The Third Culture

Neuroscience and the Humanities

Neuroesthetics, Part 2

I have spoken to a number of artists and art lovers about Zeki’s neuroesthetics ‘abstraction and concept formation’ hypothesis—the hypothesis that led him to assert that all great art is perceptually ambiguous in one way or another. This type of absolute statement, I have found, is what opens Zeki up to the ridicule of many entrenched artist types, and, as a corollary, to the closing of minds to a set of ideas that could prove highly useful to the program of art theory. Indeed, I will argue here that it is this myopic reading of neuroesthetics—as opposed to the theory itself—that is the greatest weakness in neuroesthetics’ current form, and that perceptually unambiguous art forms such as photorealism can be equally successful as artistic paradigms partaking in the process of concept formation that Zeki describes.

Pope ImageIn 1999, Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan debuted a full-room installation entitled La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour). The scene: a wax sculpture of the pope—painstaking in its realism—lay to one side of the room, crushed under the weight of an equally realistic meteorite that seemed to have come crashing through a skylight. Glass was scattered about the floor. The scene was upsetting to many, and on December 21st, 1999, the story goes, while the installation was on in Warsaw’s National Gallery, two Polish politicians ordered the meteor’s removal. The figure of the pope, they decreed, was to be put on its feet.

It is not surprising that such a piece would attract the ire of the Polish parliament. Rife with irony, Cattelan’s installation suggests several probable readings, all of which are critical of either the entire program of religion or the Catholic church as an institution. Such a piece, on display in a country that is almost entirely Catholic, can only last so long.

Cattelan’s La Nona Ora is emblematic of a whole brand of conceptual art that finds a middle ground between representational affective aesthetics and pure conceptual conclusion-making; one might think of Damien Hirst as its poster boy. And yet these works—especially Hirst’s preserved animals—are, like Duchamp’s Fountain, entirely unambiguous in their representation. So how to explain their staggering impact on the brain if visual ambiguity is so central to visual art?

I would posit that it is the photorealistic quality of La Nona Ora that makes the work successful in the process of concept formation. As opposed to Duchamp’s Fountain, in which the object is incidental to the concept, La Nona Ora is emotionally compelling because of the intricate detailing of the scene. That is to say, La Nona Ora’s effectiveness is predicated upon the viewer’s belief, if only for a split second, that before him is the pope, crushed to death. Given this necessity, Cattelan’s use of photorealism is apt, as the brain’s visual processing areas easily identify both the pope—especially given the singular ‘pope staff,’ a prescient example of Biederman’s theory of object recognition—and the meteor. Of course, this immediate visual interpretation soon comes into cognitive conflict with other inputs. This reflects a more extreme version of the informational conflicts that mark our daily lives in the modern visual landscape, in which the immediate reaction—whether emotional/limbic, visual, or otherwise—is moderated by higher level processing areas (most often the anterior cingulate cortex). This moderating effect serves to help us maximize the effectiveness of the cognitive system that is providing the correct information, focusing our attention upon areas of importance.

The most commonly cited experimental paradigm for demonstrating cognitive control is the STROOP task. In the most basic STROOP task, subjects are shown names of colors (‘green’ or ‘red’) that conflict or align with the color they are shown in. When the word and the color do not align, these trials are considered ‘incongruent.’ The subject, asked to say what color the word either is or reads as, has to cognitively control the processing areas dealing with reading and color perception. This moderating activity has been shown to take place in the anterior cingulate cortex, and the activation of the ACC speeds up reaction time on subsequent trials. Though admittedly in an entirely different world of conflict, the cognitive conflict taking place in that crucial moment, where the viewer first sees the crushed pope, is, in effect, a conflict between the visual information and the knowledge that the visual information is highly improbable. The strength of the conflict would be directly related to the realism of the scene.

The resolution of this cognitive conflict—I am seeing something that I perceive as real, but I know it is not real—leads to an engagement with abstract concepts instead: “I am not seeing the death of the pope, I am seeing art,” and then, more to the point, “I am viewing a metaphor.” The need to resolve cognitive conflict—to find an alternate meaning aside from the literal crushing of the pope—is serving the role here that Zeki reserves for ambiguity by pushing the viewer to, as he puts it, “subordinate the particular to the general.” This is a central point, as the presence of intense cognitive conflict is what differentiates this photorealistic installation from a drawing of the same scene.

In this way, I would argue that Zeki has needlessly limited his neurally-rooted definition of art. Just as Michelangelo, by leaving works unfinished, took advantage of the brain’s predilection for imaginative completion, so too have photorealistic conceptual artists taken advantage of the potential for conflict between perception and cognition. In other words, it is the absolute lack of visual ambiguity that allows these pieces to succeed. Were there any question as to the realism of the scene—think of the perfectly placed glass shards and the angle of incidence from the skylight to the pope—it would begin to fall apart. Works like Cattelan’s might be considered the most outwardly manipulative of the brain in that they are only successful because of the distinct order in which we process information.

This powerful impact of photorealistic art puts a thorn in the side of Zeki’s claim that all great art is visually ambiguous. In fact, it seems, manipulation of unambiguous visuals can be more successful than pure abstraction in causing concept formation in viewers—few viewers of La Nona Ora, I would imagine, left it without some conceptual conclusion. Instead, Zeki’s more general claim—that art is simply a process of concept formation that goes from the level of the object to the level of the idea, connecting two disparate processing areas—seems far more fundamentally accurate and less limiting. Of course, it also is nothing new—artists have been describing the difference between art and representation in terms of metaphorical abstraction (terms like “the sublime” come to mind) for as long as art has been written about. Nonetheless, this basic assumption should be focused on and should, I believe, form the foundation of future neuroimaging work in the art world. The acceptance of this assumption—that art is always on some level the creation of a physical metaphor—makes it easier to pose questions for study.

By turning away from the “artistic toolbox” conception of universal artistic laws—to which I believe exceptions could be continuously produced—and instead founding a program of inquiry upon a single, generally accepted principle, I believe future research will tell us far more about why we feel the way we do about art, and why the jump from object to metaphor is so emotionally powerful. Yet it is also important to keep in mind that science, even as it can tell us why we feel so strongly about art, will never hold court over the definition of what art is. Though deserving a seat at the table, work such as Zeki’s can only go so far. How, for example, might he position 19th century realism, a realism rooted less in metaphorical abstraction and more in the skill of the brush? What about the beloved tradition of realist landscape painting? The continuous stream of artists who have made it their task to capture the quiet everyday moment? When do crafts become art, and who is a neuroscientist to draw that line?

As such, it is crucially important that any scientific approach to understanding art take careful measures to account for the importance of the intellectual climate of the day. We live in a time of ideas, and so concept formation is “it”—what of the bygone eras of appreciation of meticulous craftsmanship? Surely the appreciators of this art were no less cerebral than modern art lovers. And even if they were, what of it? I have argued, previously, that concept-driven art is Darwinian, uniquely representative of the human intellect. However, this understanding brings us no closer to defining art.

Far more interesting, I believe, is a research agenda that draws connections between what we generally consider art and other forms of representation, or that begins to strip away the influence of context on the experience of art. Roger Ulrich’s famous 1984 study that appeared in Science, for example, showed that trees outside a hospital window significantly increased rates of recovery from surgery; how does this relate to the appreciation of the painted landscape? Questions such as this make up a program I find far more fulfilling than trying to scan our way to a set of artistic principles, a process that, let’s be honest, is tenuous at best.

Instead, a program that relates art to the everyday—instead of setting it apart—will allow us to see more of the sublime around us, and could truly have the power to reframe the artistic experience within the human context.

July 6, 2007 Posted by | art, neuroesthetics | 1 Comment