The Third Culture

Neuroscience and the Humanities

Neuroesthetics and Conceptual Art

When Semir Zeki coined the phrase “neuroesthetics” to describe his research into the neural foundations of art appreciation, the art world made an ugly face, or else simply turned away as if not hearing. Zeki, in one of his seminal pieces on neuroesthetics, wrote in the July 2001 edition of Science that “by probing into the neural basis of art, neurological studies can help us to understand why our creative abilities and experiences vary so widely. But it can only do so by first charting the common neural organization that makes the creation and appreciation of art possible.” This assertion, that such a neural framework not only existed but in some ways defines the popular appreciation of art, is naturally disconcerting to artists, as it attempts to scientifically answer a question (what is art?) that most artists believe unanswerable—and certainly not within an fMRI scanner.

In that Science piece, Zeki went on to lay out his two “supreme artistic laws,” constancy and abstraction. Let’s focus on abstraction. Zeki believes that all great art is essentially abstract in one way or another. His argument is as follows:

“But abstraction, a key feature of an efficient knowledge-acquiring system, also exacts a heavy price on the individual, for which art may be a refuge. The abstract ‘ideal’ synthesized by the brain from many particulars can lead to a deep dissatisfaction, because the daily experience is that of particulars. Michelangelo left three-fifths of his sculptures unfinished (see the figure on this page), but he had not abandoned them in haste. He often worked on them for years, because, Giorgio Vasari tells us, ‘time and again the sublimity of his ideas lay beyond the reach of his hands.’ I would put it differently–Michelangelo realized the hopelessness of translating into a single work or a series of sculptures the synthetic ideals formed in his brain. Critics have written in emotional and lyrical terms about these unfinished works, perhaps because, being unfinished, the spectator can finish them and thus satisfy the ideals of his or her brain. This is only qualitatively different from finished works with the inestimable quality of ambiguity–a characteristic of all great art–that allows the brain of the viewer to interpret the work in a number of ways, all of them equally valid. In art, Schopenhauer wrote, ‘something, and the ultimate thing, must always be left over for the imagination [the brain] to do.”’

So, Zeki argues, with the help of a few esteemed art-world friends, a central component of the artistic experience is one of imaginative completion. Such an idea is not new, and the only controversial element in it is the nature of the claim—that all great art is abstract.

A similar claim is made by another third culture legend, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. In his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, he describes an experiment in which new-born birds treated a stick colored abstractly to look like the mother’s beak as if it were the beak itself. In fact, when the scientist—ethologist Niko Tinbergen—used a stick with three red stripes (instead of the mother’s one red spot) the chick reacted even more intensely than it did to the real mother, even though the stick resembled the mother only in the most abstract sense.

Just as this study was about to be filed away in the annals of Random Perceptual Ethology, Ramachandran made a striking assertion:

“Maybe the neurons’ receptive field embodies a rule such as ‘the more red contour the better’…And a message from this beak-detecting neuron goes to the emotional limbic centers in the chick’s brain, giving it a big jolt and the message: ‘here is a superbeak’…All of which brings me to my punch-line about art. If herring gulls had an art gallery, they would hang a long stick with three red stripes on the wall; they would worship it, pay millions of dollars for it, call it a Picasso, but not understand why—why they are mesmerized by this thing even though it doesn’t resemble anything. That is all any art lover is doing when buying contemporary art: behaving exactly like those gull chicks” (Rama pg 47).

Art, then, is a form of mental masturbation, a creation whose purpose (or effect, anyways) is to stimulate the imagination to achieve a more sublime and subjective form of object recognition than that of everyday life. Or, as Ramachandran himself poetically writes, “art is foreplay before the final climax of recognition.” I think that is a persuasive argument, given that one allows the recognition to encompass subjective emotional realities as well, such as the dark foreboding feeling one gets when seeing Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Crows” that could only be the result of the metaphorical abstraction of the image at hand.

That argument is all well and good until about 1917, when Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and placed it in a gallery and everything changed. No longer were we that chick, staring at an object without knowing why we were entranced. Duchamp rebelled against that, turned it on its head, and gave us the climax and the object as one—art is subjective, and so if I say this is art, it is art. In so birthing conceptual art, he made the concept concrete, subjugating the object to the idea instead of the other way around. Later artistic expressions made similar but more direct claims, as when Rauschenberg sent a telegram to the Clert Gallery in response to a request for a portrait that read “This is a portrait of Iris Clert if I say so.” Though one could potentially claim that Zeki’s principle might come into play with the physicality of the urinal, it is impossible to say the same for Rauschenberg’s telegram.

In the context of Ramachandran and Zeki’s claims, there are two potential conclusions about conceptual art. The first is that conceptual pieces are in fact not art but rather a challenge to the cultural dominance of art. Such a conclusion has been voiced many times. Indeed, the practice of finding the neural commonalities in artistic practice might help to explain why conceptual art is so hated by so many but so passionately loved by an art-literate crowd; that is to say, the commonalities would conveniently explain the mass appeal of non-conceptual art and the mass disinterest towards conceptual art.

Yet, as an enjoyer of conceptual art, I find this conclusion insufficient. There is also more to it, I think, from a neurobiological standpoint. Conceptual art, clearly, is all about the physical presentation of ideas (this is also true of much non-conceptual art, but conceptual art is uniquely only about this) as opposed to the artful presentation of a represented object. In many ways, the cognitive capacities required for appreciation of conceptual art are unique, in that they almost exclusively require the attention of the parts of our brain most recently evolved and as such uniquely human, especially our prefrontal cortex and associated high-level processing areas that deal with the processing of things that only humans can understand. Art itself is a concept, something an animal could appreciate without knowing why—only humans can attach to it the word “art.” In other words, even while enjoying a piece of art a chick could never understand the conceptual relevance of the piece because it fails to understand concepts.

Research indicates that all animals have the ability, to some varying degree, to determine the ‘what’ within the visual field, and recent studies seem to suggest that this ability is often quite developed and complex in animals we consider rather basic, as in Joe Tsien’s new paper in which he describes the rodent brain’s hippocampal ‘nest’ cells that fire when the rodent sees a nest, regardless of what the nest physically looks like. What non-human animals lack, however, is the ability to consciously connect that ‘what’ with a ‘why,’ which is really what conceptual art is all about. Again, the rodent’s hippocampal nest cells may fire, but all this means to the rodent is that, as Tsien himself points out, it has a specific function: “a nest is someplace to curl up in to sleep.” To us, a structure in which we sleep might actually mean something larger: home, comfort, family, nostalgia.

I think it is clear in what ways our ability to produce concepts from static objects like a house connects with the practice of conceptual art. Duchamp’s urinal is not an object to be admired. It is, to use Zeki’s own word, perfectly physically representative of the “particulars” of daily life. In choosing such a simple object Duchamp stripped away all indulgence from the question of ‘what’—just as Rauschenberg did by sending a boring old telegram. In essence, Duchamp, Rauschenberg, and the entire program of pure conceptual art have targeted exclusively the centers of our brain that tell us why we care instead of what we see: the unique human ability we might call ‘metaphor,’ and which neuroscience tells us is simply an enhanced set of connections between disparate parts of the brain. These neural connections unite the parts of our brain that deal with concrete things—our ‘nest’ cells— with the parts of our brain that can process metaphysical concepts. This is our most treasured human capacity—it explains why we cry in the darkened cinema, why we hate communism, fall in love, read poetry.

This is, clearly, an entirely different cognitive process than the traditional representative art experience that Zeki and Ramachandran describe. As such, here is my punchline about art: conceptual art is, in actuality, the “final climax” of human artistic evolution, the artistic record of human cognitive ability. It may not be the type of art that brings the most people the most pleasure in any utilitarian sense (remember, our pleasure comes from more ancient neural structures), but it is certainly the most triumphantly human, the most directly Darwinian, art form yet.


June 25, 2007 - Posted by | art, neuroesthetics


  1. After reading this article and the second part of it I understood for the first time what “conceptual art” is all about. Thank you!

    Comment by vyala | July 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. […] Bardin has posted a second part to his initial neuroesthetics theorizing. You can read part 1 here and part 2 […]

    Pingback by encephalon 27 « neurocontrarian | July 16, 2007 | Reply

  3. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Art, Context, and the Brain « The Third Culture | July 29, 2007 | Reply

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