Look Me in the Eye

Julian Bell

  • Splendours and Miseries of the Brain: Love, Creativity and the Quest for Human Happiness by Semir Zeki
    Wiley-Blackwell, 234 pp, £16.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 1 4051 8557 8
  • Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki by John Onians
    Yale, 225 pp, £18.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 12677 8
  • Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images by Barbara Maria Stafford
    Chicago, 281 pp, £20.50, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 226 77052 9

‘We’re confident it’s real’: Arthur Aron is a psychologist who has discovered that blood-flows in the brains of people claiming to be in love after decades of marriage resemble those of new lovers. Romance may authentically survive: ‘That’s what the brain scans are telling us. People can’t fake that.’ ‘Brain-Scan Lie Detectors Coming in Near Future,’ runs a news story, cued by a San Diego company press release. Will they become part of legal routine, or will they flicker and fade, like the neural theology predicted ten years back? ‘Brain scan of nuns finds no single “God spot” in the brain,’ we have since been told. Some 17 years after its initial demonstration, fMRI – the ‘functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ technique for examining what is happening in the brain – has gained a lodgment in talk beyond the lab. Alluringly, it treats us to pictures. Carefully settle your head inside the tunnel of that $3 million machine, fix your attention on God or your spouse or your witness statement, and an activated magnetic field will be minutely deflected here and there, as blood moves towards areas where brain cells have been active: patterns that get translated into ever finer-grained screen displays. These supposed maps of thought have lent colour to such projects of the last decade as ‘neuroethics’ and ‘neuromarketing’. (The latter took off five years ago, with a study comparing the way Pepsi and Coca-Cola affected the brain’s ‘reward centres’.) Traffic-light colour, most often: in the standard graphics, reds or greens are seen to inflame sundry patches of an isolated, ruckled grey mass with a slippery sheen.

Rather faintly, that image overlaps with the memory of the crisp yet succulent cervella di vitello I used to dine on in Italian restaurants; not at all with the flavour of my daily thoughts as I paint or talk about art. The smart dismissal of fMRI ‘mind-reading’ that I hear from many other sceptical arts types is that this is the new phrenology, certain to join all that head-bump-fondling of the early 19th century in the limbo of loopily literal attempts at out-and-out materialism. Yet there are reasons to think that with their images of what happens inside our brains when we look at pictures, neurologists using fMRI – notably, Semir Zeki – have pointed art studies in a significant new direction. John Onians and Barbara Maria Stafford, both art historians, certainly think so, though Neuroarthistory and Echo Objects argue the case in quite different ways.

What might the far view be, from this new bend in the road? Suppose we could arrive at adequate physical descriptions of all the main stages linking the reception of light by the retina to the passage of electrical impulses through the optic nerve and up to the cortex or upper layer of the brain with its 11 billion neurons, then out to the nerves that govern the operations of an artist’s hand. Suppose we could in this manner bypass the smokescreens of ‘genius’ and ‘inspiration’ put up by artists; further, that we could make good the proposition Zeki floats, that our experiences of ‘art, love and beauty . . . can be correlated directly with activity in specialised areas of the brain.’ Building on a biology of culture of this kind, we might finally be able to subsume both art history and natural history within a ‘big history’ such as those outlined by the American writers David Christian and Cynthia Stokes Brown – or, in the terminology of Edward O. Wilson, in a ‘consilience’, a convergence of intellectual disciplines, humanities with science.

Ultimately, all teaching in the fine arts department pays a kind of homage to self-will. First defined in the 15th century by Leonardo Bruni as studies meant to ‘perfect and adorn a human being’, the humanities to this day sing their ability to turn out individuals capable of independent critical thought. At the same time, in order to arm these free minds they have frequently, and paradoxically, relied on critical methods that pick subjectivity apart, demolishing claims to autonomous individuality. This was less evident while fine art studies were expanding in the Anglophone world during the postwar period. Connoisseurship and scholarship were still self-evident vessels of authority. It was as a scholar negotiating between two other honoured bearers of cultural value, the artist and the scientist, that Ernst Gombrich explored the question of how pictures relate to reality in 1960 in Art and Illusion, and a similar equipoise was subsequently maintained in the writings of Michael Baxandall. But how long can you keep a department running by reference to a certain tone of voice? A greater security for its onward operation, a sounder status in academic bargaining, seemed promised by the panoramic critiques of authorship that were sweeping through other parts of the academy. From the 1970s social-historical, and then from the 1980s poststructuralist approaches moved in on the art department.

These were methodologies which served the staff well: smart ways to assert authority by deconstructing the category. Poststructuralism has been in retreat ever since the mid-1990s, when various practitioners’ attempts to question the autonomy of science led various scientists to counter-attack, ridiculing its presumption that all qualities of the mind stem from socially produced fabrics of meaning. The subsequent trend in the humanities to pin down those qualities instead to patches of a ruckled grey blob indicates who had the better of the argument. But the underlying agenda remains the same: art studies need to reach to outside sources for intellectual validation in order to bolster their own authority. The character of the turn can be seen in the introduction to Neuroarthistory, John Onians’s combative retracing of the intellectual itineraries that have led to the present. Onians hails the recent conversion to his own pro-scientific outlook of Norman Bryson, the art historian who in the 1980s launched the poststructuralist makeover of Anglophone art studies with Vision and Painting, a high-powered assault on Gombrich and his belief that pictures relate to ‘reality’. By 2001, Bryson was putting behind him the semiotic arguments he had deployed in that attack, deeming them ‘essentially clerical’, and turning excitedly towards neuropsychology.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in