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The Artful Species compared to The Age of Insight

May 18, 2013

Several people have asked me how I would compare my book, The Artful Species, with Eric R. Kandel’s The age of insight: the quest to understand the unconscious in art, mind, and brain: from Vienna 1900 to the present, New York: Random House, 2012. I’m now in a position to do so.

Professor Kandel is a distinguished neuroscientist and his book is an interesting study in the neuroaesthetics of visual art with special reference to Klimt, Kokoschka, and Schiele. It’s a big work, well illustrated. There is some of the usual pedestrian stuff: we process pictures of faces much as we process faces, we read off people’s thoughts and emotions from how they appear in the painting, etc. And there is the obligatory appeal to mirror neurons. But Kandel does rather better than Zeki, Ramachandran, et al. in showing how departures from realism (in the case of 20th Century Expressionists) work on the brain to produce artistic effects that control the viewer’s response. There is also detailed discussion of vision, of emotion, of empathy (which is never distinguished from sympathy or emotional contagion), and of creativity.

(If you want to see something at the opposite end of the spectrum, read Raymond Tallis’s Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, Durham: Acumen, 2011. Though Tallis is also a neuroscientist, he regards Kandel and his like as neuromaniacs who anthropomorphize the brain and ignore the facts of human agency. Compare their respective accounts of Libet’s experiments on voluntary decision-making, for example. Tallis criticizes the claims made on behalf of neuroaesthetics, along with neurolaw, neuroethics, and neurotheology.)

My book says comparatively little about neuroaesthetics for reasons set out at p. 160: mostly it does not help us understand artworks better as artworks and, in any case, it does not commit itself to claims about the evolutionary origins of aesthetic and art behaviors, which is the primary focus of my book. Kandel cites Denis Dutton, Nancy Aiken, and Ellen Dissanayake to the effect that art is an adaptation, but he does not elaborate their views or critically examine their arguments. As well, he accepts the narrow account of human beauty presented by evolutionary psychologists that I challenge and reject. He mentions Venus figurines and cave art, but not in the context of discussing the evolutionary origins of such behaviors.

In my book I am interested in a broad spread of arts, including prehistoric, folk, and popular kinds. I discuss music and literature, as well as visual art. My concern is with connections between our art behaviors and our evolved human nature, especially as this was formed in the lifeways of our hunter-forager ancestors. At the same time, I think the content and value of contemporary art is likely to have transcended these origins.

So, our projects and approaches are very different.

One Comment
  1. I appreciate this post very much, Stephen. I agree with your reservations about “neuroaesthetics” (as presently conceived). I had not heard before that in his recent book Eric Kandel had mentioned my name as a proponent of a theory that art is adaptive. Of course I am disappointed that he did not describe or comment on my particular hypothesis. Recently, I learned that Michael Gazzaniga (whose work I respect and admire as much as Prof. Kandel’s) had also mentioned my name as a theorist of evolution and the arts in his recent popular book. But, like Kandel, he said nothing about it. This makes me think that in both cases, these distinguished neuroscientists seem to have had someone else do a literature search and then, in their books, they just dropped some names as if they were familiar with our arguments and conclusions. Any hope I might have had that someone like Kandel or Gazzaniga would know about and take my work seriously is vain.

    In this respect, I very much admire the comprehensiveness of your book. You seem to have read and engaged with every author in every field on the subject of art/arts and evolution. In most if not all cases you describe their position, or parts thereof, and say what you think about them. You obviously don’t invoke the names of authors whose work you don’t know, even those who are neuroscientists, e.g., S. Brown, Ramachandran, Solso, Zeki.

    Ellen (Dissanayake)
    P.S. Note recent change of e-mail address.

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