Monday, March 5, 2012

The fear of neuroesthetics I

Every now and then, neuroesthetics is denounced in terms so emotional that one might be forgiven to think that, far from being an intellectual, experimental exercise in trying to learn something about the brain, it is some kind of new and devastating military adventure of awesome destructive power. A novelist has apparently described neuroesthetics as “one of the biggest follies of our era” and an “absolute idiocy… a form of absolute certainty that will flatten all the complexity of culture, and the beauty of it as well”. A bit over the top, one might think, given the daily follies in the political, military and economic spheres, which materially affect our lives far more than neuroesthetics ever will. Perhaps, one might also think, that the description of neuroesthetics as “flattening all the complexity of culture” is more appropriate to a description of dropping a nuclear bomb on some unfortunate country. Such descriptions not only endow neuroesthetics with extraordinary powers, which its practitioners never thought they possessed, but also betray a thrombotic loathing and fear of what neuroesthetics might achieve and reveal.

Elsewhere, a philosopher has described neuroesthetics as “neurotrash”, thus licensing himself and others who may believe him from ignoring it completely. Yet it seems odd that a relatively new discipline, which has been inspired by debates in the humanities - about the nature of beauty, and its links to love and desire - to learn something about what happens in the brain when we have such experiences, should arouse such strong reactions in some. If something is indeed trash, why bother with it at all, let alone describe it as “one of the biggest follies of our era”? After all, what could be more harmless than trying to apply questions raised in the humanities to learning something about the brain, especially given the primacy that most philosophers of aesthetics have given to the senses?

Of course, when one categorizes a serious effort as “trash”, one insulates oneself from having to read what its practitioners have to say. An interesting example is to be found in a recent article in The Scotsman, curiously entitled “Art and science don’t mix”, which elicited this apt comment in the columns of the paper ”I would be very interested in what Leonardo might have to say about the statement "Art and Science Don't Mix." What indeed!

At any rate, a correspondent drew my attention recently to this article, which describes neuroesthetics as “unadulterated bunkum”. It is an interesting article to read, for it betrays a complete lack of understanding of the aims of neuroesthetics and ends with a spectacular own goal.

Using a somewhat far-fetched example, the author of The Scotsman article writes that, “If you take a bit of [James] Joyce’s brain and put it under the microscope, it’s not going to explain Finnegans Wake”. But far from trying to “explain” a work of art or a literary masterpiece, neuroesthetics only tries to gain insights from them to try and learn something about the brain. There are many examples one could give. Mondrian’s artistic exploration of what element is the essential constituent of all forms (the straight line) is a question that is almost identical to the neurobiological question of how the brain represents or constructs forms, especially since the discovery of cells in the visual brain which respond selectively to straight lines. To be inspired by Mondrian’s question and by his artistic explorations to frame scientific questions about the brain does not amount to explaining Mondrian’s work. Equally, no neurobiologist interested in the brain mechanisms mediating our experience of love would want to ignore the world literature of love for insights. This does not amount to trying to “explain” (whatever that may mean) Tristan und Isolde or Madame Bovary or Wuthering Heights.

The author continues triumphantly, “Neuroaesthetics may be a very new field, and neurology may be relatively contemporary, but aesthetics has been studied for millennia.” Precisely! And that is why neuroesthetics relies so heavily on the fruits of these studies and is inspired by them. What is so outrageous about that? How does it amount to a “folly” which will “flatten all the complexity of culture”?

With such contempt does the author maneuver himself into a position where he can mock the article without troubling himself to read what we have written. He writes “It is unclear to me who, for example, decided in the UCL experiment that Guido Reni was somehow objectively less ugly than Hieronymus Bosch”. Well, it is actually spelled out quite clearly, and quite early on in our paper, that each subject gave their own rating for how beautiful the paintings they saw or the musical excerpts they listened to were. No one else rated the paintings for them. The author’s confusion nevertheless leads him to deliver a neat little lecture to those like us whom he supposes to be ignorant of art and about art, or at least less knowledgeable about it than himself: “but the claim lays bare a deeper misunderstanding about art: the idea that in the visual arts beauty is the highest aim. It is not just a legacy of Modernism that we have a more sophisticated idea about art’s aims. In the Renaissance, Caravaggio and Grunewald set out to shock, unsettle and challenge; as did Goya and Doré in the 19th century. Paintings by Poussin, David and Magritte invite a cerebral response as well as an emotive one. From revulsion to awe and from laughter to enigma, art is more than a matter of ‘beauty’”.

If he had bothered to read further down our article – though admittedly this is some 8 pages into the article - he would have seen the following:

Notions of art have since changed and many will today
acknowledge that something considered to be a work of art need
not be perceived as beautiful, good examples being some of the
paintings of Francis Bacon, or the nudes of Lucian Freud, which is
not to say that these works do not have considerable artistic merit
both in their painterly style and in projecting truths, including
truths about decay and ugliness. But any work, be it considered art
or not, may be subjectively experienced as being beautiful by an
individual. This leads us to divorce art from beauty in this
discussion and concentrate on beauty alone.

But the best is left to the end, when the author quotes approvingly Picasso as having said “when we love a woman we don’t start by measuring her limbs.” There are no quotation marks and no reference to source, so it is hard to know whether this is quoted out of context or not. Picasso was an intelligent man and I find it hard to credit him with having said something quite so silly. But assuming that the quote is not taken out of context, it must rank as one of the silliest things anyone – let alone a painter – can say. For, of course, men make very detailed assessments when they meet a woman, and women do the same when they meet men. These assessments are undertaken before they fall in love. They do not use rulers but other subtle measuring systems in the brain. Had the author not decided that all that neuroesthetics has to say is trash, he might even have learned something about the attempts of neuroscience to learn how we assess people.

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