The Science of Art Is as Relevant to the Philosophy of Art as Artistic Representations Are to Science
William P. Seeley
I agree with (nearly) everything that Roger Seamon says about the general relationship between art and science. If I understand it correctly, the claim is that an understanding of the science of art is not necessary for an understanding of art, and what science does have to add isn’t of much use in understanding the expressive and evaluative practices of artists and consumers. I suppose that this is right. Artists certainly don’t need to know any psychological facts about either perception or cognition to learn how to skillfully manipulate their media. A good grounding in the history of the productive practices of their media and some careful trial and error experimentation will do the trick. Of course, in doing this, artists (tacitly) learn enough about human psychology to loosely control the behaviors of consumers (otherwise artworks wouldn’t work). This fact has been taken to entail that artistic methods are parallel methods for investigating perception and cognition. The key word here is parallel, or independent, unique, distinct, and historically prior psychological methods. Given this fact, I can imagine artists borrowing some cognitive psychology to bootstrap the development of their productive practices. But they certainly wouldn’t need to. What about consumers? Social conventions play a critical role in judgments about the artistic value of an artwork. It may be of interest to know how these conventions influence our value judgments about gut reactions to, artworks. It might also be of interest to know how putatively non-cognitive affective processes bias explicit value judgments. Again, although I can imagine an artist using this kind of information to motivate and bootstrap a self-critical expressive project about art criticism, it is hardly necessary to the success of judgments about artistic value. Here all one needs to do is dive in and learn the conventions constitutive of the artistic practices of his or her community. One might ask art historians and critics to help get started, they are after all the experts who really know about the ways these conventions sort out. But it’s unlikely a psychologist could help.
So the science of art really isn’t necessary for the practices of art. Nor is art necessary for science. Some artworks illustrate interesting things about perception and cognition. But, as lab stimuli go, artworks can be a bit too messy. Artworks might point in a direction, provide data that opens up interesting questions about the nature of perception or cognition, but a carefully constructed stimulus is nearly always a better bet to control for the range of interesting variables. There is a caveat to this claim. Ecologically valid contexts are rarely if ever as cleanly focused as a carefully controlled laboratory environment. Here artworks may constitute a productive middle ground. The artworld, the world of our engagement with artworks, is an ecologically valid context. Artworks are abstract stimuli intentionally designed to induce a range of affective, perceptual and cognitive responses in viewers, e.g., abstract patterns of pigment are perceived as realistic landscapes and sparse dialogue can be experienced as dense, emotionally replete, irrepressibly compelling narrative. If one could hone in on the range of variables that drive our engagement with artworks and get a grip on the way they induce these kinds of experiences, experiences that are central to the practices of art, one could potentially use this data to construct more ecologically valid experimental conditions in the laboratory. Dance is used in this way to study the influence of motor expertise in perception. Uri Hasson uses films this way to study natural vision. Still, neither art nor science is necessary for its counterpart. This is agreed upon by all parties.
So I agree with Roger Seamon: the (cognitive neuro-) science of art is as relevant to the (philosophy of) art as artistic representations are to science. Each provides data that, where relevant, can be of use to the other. One issue of interest in the philosophy of art, I would argue the central issue, is a question of content. What, after all, is it that artists express and consumers evaluate in their judgments? Artworks are communicative acts, occasions for the communication of emotional, perceptual, and/or semantic content. Questions about our understanding – and evaluation – of particular artworks are, as a result, questions about how we, as consumers, acquire, represent, manipulate, and use information encoded in the surface structure of a work in order to recover their content – and how these processes influence subsequent behavior. Imagine, for instance, that there is a painting that putatively depicts a woman with an enigmatic smile. Imagine further that one influential art critical account identifies this inscrutable, yet dynamic, expression as among its artistically significant features. Now, I think we would want to know whether in fact it was true that consumers experienced the figure as depicted with an enigmatic expression. Of course, I can imagine thinking that verifying this fact wouldn’t carry us very far. A neat parlor trick is just a parlor trick after all. But imagine that psychophysiologists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists shared a theory asserting that individuals automatically read the thoughts and emotions of others off of the dynamics of their facial expressions – a theory about the way individuals automatically orient to one another in dynamic social contexts and synchronize their behavior on the fly. In this case the formal technique used to render the expressive contours of the face in the portrait might be thought of as an expressive tool used intentionally to engage viewers in a dynamic interpersonal affective dialogue with the depicted character. Would these kinds of facts, as Seamon argues, be beside the point, irrelevant to our understanding of the particular expressive and evaluative practices of particular artists and consumers? Different theories of art, e.g., expressionist, aesthetic, and cognitivist theories, privilege different aspects of our engagement with artworks, and consequently ascribe different roles to emotional, perceptual, and semantic content in theories of art. Getting down to the brass tacks of how artworks work, of how consumers, acquire, represent, manipulate, and use information encoded in the surface structure of a work in order to recover its content – and what influence these processes have on subsequent behavior – therefore matters when we set out to evaluate theories of art. If art critical questions about the expressive and evaluative practices of artists and consumers remain beyond the scope of this project, so be it…but I doubt that will turn out to be true.
1. George Dickie, “Is Psychology Relevant to Aesthetics,” The Philosophical Review 71 (3), 1962: 285-302.
2. See Patrick Cavanaugh, “Pictorial Art and Vision,” in Robert A. Wilson and Frank C. Keil, MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999), 648-651; Patrick Cavanaugh, “The Artist as Neuroscientist,” Nature, 434: 301-307.
3. Beatriz Calvo-Merino, Douglas E. Glaser, Julie Grezes, Richard E. Passingham, Patrick Haggard, “Action Observation and Acquired Motor Skills: An fMRI Study with Expert Dancers,” Cerebral Cortex 15(8), 2005: 1243-1249; Emily S. Cross, Antonia Hamilton, and Scott T. Grafton, “Building a Motor Simulation De Novo: Observation of Dance by Dancers,” NeuroImage, 31(3), 2006: 1257-1267.
4. See E. H Gombrich, The Story of Art (New York: Phaidon, 1950), 300-303. Margaret Livingston, Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), 68-73. Note that Livingstone’s account of Mona Lisa’s dynamic expression differs significantly from Gombrich’s.
2011 © William P. Seeley