Sunday, March 11, 2012

The fear of neuroesthetics III

It is worth examining briefly another terrain – reductionism - on which some display their fear and loathing of neuroesthetics. I say some because I don’t want to tar everyone with the same brush. In my experience, a significant number of those in the humanities I meet are very hospitable to neuroesthetics. This is especially true of artists and composers. They do not seem to fear us. They want to learn more.

As I have argued on this site before, science is reductionist by its nature. It cannot study a complex system as a whole; rather, it isolates its constituents first and tries to build a picture of the whole from studying its parts. This is true of the study of matter by physics and chemistry – to study the particles constituting matter in terms of atoms and electrons and neutrons, and then the sub-atomic parts, and so on. It is true of biology and medicine, which tries to isolate, for example, the constituents of a cell to study their chemistry, or molecular biology, and to learn how these constituent parts interact. Yet this kind of necessary reductionism is, rightly, never criticized. Any perceived reductionism by neuroesthetics is, on the other hand, roundly condemned, at least by those who see it as having the imaginary powers to “flatten our culture”.

But let us forget chemistry, physics, and biology and delve into the humanities, and into the arts, that is to say into the territory from which the vociferous critics of neuroesthetics come. How certain is it that artists and art historians and philosophers of aesthetics do not indulge in the same kind of reductionism that the critics of neuroesthetics find so odious?

When the English art historian, Clive Bell, asks in his book Art what “Sta Sophia and the windows at Chartres, Mexican sculpture, a Persian bowl, Chinese carpets, Giotto’s frescoes at Padua, and the masterpieces of Poussin, Piero della Francesca, and Cézanne” have in common because “either all works of visual art have some common quality, or when we speak of ‘works of art’ we gibber”, is he not being reductionist?

And when Immanuel Kant writes in The Critique of Judgment of a sensus communis which gives universal validity to the aesthetic judgment of an individual, is he not being reductionist?

How do these differ, in terms of reductionism, from the quest of neurobiologists to learn what kind of brain activity is common to the experience of all beauty in all humans, regardless of the source of the beauty (i.e. whether it is a portrait painting, or a landscape or a musical excerpt) and regardless of the cultural, educational and ethnic backgrounds of those experiencing beauty?

And when Piet Mondrian, in his artistic exploration of form, asks what is the essential constituent of all forms and settles on the vertical and horizontal straight lines, is he not being reductionist?

And how does this differ in terms of reductionism from the quest of neurobiologists to learn whether orientation selective cells in the visual brain (cells which respond specifically to straight lines) are the physiological building blocks of form in the brain?

Is the neurobiologist more reductionist than the artist in this instance?

And when kinetic artists emphasize motion and de-emphasize colour and form, are they not being reductionist?

And when Paul Cézanne considers all the variety of the natural world in terms of the cone, the cylinder and the sphere, is he not being reductionist?

Is abstract art not reductionist?

And this is only a brief list. There are many more examples of reductionism in the humanities.

In light of the above, it is interesting to ask why some single out neuroesthetics to stigmatize it with their hate word “reductionist”?

What exactly are they so afraid of?


dauvit said...

I'll start by saying I'm a great admirer of your research, and in full support of it, however there's one claim that the Scotsman article made, which I was hoping you might address:

"There is a profound difference between looking at Mark Rothko’s Black On Maroon/Red On Maroon series in the gallery – each canvas is more than two metres wide and long, and they have a cumulative, haunting effect when they are hung next to each other – and looking at them as two by three inch jpegs on a computer screen. Likewise, listening to Brahms’s German Requiem or The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Psychocandy on the car stereo is a different experience to a live performance, when your lungs and bones seem to vibrate in sympathy. One of the ironies of the Oxford “authenticity” experiment is all the works the subjects were shown were, in a sense, fakes."

This seems like a valid point, what's your opinion?

S.Z. said...

Thanks, dauvit, for raising this point.

That there is a difference between looking at a real painting and its computer image, and that the former gives much greater aesthetic delight than the latter is not in doubt. The comments in The Scotsman article about the differences between real paintings and their computer images were made with specific reference to a scientific paper from Oxford. But the Oxford study did not address the question of the neural correlates of aesthetic pleasure. This is important to establish because any innocent person reading the statement in The Scotsman article, that the Oxford study “claimed to prove that when people were told that a painting was an imitation or forgery, they experienced less of the “warm glow of aesthetic pleasure” than if they were told they were looking at an original” might be forgiven for concluding that the Oxford study was dealing with aesthetic pleasure. In fact, the expression “warm glow of aesthetic pleasure” does not occur anywhere in the Oxford article and must have been a description imported from elsewhere.

Next in The Scotsman article is this comment: “One of the ironies of the Oxford “authenticity” experiment is all the works the subjects were shown were, in a sense, fakes.” Had the Oxford study addressed the question of the brain’s reaction to real vs fake pictures, this implied criticism may have had some validity (with reservations). But that was not the question addressed. Instead, the scientists wanted to learn how the brain reacts to viewing paintings (in their study specifically by Rembrandt) that have been authenticated as copies or authentic – regardless of whether they were actually copies or authentic. They were especially interested to learn whether such knowledge about paintings modulates the reaction of the visual areas when they viewed the paintings. They took care to only include subjects who were not experts in paintings and were not art historians or especially knowledgeable about Rembrandt.

Hence all the words in The Scotsman article about what Walter Benjamin said about reproductions and the difference between listening to the German Requiem in a concert hall and on the car’s stereo system are quite irrelevant and, as criticisms of the Oxford study, inept.

I see nothing odd or ludicrous in the question addressed by the Oxford group, except of course if one were to approach it with a mindset that considers all this effort to be, in the words of The Scotsman article, “unadulterated bunkum”.

You must not conclude from the above that one cannot study scientifically the differences in the brain’s reaction to real and fake pictures of paintings. If subjects are able to tell the difference between real and fake paintings from pictures, then the question is a valid one for scientific study, but this does not mean that an expert will not want to examine the actual paintings before declaring whether they are real or fake. Equally, if some pictures of some paintings give greater aesthetic pleasure than pictures of other paintings, then subjects can be asked to view the two sets of pictures in a scanner to learn something, however small, about what brain systems correlate with the experience of greater pleasure. This does not mean that subjects who derive real pleasure from paintings will be content to look at pictures rather than see the real thing in art galleries. That we cannot put paintings into the scanner does not mean that we cannot study something about the brain’s reaction to them by other means, including the dreaded two by three inch jpegs on a computer screen.

So, as an attack on the Oxford study in particular and on the neuroesthetics approach in general, the comments made in The Scotsman article about fake and real works of art or real pictures and their reproductions are not convincing and are unlikely to cause any resentment. They are quite uninteresting. Or rather, only interesting to the extent that they reveal mindsets abut neuroesthetics.

MCGuilmet said...

Excellent Semir!

S.Z. said...

Thanks so much. Semir