Washington People: Mark Rollins

Getting art and science to ‘talk’ to one another is all in the game, philosopher Rollins says

Rollins made the connection between science and art in a TEDx talk he gave on campus in March 2014. (Credit: Courtesy image)

For Mark Rollins, PhD, professor of philosophy and chair of the Performing Arts Department (PAD), both in Arts & Sciences, a guiding principle throughout his distinguished career at Washington University in St. Louis has been making connections in the search for answers.
This principle has proved useful in his long list of administrative work for the university and as an educator and researcher whose focus is on making connections between science and art. It also was evident in a March 2014 TEDx talk he gave at Washington University.

“(British scientist and author) C.P. Snow famously said that there are two cultures (science and humanities) that are often thought to have nothing to say to each other,” he said during the presentation. “I think this is completely wrong.”


“Historically, there have been lots of connections: DaVinci studied anatomy and Gallileo wrote critical comparisons of the arts,” Rollins told the audience. “But in your lifetime, there has been the rise of an entirely new science — cognitive science, which is giving us deep insights into the workings of the mind and the brain, and from those insights new connections are emerging between science and art. This has led to a new field: neuroaesthetics, as it has come to be called.”

It is this quest to understand perceptual and cognitive responses to art that lies at the heart of Rollins’ work, and cognitive science is the tool he uses to find answers to philosophical and historical questions, such as what is style in art and why does it change over time?

The key to the riddle of style, Rollins said, lies deep within the visual brain operating unconsciously, where groups of neurons interact. It’s something that he’s been thinking about for some time now, and it is a subject of interest to many people, as evidenced by the popularity of the exhibition, “Art and the Mind/Brain” Rollins curated at the Kemper Art Museum in 2012 and in the continuing positive response by undergraduates who take his class.

Between teaching, chairing the PAD and other administrative responsibilities, Rollins, who earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oklahoma, a master’s at UCLA and his PhD at Columbia University, has little time for writing.

But that’s not stopping him. His upcoming book, “The Strategic Eye: Perception and the Pictorial Arts,” is Rollins’ attempt to explain how humans understand and evaluate works of pictorial art.

“The view I’m developing is that the perceiver’s response to a work of art and the properties of the work that make it aesthetically interesting are best understood in terms of a kind of game-like encounter between the mind of the artist and mind of the perceiver,” Rollins said.

Game-like? Most definitely.

How art taps into our brain

“Artists are often very clever in manipulating the viewer’s initial subconscious response,” Rollins said.

Artists, Rollins said, tap into specialized systems operating in the brain that all humans share, barring brain damage, such as those that contribute to our experience of shape, color, and spatial location. Artists create perceptual and cognitive tasks that challenge the viewer to respond in certain ways, but the viewer’s brain is not simply a blank slate. Through earlier experience, it has developed its own processing strategies.

This sets up a match to be played by the viewer and the artist —

who lives virtually in the pictorial clues, distractions, and competing signals he or she has put in the artwork — as a way of enhancing the viewer’s aesthetic experience.

Where does cognitive science come in?

“There are systems in the brain dedicated to processing light, color and space; but recent evidence suggests that the systems can interact to some extent,” Rollins said. “The outcome of these interactions depends on competition among groups of brain cells, which suggests a mechanism by which the game of art gets played.

“Also, a lot of this happens at a fairly low level in

the early stages of vision; yet it affects aesthetic experience, and that is not how the experience of art is usually understood.

“Finally, while people often prefer styles of pictorial art that are familiar to them, that is not always due to what they know about art history. Rather it depends on links across specialized systems that have been developed in their brains that allow them to quickly recognize what a painting or drawing represents. A viewer may resist a radically new style of art because it is, in that respect, foreign to that person’s brain.”

Part of the fabric of Washington University

Rollins maintains two offices on the Danforth Campus, in the Department of Philosophy’s home in Wilson Hall, and in the PAD suite on the top floor of the Mallinckrodt Center. The offices represent his two academic identities, but playing multiple roles is not a foreign concept for Rollins. During his nearly three decades at Washington University, he has served on or chaired virtually every major academic committee.

Rollins received the Dean’s Award in September 2014 from Barbara Schaal, PhD, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences and the Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor. (Credit: Mary Butkus)

“Committees provide an opportunity to contribute something meaningful and to work with smart and interesting people,” he said, “and I enjoy the challenge of getting people to work together on a common cause.”

And, as a philosopher, he admits he likes a good argument.

He also is an administrative veteran of many departments and programs of the university. Since 1997, when he became director of the Summer School program, Rollins has served as associate dean in both University College and in Arts & Sciences, and as a faculty fellow in the Office of the Provost. He chaired the philosophy department from 2002-10.

Now, in his third year as PAD chair, Rollins finds the work stimulating and seems a bit surprised that some find it odd for him to be involved with performing arts.

“Given my background in visual arts, I had already begun studying film, and it wasn’t much of a stretch to then find connections to theater and dance,” Rollins said. “Also, I believe it is important to acknowledge and clarify the contributions of the arts to education in the research university and to make the most of the rich resources in the performing arts

Last month, Rollins received the Dean’s Leadership Award. “That’s the award they give to someone who can’t say no,” he quipped.

It’s unlikely Rollins will start saying “no” anytime soon. That might constitute a “radical new style of thinking” for Rollins, too foreign a concept to recognize.