restricted access The Aesthetic Brain: How we Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art by Anjan Chatterjee (review)
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Reviewed by
Amy Ione, Director (bio)
by Anjan Chatterjee. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2013. 248 pp. ISBN: 978-0-1998-1180-9.

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I am among those who find the subject of art and the brain fascinating, yet I have never warmed to the field of neuroaesthetics. While it is true that art is ineluctably a function of the brain, I find that, in order to reduce art to modalities that scientific ways of neuroaesthetic investigations can address, scientists inevitably seem to remove key aspects of art from their equations. The primary issue I have with wrapping my brain around the neuroaesthetic approach is that I don’t think art is a “problem” we can/ will resolve from a neurobiological perspective—and I think this is a [End Page 97] good thing! That said, I do think science and art in general, and scientists and artists in particular, have something to contribute to our conversations on art and the brain. Given this, I’m glad people are talking across disciplinary lines.

Lately it seems the topic has really struck a chord, with everyone wanting to contribute a new theory, methodology or art project. Anjan Chatterjee’s new book, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art, is one of the recent books in the genre. Like many of its siblings from the science/philosophy side of the spectrum, Chatterjee’s contribution to the idiom offers much theoretical content based on a large body of science and social science research. Essentially Chatterjee believes “the brain will help us understand the how of aesthetics, and frameworks from evolutionary psychology will help us understand the why of aesthetics” (p. xv). His underlying assumption is that beauty is integral to how most people think about aesthetics, and thus the book is built around the idea that beauty, pleasure and art are connected. Still, although art is highlighted in the subtitle, The Aesthetic Brain is about aesthetics rather than art. Chatterjee writes:

Aesthetics and art are not the same. They are overlapping but different ideas. Aesthetics, as generally understood, focuses on properties of objects and our emotional responses to those properties. The object need not be art per se. . . . Aesthetics typically relates to the continuum of beauty to ugly. . . . Art can and usually does have aesthetic properties. However, the artist’s intentions, the art work’s place in history, and its political and social dimension are also relevant to art. These aspects fall outside of what we might regard as “aesthetic”

(p. 115).

Chatterjee divides The Aesthetic Brain into three sections: Beauty, Pleasure, and Art. Each section is comprised of many short chapters that serve to ask and answer specific questions. The beauty and pleasure sections draw on research studies that are intended to show that we have instincts for beauty and pleasure. For example, his assumption is that most people like art that is beautiful and he presents experimental research to support that we like beauty, symmetry and so on. Next, in order to establish that we have a pleasure instinct, he looks at human behavior in terms of pleasure, offering anecdotes and studies that support the idea that the parts of the human brain involved in positive reinforcement of behavior are also involved in the sensation of pleasure.

Art is the final section. Much of the discussion about art seemed rather abstract and quite unlike Chatterjee’s essay on Katherine Sherwood’s work for her Golgi’s Door exhibition [1], which revealed more a person forming a relationship with a body of work on its own terms. The Aesthetic Brain, by contrast, offers a philosophically reasoned argument—lively, but largely detached from both the people who make art and the essential language(s) of art. Nonetheless, I do believe this book could help move our cross-disciplinary conversations in a worthwhile direction because Chatterjee is not intent on building yet another theoretical structure outlining how we need to study art and the brain. Instead, he defers. Rather than jamming art into a model, he allows the book to remain an invitation for us...