Tiffany Jenkins: Art must stay a no-brainer

The frescoes in the Scrovegni Chap in Padua. Picture: AP
The frescoes in the Scrovegni Chap in Padua. Picture: AP
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WHY are we so ready to accept a contemporary scientific view that reduces great paintings to electrical impulses in the brain, asks Tiffany

If we were to follow the latest intellectual fashion, Giotto di Bondone – the father of modern European painting – wouldn’t be considered a genius at all, but an artist who had cracked our code, working out what bits of the brain to light up with his paint palette.

It would be understood that collectors followed orders emitting from their neurons, when deciding what great work to buy and recommend.

Barely a week passes without some new research findings into “neuroscience” – the science of the nervous system, which the press publish uncritically as if in awe. Further, a fever for this kind of science is infecting multiple disciplines and all arenas of life.

There is neuroscience, of course, but also neuroeconomics, neurojurisprudence and spreading to the humanities, there is also neurophilosophy, and neurotheology.

The arts, that most uniquely human creation, has, unfortunately, fallen for the neuro-hype and has entered the field. Professor Semir Zeki, professor of neuroesthetics at University College London, who coined the term “neuroaesthetics”, claims it is possible to understand “the biological basis of aesthetic experience”, and to have reached a “neurobiological definition of art”.

Another advocate, V.S. Ramachandran – director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, explains that what the artist does is “not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object.“

According to believers, neuroaesthetics can decipher the power of a Rembrandt or Cezanne, and the ability of the artist to make us see the world afresh, by studying the visual cortex with image experiments.

This means that reactions in the cerebral cortex are studied when people are shown paintings. From this, researchers extrapolate what colour or form stimulates particular parts of the insides of our head.

All the adjectives we use to describe the arts, such as “beauty”, “truthful” or “universal”, have, in their eyes, neural correlates, which is all art really is, apparently. The creation of art, they argue, is simply a neurally mediated activity by which the artist paints in a way that stimulates our central nervous system.

Even the most important but intangible element of a good work – ambiguity – is due to the same processes. Margaret Livingstone, author of Vision and Art and Harvard neurobiologist, argues that Leonard da Vinci wasn’t a master of complicated human emotion, but just able to exploit the odd structure of the inner surface of the eye. The facial expression of the Mona Lisa, Livingstone suggests, fluctuates depending on which part of our retina we are using to look at Lisa del Giocondo’s mouth.

Before you point out the simple problem, that good art isn’t a constant, that different peoples across time produce different kinds of work, and tastes change – just look at the voluptuous nude women in Rubens’ paintings or the goddesses that adorn Hindu temples, compared with the elongated women in the work of Modigliani – it turns out they think they can dispel that mystery too. According to Professor John Onians, who coined the term “neuroarthistory”, our tastes change, between artists of different eras and locations due to “neural plasticity”.

This accounts for why, for example, Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters more of colour. According to his theory, passive exposure to different environments caused the formation of different visual preferences. It’s all down to nature, not man. It’s nothing to do with the vision of the painters, but to the response of our brains to place.

How influential is this faulty perspective? Too influential. In the past few years various art and science projects have sprung up pursuing this pointless end. And whilst science has always tried to power grab, the humanities, this time, have capitulated without a fight. But they should know better. For it is reductionist rot. Neuroaesthetics tells us nothing about what art really is.

To qualify, I am a rationalist at heart. Developments in neuroscience may lead to great achievements that will improve our understanding of the brain enormously and advance people’s lives dramatically. But, I am deeply suspicious of the rapid, multiplying and expanding claims made in areas outside those in which it has any kind of explanatory power. This sort of science needs to know its place.

That bits of our brains maybe made luminous and others clouded in chiaroscuro, stimulated by what we see, illuminates nothing about what we like and why we like it. Understanding art means examining how the artist expresses meaning. This requires considering their vision, and what is rendered through technique, materials and interpretation. The answer is subjective and socially mediated, assessed by human beings though discrimination and discussion.

Neuroscience in art cannot account for two paintings that look similar – say two Impressionist works, which might produce the same effects inside our heads, but be about something quite different and one better than the other. It cannot tell us why a distorted Cubist drawing by Picasso is also accurate. It cannot explain why beauty was so important in the past, and ugliness is now. It cannot answer convincingly why conceptual is popular with the art establishment and the more figurative painter, Jack Vettriano, is not.

And even if we can tell that certain neurons are excited, such as in a reaction to the sculpture The Kiss, by Henry Moore, brain imaging conveys nothing about what the swoon of an embrace feels like. Whereas the marble work conveys everything you feel when you are involved in a good kiss – like the eroticism in the painting by Gustav Klimt. These two artworks capture elements of what passion is, in a way that science never will.

The turn towards neuroscience requires scrutiny, for it underestimates what it is to be a human being, and is part of a dangerous drift towards determinism. These reductive theories are gaining ground due to the increasing tendency to deny our exceptional character and view us as little more than complex animals. And too few are challenging them.

These theories see you and me as programmable machines, incapable of independent opinion. But whilst science can tell us what makes man it cannot tell us what it is to be man. Only we can stand outside of nature, and ask: what is it to be human? Indeed, mankind is the only animal to create art.

It is the critical nature of art work – its attempt to depict our lives, not as a copy, but as, somehow, more truthful than reality, is testament to our unique capacity to reflect on our world.

Giotto was the father of modern painting because his figures reflected the development of perspective. That no one had done this before wasn’t due to the lights going on and off in his brain, or what was in the heads of his audience, but due to changes within society, prefiguring the Renaissance, in relation to how man sees himself, and Giotto’s exceptional ability to anticipate and shape that shift.

Science can tell us many things, but it cannot explain the arts.