On Neuroaesthetics, or the Productive Exercise of Looking at Art

Researcher and art historian Jonathan Fineberg discusses the evolutionary and neurological benefits of looking at art.

Jean Dubuffet, "Fluence," (November 19, 1984), acrylic on canvas-backed paper, 39 1/2 x 52 3/4 in (photo by Ellen Page Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery; © 2013 Jean Dubuffet/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Jean Dubuffet, “Fluence,” (November 19, 1984), acrylic on canvas-backed paper, 39 1/2 x 52 3/4 in (photo by Ellen Page Wilson, courtesy Pace Gallery; © 2013 Jean Dubuffet/Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

We now know that certain forms of visual art increase connectivity and plasticity in our brains when we engage with their nebulous compositional propositions. Such alternative, neuroplastic wonderlands are something that Jonathan Fineberg is tackling as director of an emerging art-science Ph.D. program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

The program’s budding syllabus is something of an apogee to Fineberg’s carer, building on his experiences as Professor of Art History Emeritus at the University of Illinois and Trustee Emeritus of the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC — where he was founding Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art. In preparation for this endeavor, Fineberg studied psychoanalysis at the Boston and Western New England Psychoanalytic Institutes. He has curated numerous exhibitions and received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Fellowship in Critical Writing, the NEA Art Critic’s Fellowship, senior fellowships from the Dedalus Foundation and the Japan Foundation, and the College Art Association’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in the History of Art.

Recently, I talked with him about the innovative neuroaesthetic Ph.D. program that he and his colleagues are now developing at the University of the Arts; about Donald Trump, art, and politics; and about his newest book on modern art and neuroaesthetics, Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain.

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Joseph Nechvatal: After hearing this summer about your move to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia so as to develop a new and very unique Ph.D. program in creativity that accentuates neuroaesthetics, I picked up your book Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain (University of Nebraska Press) and read it in one long bolt. It nippily engaged me with an astute exploratory interface between neuroscience and modern art. For the modern art side, you draw mostly on the work of Robert Motherwell, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Pablo Picasso and Jean Dubuffet. Your personal experiences with some of these artists are riveting, but I found your approach much broader than the title suggests.

(courtesy University of Nebraska Press)
(courtesy University of Nebraska Press)

You pepper your book with an image from 28,000 BCE: a painting from the cave of Chauvet, which holds the world’s oldest known cave paintings (between six and ten times older than the first forms of written language). You also discuss a 19th-century magical African sculpture from the Kongo and images of Chartres Cathedral. And there are more recent, postmodern artists under consideration in the book: Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Andrea Fraser, and Buzz Spector. Still, the thrust of your inquiry seems to me to be a scuffle between neuroaesthetics and the Dada and Surrealist styles that stemmed from the unconscious. This psychoanalytic approach based in chance and dreams — which travels in irrational enigma — comes into contact at the end of the book with recent rational approaches of neuroaesthetics. In that sense, your book (and, I presume, your new Ph.D. program) attempts to bridge the gap between hard-science neural biology and post-Dada art aesthetics.

You suggest that the complex enigmas posed by some modern and postmodern art contain a rich cultural activity for brain biology to study, but they are also the way that ordinary human brains may gain greater elasticity. Miró’s “Drawing-Collage” (1933) and Picasso’s Cubist portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) seem to both be great examples, which you use well. At the book’s end, you seem to suggest that some overly rational neural approaches to art — some that stemmed from Dr. Semir Zeki’s Institute of Neuroaesthetics — are too reductionist to understand the rupturing that visual-mental noise needs in forming great art that challenges and moves us. It seems to me that you wish to retain an emphasis on the unconscious in light of neural science. Does this detainment of noisy enigma undercut neuroaesthetics’ benefits? Are you suggesting that brain science will never suffice?

Jonathan Fineberg: You definitely did understand me correctly and I appreciate getting such a thoughtful read. Although I do want to say something about Zeki. He is a brilliant scientist who completely gets the power of art. It’s not reductive to use everything we know from a scientific perspective as we attempt to grasp what happens in the brain when we look at a painting or listen to a piece of music. It’s only a partial view of course, and Zeki is the first to acknowledge that we don’t yet have the tools to see what we’d really like to see there, let alone comprehend its dynamics. His work and mine are about trying to enlarge our understanding with any means we can find. I don’t want to speak for Zeki, but I don’t think he believes any more than I do that we can ultimately reduce aesthetic experience to a chemical description. It was reading Zeki and conversing with him that gave me the idea that we could extrapolate a great deal that is not knowable with today’s science by examining a work of art and attempting to reverse engineer, so to speak, the sequencing of the brain. As an example, I tried to do this by carefully analyzing a late painting by Dubuffet called “Fluence” (1984). It was also Zeki who suggested to me that if we’re still making images after 30,000 years when written language has only been around for 3,000, we must need them for some enduring reason. Where that line of reasoning took me was the speculation at the end of the book that art (though not only art) exercises the ability of the brain to perceive and creatively adapt to new realities, which is a fundamental survival skill.

It’s very helpful to think about the physiology of the eye to understand why this is so. First, the human retina has about a billion and a half cells, mostly receptors of different sorts, and the optic nerve which carries the information to the visual processing centers in the brain has less than half that number of cells. So there must already be some level of processing going on in the retina before the data goes to the optic nerve. Furthermore, that information is carried by the optic nerve entirely by electrical impulses. Why? Because speed is important and chemical transmission (which happens nearly everywhere else in the brain) is slower. Lastly, the scientific evidence suggests that most of what we think we see comes from visual processing, perhaps just 20% comes from the actual input to the retina. Again, what is the evolutionary purpose of this? If we encounter a predator and had to construct what we’re seeing from scratch each time, we’d get eaten. So the brain searches the closest match that is already constructed in memory and modifies it with new input from the eye so we can figure out fast if we need to run for it. Looking at art exercises our ability to innovate images.

JN: Besides your becoming a professor at University of the Arts, you are Trustee Emeritus of the Phillips Collection, where you were the founding Director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art. In the footnotes of your book, I learned that in 2006 you organized a conference that Zeki attended entitled “Art and the Brain” at the Phillips Collection. Research in neuroaesthetics involves measuring brain activity by using medical technology like fMRI machines as subjects look at works of art. It also involves looking at people with different brain disorders to see how this affects their ability to appreciate or create art. Have there been brain-art breakthroughs since 2006 that spurred you on to develop this new Ph.D. program at the University of the Arts?

JF: I intended the symposium at the Phillips Collection to put art and neuroscience together to see in what ways they might each illuminate the other. First, I love objects and that’s why I love the Phillips Collection. I also love the smell of the studio, so to speak, and I came to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia because it’s an art school and it’s all about “making” on a very high level. I met the brilliant new president of the University of the Arts, David Yager, at a meeting of the National Academies of Science and Engineering last year. We got into a conversation about Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain and after this conversation I knew that retiring to write full time just wasn’t in the cards for me anymore; I had to go work with this guy. I’m only in my first months on the job but my task is to help him create a Ph.D. in creativity: a kind of bespoke Ph.D. for individuals wanting to pursue a high-level project for which there is no Ph.D. program anywhere. I feel like Barnett Newman must have felt painting paintings that he knew wouldn’t fit in his gallery (Betty Parsons). He had to carry them out onto the street just to turn them around. Like Newman, David Yager and my colleagues at UArts are attempting to create something radically new that doesn’t fit in the available boxes. We want to see if the right infusion of the arts into the practice of any profession or scholarly inquiry can make a more creative practitioner and the idea comes right out something I played with especially in the last chapter of Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain, looking at the enigmatic experience of the work of art.

Reading Zeki started me thinking about how creative problem solving might work in the brain on a very physical level. We constantly need to redesign the synaptic connections in the brain to deal with the complex realities we encounter every day. The brain is the fastest evolving organism in the human body. When you use an fMRI to look at visual processing in the brain you see that the brain doesn’t just rely on the visual processing centers to create a mental image of what’s in front of the eyes, it goes searching all the available resources in the brain to see what can be brought to bear on the problem. The human brain is distinguished by its very large cerebral cortex, which is a dense bundle of complex connections between brain cells. If you look on the web, as I just did, you’ll read that “the frontal lobes are involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior.” What else is there?! It is a constantly evolving web of pathways for assembling meaning and acting on it. What I learned from the science helped me grasp the dynamics, but it certainly didn’t reduce art to a predictable formula. This helped me understand why the ultimately unresolvable, unknowable nature of a great work of art prepares us to survive, because, as Paul Valéry famously said, “the trouble with the future is that it isn’t what it used to be,” and art helps us adapt.

JN: I enjoyed the way your book built up to neuroaesthetics through the elusive problem of form you identified and framed through a Freudian understanding of repression in the abstract representation of Motherwell’s mark making. I believe this was based on your investigation of Motherwell that you developed working closely with him for an essay in Artforum in 1978. This opening chapter deepened my understanding of his and your work. You then led me to a better understanding of Miró’s and Calder’s equally (and prior) abstract grammar that was also illuminated in terms of abstract visual thinking. This quality of abstract openness seems to me the central challenge to neuroaesthetics, and I would add to artificial intelligence. You focus in on the importance for good art of a mental and visceral openness that escapes certitude to the point where the formal definition of the work of art itself (via Duchamp) is open to interpretation — something Umberto Eco also identified well in his book The Open Work.

I have been thinking about that tolerant openness in culture since the election of Donald Trump as US President. Your political chapter stresses subtle political engagements through abstract visual grammar — but it was written before Trump came to power and changed American culture. Abstract subtlety seems threatened by crude pop obviousness now; subtle, abstract thinking and visual complexity are perhaps more important (albeit fragile) than ever. To understand the Trumpian mindset, I watched Steve Bannon’s 2010 documentary film Generation Zero, in which he, in terms of extreme historical urgency, basically blames cultural openness (rather than the greed of developers and the Wall Street bankers) as the cause of the financial crisis of 2007–08 that brought the backlash to globalization and the Trump wave behind it. In the film, Bannon predicts with moral zeal a cleaning out of the old cultural order of openness so as to build a new nationalist populism in its place. He calls this a great (fourth) turning. Since the surprising and shocking Trump election, have you re-thought your chapter on art and politics, with its emphasis on iconic abstract specificity as a liberating mode of expression of primal instincts?

JF: Obviously, this is on all of our minds; it’s hard to watch the demise of American democracy and influence. But I don’t think art can fix that directly. However, I do believe art can alter the terms on which we meet the world. The projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude do this on a very large scale, which is intriguing. They do so by engendering a radical openness among large numbers of people and that experience transcends political loyalties. The result is real political change through empathic collaboration and insight into the mechanisms which govern our immediate reality. The work is so beautiful it unhinges the hierarchies with which we approach things. I like to say that a great work of art is like falling in love: it’s terrifying to let another person into your psychic organization so deeply and yet you can’t fall in love without doing that. Opening up comes from having faith in a profoundly gratifying relationship which gives you the confidence to let go a little. That is exactly what a Christo and Jeanne-Claude project does to people and indeed what all great works of art do. In the book, I quoted some remarks by Freud that come from the preamble to his essay on “The Moses of Michelangelo” in which he said that when we are really moved by a great work of art we experience something that we can’t explain and it bewilders us. Michelangelo’s sculpture had that affect on Freud although Freud wants to deny it, saying he can’t derive any pleasure from a work of art unless he can explain how it affects him. It’s remarkable that Freud could be so clear about his neurotic defense and nevertheless be absolutely correct that we have to allow this feeling of bewilderment in order to benefit from a work of art. We are awe-struck in the presence of Christo and Jeanne-Claude projects, in front Michelango’s “Moses,” the Cathedral of Chartres, Andrea Fraser’s performances, or any other great work of art and if it touches us profoundly it disorganizes us emotionally, taking down some of our defenses and making us more available to engage other people.

Joan Miró, "Drawing-Collage" (September 25, 1933), conté crayon, printed paper, and postcards on flocked paper, 42 x 27 1/2 in, private collection (© 2013 Successio Miro / Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)
Joan Miró, “Drawing-Collage” (September 25, 1933), conté crayon, printed paper, and postcards on flocked paper, 42 x 27 1/2 in, private collection (© 2013 Successio Miro / Artists Rights Society/ARS, New York / ADAGP, Paris)

I sense your frustration that art and intellectual conversations like this one aren’t able to do more about the terrifying political reality we find ourselves in right now. I also understand your conundrum with regard to neuroscience’s attempt to “explain” things. With regard to the former, I believe that since World War Two we have more and more outsourced parenting to coaches, guidance counsellors, teachers, pediatricians, social service agencies, and mandated behavioral “guidelines” to the point that we have eroded parental role models. Parents used to bear the responsibility of transmitting culture and this provided role model on which young egos formed. The boundaries around a firm idea of oneself have been diffused by mass marketing and consumerism. We sense that inner void and attempt to fill it up with possessions and define ourselves increasingly in terms of what others value. This is at the heart of the epidemic of narcissism that has arisen over the past half century. The megalomaniacs on Wall Street (but not only Wall St.) come from an insatiable hunger to fill that inner void. My book A Troublesome Subject: The Art of Robert Arneson turns on this argument. But great works of art — whether Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the builders of Chartres Cathedral, the socially engaged artists like Theaster Gates, the expressionism of a painter like Goya, the raw vulnerability which we all instantly feel in Andrea Fraser’s work, or the profound humanism of the paintings of Kerry James Marshall, to cite just a few examples — get people to open up to one another on a human level rather than on an ideological level. This is how art works, slowly but profoundly, on a culture.

I also want to return to your other concern about the reductive potential of neuroaesthetics. I don’t believe science necessarily leads to reductive explanations nor that it levels individuality. The complexity of the human brain, the quantity of data, the sheer number of cells involved in any significant activity is so great as to introduce an infinite set of variations. Complexity Theory and quantum point to an inherent and ineradicable unpredictability that, as you said, makes me believe that we can never reduce the creative productivity of the human mind to a formula. We can, however, learn a lot about how it works and knowing that enhances our productivity and success at doing things.

JN: Clearly your positive attitude is reflected in your book, which I should add is based on your Presidential Lectures at the University of Nebraska. The illustrated narrative you weave does a great job of opening up for consideration the relationship between artistic production, neuroscience, and the way we make personal and political meaning in art. But how about we talk a bit more about the uncertain, open, and deconstructive process of art that right wing reactionary politics and the hard science of neuroaesthetics has a hard time with by considering the previously mentioned Dubuffet painting, “Fluence”? It was one of the paintings I saw in Pace Gallery’s 2012 show of late Dubuffet paintings. “Fluence,” an abstract network image, was chosen for your book’s cover and you dwell on it in the final seven pages of your book to close your argument, so obviously it is an important work for you. After investigating the ocular grammar of visual noise, and considering it as visual glossolalia in my book on cultural noise Immersion Into Noise, I found your analysis of what you call the aspatial quality of “Fluence” suggestive of what I found to be the importance of excess in a deconstructive glossolalia that entails a collapse of figure and ground distinctions. Am I correct to say that fluid, layered, simultaneous aspatiality is at the core of your evolutionary theory of visual art?

I think that as much as we need to organize our thoughts and politics and represent them in our memory, we need also to undo those patterns through visually ambiguous and excessive aesthetic experiences. I discovered this through my early drawings and then within the engraved Apse of Lascaux, where my gaze was overwhelmed by an all-inclusive flood of sublimated optic information. What fascinated me about the Apse was exactly its cryptic, all-over iconographic character (what Bataille called its fouillis). The Apse’s imagery (if we can call it that) — like “Fluence” — has a boundless, palimpsest-like, and explosive quality that requires visual stamina, but it is not fully abstract. It is made up of overlapping near non-photo-reproducible drawings from which, when sustained visual attention is maintained, other unexpected configurations visually emerge. Here, animal forms are superimposed in chaotic discourse, some fully and carefully rendered, others unfulfilled and left open to penetration by the environment, all commingled with an extraordinary confused jumble of lines. Its extensive use of superimposed multiple-operative optic perception presents the viewer with no single point of reference, no orientation, no top, no bottom, no left, no right, and no separate parts to its whole. Such visual thought is outside of spatiality; something deeply suggestive of the non-spatial character of consciousness itself. It struck me that its transcending of differentiation seemed an imposition onto Paleolithic culture of the very thing that should destabilize it: nihilism. Nihilism in that it is no longer a matter of perceiving heterogeneous figuration, but of scanning a homospatial criss-crossing and oscillating battle scene between interwoven figures, immersed in their ideational ground with which they have merged in a deliberate process of constitutional de-figurization. This does not align with your belief in the powers of social reformation based on interpersonal engagements around art, but does it line up with your evolutionary research on perception and art? Do you think that such nihilistic noisy excess is beneficial and may even include the pleasure of social communion?

JF: I love your description of seeing the “bewildering” (Freud’s word) Apse of the Cave at Lascaux. It is precisely what I wanted to convey about Dubuffet’s painting “Fluence.” You can never entirely resolve it into a single reading and that “fluidity” forces you to continue to regroup as you look at it. Aspatiality is only a part of the larger deconstructive power, to use your term, of these works of art. I like that you speak of “explosiveness” and the need for “stamina” because this chaotic turn in consciousness is a powerful force to reckon with. The distinction between figuration and abstraction is also complicated by the way the fluidity of the mind brings them together conceptually. It’s not that we have “transcended differentiation” or spatiality but that our minds move discrete ideas around, juxtaposing them to one another in constantly new ways that may defy linear logic.

It is certainly true that science (and for that matter art history) focuses on details and advances by little steps. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t use what we’ve learned to speculate broadly nor does it mean that we will ever explain away our creativity. This is the anxiety of every creative person who goes into psychoanalysis too: will I lose my creativity if I understand my neurosis? In fact, the opposite is true; psychoanalysis liberates creativity just as careful scientific work opens new questions we couldn’t have thought of before and enables the brain to do even more. Sometimes a little discovery can blast away a monumental superstructure in thought, like the Michelson–Morley experiment which was performed to demonstrate the effect of the aether winds on the speed of light; but it just didn’t work and that failure led to the discovery of special relativity and sent aether winds to the dust bin. So when you asked about my art theory, I would say it centers on how humans use works of art to bring coherence to their experience and to interact with other human beings. But it also values the constant stirring up of fixed ideas as an exhilarating path to innovation. I don’t see any conflict with science and while some scientists are deterministic, others accept the kind of radical and perpetual revision of reality by the ideas embodied in works of art that you and I both appreciate so much. Part of what sets artists apart is their tolerance for the messy disorder of the world; in general, people want to clean up (giving us the sensation of bringing things under control; whereas thing are never really in control). My friend Harold Rosenberg once remarked to me that, in contrast to Clement Greenberg who liked everything ordered in straight lines, Rosenberg and I belonged to what he called “the wild man party.” Perhaps I ought to close by saying that we don’t really know anything about the future except that it won’t be like the present. If you want strong abs you do a lot of sit-ups, but if you want to increase the agility of your brain to respond to the unexpected, art is a great form of exercise.

Jonathan Fineberg’s Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain is available from the University of Nebraska Press.

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