Wednesday, December 20, 2017

What Is Art Good For?

frontiersin |  Does neuroaesthetics have a problem? Sherman and Morrissey (2017) criticize the field for focusing narrowly on how art elicits pleasurable responses, and for neglecting its social relevance and impact. Neuroaesthetics, they argue, reduces the experience of art to isolated individuals' ratings in artificial lab settings, and ignores “socially-relevant outcomes of art appreciation or the social context of art creation and art appreciation.” Consequently, it fails to “capture or appreciate the social, cultural, or historical situatedness of the art-object or the person whose experience is being studied.”

There is no question that we know little about the social aspect of art behavior and its underlying psychological and neurobiological mechanisms. Because art is often a transient phenomenon created as function of a social act, as in music, dance, or performance, the features of collective settings surely modulate cognition and affect. Dance, for instance, can coordinate emotional responses to promote social cohesion (Vicary et al., 2017). Nevertheless, the precise way in which social settings influence brain activity when experiencing art remains largely unknown.

We know of no neuroaestetician who would not welcome research on the psychology and biology of art behavior in social contexts. Yet, Sherman and Morrissey (2017) portray neuroaesthetics as dismissing such research topics and promoting an a-social conception of art experience. They fault neuroaesthetics for “conflating the art with aesthetics,” for having “privileged investigating individual judgments of beauty or preference,” for construing art appreciation as a “passive reception of perceptual information from art-objects,” and for discounting “what many would consider the very essence of art: its communicative nature, its capacity to encourage personal growth (…), to challenge preconceptions (…), and to provide clarity on ambiguous concepts or ideas.”