Using CNN features to better understand what makes visual artworks special

Anselm Brachmann, Erhardt Barth, Christoph Redies*

*Corresponding author for this work
12 Citations (Scopus)


One of the goal of computational aesthetics is to understand what is special about visual artworks. By analyzing image statistics, contemporary methods in computer vision enable researchers to identify properties that distinguish artworks from other (non-art) types of images. Such knowledge will eventually allow inferences with regard to the possible neural mechanisms that underlie aesthetic perception in the human visual system. In the present study, we define measures that capture variances of features of a well-established Convolutional Neural Network (CNN), which was trained on millions of images to recognize objects. Using an image dataset that represents traditional Western, Islamic and Chinese art, as well as various types of non-art images, we show that we need only two variance measures to distinguish between the artworks and non-art images with a high classification accuracy of 93.0%. Results for the first variance measure imply that, in the artworks, the subregions of an image tend to be filled with pictorial elements, to which many diverse CNN features respond (richness of feature responses). Results for the second measure imply that this diversity is tied to a relatively large variability of the responses of individual CNN feature across the subregions of an image. We hypothesize that this combination of richness and variability of CNN feature responses is one of properties that makes traditional visual artworks special. We discuss the possible neural underpinnings of this perceptual quality of artworks and propose to study the same quality also in other types of aesthetic stimuli, such as music and literature.

Original languageEnglish
Article number830
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Issue numberMAY
Publication statusPublished - 23.05.2017


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