What is neuroaesthetics about anyway?

This post was originally written in 2006 by Simon Barthelmé and published on the Alphapsy blog.

Martin Skov's Brainethics has a very nice post introducing bioaesthetics, a field that endeavours to use "neuroscience to understand art and aesthetic behaviour". I'd like to take this opportunity to jump up on my soapbox and ask, what exactly do we want biology (or neuroscience) to say about art ? What are the questions that biology can hope to answer and art history or aesthetics cannot ?

Titian, Venus Anadyomene

Is that your amygdala lighting up ? Painting by Titian, Venus Anadyomene. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh



That may seem like a strange question to ask on a blog that is largely devoted to explaining how the cognitive sciences are relevant to the humanities (which I don't doubt as a general statement, although I often find the particulars disappointing). So here's my gut feeling : neuroaesthetics might be a bit premature, and even border on disciplinary imperialism (ie, yet another attempt to invade the rightful territory of some other discipline).



Let me explain. Most of what I've read of neuroscientists or psychologists writing about art (mostly the visual arts, music is another issue) has struck me as either simplistic or obvious. I seem to find more insights about art in phenomenological or historical accounts by E.H. Gombrich or D. Arasse, or even in the overwrought and pompous prose of Elie Faure, than in anything Ramachandran has to say about the topic – although I respect him immensely for his work in the neuroscience of perception.

One telling sign of disciplinary imperialism is when people simply ignore the really hard questions. Here's a quote from the post on Brainethics :"Much debate on "the nature" of art takes its departure from wholly theoretical considerations of what features define art. From a biological perspective it is much more interesting to know what people actually do when they create of experience art.".

There is of course a point when endless quarrels about theoretical issues start to paralyse a field. But a minimum requirement in a case like this is, at least, to acknowledge that we're setting out to study a complex, socially embedded, multidimensional phenomena. Maybe another useful step would be to start by limiting oneself to clear cut-cases of art (Renaissance painting, for example) rather than try to embrace "artistic behaviour" in general – whatever that is.

So, before we start sticking people into the scanner to contrast the parts of the brain that light up when they look at a Boticelli vs. a picture of their step mum, we could begin by asking ourselves exactly what we want our science to say about art.

When we do so, we also have to be modest about what we know and what we can hope to bring to the field. Some people have devoted their lives to understanding a particular artist or historical period and here we go barging in when we don't even understand exactly what V1 does or if that fusiform area really is specific to faces.

I'm completely open to changing my mind. If readers could point me to recent examples of neuroaesthetics research that really bring something new to the table, I'd love to be proven wrong.

Olivier Morin commented on this post: "OK I bite the bullett: I can't think of any piece of work in neuroaesthetics that would fulfill your requirements, nor am I satisfied with what parades as neuroaestetics right now. But is that sufficient to throw away the whole project and go back to old school aesthetics? No!

Your main argument is that neuroaesthetics does not take into account the various quibbles about the real definition of art. To me, on the contrary, that is a perfectly commendable attitude. Beginning from scratch, starting from what artists do and what art does to a human mind, is a great idea in a field so dismally disfigured by endless debates on the essence of art, on the irreducible specificity of such painter's style… and I concur with Martin Svok on this point.

Second point: aesthetics is precisely not the rightful territory of art historians! As a whole corpus of philosophical writings has made clear, official art is not all that there is to aesthetic pleasure. For example Kant's 3d critique, hailed after Hegel as the first book in art theory, in fact barely mentions painting or sculpting. In fact, it is doubtful whether aesthetics is about art at all (that's a mistake that neuroaesthetics also commits, though).

As for Elie Faure… the mere fact that our non french readers wonder who you're talking about proves that he did not stand the test of time."

Simon Barthelmé's reply: First, let's get Elie Faure out of the way. As I said, I find his prose annoyingly pompous and his History of Art contains 10 sentencious opinions for every factual statement. However, every once in a while, he actually has something interesting to say about an artist. That said, I won't advise anyone to read his books.

Second, my main argument is not that neuroaesthetics does not "take into account the various quibbles about the real definition of art". My fault for expressing myself badly. My main argument is that the least you can do when you purport to take on a subject a lot of people, some vastly more intelligent than you, have studied for millenia, is to show some modesty. Modesty, to me, involves not going about claiming that your deep knowledge of the brain has allowed you to come up with a list of 9 criteria that define art, as Ramachandran did. This is ridiculous.

Although, there is, as I understand, some legitimate concern over whether a New Guinean tapa constitutes art in the same way a Jackson Pollock does. The mental processes involved in producing or looking at the two works may not have anything interesting in common, and will vary a lot according to cultural context (such as hanging a piece of tapa in a Western museum).

The existence of an implicit scale of the sciences makes some forms of disciplinary invasion more tolerable than others. We'd find ludicrous for a sociologist to come and tell us what he thinks is going in V1, the LGN, or some other brain area. We tolerate physicists telling us what we really need is to learn some statistical physics, because they're physicists, right ? They're the next thing to God, so we call it interdisciplinarity.

Let me restate this : the least you can do is to show some respect for the people whose intellectual territory you're about to invade. And even that does not guarantee success. There's a book about art and neuroscience by Jean-Pierre Changeux called Raison et Plaisir (don't know it it's been translated). Changeux does know about neuroscience of course, and also a lot about 17th century painting. The interesting bits in the book are about the latter. He completely fails to connect the two.

I'm still waiting for someone to succeed.

Olivier Morin wrote: "Now, I have found what disturbs me about your point of view: it's not your scepticism towards N-aesthetics, which I share. It's about your view of interdisciplinarity. As do the people who never try to make it work seriously, you view it as some kind of conquest war, one arrogant discipline trying to take over the "rightful territory" of a defenseless field in the humanities. Being myself a greedy cognitive anthropologist trying to "invade" the unapproachable kingdoms of the Humanities, I hear that a lot.

To me, interdisciplinarity is not about invading disciplines, it is about creating new fields of interest. The psychology of art is a case in point: there is very little reflection in art history on what makes a painting "catchy". The hermeneutic turn and the neglect of values in the social sciences has made the topic of "beauty", and the psychology that goes with it, a desert field in the social sciences.

Meanwhile, a rich tradition in the philosophy of aesthetics (which, may I remind you, is not necessarily the philosophy of art) has concerned itself with these questions; but this tradition is mainly interested in the philosophy of fictions, functions, emotions, realism about values, etc. So the psychology of art per se was not a priority.

The psychology of art is a forsaken field, so no one gets hurt when neuroscientists try, however clumsily, to reawaken it. Everyone benefits from this attempt. The previous achievements in aesthetics are not so awesome that one should shudder to challenge them.

Could social scientists just stop being so territorial about their subject-matter? The notion of art is no one's property! Ideas belong to those who use them for the better."

Emmanuelle Glon wrote: "When sociologists began to “invade” the area of scientific disciplines, nobody, at least in a well established postmodern atmosphere of the so-called “humanities”, would say that this invading organism is illegitimate (at least in my knowledge). It seems that any similar attempt from the scientific disciplines to invest (or “invade”) something other that their current topics is by contrast suspicious and necessarily reductionistic and simplistic. For many people in fact, “hard sciences”, and especially neuroscience, are just not compatible with humanities’ research interests. It is simply all or nothing. Unfortunately indeed, the last famous attempt to judge art in the light of biology comes from Nazis! It is something we have to live with, and however not explicitly formulated as such, “mine de rien”, the issue at stake is strongly ideologically charged, and is still lying behind many discussions about the potential relevance of cognitive sciences for understanding, quite modestly indeed, art processes.

Moreover, what seems to prevent the interdisciplinary turn from becoming a fruitful source of insights in the field of aesthetics and art theory is the residual Romantism of the academic life in artistic domains: art is above all of us, little human entities as we are, and above all what we can imagine (as Simon means by “(…) some vastly more intelligent than you, have studied for millenia, is to show some modesty.”) It appears that arts experts follows the same golden way. Our societies are indeed full of artistic geniuses who have given us icons such as Mona Lisa, the Sistine Chapel and so on which are sometimes printed on our T-shirts. Even Marcel Duchamps whose work is all but a subversive way of thinking about Big Art and Canons became ironically one of these patrimonial VIPs. By the way, Ramachandran is perhaps the most “noisy” neurologist interested by arts but certainly not the only one and if I may, not the most interesting."

No comments yet