Thursday, March 31, 2011

Art is the Thing

Our scientific understanding of sound frequencies, musical instruments, and analog and digital technologies for conveying sound waves does not ever fully explain a Mozart piano concerto, nor does our understanding of music theory.

Neuroscience does not explain the piano concerto, and it does not ever fully explain the writings of Shakespeare. But because neuroscience is the newest kid on the block and has a trendy cachet, some believe it can explain Hamlet and all other art in ways that will fundamentally alter our understanding.

But I don't believe it.

Morgan Meis's article "This Is Your Brain on Art," in The Smart Set (March 17/11) discusses these issues in his review of V.S. Ramachandran's book The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for what Makes Us Human. The article is well written and a balanced discussion, although Meis at least somewhat believes that the findings of neuroscience will deeply shift our relationship with art.

In his review, Meis points out that Ramachandran does not claim to explain the ultimate meaning of art, just that "making art and appreciating art seems [sic] to be universal in the human species"  :
Neuroscience is not meant to replace other standpoints from which we appreciate and analyze art. Ramachandran thinks, in general, that neuroscience can make significant contributions to aesthetics without otherwise encroaching on the humanities. Our love of Shakespeare, he argues, is not diminished by our understanding of universal grammar.
Ramachandran gets it because he understands the science and understands its limits, but so many non-scientists want to base every field of study and area of human endeavour on neuroscience. So we have brain-based Shakespeare, brain-based leadership, brain-based art history, brain-based relationships, etc., etc., etc....

Individually, it is a personal choice to base one's life on misunderstood science written about in popular culture, but we shouldn't rush to re-write social policy and whole academic disciplines based on it. (I've written about this in literary studies; there is a trend towards neuroscience as full explanation of literature.)

I believe that our relationship with art is not most importantly about hard-wiring and synapses, that is about the material. The importance of our relationship with art is existential and beyond science.

Some of Ramachandran's research (which I discussed in Mirror, Mirror) is about phantom limb pain and how the brain responds to a mirror image in place of a missing leg. Shakespeare, in Hamlet, presents the play within his play to hold up a kind of mirror image to Claudius, an image that contains Claudius's missing guilt.

The more things change, the more they stay the same! The mechanism in both images - the Renaissance understanding of the psyche and twenty-first century understanding of the brain -  is that the viewer will respond as if the missing element is indeed present and act accordingly.

Ramachandran's mirror image and neuroscience, generally, contribute to our understanding of humanity and art. But, like Shakespeare's play within the play, it is only part of a much larger, complex, and maybe inexplicable whole.

Meis writes: "We are going to go forward into the unknown in the quest to make art fully knowable and we'll deal with the consequences when we've arrived, joyful in our accomplishments and sad, too, at the inevitable loss of all that has been left behind."

Loss? I don't believe it.


lifeshighway said...

I live in a world where art if fully unknown. An intangible quality that is gifted to a select few.

Good luck on the guest. They never found the fountain of youth either.

Judie said...

ChrisJ, this is a most fascinating post. After I read the entire article I will be back to discuss it. I am glad to see a new post from you, girl! Hope you are all healed up now.

ChrisJ said...


Interesting you should say; I wonder sometimes what the scientists are looking at when they say we are hard-wired for art. My community has a big percentage of people who aren't so hard-wired!

ChrisJ said...


I look forward to your artist's perspective.

Owen Gray said...

One of our modern heresies is that all human endeavour becomes more valid if it can be given a scientific foundation.

The truth is that many fields of interest are both science and art. The doctor who has no bedside manner is a failure.

Science has given us many modern conveniences. But knowing how to live well is still an art.

Judie said...

My best friend artist would be a lot better at commenting on this than I. As an award-winning educator, she has written criteria for teaching math and science based on art. The students who took her classes excelled in both studies when art was included, because the art seemed to work to make the math and science click in their heads.

It is unfortunate that art is more and more dropped from curriculum in schools, because I believe that it is vital in a well-rounded education. As your post has shown, it is more than just a "fun" class for kids to take, and definitely enhances the learning experience.

Judie said...

Chris, I commented on Cher's post about RVs. There is a guy named Paul who left a comment for me and Cher. I believe this guy to be nothing more than a trouble-maker who has no respect for others. I would appreciate it if you could leave a comment on AskCherlock in regard to his comment to me and Cher. Thanks!!

ChrisJ said...


You're right; everyone wants algorithims and measurable outcomes these days.

ChrisJ said...


I can't remember the engineering school, but one famous one supports and encourages students in a music program.

askcherlock said...

Chris, you always give us much food for thought. I was watching "Celebrity Apprentice" last night and Gary Busey, whom I adore, was discussing art. I wish I could recall his statement verbatim, but it was something to the effect that 'art is for the eye to embrace'. I liked that, though he was much more profound. I do think there is a common ground somewhere for art and science to mix. And in the end, perhaps we will see the universe through a variety of different lens.

askcherlock said...

To my cosmic sister Judie, thank you for coming to my rescue and for bringing the cavalry. Love you all!

ChrisJ said...


Yes, the different lens idea is probably the closest. One lens can't explain all.

ChrisJ said...

Cher and Judie,

Hope it helped. It's one thing to hear opposing views and quite another to be attacked.

Judie said...

ChrisJ, thanks for your comment on Cher's blog.
I believe very strongly that art and music in our lives allows us to learn in all areas in a most positive way.

For me, art inspired my ability to learn math, and especially geometry.
I believe that music ignites the creative part of us that improves our writing skills. It is very sad today that young people are losing their ability to read and write correctly.

ChrisJ said...


One of my colleagues once made the comment that someone couldn't think his way out of a folded kleenex! I think it applies to some young people - I see them in class. In the schools, everything is done by rigid outcomes and modules, and it doesn't work. Large doses of the arts and critical thinking would really, really help.

Judie said...

ChrisJ, I agree with you! I think the secret is to teach them art and music beginning when they are very young, and still possess that inquisitive spirit.

ChrisJ said...


I thought I had published your comment - sorry for the delay.

We should start our own education movement!

Judie said...

ChrisJ, Cher is my guest writer on my blog today. Could you please read it and leave a comment? I want to support her as much as I can.

nothingprofound said...

Bunuel said it best: "Mystery is the essential element in every work of art." For every mystery science solves, Nature and the artist create ten others. The well has no bottom. Science will never reach it, and neither will the artist, but the artist at least knows it.

ChrisJ said...

Hi NP,

Exactly; the artist knows that he doesn't know and can't know; science, for all that it adds to our existence, can't accept it - but then, I guess it wouldn't be science by definition. I like the idea of keeping the mysteries coming.