Neuroaesthetics and cupcake frosting
Post #1156 • April 14, 2008, 11:17 AM • 13 Comments
We have become accustomed over the past half-century to critics sending out to other disciplines for "theoretical frameworks" in which to place their engagement with works of literature. The results have often been dire, the work or author in question disappearing in a sea of half-comprehended or uncritically incorporated linguistics, mathematics, psychiatry, political theory, history, or whatever. Why do critics do this?
For an academic, there are many reasons for going "interdisciplinary". You can, as John Bayley once said, "rise between two stools". Most of the time you will be selling your product to an audience that is not in a position to judge the correctness, the validity, or even the probable veracity of the claims you are making about the guest discipline you exploit. Ingenious, not to say flaky, interpretations will pass unchallenged. A new paradigm also means lots of conferences and papers, and other ways of enhancing the path to professional advancement. It may also help you to overcome a crisis of confidence in the value of what you are doing. To modify what Ernest Gellner once said, "When a priest loses his faith, he is unfrocked, when critics lose theirs, they redefine their subject".
I hold more faith than Tallis, perhaps, that neuroscience will offer useful insights into art, not merely provide another topic which critical theorists can half-understand, then use as a metaphorical framework. Otherwise I tend to agree with him: if this is a growing trend, it's an errant one, and we ought to call it out as vigorously as any other form of academic nonsense. Science can repel these people easily enough - the Sokal hoax (worth rereading in light of the above article) was one of the bloodiest drubbings ever meted out to the enterprise of capital-T Theory, which crumbles upon exposure to the scientific method even without elaborate preparation. We in the arts have no such tool. Since we deal primarily with felt responses among a particularly sensitive class of people (by which I mean aware of sensation, not merely touchy), our field lies open to intrusions of critical language that borrows the authoritative tone of other fields without including their intellectual rigor. The justification for porting the former without the latter, stated in almost as many words by one of Tallis's commenters, is that critics work in the realm of metaphor and have the license to do so. Of course, the former without the latter is just another kind of joyless poetry.
In this respect, I would add to Tallis's comments by noting that the impulse to pull neuroscience into the service of criticism continues an phenomenon that dates to one and two decades ago at least, with neuroscience in the place of Marx and/or Freud. The loan is different, but the borrowing is the same. On the occasion of some particularly clogged prose coming out of the perpetrators of this year's Whitney Biennial, Carol Diehl, Richard Lacayo, and others have been wondering lately at the obfuscatory prose that surrounds art. "Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful?34 asks Lacayo. I have my own answer to this: lack of faith in art's inherent wonder and importance, brought on by an inability to detect either. Such writers fill that lack with what people call "larger issues."
If you have an eye, the largest issues are right there in the work. I should say, really, on the work. The satisfactory (and with any luck, exemplary) interaction of brute materials with the person gazing upon them is what we're in this for. All the ancillary pleasures of meaning, content, and history sit atop this interaction like frosting on a cupcake, in the same order of structural priority. I would very much like it if science could shed some light on this interaction and would encourage it to try, even if informative results lie far off. This pursuit takes us towards into study of consciousness, which may be the least understood of all biological phenomena, and art won't be the most crucial vector of that research. But better that than the predominant critical practice of the last two decades, which is doomed to reveal little about anything except the character tics of the people who write it. That the latest version of such nonsense has a scientific flavor is unfortunate, but there's an upshot: science demands the testing of theories. Oh, what fun we'll have when we insist that they do so.