Has anyboy met a brain in a museum lately?

There is an interesting piece by the Nobel Prize Winner (2000) Eric R. Kandel in the New York Times.Titled “What the Brain Can Tell US About Art” Kandel’s piece contributes to discussions about art that have been going on for at least a decade now in the ‘science of the brain’. I remember vividly coming across Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article “The Science of Art” that pursues a similar argument as Kandel’s essay: by studying processes in the brain we can learn something about art itself. Kandel discusses some aspects of the emergence of this idea by briefly discussing the concept of the “beholder’s involvement” or “beholder’s share” as developed by Alois Riegl of the Vienna School of Art History, the teacher of Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich.

As part of the argument Kandel suggests that the brain completes  incomplete information s/he has received from the outer world. Interpretation of art therefore is a cognitive process through which the ‘beholder’ “recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps”. Furthermore, he argues that because our brains develop in much the same ways we are able to “see the world in pretty much the same way”. He thereby lodges intersubjectivity within  individual brains and presumes that intersubjectivity is a result of processes in the brain. Whilst he acknowledges that individual differences between people exist due to their individual life experience (“memories”) he ignores the situation in which people encounter works of art or other objects and how the specifics of that situation influences how people make sense of the pieces.

One situation in which people often encounter works of art are exhibitions in museums and galleries. When they examine a piece they are often with friends or acquaintances and in the presence of other people who spend time in the same gallery at the same time. The actions of all these people are perceiveable by all those in range and influence how they explore the galleries, what they look and for long and how they see and make sense of it. In museums, the individual spectator or ‘beholder’ is a myth that we rarely meet. For example, people stop at and examine works of art together. They stand with a companion side-by-side and sometimes, ‘independently’, at least for a short while, look to the piece. As their eyes cross the canvas, for instance of a famous Rembrandt portrait, something like Kandel’s version of interpretation might happen. But often already after two or three seconds one of them will refer to and comment on a particular exhibit feature that then for a short moment becomes the focus of the interaction between the pair. They briefly talk about the feature and then either return to an ‘independent’ inspection of the piece or leave the exhibit to continue with their exploration of the museum elsewhere.

The short moment when the two people align their perspectives to look a particular exhibit feature together and discuss it is when something is produced, momentarily, that we might call intersubjectivity. It is not lodged inside the people’s brains but the product of their oral and bodily actions. A moment later when the action stops the intersubjective sense making of the piece dissolves and the people continue their visit of the museum.

When calling the examination of the piece prior to the interactional engagment ‘independent’ I did not presume that the actions at the exhibit-face were arising separate from each other. Rather while the eyes cross the canvas of the painting the visitors are aware of each other and attend to even slight changes in posture and head direction as well as even to slight movements of the legs and feet that may display or foreshadow a shift in activity. ‘Independent’ and ‘individual’ therefore are not appropriate terms to describe even those moments when people  stand and look at exhibits while standing side-by-side without talking.

Essays like Kandel’s or Ramachandran and Hirstein’s article reflect how we think about looking at and interpreting art. “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” has become a folk description of aesthitic judgments. Interestingly however the statement is often used to account for differences in aesthetic judgment and not to display intersubjective agreement about aesthetics. Kandel’s point also resonates with us as readers who sit there individually ‘interpreting’ a text that in this moment is not available to others. I read the piece in an armchair while nobody else was around in the house. Imagine the article printed on a large poster or series of posters and being read by people in pairs. Maybe like those visitors facing Rembrandt’s portrait they would stop half-way through, discuss and maybe disagree about Kandel’s claim that intersubjectivity arises in our brains.

Essays and books like Kandel’s (2012) “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconsciousness in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present” are fascinating reads. However, I wonder when the time will come that this kind of brain science will leave the laboratory and be made relevant where ‘the rubber hits the road’ or where people with brains, bodies and the ability to communicate and interact face works of art.


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