These paintings were by Rembrandt. Well, some of them were by the master, and some were what is known as ‘school of Rembrandt’. In the old days, famous artists would have students working for them, and it is quite hard to tell if a certain painting was by Rembrandt himself, or was by one of his students, or was a clever forgery. Experts have been busy authenticating these works, and many have been declared school of Rembrandt, which is annoying if you own one and it’s no longer worth tens of millions of pounds.
In these experiments, subjects were given some information about Rembrandt, and told that some of the paintings they were seeing would be genuine, and some not. If they were not told which was which, they couldn’t tell the difference. Their brain responses were pretty much the same. If they were told a picture was genuine or not, this did change their responses. For a fake, they seemed to be working hard examining the painting for clues to why it might not be genuine. For the real thing, they had some activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region associated with reward. The information they received changed their relationship with the painting. Authenticity – or, rather, knowledge of authenticity – matters.
In this case, the art object itself doesn’t contain within it all that is necessary for its full appreciation.
Now wine isn’t art, but it is subject to aesthetic appraisal. Similarly to a painting by a great master like Rembrandt, wine in itself doesn’t contain everything that is needed for it to fully be appreciated. If you have never drunk wine before, and you are given a glass of a great wine, you might enjoy it, but you won’t be able to appreciate it fully. Blind tasting is useful and important, but you can’t make a full aesthetic appraisal of a wine if you taste it blind. A great wine needs to be drunk sighted for it to be appreciated properly.
Going back to paintings: imagine you could reproduce a painting to the extent that a group of viewers couldn’t distinguish the genuine from the copy. If this information is withheld from them, and they believe that the copy is genuine, then they can make a full aesthetic appraisal of the copy, and appreciate it fully. But if they are told that it is a copy, or even that there is a 50/50 chance they are viewing the copy, suddenly they are no longer able to appreciate the picture before them fully. If you were to open a gallery consisting of perfect copies of famous works, would it be a success? No, because people value authenticity.
Wine needs to be authentic. We need to know where it has come from, and trust that it was made honestly. If you could synthesize a wine that is an exact copy of a famous wine to the degree that professionals couldn’t tell the difference, would you pay the same for the synthetic wine? No, it wouldn’t even be close in value. Authentic wine has a connection with a time and a place. There is more to wine that just the liquid in the glass.