Art explained by neuroscience?
John Onians has a radical way of approaching art history. Onians, an art historian and Professor Emeritus of the School of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, presented a talk Feb. 26 entitled Art and the Brain: How Neuroscience Can Help the Art Historian. Onians suggests that advances in neuroscience can go a long way in explaining questions such as what goes on in an artist’s mind, and why art is a universal activity but is practiced differently at different times and places – questions typically the domain of art historians.
Based on MRI scans of the brain, Onians maintains that when an artist paints a portrait for example, they are not drawing on what they see directly to produce an image, but rather on memories relating to previous experience drawing certain types of features (such as lips) or how to capture certain lighting.
The notion that artists draw on past experiences seems, in a way, blatantly obvious. But Onians’s “neuroarthistory” – the framing of this simple notion in neuroscientific terms – appears to hold a key to understanding art in a new way.
“All of us in this room, basically all the things we’re good at, we’re good at because we’ve done them many times before, and that lays down neural networks which are private to us, personal to us, and there’s no shortcutting that. That’s the only way you learn a language, an instrument, or a discipline,” said Onians.
For example, Onians hypothesizes that the incredibly realistic perspective of cave paintings in Chauvet, France – some of the oldest known paintings, at about 30,000 years old – as compared to other cave paintings is a result of the inhabitants’ unique opportunity to observe animals often. Since the cave is situated near a natural stone bridge over a major river, it was particularly well travelled by migrating animals. Similarly, Michelangelo created what were by far the most realistic sculptures of nude form up to the 14th century through intense studying and dissection of human corpses.
But Onians also postulates that this approach can explain why large groups of artists produce similar works in similar times. American artists such as Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko and others created large paintings of relatively monotonous colours during the 1950s, which Onians suggests may be a result of the prevalence of imagery and concern in the collective conscience over the relatively monotonous and bare fields of the dustbowl years of the Great Depression a few decades earlier. That these paintings had such powerful appeal to patrons of art, too, might be explained in this way: neural pathways in both the artists and viewers that developed according to scenes common in that era contributed to preferences for artwork with that familiar aesthetic. It’s an approach art historians have never taken before, Onians said.
While this way of understanding art history may seem somewhat mechanistic, Onians was quick to emphasize that it is anything but, as neural pathways are unique to individuals and arranged among hundreds of billions of neurons with hundreds of thousands of links between each of them.