Book Review: New Brain Trends in Art, Onians’ “Neuroarthistory”

The following review was published in the Mind’s Eye: a Liberal Arts Journal, 2012


New Brain Trends in Art, a Review of Neuroarthistory: from Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki

By Gregory Scheckler

Scholars Rudolf Arnheim and Ernst Gombrich grounded their work in art history and the psychology of perception. But around the 1980s as their work grew to maturity, a contrary movement developed. It became influential: postmodern deconstructivism, also called post-structuralism. Major arts venues and magazines promoted deconstructivism, and argued that all truths were equally interchangeable constructs supported by political power rather than quality assessment of and discovery of the facts. Derrida, Baudrillard, and Foucault became household names in art circles, whereas Arnheim and Gombrich and their colleagues didn’t gain such fame. Nevertheless the Arnheims and Gombrichs of the arts created vast amounts of productive study. Leaning forward from and summarizing their viewpoints is John Onian’s text Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki
(Yale University Press, 2007). His book is both compelling and reliable, and should be required reading for graduate seminars in art theory and practice. It clarifies links among the arts and sciences, and even contains some good news for the few remaining post-structuralists.

Organized by chapter by art theorist or philosopher, Onians’ book places neurological outlooks into historical contexts. Each chapter begins with a brief biography of each theorist, and then a summary of their work as related to ideas of neuroscience and contemporary art theory.

Onian’s text is for the informed reader of art history and general science — it helps to have come across Plato’s Timaeus and Republic, Hippolyte Taine’s On Intelligence, Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and Gombrich’s Art and Illusion. Onians also detailed the sources of each thinker’s ideas, linking them to larger trends of philosophy and culture. This in turn has the effect of showing just how little early philosophers actually knew about the brain. We can learn how their guesses inform later thinkers’ questions, which gradually develops into yet better questions. Onians’ book also updates many older theses. As such Onians book provides many snapshots of how knowledge is built, which should interest historians of science as much as students of art.

One bonus for arts writers and art historians: as our understanding of neuroscience improves, so too must we update our understandings of the arts. Rather than engaging seemingly endless literary analyses and post-structuralist jargonizing, we can fine-tune our knowledge and relate it to new evidence. Better yet, as revisions must needs occur, the arts might eventually gain a series of verifiable consensus viewpoints about how art functions. That would indeed be a welcome change away from the 20th Century belief that in art anything goes, that art really only is subjective relativism. And herein is a warning for the reader: since this book’s publication, many new neuroscience studies have continued to advance – some of Onians’ details may already be outdated. Fortunately the broad principles most likely still apply.

That knowledge can progress and become more precise is a serious problem for postmoderns. One bonus for post-structuralists: Onians text firmly establishes how contemporary neurology articulates much of what the postmodern theorist in art was so enamored of — the plurality and diversity of the arts, the subjectivity of experience, the multiple drafts of imagery and interpretation occurring simultaneously. But Onians points out, as have so many critics of deconstructivism, that these values can remain intact without having to give up on the sciences. Indeed by embracing recent discoveries, we gain better footing than mere art theories. Post-structuralists may need to give up on their mere insistence on their ideas, but they get to keep many of their values, and using neurological evidence, can demonstrate the necessity and viability of a few of their core values.

One problem facing neuroscientific views of the arts: false stereotypes of science as rending mystery with its reductions of pure logic. Such stereotypes of the sciences sit at the center of reactions against science in general: how can you reduce art to something so lacking passion, so emotionless, so lacking in mystery? Neuroscience, for example, shows us that the mind is what the brain does, and not all that the brain does. But before you dismiss this common contemporary statement about the mind as a mechanistic reduction belittling the magic of the soul, you should understand that the brain is intricate — to say that the mind is much of what the brain does is to say that the mind, whatever it is, is borne of a beautiful series of interlayered, interwoven, and interdependent intricacies that we are beginning to understand, that we know to be constantly modeling and remodeling and filtering and amplifying all aspects of our experience. The intricacies of the brain are astonishingly beautiful, more so for being real and verifiable.

Another problem: we might also ask what makes the visual arts, as perhaps emergent properties of cognition, any different than the brain-worlds of visual perceptions that aren’t art, but are visual? With neurological approaches, we run the risk of making statements about art that are a little too global or all-encompassing, and as such it’s difficult to find any conclusions that apply to the practice of making new artworks.

But this shouldn’t deter us, to the contrary, I think it’s exciting for us to have a great deal more to discover. Onians’ book certainly is a good proof of this excitement. And just as art helped unpack early ideas of anatomy, and early optics, perhaps today it can help us learn to understand some of the laws of the mind. I’m reminded of the great teacher Sir Joshua Reynold’s prescient words from his 18th Century Discourses on Painting, that “a room hung with pictures is a room hung with thoughts.” Onians’ text concurs, and expands on this profound theme, providing an outstanding overview of ideas and evidences: reading it is reading a new, 21st century approach to art history.

About the author: Gregory Scheckler is Professor of Art at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, a member of the Massachusetts State University system. He can often be found skiing and hiking New England. He lives in Williamstown, MA.  

Inside/Outside #3[Inside/Outside, photo by G. Scheckler]