This is the third in a series of  posts by each of the speakers from our panel debate, “In The Mind’s Eye: Can Neuroscience Teach Us Anything About The Aesthetic Experience? “

The data and images produced by brain scanning are undoubtedly revealing a great deal about the localised mechanisms of the brain – though the science is certainly not telling us “how we think”, any more than genetics is telling us “who we are”.

The scans produced by functional magnetic resonance scanning imaging (fMRI) provide spatial definitions of different kinds of mental operations that are reasonably robust if unsubtle. But the temporal dimensions of incredibly rapid interactions and complex longer-term processes will require substantial advances in technique.

Looking at fMRI scans, which emphasise the hotspots of blood flow in brains, the situation is rather like flying high over a city at night and being able to see the overall patterns of light emanating from the spaces and buildings and roads without being able to determine reliably what is actually happening to vehicles in the traffic, where they have come from, and where they are going.

Meaning and context play little or no role in standard neuro-aesthetics, although our experience of every work of art is saturated in content and circumstance.

The relatively new field of “neuro-aesthetics” is dependent on fMRI imaging,  and aims to disclose how aesthetic responses operate. Though some of the individual findings about the operation of the brain in the making and viewing of artworks are fascinating, the conceptual basis of the overarching quest seems highly oversimplified and rooted in the kind of artistic formalism that dominated in 1960s.

Meaning and context play little or no role in standard neuro-aesthetics, although our experience of every work of art is saturated in content and circumstance. Our responses are fluid, complex, malleable, untidy and noisy, involving many faculties of the brain, including our strong response to circumstance.  The most immediately fruitful area of neuroscience in art lies in the field of reception, that is to say in looking at how our reaction is affected by many inputs, not least the context of viewing, rather than chasing an ideal abstraction of the aesthetic experience.

Martin Kemp Neuroimaging 3

Huang, Mengfei, et al. “Human cortical activity evoked by the assignment of authenticity when viewing works of art.” Frontiers in human neuroscience 5 (2011).

Sample of genuine Rembrandt portrait (REAL); (B) derivative portrait in the style of Rembrandt(COPY); (C) sequence of auditory cues and image presentation; (D) brain activations in occipital and temporal cortex generated by presentation of portraits after subtraction of activations generated by scrambled images of portraits; data averaged across 14 participants, red regions show significant BOLD activations during period of image presentation (Z >2.3, p <0.05, corrected for multiple comparisons).


An indication of how this might be done is given in a small piece of research we undertook into what happens when viewers are told that paintings are or are not by Rembrandt (Menfei Huang, Holly Bridge, Andrew Parker and Martin Kemp, “Human cortical activity evoked by the assignment of authenticity when viewing works of art”, Frontiers in  Human Neuroscience. 2011, 5, no. 134, pp. 1-8).  The great desideratum in bringing art and neuro-science together is the mutual identification of significant, shared questions that might be tractable in terms of current and developing techniques. At present, however, we are not very good at doing this.

[adapted from a forthcoming book on Structural Intuitions for University of Virginia Press] 

Not Aesthetics

Aestheticians from the late 18th century onwards have typically striven without apparent consensus to define a “super-essence” of art applicable across all periods and cultures. I might argue that no such definition is possible – that we are actually dealing with a “fuzzy category” in which we recognise associated values without there being a fixed set of core characteristics that are necessarily always present (see M. Kemp,  Christ to Coke, pp. 350-3).  This accommodates the observation that not everything is possible at every time, as well as recognising something we can effectively call art even when its creators had no notion of art or entertained a notion very different from ours.

However, I would like to approach the question from a more radical point of view. Enquiries into the essence of what art is generally start with the assumption that there is such an essence. What if we abandon this assumption, saying that it is wholly unnecessary? This puts the boot on the other foot. I do not see any reason why an ancient Kouros, a Pollock drip painting, a Jenny Holzer light projection of words and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by an academic painter should necessarily have anything essential in common, beyond the fact that they are man-made visual things that aspire to engage our sustained attention and carry meanings. They exist in a continuous spectrum of such visual products, including the advertisements admired by Pop artists, and operate at the more complex and multi-layered end of the spectrum. It is a matter of institutional evolution of the academies and art galleries that the diversely functioning things we categorise as art have come to be accommodated together, physically and conceptually. It is this accommodation that misleads us into thinking that Pollock and the portraitist are in the same kind of aesthetic business. Indeed, I would go so far as to say aesthetics is a historical study of successive attempts to define the essence of art. We should have grown out of it by now. Duchamp should have taught us this.

(adapted from a forthcoming animated e-book, Art in History for Profile Books.)

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