Issue Date: June 30, 2014
Arts And Science
Last month, I visited an exhibition of paintings by Chaim Soutine at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York City. I was delighted—this was only the fourth U.S. exhibit dedicated to the art of this underappreciated painter who worked in Paris between the World Wars. I was put off, however, by the catalog for the show, which features an essay written by Eric Kandel, the Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist famous for his work on memory storage in neurons.
Kandel’s essay explains how the brain reacts when looking at pictures. The catalog features labeled diagrams of the human brain amid reproductions of Soutine’s slaughtered pheasants! Perplexed, I came to the conclusion that the wine and cheese aren’t bringing people into art galleries anymore—you have to give ’em science. Indeed, the essay scored two columns in the “Talk of the Town” section of The New Yorker.
A few weeks later, I attended the West Chester University Poetry Conference at which I spoke on a panel on the long poem. (I’ve written a book-length poem in terza rima on the life and art of none other than Chaim Soutine.) Imagine my surprise upon learning that this year’s conference also featured a workshop on cognitive poetics, or Cog Po, a new discipline entailing the neuropsychiatric scanning of verse. When I came home, I picked up the Wall Street Journal and read this headline: “Our Brains are Made for Enjoying Art.”
The West Chester event gave me a chance to see how artists are reacting to the trending topic of art’s effect on the brain. It ended with a session of reports on seminars held there—the Cog Po workshop (titled “Prosody and the Mind”), a symposium on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, and a project called the Women’s Poetry Timeline. All but one question during the session’s Q&A were directed at Cog Po presenter Nicholas Myklebust, a medievalist and linguist who teaches literature at the University of Texas.
Most questions hinged on a distinction between creativity and invention and the cultural divide between art and science. At one point a poet attending the conference asked whether Cog Po poses an existential threat to poetry. Myklebust’s answer: “There is no consensus on that.”
There are, however, strong opinions. Mine is that poetry in America has survived bludgeons far worse than cognitive theory and will inevitably persist in its near-death state for some time to come. Looking through the PowerPoint slides presented by the Cog Po group, coorganized by Myklebust and Natalie Gerber, an English professor at SUNY Fredonia, I laughed a little. I cried a little, too, but I certainly saw the value of the investigation. And I recognized an obvious practical application in art therapy.
Still, the poet’s anxiety is understandable, given the palpable air of encroachment whenever an enterprise that demands consensus attempts to engage in the arts. Certainly if something like peer review were implemented in poetry, we would kiss Dylan Thomas good night forever! With the advent of Cog Po, people will inevitably attempt to impose cognitive formulas on verse. Cog Po may creep into literary criticism. But I see nothing new here.
Science theory has never caused permanent damage to art because art resists consensus. Many aspects of technique in the arts involve measurement—meter and perspective, for example. But theories on how we physically react to art, even when they deliver prescriptions on, say, how to paint, tend to flair and fade. Pointillism is a perfect example of a scientific theory involving brain function that was put into practice in creating art. It had its practitioners 125 years ago, but who is painting pointillist pictures today? The dot-making has reverted to the purview of the eye and the brain.
Meanwhile, painters paint as they always have. And poets write, also responding to experience and nature. Theories will abound and inform, but there will never be a successful formula for creativity. And our response to art will maintain its wondrous air of the ineffable.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.
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