What is #Art for? Posing that question earlier this month was Nobel Prize-winning neuro-psychiatrist Eric Kandel at The Art Newspaper's 25th Anniversary event held in the Museum of Modern Art. His what-is-art-for answer? “Science shows it’s in the eye —and brain — of the beholder.” Who doesn’t know that? Why would art lovers need a shrink to tell them what they already know, that beauty, or whatever they see, is up to them?
As if to give his argument weight, Dr. Kandel cited early 20th century art historian Alois Riegl who said that art history will die unless it becomes more scientific. But just because an art historian credits science and the Art Newspaper sponsored the science lecture and the lecture was held in an art museum doesn’t make the attempt to link science to art any more art-y.
Mapping the brain
How exactly does science fit into art’s picture, you may ask. Dr. Kandel says he can read emotions in our brain when we look at art. What’s the point? Isn’t scientific analysis of art appreciation beside the point? After all, response to art is not always emotional. It’s more complicated than that. Evidence of this can be found in the many reactions to art by noted poets and art critics.
Looking at Picasso’s painting “The Old Guitarist,” Wallace Stevens wrote his poem “Man with the Blue Guitar” wondering, “Is this picture of Picasso’s, this hoard/Of destruction, a picture of ourselves,/Now an image of our society?" Clearly Stevens saw himself in the image. Picasso admitted he was thinking of the suicide of his friend Casagemas when he started his blue period. But according to a 1901 review of such work in the Revue Blanche, sadness has nothing to do with it: “Like all pure painters he loves color for its own sake.”
What MRI’s can’t show
Carl Sandberg’s response to “Walking Man,” a sculpture by Rodin, was likewise his alone: “You make us proud of our legs old man.” Far from ennobled by the work, art critic Robert Hughes saw “Walking Man” as an icon of pathos, despair and exhaustion.
Then there’s Susan Sontag’s sense of revulsion on seeing the dismembered corpses in Goya’s “Disasters of War.” She said, “The problem is how not to avert one’s glance.” But Ernest Hemmingway, whose based his tale “For Whom the Bell Tolls” on Goya’s view on war, believed that whoever sees the dismembered corpses and does nothing to stop war keeps war going.
But perhaps John Updike’s reaction to sculptor Claes Oldenburg’s “Clothespin” best demonstrates the wrongheadedness of gauging art appreciation with an MRI. At first, Updike saw the sculpture standing in the Chicago Art Institute as a 10-foot-tall security guard owing to the gracefully tapered legs braced apart with a spring ready to snap. But then he realized that any resemblance to a security guard is incidental, that Oldenburg’s aim was to simply transform everyday objects into sculptural forms, that Updike’s initial emotional response was not key; social context was. Maybe sociologists could better serve art appreciation than psychiatry. #Buzz