Joseph P Huston, Marcos Nadal, Francisco Mora, Luigi F Agnati and Camilo J Cela-Conde (eds) Art, Aesthetics and the Brain (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) 545 pp. £95 Hb. ISBN: 9780199670000
In the Preface to Art, Aesthetics and the Brain its editors boldly declare that ‘art is understandable in scientific terms.’ (v) Art and aesthetics in this collection are subsequently positioned not as a priori concepts, but rather ‘inherent constituents of human cognition’ because of their dependence on ‘perceptual, cognitive, and affective processes’ (v). The following articles by contributors aim to demonstrate the nuanced and decided ways in which art and aesthetics are embodied.
The book is organised into thematic clusters: Section One examines the ‘foundational issues’ that arise in the study of the relationship between art, aesthetics and the brain, and includes Francisco Mora’s important definition of the term 'neuroculture', in which he states that ‘Neuroculture presupposes that nothing occurs and nothing exists in the human world that has not been filtered […] through that sieve we call the brain.’ (7) Mora’s further suggestion that ‘neuroculture offers a reevaluation of humanities’ (8) establishes the general dynamic of the interdisciplinary relationship of the collection: neuroscience and other sciences act upon our understanding of humanities. Indeed, at times, there is a noticeable absence of voices from within the humanities as only five of the forty-two contributors are based outside science or psychology departments. Certainly, the scientific and psychological expertise present is crucial to the success of the book, but the inclusion of more perspectives from within the humanities would have further enriched the interdisciplinary aims stated by the book’s editors. Section One also includes the philosopher William Seeley’s contemplation of ‘the problem of artistic salience’, that is: ‘what differentiates artworks from non-art artefacts’? (33) The final article of the section is Raphael Rosenberg and Christoph Klein’s fascinating examination of gaze movements in relation to visual art as they argue that observation of these movements ‘provide[s] the best available model of the structure of human consciousness unfolding in space and time.’ (84)
Sections Two, Three and Four examine the respective aesthetic genres of visual aesthetics and art, dance, and music. In Section Two Robert C Pepperell and Alumit Ishai contribute an illuminating article on the role of indeterminate artworks in relation to the human brain. They conclude with the novel suggestion ‘that the human brain is not a passive viewer of works of art, but a dynamic interpreter that constantly generates predictions about the content and its meaning based on previous encounters with similar visual input.’ (154) Moreover, in their analysis of the aesthetic judgement of visual works of art, Ulrich Kirk and David Freedberg highlight methodological concerns in experiments that involve art experts, namely ‘that expertise is never clearly defined, nor is it clearly established in exactly what expertise is supposed to consist.’ (164) In the last article of the section Oshin A Vartanian shifts the focus, paying careful attention to neuroimaging studies of ‘the creative process’ (175) as opposed to the reception of a completed aesthetic object.
The writers in Section Three explore the ways in which aspects of dance relate to the brain. In 'Beautiful Embodiment' Emily S Cross accentuates an important distinction between dance and other types of art: ‘while dance shares features with other art forms, one unique attribute is that it is expressed (only) through movement of the human body.’ (190) This, she then argues, renders dance key for scientists’ appraisal of the how the brain coordinates the ‘perform[ance]’ of ‘complex, precise, and beautiful movements’ (190) and also allows them to observe how aesthetic experiences are bound up not only in the brain’s ‘static’ (196) perception, but also in its capacity for simulating action ‘implied in a work of art.’ (196) Beatriz Calvo-Merino’s article elaborates on this ‘ongoing internal representation of the dancer’s body and movements in the spectator’s mind’ (219), whereas Julia F Christensen and Corinne Jola astutely question the validity of an all-encompassing category of 'dance', supporting this with detailed evidence that ‘several published papers that have used dance stimuli have defined dance in an unmethodical manner.’ (226) Meanwhile, Section Four on music includes Elvira Brattico’s analysis of the ‘pleasurable experience of music’ in terms of bottom-up and top-down ‘mechanisms’. (314) Whilst such an approach has previously been applied to visual art, this study is the first of its kind in relation to music. As well as this, Marcus T Pearce’s investigation of musical appreciation and musical expertise chimes with many of the other contributions in the collection that measure, challenge and evaluate the concept of expertise when evaluating the levels of aesthetic experience displayed in the brain.
Despite the usually thorough and incisive nature of the collection, it does, however, have some minor limitations. It is stated that ‘interdisciplinary collaboration’ (vii) is an integral aspect of this book, and, whilst this holds true for the majority of articles, certain contributions appear to overlook what this might demand in terms of precision, which brings with it some illustration of the challenges of interdisciplinary work. For example, in spite of its wide-ranging account of ‘the neurobiological foundations of aesthetics and art’ (453) Edmund T Rolls’s article makes casual references to ‘beautiful women’ (462) without any suggestion that such a term may not be philosophically objective. Moreover, the article occasionally leaves conceptual assumptions unacknowledged and unchallenged. Indeed, the clause ‘we have a scientific basis for understanding why women are reserved and more cautious and shy in their interactions with men’ (462) does not appear to be rooted in any study, and also fails to acknowledge the far more complex picture of gender that is present within human societies. In addition to this, the collection as a whole omits detailed analysis of the genre of literature, and, subsequently, the aesthetic value of language in relation to the brain. When considered in the context of the collection’s combination of precision and wide-ranging analysis, this oversight is uncharacteristic as the neuroaesthetic analysis of language in prose, poetry and drama would undoubtedly have broadened the scope and resonance of the research.
The final three sections of the book depart from genre-specific concerns, and instead they consider the roles of neuropyschology (Section Five); the relationship between art, aesthetics, the brain, and evolution (Section Six); and integrative approaches (Section Seven). In Section Five Anjan Chatterjee’s article explores the significance of the fact that those people whose brain is damaged in one neural hemisphere can still produce art. Indeed, he remarks that ‘implicit in a discussion of this paradoxical facilitation of art is the view that there is no single “art center” in the brain.’ (343) In the same section Indre V Viskontas and Suzee E Lee also explore the production of art in dementia patients, positing that observations of dementia patients’ brains may correlate with ‘[t]he idea that creativity stems from the release of baseline inhibitory activity’ (370) as opposed to being limited to the right hemisphere of the brain. Subsequently, they make an intriguing suggestion: ‘previously-untapped creative potential emerges in the setting of disease.’ (370) In Section Six Gesche Westphalia-Fitch and W Tecumseh Fitch consider the relevance of the earliest human art in our modern-day study of empirical aesthetics, whilst also assessing the (ir)relevance of animal aesthetics in analyses of the neural origins of human aesthetic drives.
Overall, Art, Aesthetics and the Brain serves as a wide-reaching and accessible introduction to the burgeoning interdisciplinary study of how 'the aesthetic' relates to neural functioning. However, the nuanced and detailed nature of each individual article means that it is also a highly useful text for scholars already closely acquainted with these concepts. The collection is noteworthy for its cutting-edge research techniques and studies, with some of the articles presenting new and exciting research for the first time. Furthermore, crucial theoretical figures (e.g. Fechner 1871, 1876) are alluded to throughout, which allows the uninitiated reader to trace a history of important milestones in the interdisciplinary field of aesthetics and the brain. Perhaps most intellectually exciting are the collection’s hints of future directions that nascent interdisciplinary study might take. Indeed, in Chapter Twenty-Two Luigi F Agnati, Diego Guidolin, and Kjell Fuxe write (in agreement with Zeki 2009) that ‘painters, sculptors, architects, and also novelists may be regarded as a special type of neuroscientist’ (426). Quoting Nadal and Pearce (2011), the writers account for this in a suggestion that '“artists might use an implicit understanding of the brain’s perceptual systems to engage their audience in their work”’. (441) This positioning of the artist as neuroscientist provides leverage for the book to move beyond only its aim of considering how, neuroculture might facilitate ‘a reassessment of the humanities’ (7). Instead, at times, the collection implicitly gestures towards a dissolving of disciplinary barriers that is not achieved through the reduction of one discipline into another, but rather through the creation of ‘a bridge via which those two large bodies of knowledge, science and humanities, will join.’ (7)
Emily Chester, University of Bristol