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Neuroaesthetics and cupcake frosting

Post #1156 • April 14, 2008, 11:17 AM • 13 Comments

Raymond Tallis (via AJ), noting that "the literary critic as neuroscience groupie is part of a growing trend":

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.




April 14, 2008, 1:58 PM

Excerpt: Like hypochondriacs, theory-led critics find what they seek...



April 14, 2008, 2:25 PM

The important thing is to go slowly and make sure we are sure before going on. It is absolutely necessary to be sure that what is said is right, at the outset, whatever the angle or spin of the research may be. That way maybe some of the intractable art puzzles can be solved - maybe.

Most scientific examination of art is done by people who don't "get" art in the first place, so their work is doomed at the start. And even if they do have a glimmer they are usually too married to their discipline to let in anything foreign to it.



April 14, 2008, 5:20 PM

Why is so much curatorial writing so dreadful?

Multiple reasons, depending on the specific perpetrator/s. The ones you cite, Franklin, are certainly among them, but there are others. Opportunism is a very big one. Politics. Sticking to what is safe. Fear of singing out of tune. Desire to impress, however counterproductive it may actually prove (at least with those with a decent, functional brain of their own, as opposed to borrowed or adopted ideas). Misguided notions equating being "difficult" with profundity. A propensity or "gift" for bullshit (it happens). And, of course, being in the wrong sphere but, once the game is far enough along, or the stakes are sufficiently high, having to play the part by any means necessary or expedient. Business and/or career, after all, must be served.



April 14, 2008, 5:28 PM

I missed a couple:

Not having a fucking clue and being unaware of it.

Or, being aware of it, but trying to overcompensate with all manner of bells and whistles for what cannot, ultimately, be remedied.



April 14, 2008, 7:42 PM

It is also a kind of bottom-dwelling arena for ambition with no accountability. A bullshitter's paradise.



April 15, 2008, 6:27 AM

I scanned that Tallis essay. I didn't realize that there was a gowing critical trend which sees neuroscience as a critical tool.

I think neuroscience can say a lot about art, but bad literary critics are going to make a mess of it, as they did with Postmodernism.

Tallis thinks he is against using neuroscience to explain aspects of art, but he is really against the bad critics. He isn't wrong, but he needs to understand the distinction better.



April 15, 2008, 7:03 AM

Added to Jack's list of art critic pathologies: the less you know, the more you think you know.


Marc Country

April 15, 2008, 7:34 AM

My thoughts exactly, Opie (no surprise, there). I clicked onto this article via AJ, before Franklin posted on it, because I was intrigued by the headline mention of Neuroaesthetics... but, I had to give up on the article halfway through, since its implication seemed to be that neuroscience has nothing to say about art, which is of course errant nonsense. What's more, I resent this Tallis fellow writing such a thing that might make me come to the defense of post-modernist critics.. DAMN YOU TALLIS!



April 15, 2008, 8:08 AM

"lack of faith in art's inherent wonder and importance, brought on by an inability to detect either."

It seems to be true that a great many art critics look elsewhere for meaning because they are unable to find it in art -- symptomatic of underlying disdain for or ignorance of the actual direct experience of artworks. There's lots of great information out there across all disciplines that relates in interesting ways to art -- but those things are not art.



April 15, 2008, 9:17 AM

At least with some critics, and certainly many theorists, the problem is that they want to "transcend," "go beyond," or "rise above" mere art, because they do not understand it or trust it or respect it sufficiently for what it actually is. They want to re-discover the wheel or, to put it another way, they have rather sad Prometheus fantasies. A lot of it is based on a combination of delusion and an intense desire for status and perceived importance, not to mention attention.



April 15, 2008, 11:04 AM

What a wonderful writing, however, only understood by those who create the real thing. Thank you, it assures me that the intelligentsia survives, breeds and that one day, we will emerge out of this dark age...



April 18, 2008, 12:31 PM

Without psychology, critism ignores the elephant in the room. The issue is not so much that scientists do not understand art - the real problem is that since the dawn of criticism, critics have been writing about the essentially psychological impact of art with only a cursory understanding of psychology. These two fields can only grow closer together, and as they do, old-school criticism will sound increasingly archaic.

That's not to say that psychology and quality are completely linked, but even Danto couldn't avoid writing a few fumbling paragraphs about psychology in 'After the End.' Behavioral neuroscience and capitalist economics are the 2 keys to understanding the importance and relevance of art being made today. Modernists critics are terrified of that fact because they aren't trained to write in those areas!



April 19, 2008, 9:10 AM

Many comments make generalizations about bad criticism and offer opinions without examples. Is Byatt being tarred with the same brush as bottom-dwelling ambitious, know-nothing bullshitters? Is Tallis out of his depth when he talks about literature? Both Tallis and Byatt are worth reading- worth disagreeing with.
It's understandable that one could try to understand art (literature in this case)through neuroscience, not to superimpose a theory but because writers ,as stated elsewhere, do look for and find patterns and connections. Both Tallis and Byatt add to our understanding of the relationship between art and neuroscience. I wouldn't dismiss either.



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