I have been pondering how to go further towards a neural model of art-making, so I re-read the two chapters on art in V. S. Ramachandran’s book, The Telltale Brain. As I reviewed in my post on 3/20/18, this is a very interesting book; Ramachandran is a scientist-practitioner of the highest order. While I had some quibbles about the book in general, I gave him credit for having two chapters on art, which is two more than most books on neuroscience have, and they are interesting chapters, so I re-read them.
I will focus today on two quibbles, one minor and one major, and then applaud and expand one theme he carries forward in these chapters. The minor quibble is easy and common. When he talks about art, he is only discussing paintings with a heavy emphasis on the audience’s engagement at that. Many books that touch on this topic show the same constraints. In part this is due to the extensive research into the visual system, so that we are able to transfer that knowledge to ideas on art appreciation. It is also due to the difficulty in exploring the compositional process painters go through as they paint. More distressing, though, is the assumption that art=painting, thereby ignoring music, literature, sculpture, architecture, etc. The remedy to this quibble is increased awareness of aesthetic theory, e.g., everyone should read Langer’s Philosophy in a New Keyand Feeling and Formand increased knowledge in the efforts to understand other art forms, e.g., much is done on music.
My major quibble is a more of a problem. When I re-read these chapters I found a passage where Ramachandran states that art is not important in our evolution: “the production of art itself does not have survival value” and “its role is pure enjoyment.” What? Even if true, enjoyment has survival value, else how do you explain a neural system uncovered by Jaak Panksepp that supports play and feelings of joy? Also, humans (and our cousins) have been making art for maybe 100,000+ years, every society and culture has established artistic traditions, and as Ellen Dissayanake showed in her book Homo Aestheticus, art is ubiquitous in human affairs. Limiting the consideration of art to the fine art of painting, as Ramachandran does, prevents adequate intellectual consideration of the phenomena. So our artistic capability has certainly resulted from evolutionary changes.
This can be complicated. What do we call an evolutionary product that does not contribute to adaptive success? Pinker and Bloom give an example of blood’s redness—the color is only a result of hemoglobin being iron-based; if we were lobsters with copper-based hemoglobin, our blood would be green. So our blood’s redness is called an evolutionary spandrel after architectural spandrels that result from arching pillars joining the roof and creating a triangular space that does not contribute to the supporting structure even if it does yield a decorative space:
Elsewhere Ramachandran states that art-making is done by “deliberate hyperbole and distortion of reality”. Well, that does make art seem incidental. As you may guess, I think it is counter to reality. Art is, I believe as Langer conceptualized, a high level intellectual activity, the abstraction of the idea of emotion, and a complex sharing of deeply felt vital experience. Consider this: we grow pumpkins. One or two flowers on a vine develop into a fruit, while the other blossoms contribute pollen and draw pollinators to the plant. Are those non-fruiting blossoms useless? Do they not support the production of the fruit needed to carry on the genetic strain? Are they just redundant and back-up in case other blossoms fail? What determines that? I think even calling art a spandrel is not apt, and Ramachandran belittles art beyond that.
However, in this interesting book, he does give us some pearls. Ramachandran states that our neuroscience has advanced to the stage wherein we can speculate about how our brains do art, and not many say that so clearly. He provides a couple of goals for our quest. One is that we should know how to distinguish between real art and kitsch, but I am not sure that is a worthy one. I like a second one better. He draws from his heritage to discuss a word/concept from Sanskrit, “rasa” that means to capture the essence or spirit of a thing. To understand art, Ramachandran says in contradiction to his belittling elsewhere, we need to understand its ‘rasa’. Okay then.
He talks about ‘Aha!’ moments when we apprehend the rasa in a work of art and thinks maybe this occurs when cortical processing becomes synchronized and so excites the limbic system to a positive state. Could be, but this also seems a bit too simple. Ramachandran discusses 9 laws of aesthetics that he draws from neural functioning. These are interesting but limited by his debilitated view of art as not intellectual, focus on the visual system and audience experience, and lack of consideration of the artist’s process of production. Aesthetic joy is a real phenomena, sometimes ‘Aha!’, more often a quiet wave of reflection, and we do need to understand how the artist achieves it, how the audience receives it, and the symbolic forms that convey it. Ramachandran gives some ideas about the neural structures and functions supporting these, nothing earth-shaking, so maybe I will post more on this after a few more re-reads and further pondering.
Finishing up, Ramachandran gives two examples of art appreciation, or lack thereof. He talks of how a Victorian English art critic disparaged the statue of Nataraja (Shiva as Lord of the Dance—the dance that creates the universe) as savagery, not art. Ain’t it funny how ignorant imperialists are? But long ago the locals watched a bearded European stand entranced in front of the statue and then begin to contort his body to mirror the various postures Shiva assumes. They thought this was a bit crazy until someone realized that the man was August Rodin, and the sculptor was appreciating the artistry involved in that statue.
The last example comes from Ramachandran’s discussion of how nervous systems like exaggerated forms, thus explaining the power of caricatures. He details how Tinbergen, pioneer ethologist, discovered that gull chicks pecked at the red spot on the mother’s bill to get her to feed them, and that they would peck at almost anything with a red spot, but they would peck the most at a stick with 3 red stripes painted on it. Again, this illustrates how our brains process stimuli, even objects that are distorted far from reality can provoke the strongest response. Ramachandran compares these gull chicks to art connoisseurs who chase the newest fad. Now I have to like that.
Well, time to travel on to the next view of our biological roots.