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A Response to W. P. Seeley, “What Is the Cognitive Science of Art… and Why Should We Ca
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Roger Seamon

The science of art is as relevant to art as artistic representations are to science. Artistic representations contain an expressive dimension, in which the artist expresses, and the audience judges, the attitudes taken to what is portrayed. But art is only one way in which we express our attitudes to science, and it is not the most important, if for no other reason than that not many works represent science and its workings. Similarly, science illuminates art very fitfully. E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion remains the classic example of showing how artists exploit aspects of our perceptual systems, and how perceptual facts can have art historical consequences, but it made the point, which can only be repeated and is, when we read in Seeley’s essay that Mark Rollins argues that artists’ “strategies work by virtue of the fact that artists’ formal and compositional strategies tend naturally to become tuned to [in fact they live by exploiting] the operations of perceptual systems” (p. 2). Every painter exploits the fact that we relentlessly make what we see on a plane into something three dimensional, and we do so in a limited number of ways. (Of course some made careers out of trying to defeat that propensity.) The physiology of that process is of scientific, but not aesthetic interest. What matters, what we ultimately care about, is how well the artist exploits that fact, and about that science has nothing to say. Criticism and the philosophy of art try to sort that out. Similarly, An Enemy of the People, Arrowsmith, and Galileo can help us refine our attitudes to science (really sci-tech, that potent combination). Artists and their audiences need science roughly as much as scientists need artistic representations. In neither case is it very much.

This is very different from the way that science relates to, for example, my body (which includes my brain). My body can go wrong in many ways and science has proved quite simply miraculous in the power it has given us to control what nature does only pretty well, i.e., heal us when something goes wrong. Science also gives us immense power over nature, which also ameliorates our condition in astounding ways. (Yes, it also poses threats, and works of art can express attitudes to the dilemma.) But science has been, and I believe always must be, powerless to help us make better art, to heal art when it goes wrong, or to refine our taste. Of course it might, in its miraculous way, bring back the vision of a blinded artist or viewer, but that is not what the science of art is about. It might also inspire artists to make works of art, just as Galileo might stiffen the resolve of someone whose science was threatened by authority. But that is not what claims for the importance of science for art are about, as those claims are almost wholly about the perceptual systems upon which art is based, not about art as such. Art just provides vivid, well-known examples of perceptual systems being adapted to certain ends, and the claim that something is being said about art as such serves a rhetorical function for the program of cognitive science in the beleaguered humanities, just as science offered Zola and others the hope of making art that would make society better. Zola’s use of science was also rhetorical, as it helped strengthen a progressive worldview. However, we do not value Zola as an improver of society, but for whatever makes good novels. We do, of course, admire books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin that changed things, but there are very few of them.

Art and sci-tech are two independent achievements. The former deals with our attitudes to the world, the latter with how the world works and how we can control it. Art does not determine our attitudes to science, though it is a small part of the story, and science is only tangentially connected to the making and appreciation of art. We should, therefore, be wary of the current wave of enthusiasm for sciences of art. The history of aesthetics is littered with them, and they are rightly paid no attention. I believe that will also be the fate of the current fashion. The future of art lies with artists and audiences. That is not true of doctors and patients. Their future lies, if we are sensible, in the hands of the scientists.

Finally, an oddity. Why is it that we think brain imaging will tell us something about art but not about philosophy? Suppose that we succeed in taking very good pictures of the brain at work when someone reads “On the Standard of Taste.” Do we think that Hume’s argument will be illuminated, or that we will better understand arguments, or what? Hume’s essay has a beginning, middle, and end and it evokes emotions of assent and dissent and puzzlement, but the idea of looking at the brains of readers of philosophy seems very odd indeed. Stories also have beginnings, middles, and ends, and we follow them. Indeed plots were once called arguments. I think we should bring our intuition that cognitive science will not reveal Hume’s secret to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and drop the effort to (finally, really) understand art through science. Our problem is the place of the arts in the academic curriculum, and there is something Laputish in current efforts to save the humanities by going scientific. Cognitive science in the humanities is an effort to meet the academic imperative of new knowledge, while the humanities is largely and properly a matter of (merely?) passing on traditions, and we should not, in the effort to rescue humanistic study, follow a path that has led and will lead nowhere. We should go down swinging rather than deciding that getting to first isn’t really what it’s all about.

2011 © Roger Seamon

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