Chapter 5. The Three Fields
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1. Introduction The second part of this book offers a summary review of the differences between standard aesthetic and neuroscientific approaches to the arts. I present examples of “the imagination, plain,” that is, essays written without recourse to neuroscience, from each of the three major fields of artistic expression: the visual, the verbal , and the musical. In each case, I emphasize the contrast with the neuroscientific approach. As Barbara Herrnstein Smith (2005, pp. 110–112) shows, though, any attempt to organize the comparison of these two approaches in a strictly systematic manner is fraught with difficulties. A discerning reader may also find some structural irregularities in the remainder of this book. The fact is that four chapters in the latter part of the book were omitted, with a view to making the work more coherent. In the process , certain links were elided. For instance, the material on tragedy (Chapter 6, Section 2, below), which may now appear somewhat isolated, was originally written as a postscript for a chapter on the topic of illness in Yiddish poetry. (This chapter was derived from one of my previous studies [2006b].) Likewise, three chapters on the imagination served as the basis for the theoretical commentary in Parts 2 and 3. (These can be found in Massey, 1977, 1991, and 1999.) Here again, for example, my remarks on metaphor in Section 3a, below, can be more easily understood against the background of Massey 1991 and 1999. On the whole, the material removed in the abridgement was originally intended to emphasize the differences 5 The Three Fields Massey Book1.indb 135 Massey Book1.indb 135 9/9/09 2:51:31 PM 9/9/09 2:51:31 PM 136 The Imagination, Plain between the humanistic and the neuroscientific approaches, and to define the areas in which the scientific method is least useful. It is hoped that enough of the original structure remains so that the reader will be able to follow this chapter’s argument without difficulty. 2. The Visual Arts It is worth recalling that some of the relevant comparisons between the aesthetic and neuroscientific approaches arise quite naturally with respect to cubism (see Chapter 2, Section 1, above). The disorientation and reorientation that cubism requires has a good deal to do with the effects that Margaret Livingstone (2002) analyzes in her work on color-luminance imbalance and pointillist illusions of motion in motionless paintings. In each case, the tired habits of the eye, which ceases to see anything if it sees the same thing long enough,mustbeovercome;somethingismadestrangesothat,when we recognize it again, we are compelled to see it as new (pp. 150–153). This technique is the familiar “making strange,” the Russian “ostranienie ” or the German “Verfremdungseffekt.” A simple version of it can be found in Matisse’s “Femme au chapeau” [“Woman with a Hat”]—which is composed of patches of color that have no resemblance to the colors of the subject (p. 134)—or in Derain’s portrait of Matisse (p. 136). Of course, the decomposition-recomposition strategy is taken to an extreme in Chuck Close’s self-portraits. Livingstone grounds all her analyses of painterly effects in detailed neuroanatomical information. For instance, she suggests that cubism may work because of “neurons that will respond exclusively to a particular object, at various viewing angles. This means that some memory templates in our brains are view invariant; that is, that you can recognize an object or person seen from any angle” (p. 77). The ensuing idea “that cubism is pleasing because it resonates with a view-invariant part of our memory system” (p. 77) is intriguing, but it is hard to tell how far it actually takes us. Why Massey Book1.indb 136 Massey Book1.indb 136 9/9/09 2:51:31 PM 9/9/09 2:51:31 PM 137 The Three Fields the selective activation of a group of space-recognition neurons should be pleasing is not clear; perhaps the pleasure lies, rather, in our having solved a visual puzzle (cf. Ramachandran and Hirstein, 1999, pp. 20–22). Ramachandran and Hirstein likewise speak of the possibility that “some types of art such as cubism are activating brain mechanisms in such a way as to tap into or even caricature certain innate form primitives [cf. Lipps, 1891] which we do not yet fully understand. At present we have no idea what the ‘form primitives ’ used by the human visual pathways are” (p. 20). Of course, none of these suggestions brings...


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