Saturday, March 10, 2012

the fear of neuroesthetics II

The highly emotional language used by some to describe neuroesthetics, of which I gave a selection in my previous post, suggests a fear – and an irrational one at that – of neuroesthetics. Fear is an interesting state, to which I will return in a future post. But here I want to examine one of the arguments used to trash neuroesthetics by those who fear it so much – “trash” being their word to describe neuroesthetics.

The charge is that even a very detailed study by neuroscientists of the brain’s reaction to an artistic work – or a very detailed study of its creator – will not “explain” the work. The columnist in The Scotsman article gave the example of Finnegan’s Wake. A friend of mine told me of the complaint of a philosopher about neuroesthetics, that no amount of studying the brain response to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde will “explain” it. I wrote in my previous post that it is not the aim or mission of neuroesthetics to explain works of art. On the contrary, neuroesthetics is inspired by works of art and debates in the humanities to learn something about the brain. Let me emphasize that we do not try to “explain” the brain either, but just to gain some insights into its functioning.

However, since one of the chosen terrains by those who wish to “trash” neuroesthetics is that of explanation, it is worth reflecting briefly on who are they who have been trying throughout the ages to “explain” works of art and music and literature.

There are hundreds, probably thousands, of books and articles written on Hamlet. The number of books and articles on the Tristan chord alone exceeds 2000. Many books and articles have been written to “explain” TS Eliot’s poetry [An interesting point here: Eliot reputedly once told a man who tried to explain some lines of his: “Thank you for explaining it to me. I didn’t understand it before” – or words to that effect]. Untold thousands of articles and books have been written trying to “explain” the works of some painter or another. And the list goes on!

Who has written these books and articles? Not neurobiologists, but art critics, literary critics, etc. If they try to “explain” these works, it must mean that they think that there is something explicable about them. And if so, why should they restrict to themselves, or to humanists in general, the privilege of explaining them? Why should a neurobiologist not have the same privilege, even if in the end his or her explanation turns out to be “trash”? Would it not be worth reading their “explanations” (assuming them to have given any) before dismissing in emotionally charged language that what they write is “trash”?

I may add that I often read the explanations provided by art and literary critics of art works with profit and pleasure. Some may seem far-fetched, others are sober and level-headed, many are interesting and inspiring in terms of new ideas and connections. It would never cross my mind to dismiss their collective efforts as “trash”.

I have here used the word explain in quotes throughout, partly because I am quoting those who dismiss neuroesthetics and partly because I do not understand what is meant by “explaining” a work such as Tristan und Isolde or Hamlet. One may want to explain something about the work – many articles have discussed whether Richard Wagner destroyed tonal music in Tristan – but I am not sure that any article succeeds in explaining so complex a masterpiece as Tristan. Where an attempt is made to explain a whole work in a few lines, the result is often unsatisfactory. I once heard an historian trying to explain the whole of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by saying that it can be summarized thus, “That all power corrupts”. Well, that is not quite the “explanation” that I would read into that work. My explanation, if I had to reduce it to a few words, would be: That good and evil reside in most men, and that they come especially to the fore when men have power, though only momentarily, because men, like the empires they create, are ephemeral and ultimately all are crushed by history and destiny. My explanation, too, is unsatisfactory and does not provide an explanation of the whole of Gibbons’ masterpiece, nor would I claim that it is better than the one given by the political historian. Indeed, I am not sure that there can be a simple explanation for Gibbons’ subtle and brilliant masterpiece.

To sum up – once it is acknowledged implicitly, through the many articles written about works of literature, art and music, that there is something explicable in them, the terrain of explanation on which those who want to dismiss neuroesthetics plant their dismissal simply vanishes. They should try hard to find better grounds.

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