Neuroaesthetics

Philosophy is in a strange place right now.  It struggles for relevance while the empirical sciences continue to master every area over which it once held sway.  In an interview with The Atlantic, physicist Lawrence Krauss puts it this way:

There are areas of philosophy that are important, but I think of them as being subsumed by other fields. In the case of descriptive philosophy you have literature or logic, which in my view is really mathematics. Formal logic is mathematics, and there are philosophers like Wittgenstein that are very mathematical, but what they’re really doing is mathematics—it’s not talking about things that have affected computer science, it’s mathematical logic. And again, I think of the interesting work in philosophy as being subsumed by other disciplines like history, literature, and to some extent political science insofar as ethics can be said to fall under that heading. To me what philosophy does best is reflect on knowledge that’s generated in other areas.

Alas, it seems that even aesthetics must now be subsumed by the sciences.  This is not a bad thing.  Why rely on metaphysical conjecture when physical data exists?  Indeed, the most interesting work being done in aesthetics right now relies on behavioral, psychological, and neurological data.  This interdisciplinary approach to art, I learned, is called “neuroaesthetics.”

In a blog post on Psychology Today, Dr. William Hirstein makes a strong case for this exciting new field “in which researchers attempt to understand how the brain responds to art.”   He asks:

What happens in the brain when people listen to their favorite piece of music or appreciate a great painting? Why do all human societies create and value art? How did a creature subject to the evolutionary process evolve the need for art? Does producing art have some sort of survival value for us, or is it merely associated with some more pragmatic trait that does?

Hirstein makes it clear that not all are happy with the idea of philosophy moving in this direction.  I am sure that neuroaesthetics strikes many as cold and detached.  For them, the mysteries of art remain forever outside the province of science.  But I think that such an approach is just what is needed.  In fact, I see no other alternative.

According to Hirstein:

If we refuse to look inside the skull, the tremendous variety of artworks can start to make the process of understanding what they have in common look hopeless. According to a view called “particularism” each artwork must be understood on its own merits, which may have nothing in common with any other artwork. But then how can we ever meaningfully speak and think about artists and art in general? Neuroaesthetics promises to break this deadlock by finding that the vast variety of artworks do have something in common: the response they provoke in our brains.

When I was studying the similarities between art and food, this type of neurological data was most helpful.  I suspect, too, that further studies in neuroaesthetics will demonstrate that the brain responds to other types of phenomena in a way eerily similar to that in which it responds to art. This will prove especially enlightening, and I look forward to the many new discoveries that work in this field is bound to yield.

Further reading:

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Art and Criticism (Again)

When I started this blog last year, I had a more esoteric view of art than I do now.  Also, if one thing should be clear from my most recent posts, I no longer think that the usual definitions of art (e.g., Joyce’s) are sufficient to cover the full spectrum of human aesthetic experience.  Indeed, I already amended Joyce’s definition (via institutional theories of art) to suit my purposes:

Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end, whereby the aesthetic end is determined by context, tradition (i.e., established evaluative criteria), and audience (i.e., critical appraisal)–not by the artist.

This is adequate, but it still sounds unnecessarily academic.  Are there better definitions out there?

In a recent essay about an appearance of the Blue Man Group on The Celebrity Apprentice, Penn Jillette offered his partner Teller’s definition of art: “Whatever we do after the chores are done.”  I kind of like that.  I’m also fond of Marshall McLuhan’s dictum: “Art is whatever you can get away with.”  These definitions, though unsatisfying in any metaphysical sense, have the benefit of being more in line with how humans in practice actually create and interact with art.

To be clear, this approach (which some will deride as “anything goes”) does not make criticism irrelevant.  I have written extensively about this already, most recently in “Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism.”  However, I would like to point you to a recent video conversation between A. O. Scott and David Carr concerning the purpose of criticism.  (I also recommend Jim Emerson’s sharp analysis of this conversation.)  In particular, I want to highlight the following exchange:

CARR:  But there is no objective excellence, no objective truth. There is only your subjective version of it.

SCOTT:  Do you really think that there’s no common project of deciding what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true?

Like Carr, I accept that there are no objective values.  However, like Scott, I believe in the “common project” of criticism: a community of people coming together to decide “what’s beautiful and what’s good and what’s true.”

Scott continues:

I don’t think it’s ever arrived at for all time, but I don’t think that you or anyone else actually believes that we just carry around our own little private, you know, canons of taste that we just sort of protect. Otherwise we’d never talk about any of this stuff. Otherwise, why would we have an arts section in the newspaper? Why would we talk about movies with our friends? Why would we have book clubs?

Well, I think that we do carry around and protect our own “canons of taste.”  However, the point that Scott is making is that taste is malleable (another idea that I have stressed on this blog).  Taste can be transformed through reading and participating in criticism.  Thus, what you think is beautiful, good, and true today will not be beautiful, good, and true “for all time.”

In sum, the role of criticism is not to dictate taste; however, we should remember that it plays an important role (intended or not) in establishing it.

Further reading:

The Meaning of Lists

In an interview with Spiegel in 2009, Umberto Eco discusses an exhibition he curated at the Louvre and its accompanying text, which he edited, called The Infinity of Lists.  Of lists, he says:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order–not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists–the shopping list, the will, the menu–that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

Yes.  And another cultural achievement is the top ten list, dreaded as it is by Roger Ebert.  Film critic Andrew O’Hehir, in introducing his top ten list for 2011, writes:

Crafting an annual top-10 list is no doubt a ludicrous exercise, and I’m not promising I’d have given you the same answers a month ago, or will give you the same ones a month from now. But over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that it forces critics to stop hiding behind relativistic weasel words and high-flown rhetoric, and forces me to defend the murky and individual question of taste. The fact that I–ever so slightly–prefer “Coriolanus” to “Drive,” and “Mysteries of Lisbon” to “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” definitely tells you something about me as a person and a movie critic.

Indeed, as I argue in a previous post, we cannot help but respond to films subjectively.  Thus, on its own, any list of one’s preferred art objects is going to tell you more about the person making the list than about any universal criteria by which the art objects should be judged.  It can be valued for that reason alone.  Even if accompanied by strong rational arguments in support of the list’s ranking, this says nothing of its objective worth.  Perhaps this is Ebert’s gripe, as he claims (correctly) that lists “have next to nothing to do with the quality of movies.”

That being said, I believe these types of lists are valuable for another reason. Taken together, from a wide variety of critics, they can help us reach a usable standard by which to judge artworks.  The BFI Sight & Sound list of the top ten films of all time (the one list that even Ebert appreciates) is a good example of how this can be done effectively.

Every ten years, the BFI surveys a large number of film critics from all over the world and asks them for their individual top ten lists.  From these individual lists, the BFI compiles the definitive list of the top ten films of all time.  The ten films on this list become exemplars of the standard of taste exhibited by this group of critics.  I doubt that any two individual lists are identical (and you can view all of the individual lists if you do not believe me), but Citizen Kane is continually deemed the standard of excellence in cinematic art.  Kristin Thompson recently wrote a compelling argument against this fact, but even she concedes that Kane’s status appears to be cemented for the time being.  That’s not to say that tastes won’t change; they will, just as they did back in 1962 when Kane dethroned Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves for the number one spot.

The BFI list and others like it are especially valuable for those who do not usually swim the murky waters of film criticism or know which critics might offer the most trustworthy opinions. For them, an aggregated “best of” list is an easy way to discover films that might be worth watching.  The two biggest review aggregators that will offer such lists are Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; in addition, Movie City News always creates a beautiful year-end chart from aggregated top ten lists. What the review aggregators do is take a film’s multiple reviews and give the film a score based on the critical consensus.  Thus, individual tastes can be merged into a single standard of taste, just as with the BFI lists.  People who want to get in on the conversation surrounding film would do well to follow these aggregators, check out their lists of the best reviewed films, watch the films, and then read the reviews.  In this way, one will learn the current standards of taste among critics, learn the arguments in favor of these standards, discover the critics with whom one’s own standard of taste might align (or misalign), and finally, if one wishes, take an active part in the community of criticism.  That is when the true fun begins, for with each new critic (if his or her opinions are heard and deemed valid by the rest of the community) comes a new chance to push the standard of taste in new and exciting directions.

Roger Ebert claims that “all lists are meaningless.”  Clearly, this statement is untrue.  Lists can be full of meaning, as long as there are people who read them and utilize them.  In the least, they are expressions of the tastes of those who have made them, whether an individual or a critical community.  Thus, they can tell us something about a person in the former case, and they can tell us something about critical standards in the latter.  In either case, the word “meaningless” does not apply.

Further reading:

Hume, Kael, and the Role of Subjectivity in Criticism

In a previous post, I discuss why I prefer the word “impersonal” to the word “objective” in questions of aesthetic judgment.  I state: “ […] we can make aesthetic judgments independent of personal taste, based solely on our knowledge, experience, and critical understanding of the art in question.  Rather than taking art personally, we can take it impersonally.”

Simply put, I no longer believe this.  I no longer think that an “impersonal” approach to art is possible.  My reason is that I no longer understand “taste” as something separate from “knowledge, experience, and critical understanding.”  Instead, I understand taste as that which encompasses all of those elements (as well as others).  For example, a person’s adopted evaluative criteria will become a part of that person’s taste, along with his or her experience, learning, and values.  For truly, these all play a part in a person’s subjective appraisal of a work.  No matter how much we may want to experience something objectively, impersonally, or purely rationally, we remain stubbornly tied to our individual tastes.

As a case in point, I want to examine the notorious film critic Pauline Kael.  Last year saw the release of both a biography of Kael and a collection of her work.  This prompted many active critics and journalists to write their own appraisals of Kael.  Roger Ebert had this to say:

Pauline had no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards. You couldn’t apply her “approach” to a film. With her it was all personal. Faithful readers will know I am tiresome in how often I quote Robert Warshow, who in his book The Immediate Experience wrote: “A man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit he is that man.” Pauline Kael was that honest. She wrote about her immediate experience, about what she felt.

She’s accused of being inconsistent and contradicting herself. Directors would fall in and out of favor. With her there was no possibility of inconsistency, because she always wrote about what she felt right now. What was the purpose tilting that emotion to reflect something she wrote earlier? I sat next to her once in a New York screening room. She responded audibly. “Oh, oh, oh!” she’d say, in praise or disapproval. Talking like that would get her in trouble in Chicago. Pauline had–or took–license. You sensed something physical was happening as she watched.

Of his own criticism, Ebert concedes: “In my reviews and those of a great many others you are going to find, for better or worse, my feelings. I feel a responsibility to provide some notion of what you’re getting yourself in for, but after that it’s all subjective.”

Manohla Dargis, in a discussion regarding the merits of Kael in The New York Times, comes to a similar conclusion:

As critics, all we have are our beliefs, ideals, prejudices, blind spots, our reservoirs of historical and personal knowledge, and the strength of our arguments. There are empirical truths that we can say about a movie: it was shot in black and white or color, on film or digital, in widescreen or not, directed by this or that filmmaker. But beyond these absolutes there is only our thinking, opinions, ideologies, methodological approaches and moments in time. That isn’t to say that criticism is a postmodern anything goes; it is to admit that critics are historical actors and that our relationships with movies, as with everything in life, are contingent on those moments.

What Ebert and Dargis seem to be saying, what I have already claimed, and what the example of Kael proves is that there are indeed individual subjective elements that come into play in a critical judgment.

To see how this works, I think that we can apply (interestingly enough) Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s model of tasting from The Physiology of Taste, in which there are three stages.  However, I think we can simplify it to two concurrent stages.  When appraising an object, we first sense it; as our brain registers the sensation, we immediately start “considering” it (not necessarily consciously or rationally, although that can indeed occur and provide the illusion that we’re operating independently of our body’s conditioning).  What happens when we consider an object?  Our past experiences, our memories, our feelings, our learning, our adopted criteria, and (most importantly) our values all come together (or work against one another) to pass judgment.  Reason might help us sort some of this into a clear, articulate response, but such conscious rationalization is usually unnecessary and will probably only occur, anyway, after a judgment has already been made.  That being said, these rationalizations serve a different purpose–they are what constitute criticism.

Of course, this idea of “no theory, no rules, no guidelines, no objective standards” teeters on the brink of nihilism.  If, ultimately, we each experience an artwork subjectively, what is the point in debating the merit of one opinion over another? How is criticism not simply “postmodern anything goes”?

Fortunately, David Hume addresses this very issue in “Of the Standard of Taste.”  Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her analysis of that work (“Hume and the Foundations of Taste”), expresses the problem in this manner:

If beauty is identified with a particular kind of pleasure, if aesthetic and artistic value is measured by the feelings of the individual perceiver, then one would expect that there would be no grounds for asserting that one aesthetic judgment or expression of pleasure is preferable to any other. People differ, and so do their tastes. However, it becomes clear when reading Hume’s writings on criticism, that tastes, on his account, are not so subjective that no standards can be discerned. In fact, it is quite evident that Hume considered some artistic and literary tastes preferable by far to others.

To be sure, Hume states: “It is natural for us to seek a Standard of Taste; a rule by which the various sentiments of men may be reconciled; at least a decision afforded confirming one sentiment, and condemning another.”

Like Dargis, Hume does not believe that criticism is “postmodern anything goes,” even as he allows for the subjectivity inherent in the wide variety of individual tastes.  No–as he points out, the “joint verdict” of the best critics (consisting of “similarities of sentiment”–the common, shared elements of their opinions–and not necessarily the individual subjective elements) becomes “the true standard of taste and beauty.” This standard of taste, then, if adopted, becomes the very context in which criticism (and, thus, art) becomes communicable and meaningful (i.e., not nihilistic).

Korsmeyer offers the following as an example of how a standard of taste can develop out of individual subjective tastes:

Time is a reliable filter for passing fads and poor judgments, and the verdict of history cancels out individual foibles and produces a universally valid consensus concerning great art. Therefore, according to Hume, although rules of art cannot be codified, standards of taste do emerge as one takes a long look at human society and history and sees how that art which is best suited to please the human frame attains an unquestioned superiority over other, ephemeral creations.

Despite the apparent universal applicability of such standards of taste, however, the individual subjective elements remain the lifeblood of criticism; ultimately, that is why criticism remains an imperfect, mutable process. That is also why it remains fun, engaging, stimulating, and relevant, as the example of Pauline Kael clearly demonstrates.  To be sure, Keith Phillips says of Kael: “Even when she’s wrong, she’s worth reading. I can’t think of any higher praise for a film critic.”

Kael resisted being standardized.  Not many, for example, will share her distaste for Stanley Kubrick.  But she still championed films such as Bonnie and Clyde and directors such as Godard whose qualities have indeed informed the standard of taste adopted by today’s film critics.  So admitting the subjective nature of criticism does no harm to the practice.  In spite of that fact, a standard of taste still develops, and it is that standard which both shapes and challenges our own critical judgments, and vice versa.

So why practice criticism?  Why read it?  Art critic Jonathan Jones offers the following summation:

No [critical] judgment is final. No critic is right, necessarily. It’s just that criticism offers a more honest and realistic understanding of the deep strangeness of our encounters with these mysterious human creations called works of art.

Yes–and in the spirit of subjectivity, that answer is certainly good enough for me.

Further reading:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Coda)

Thank you, Kent, for the link to the above video.

I would also like to acknowledge Carolyn Korsmeyer once again, without whom my work on the topic of food and art would have been impossible.  I highly recommend her book Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy, and I would also like to point out that she published a new book last year that might be of equal interest: Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics.

Finally, as this post will appear above the previous eight, below are the individual links to each part of “How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste.”

Further reading:

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 8 of 8)

Conclusion

In conclusion, we have seen how the sense of taste (along with smell and touch) was debased throughout the history of philosophy as a lower sense, a position that left knowledge and beauty unattainable to it. We then looked at how this erroneous position, exemplified by Kant, could be countered using the gastronomical insight of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and the empirical philosophy of David Hume. Taking up the philosophy of Hume in particular, we were able to examine the similarity between food and art and between sensory taste and aesthetic taste. These similarities were illustrated in the contemporary example that compared the cultivability of a taste in cilantro to the cultivability of a taste in slow cinema. Finally, we looked at potential challenges to the analogy between taste in food and taste in art. These challenges included the sensory limitations found in individual palettes, potential physical dangers present in food and in the act of ingestion, and the idea that food cannot have meaning beyond its instrumental value. In regard to the last challenge, we not only demonstrated the wide assortment of aesthetic meaning that food can carry, but we also showed that certain foods can even suggest death.

Thus, to return to the question of our introduction: should Ferran Adria have been invited to participate in the Documenta art show? Because the arguments against the idea that food can be art ring hollow under careful scrutiny, the answer must be yes.

Coincidentally, in 2007, the same year that the inclusion of Adria in the Documenta art show caused such a stir, Pixar released the film Ratatouille, written and directed by Brad Bird. The film tells the story of a rat who wants to be a chef. In the end, he succeeds, winning over his toughest critic, Anton Ego. Curiously, Ego does not say that he was surprised that a rat could become a great chef; instead, he uses language that can also be used to argue for Adria: “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere” (Ratatouille). Indeed–even from the kitchen.

References

How Food Can Be Art: A Discussion of Taste (Part 7 of 8)

The Aesthetic Meanings of Food and How Food Can Suggest Death

In “Disputing Taste,” Carolyn Korsmeyer writes:

[…] taste is usually considered a rather simple sense that performs only a basic function: to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion. Other than this, taste is often regarded by both philosophers and scientists as a relatively rudimentary sense with limited cognitive significance. Its necessary but restricted instrumental value and its dim epistemic capacity sustain the low rank allotted this sense. (Korsmeyer “Disputing Taste“)

We have already demonstrated how taste can have an epistemic capacity. Now we must show that it can have meaning beyond its instrumental value–that its epistemic qualities can extend beyond flavor properties to ideas like death.

In “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting,” Korsmeyer illustrates how food can carry meaning that can inform an aesthetic experience: “Foods and their tastes may represent and express significance in a distinctly ‘aesthetic’ fashion, and one can elaborate the meanings that foods embody with all manner of examples from the whimsical to the profound by considering Easter eggs, candy canes, birthday cakes, ceremonial meals, and religious rituals” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 148). The meanings that are carried by the items mentioned above (which, of course, are learned through experience of them in their proper contexts) indeed show that food, like architecture, for instance, can carry meaning beyond its instrumental value.

True, one can object that the meanings of the foods listed above are conveyed through multiple senses, primarily sight. Of this fact, Korsmeyer states:

To me this is not an indication of a poverty of symbolic possibility for food but an illustration of the unremarkable fact that the experience of eating involves more than one sense.  We have already invited smell into the company of taste, fully considered, and texture as well, which makes use of the sense of touch.  The crunch and slurp of food involves hearing (there are Japanese dishes for which audible slurping is prescribed), and the preparation of a table is carefully attuned to visual pleasure. (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 127-8)

That being said, there are in fact foods whose meanings are conveyed primarily through taste.  Korsmeyer uses the example of the seder plate, which is part of the Jewish Passover ceremony.  She writes of the meanings of the foods on the plate and how those meanings are conveyed through the senses:

The bitter herbs signify bondage and sorrow in Egypt.  This symbolic value does not depend on visual properties; the herbs metaphorically exemplify sorrow by means of their sharp taste.  The small bowl of salt water denotes (and indeed chemically replicates) the tears shed in captivity, and the parsley, indicating the renewal of spring, is dipped in the salt water and eaten.  The charoses symbolizes with its texture the mortar the Jews used in building temples for the Egyptians, and it is eaten in combination with the bitter herbs (which may be horseradish or a sharp-tasting green herb).  (Korsmeyer Making Sense of Taste 138)

Thus, foods can convey meaning beyond their instrumental value through all of the senses, even the bodily senses of taste, smell, and touch.

However, to return to the subject at hand, if the instrumental value of a food’s taste is “to inform the organism whether or not a substance is safe for ingestion,” is it possible to cultivate a taste for unsafe foods–foods that can potentially suggest death? Korsmeyer argues that it is.

To demonstrate the cultivability of “unsafe” taste, Korsmeyer writes:

Consider objects with tastes that offend the senses at first, very hot spices and peppers, which burn, and alcohol, which sickens. All of these substances one can learn to like through practice and maturity (for the tongue and its receptors develop into adulthood), and once these tastes are cultivated, substances without them appear bland. (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 155)

Clearly, to return to Kant for a moment, a person’s immediate reaction to a taste sensation is not the final word. Brillat-Savarin was correct. There is stage to tasting that allows one to consider the taste beyond the physical act of sensing it. And if one has made an effort to cultivate an aesthetic taste for foods that by nature repel and offend the taster, then this person can potentially consider the taste as delicious. This clearly conforms to Hume’s view as well and explains how different cultures can have such oppositional tastes in both food and art. The beautiful and the delicious truly are in the eye (or the tongue) of the beholder. This also relates to how the aversive art form of the tragedy might have been cultivated in ancient times.

With tragedies in mind, are there foods beyond the merely unpleasant and offensive that can suggest death in perhaps more profound ways? Indeed, Korsmeyer writes of meals that consist of “[…] another animal whose form is still recognizable, not having been chopped and shaped into hamburger or pâté” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154). This type of meal reminds one immediately “[…] that to sustain one’s life takes another” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 154).

Taking this a step further, Korsmeyer writes of dish which consists of “[…] a live fish, still gasping on the plate, surrounded with tasteful symbolic decorations that mimicked the look of the bottom of a sandy ocean” (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 157).

However, there is one dish in particular that suggests death in a way that should even satisfy Jonathan Jones:

Perhaps the most notorious example in this category is fugu, the puffer fish, so poisonous that in Japan, where it is commonly eaten, only a licensed chef who know what organs to remove and how to get rid of the toxins is permitted to prepare it. Yet reportedly, the most sophisticated diner is also the one prepared to risk the most to savor the taste of fugu, for by request enough of the neurotoxin can be left in the fish that the diners’ lips and tongue are slightly numbed, reminding them of the presence of danger and death. (And sometimes overwhelming them, for this is a dangerous meal and every year people die from eating fugu.) (Korsmeyer “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” 156)

Undoubtedly, this dish suggests death in ways at least equal to (if not greater than) the most terrible and horrifying artworks exhibiting mortality.

References

Next:

Conclusion

Further reading: