04/13/2013 - 12:07am
What the brain hasn't told us about Art
by Benjamin Wachs

Never trust someone who wants to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge or tell you how neuroscience explains it all.  Both are scams, though in the latter case someone might actually be sincere.  That doesn’t make them any less wrong, though:  some of the most dangerous ideas in history have been very, very, sincere.

Today’s lesson in bad brain comparisons is taken from the New York Times op-ed (April 12,2013) “What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art.”

Anyone who knows anything about how newspapers are run doesn’t hold a headline against the author – I once saw the exact same headline on a story about local zoning ordinances in Kernshaw County – but it’s hard not to make comparisons with the headlines they used to run about phrenology.  “What bumps on the head can tell us about art!” was surely all the rage at the TOMx talks in the late 19th century, where it was a well known fact that advances in Latin grammar were going to change EVERYTHING.

Today’s essay purports to show, through an examination of late 19th century Viennese portraiture, “how the brain explains art.”  I’m not making this up, though if I had it would have been delicious satire.

As a group,” author Eric Kandel writes, “these artists sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.”

Right …

“Their efforts to get at the truth beneath the appearance of an individual both paralleled and were influenced by similar efforts at the time in the fields of biology and psychoanalysis. Thus the portraits of the modernists in the period known as “Vienna 1900” offer a great example of how artistic, psychological and scientific insights can enrich one another.”

Okay, still waiting …

“Klimt’s drawings display a nuanced intuition of female sexuality and convey his understanding of sexuality’s link with aggression, picking up on things that even Freud missed. Kokoschka and Schiele grasped the idea that insight into another begins with understanding of oneself. In honest self-portraits with his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka captured himself as hopelessly anxious, certain that he would be rejected — which he was. Schiele, the youngest of the group, revealed his vulnerability more deeply, rendering himself, often nude and exposed, as subject to the existential crises of modern life.”

That’s really interesting.  But, where is he going with this?  Wasn’t there something about “the brain”?

Kandel goes on, immediately following that paragraph to write:

“Such real-world collisions of artistic, medical and biological modes of thought raise the question: How can art and science be brought together?”

Wait – what?

The fact that a bunch of good portrait artists all had their own style is a “collision of artistic, medical and biological modes of thought” that demands an explanation involving science?

I had no idea that Kandel could leap such tall buildings in a single bound.

Not to take away from the specialness of the “Vienna 1900,” but, what Kandel has described them as doing  - attempting to connect the expressions of their subjects with their inner lives and character - is exactly what portrait artists have been doing since … since … well … portraits.  Arguably even cave paintings.

Surely yes, the portrait artists of Vienna, in that fruitful period when psychoanalysis developed, thought about their approach differently – but the idea of going beyond the surface of the subject has plenty of precedents.  In the British decadents, for example;  or in Michelangelo carving up cadavers in order to better understand musculature.

Or in Aristotle, saying “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Artists in different times and places had different ideas about what it meant for something to be on the surface, or beneath it, but it’s not a “collision of modes of thought.”  It’s art.  To the extent it has permeable boundaries … well, yes. Human cultural endeavors, including science, do not exist in isolation chambers, and never have.  Art and science have always influenced each other.  Science produced new kinds of paint.  Google, it seems, is obsessed with Star Trek.  

But … what does this have to do with the brain again?  Back to the text, boys:  there’s got to be a concrete example of the thesis statement here somewhere.

“Alois Riegl, of the Vienna School of Art History in 1900, was the first to truly address this question. He understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement” or the “beholder’s share.”

Art history was now aligned with psychology. Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two of Riegl’s disciples, argued that a work of art is inherently ambiguous and therefore that each person who sees it has a different interpretation. In essence, the beholder recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps.

This insight implied that the brain is a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it. We can see this with illusions and ambiguous figures that trick our brain into thinking that we see things that are not there. In this sense, a task of figurative painting is to convince the beholder that an illusion is true.”

So … the fact that your brain helps you see the art makes it a “creativity machine” that tells us a great deal about art.

(Sigh).  There are two problems with this new idea.  One of which is that it isn’t new at all - and has nothing to do with neuroscience.

Like “portraiture,” the idea that the viewer helps complete the work of art has existed for a very long time.  It did not spring up out of the head of Alois Reigl in 1900.   Once again, Aristotle was way ahead of Reigl (and is still ahead of Kandel) in noting that art must speak either above or below our character as viewers of it - and that this would change the viewer's experience.

I have a rule – just to be clear on this – that if Arististotle wrote about it you didn’t discover it.  Kandel is promoting a serious rule violation here.

But in this case Aristotle isn’t actually the go-to guy for the idea of art as an audience centered process.  In the 1960’s English Professor Stanley Fish (among others) pioneered “reader response criticism,” a wholly worked out aesthetic suggesting (as he noted in the title of one of his essays) that we ourselves “write” Hamlet every time we read it.

So this idea’s been out there for a long while (over 2000 years), and fully elucidated.   Kandel is peddling old news.

But here’s the really important bit:  neither Aristotle nor Fish (at the time) had any knowledge of neuroscience.  No concept of brain chemistry or “mirror neurons.”  They created the full-out theory of reader response criticism without ever once mentioning neurology.

Occam’s razor suggests that if you can completely cut out an element of a theory and still have the theory intact, it’s an unnecessary element.

Then there’s the second problem:  this idea can be applied just as consistently to anything people do.

Hey, you know, when you get a parking ticket and you look at it, your brain processes crucial information from the outside world about the ticket, like the letters and numbers and the municipality?  That makes the brain a “parking machine,” doesn’t it?  Because you can’t see the ticket without your brain?  So the brain obviously has a lot to tell us about parking tickets.

Likewise, when I make a salad, my brain gives me crucial contextual clues about things like the kind of lettuce and whether I like fruit and nuts, which means the brain is a “salad machine” that has so much to tell us about the nature of salad.

If you buy that one, next week the brain is going to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.  You really can’t explain the bridge, you see, without your brain.

Maybe the brain can tell us something about Art, but Eric Kandel hasn’t.  He’s taken old ideas, slapped “the brain” onto them, and claimed they’re a discovery of the new science.

Until the champions of neuroscience can tell us something about art that hasn’t come up many times before … in ancient Greece, in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Period … they should really stick to neuroscience.

We learned so much about art, about human psychology, about the mind, from all the human culture that came before the neuroscience revolution.  The most frustrating part of what is, without doubt, a genuine revolution in the sciences is its tendency to ignore that vast repository of knowledge and wisdom, instead limiting itself to what it can see from neurons firing under laboratory conditions right this minute.  That's tragic, because it not only doesn't advance neuroscience, it attempts to hold back our knowledge of art, psychology, and the mind, stunting it by demanding we ignore thousands of years of worthy precedent.  

Both neuroscience and the humanities would be enriched if neuroscientists were better humanists.  That would help us stop "discovering" old news, again and again, and encourage real advances.


Benjamin Wachs is a Partner at Omnibucket.  He founded Fiction365.com, and archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com