Neuroscience vs art: Let’s talk across the divide | New Scientist
I AM in London’s Royal Academy of Arts looking at its Abstract Expressionism exhibition. Of the US artists in the show, I am most drawn to Jackson Pollock, famed as “Jack the Dripper” for his anarchic technique, and Mark Rothko, magician of floating veils of colour. Rothko’s No. 4 seems to tint the air in front of it, much as a stained-glass window does. That it is given an “opus” number, like a piece of music, signals it is not a landscape, sunset or whatever. It is what we call an “abstract” painting, a mode that seemingly reduces visual art to its basic elements – exemplifying the kind of art beloved of brain scientists.
I am accompanied by a French friend. She is an artist and is particularly attuned to the physical attributes of the work as something made from paint. I tell her about my first overwhelming encounter years ago with a set of Rothkos in the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. She talks of the complexity of the orange and black rectangles. As we move closer, we intuit the ambiguous veils of colour, the translucent and broken layers of unevenly applied paint with their fuzzy fringes. No. 4 is radiant, but I think of other Rothko paintings that have sadly dimmed over time.
There are other spectators at what is a well-attended exhibition, and we are all too aware that we are looking at “high art” promoted by a post-war US to demonstrate its creative freedoms in the face of Soviet socialist realism.
Some years ago, I visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, a place suffused with melancholic spirituality. I know Rothko was a Jew from Russia. Was making modern iconic paintings linked to his early experience of Russian icons? By the time of his suicide, at 66, did he consider that he had ultimately failed in his aim to create a kind of absolute art?
Looking at art is a massively complex and associational business. You could say that my knowledge overcomplicates an act that neuroscientists believe they can reduce to an aesthetic essence. However, if we imagine someone at the other extreme with no knowledge of Rothko and a dislike of abstract art (typically because it does not “mean” anything ), this aesthetic essence does not come into play because they do not engage aesthetically.
There are clearly exciting developments in the neuroscience of art, just as there were when experimental psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s helped elucidate what art historian E. H. Gombrich called “Art and Illusion” in his famous book of the same name. We are learning more and more about where and how different aspects of visual art are processed in the brain. It might be demonstrating the obvious to show that a Rothko operates differently on the brain from a Rembrandt self-portrait, though it is of undoubted interest to track the processes involved.
But while revealing the basic mechanisms is interesting and potentially important, it does not get us far in terms of the specificity of the art, given our individual perspectives as viewers and the particular contexts in play when we were studying.
Neuroscience inevitably gravitates towards shared mechanisms, rather than the cussed individuality that characterises our viewing of art. We may look to Rothko’s lack of figuration, simple shapes and colours as a form of reductionism, conveniently undertaken for us by an artist. However, the human richness involved in the actual viewing of art, even for works that scientists may claim to be reductionist, is messy, noisy, complex, individualistic, contextual, associational, impure, contaminated and fluidly variable (even for the same spectator).
The clichéd conceptions of “top down” and “bottom up” simply do not work when faced by a painting or sculpture, even one we may think is reductionist in its techniques. Basic mechanisms, assumptions and contextual complexities are properly entangled in the actual viewing of every work of art, be it a readily recognisable Rembrandt self-portrait or “a Rothko”.
Art as an offering
The “beholder’s share”, a term admired by Gombrich, is key here. Art is a field for interpretation, and “offering” up a work to it is an essentially generous act. The artist sets parameters and topography, but cannot control what we do. As art professionals, my friend and I at the exhibition share much that we do mentally with the Rothko, but not everything. We help each other see what we have individually observed: we open each other’s eyes.
An open field is not the goal of the scientist, however. A scientific paper is not “offering” itself to be interpreted in any way the reader sees fit. Suggestive ambiguity is not part of the scientist’s stock-in-trade. As individuals, we bring our knowledge and prejudices to the paper, but the aim of the authors is to set out evidence, hypotheses, methods and conclusions in a clear and unambiguous manner.
Neuroscience has not been good at dealing with content and subject matter in art, which explains the ready turn to formalist art with no apparent content. An abstract work that uses a limited vocabulary of basic forms and colours eliminates the complications of figuration and content: it can seem as if we could use it as an experimental subject in the sterility of the lab. In fact, a Rothko has content in spadefuls. Its primary content is that it is designated a “Work of Art” in an art gallery. We know what to try to do with it, even if we reject it as a valid form of art. We become aware it is abstract expressionist. It is notably different from Pollock. It is on a canvas large enough to be a kind of wall – as Rothko intended. It is a mature piece, very different from Rothko’s early, fumbling figurative work. It is not as dark as his later paintings. And so on. All this is a kind of content that arises from it being presented as a work of art.
What we do when we see a Rothko is very different from when we see a painted wall that functions as a wall. We could make a meticulous, textured replica of a portion of wall and hang it in a gallery. We would then do very different things with it, just as we do when faced with one of the Boyle family’s sensationally accurate cast surfaces from locations around the world.
Applying brain science to the visual arts has too frequently fallen victim to the imperialism of neuroaesthetics. I have attended conferences at which I have been told, in effect, that “we have solved all your problems for you. We can tell you why you like something. We can tell you how you look at art and what happens in your brain.”
OK, but these are not problems that concern art historians. We are interested in why a Rembrandt communicates differently from a Frans Hals or a Rembrandt fake, and why portraiture was such a key art in 17th-century Holland.
What we need are close interactions between brain scientists and art historians to define shared and tractable problems – and an acceptance that the messy individualism at the heart of viewing art may lie beyond what neuroscience can presently accomplish.