Art, Context, and the Brain
Neuroesthetics is part of a rapidly growing group of applied subfields, a group including other hot topics such as neuroethics, neuroeconomics, and neurolaw. What these subfields all have in common is that they are attempting to directly investigate practical topics through a detailed understanding of the neural processes underlying human behavior. Through clever experimental design, such experiments can approximate the experiences of our daily lives, getting us closer to understanding what role emotion plays in our daily lives, what beauty is, and how we know whether a patient truly is a vegetable.
However, moving neuroscience research into the practical domain requires a leap of faith generally discouraged in scientific inquiry—the belief in near-total external validity. That is to say, any claims that a research paradigm, for example, explains the effect a piece of art has on the brain requires the belief that the sum total of the research program attempting to explain such a question actually approximates real, uncontrolled human experiences. Such a necessity comes with the appropriation of practical vocabulary—‘art,’ ‘law,’ ‘financial decision-making.’ In short, when we use such words, we must be careful that we are, in fact, talking about them.
I have written in a previous post about the importance and placement of conceptual art within the neuroesthetic context, and of the ability, for example, of a telegram or chemically preserved animal to make conceptual statements in a neurally meaningful way. In this way, the everyday can become art because it is metaphor made concrete.
This capacity for meaning-making also makes conceptual art especially susceptible to effects of context. Part of the beauty of conceptual art is that if you scattered many of the pieces across an industrial waste site, and asked someone to go on an art-hunt, it would be difficult if not technically impossible for them to identify the pieces without some background in art history . However, when placed within MOMA’s white-box walls, for example, these industrial constructions—Richard Serra—or austere white canvases that, from afar, may appear untouched, forgotten—Robert Ryman—become a site for meaning and intellectual inquiry. This is not to say there is no aesthetic value to these pieces; there is surely an indescribable beauty and grace, for example, to the experience of moving in and around Richard Serra’s sculptures. However, it is difficult to believe that such pieces would be equally successful “in the wild” as they are in MOMA. Such a finding would have to be the criteria for universality.
So here comes the neuroscience: if we are to believe that there is some way to understand reactions to art by understanding the brain (or to understand the brain by understanding art), how are we to incorporate context-specific reactions?
The answer, in fact, is that some studies have already attempted to approximate such an effect. In a landmark neuroeconomic study, for example, Martino et al from the University College of London showed that willingness to gamble for money was dependent on whether the result was posed as a gain (keep 20 of 50 pounds) or a loss (lose 30 of 50 pounds), and that this dependence had neural correlates that could be used to predict risky behavior.
Let’s think for a minute about what this finding means. Specifically, it means that our decision making patterns are at least in part dependent on the context in which we find ourselves at the time of our decision. That is to say, even though the same product or object was presented in both conditions (a change in financial state of thirty pounds), the framing of the choice changed both the neural substrates and the behavior that resulted. More generally, it strongly suggests that our means of perception are dependent on what exactly we are perceiving. Though this may seem like a simple observation, it is by no means self-evident in standard academic literature, especially the decision sciences literature (for more on the neural effects of everyday context, see this recent article in the New York Times).
So how does this relate to conceptual art? Though the neural mechanisms would likely be entirely different, the bottom line is that there is little room for argument that a large proportion of conceptual art would have dissociable neural mechanisms depending on the context in which the pieces were presented to the viewer. Much as the gambler’s neural activity differed based on the framing of the task, so too would a Rauschenberg viewer’s neural activity be dependent on the knowledge that they were observing an object from which they should derive intellectual satisfaction—and I seriously doubt the average male art lover has the same neural activation while standing before a urinal in the airport that they do while standing before Duchamp’s. If a network similar to the “risky gambling predictor” network could be identified for conceptual art identification appreciation, it would be a compelling testament to the power of context in art, especially if such an effect existed independent of the observed object actually being art—that is to say, if such a network was active simply because subjects believed they were viewing art.
While Ramachandran uses the ethology example of a bird seeing a stick with red stripes and treating it as we would a Picasso to explain art’s capacity to evoke universal aesthetic responses, it would seem to be true that conceptual art specifically opposes such a rule, or, more exactly, turns it around—the stick is not art until it sits upon the wall as art. This is not a weakness in the art, but rather a weakness in a theory that understands the art through universal maxims that apply consistently across contexts. Our behavior, in fact, is wholly context dependent—we speak differently in cathedrals, get quiet when we approach ground zero, and, yes, practice mental masturbation inside the MOMA, all without consciously deciding to do so.
As the fields making up applied neuroscience explode in every direction, it is crucial that we keep two things in mind. First, we must not overstate what the findings can actually say. Good research leads to more questions than answers, and this is never more true than when actually attempting to explain the biggest questions, such as “what is consciousness?” or, “when can you pull the plug on a patient?” The same holds true for understanding the nebulous world of visual art. Second, and more central here, is that we must always be cognizant of the effect of context on any life experience. The whole program of “explaining art” with neuroscience fundamentally attempts to fit a square peg—the objective understanding of neuronal relationships—into a round hole—the subjective world of art appreciation.
As such, further research into the nature of this subjectivity—through means such as better understanding framing effects and context impacts—is crucial before we can make any overarching claims about what it actually means to view art.
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