Conceptual neuroaesthetics?

There is no doubt in my mind that the future of neuroaesthetics lies in interdisciplinary dialogue. If we want to make headway in our understanding of the biological bases of our capacity to appreciate and produce aesthetic and artistic objects, then neuroscientists and psychologists will need to work in close collaboration with anthropologists, art historians, archaeologists and evolutionary scientists.

A good way of starting a dialogue is by asking a question, and in a recent paper published in Leonardo art historian Gregory Minissale asked whether neuroaesthetics could address conceptual art. I enjoyed the paper for two main reasons. First, it embodies the kind of effort to rid ourselves of traditional academic boundaries I think is essential for neuroaesthetics. Second, not only is Minissale’s answer affirmative, but he suggests how conceptual art can become a fruitful domain for research in neuroaesthetics.

Neuroaesthetics, as he rightly points out, has primarily focused on the neural underpinnings of the appreciation of perceptible aspects of art, design, architecture and so on. Conceptual art – Minissale argues – offers neuroaesthetics the opportunity to delve deeper into the artistic experience. This is because, in addition to rejecting traditional aesthetic and artistic notions, conceptual art seeks to engage and challenge the spectators’ thinking processes, encouraging them to go beyond what is immediately tangible.

Using Duchamp’s Boîte-en-valise/Box in a Suitcase, 1935-1941, among other examples, Minissale outlines four possible aspects of conceptual art that could be targeted by neuroaesthetics research:

1. Conceptual art is puzzling, and its appreciation relies on reasoning, categorisation, memory, and maybe even problem solving.

2. Conceptual art relies on the interplay between the visible and invisible, and thus allows the spectator to shift among different kinds of representation and levels of explanation, inviting imagination and self-reflection.

3. Because conceptual art often makes reference to other artworks, its appreciation is often related with the creation of conceptual relations among different artworks based on information stored in memory.

4. Single artworks are often conceptually complex, in that they involve establishing relations among subordinate and supra ordinate levels.

But how can we actually use conceptual art to tap into the neural mechanisms underlying thinking and reasoning about art? To what extent are such processes crucial to appreciating “non-conceptual” art? We need to determine how “Putting neuroaesthetics into this wider cognitive context, which conceptual art clearly demands, may help us to understand our varied and nuanced experiences of art” (Minissale, 2012, p. 43). Hopefully these and similar questions will eventually be addressed by multidisciplinary research teams.

Minissale, G. (2012). Conceptual art: A blind spot for neuroaesthetics? Leonardo, 45, 43–48.

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