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Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin

Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin

by Riccardo Manzotti
Imprint Academic, Exeter, UK, 2011
250 pp. Paper, £17.95
ISBN: 9-781845-402389.

Reviewed by Amy Ione
Director, The Diatrope Institute
Berkeley, CA 94704, USA

ione@diatrope.com

Situated Aesthetics: Art Beyond the Skin is the fruit of a workshop held in Milan in September 2009. The workshop brought together cognitive and neuroscientists, artists, philosophers, and others interested in expanding beyond the reductionistic, brain-focused approach that predominated in early art and the brain publications. Divided into three parts, the book first examines research that situates externalism within aesthetics in general.  A second section then examines externalism in relation to different artistic forms.  The third part explores the concept through specific artworks.

While collections of this sort frequently feel as if they were pieced together, all of the Situated Aesthetics papers are quite strong. Moreover, and to the credit of the contributors, the book carries the give-and-take of workshop conversations into the published papers.  Thus, there is a real sense of an engagement among the authors as they present their ideas. Riccardo Manzotti, the editor, begins with an overview of the papers and the current externalist approaches in neuroscience, cognitive science, and philosophy of mind. Here he nicely summarizes the ideas of earlier authors and convincingly explains why adding externalism to the equation is important. In his words:

“By and large, externalism is the view that the external world is relevant and indeed constitutive of the subject, which is more extended than the body. In particular, externalism is taken as the view that the physical underpinnings of the mind are spatio-temporally more extended than the neural activity inside the nervous system.  For the purposes of this volume, the key is the fact that a shift in the subject’s ontology will inevitably have repercussions for any theory of aesthetics.” (p. 3)

As someone who often finds art and the brain research too narrowly based, I was glad to see that the volume includes visual art, music, text-based views ,and even work that fits within an art/sci/tech framework.  (For example, Stéphane Dumas looks at contemporary artists and theories in terms of biotechnologies.) This range reminds the reader that there are commonalities among the arts and nuances particular to specific media.  The comprehensive approach is even evident within the articles.  Not only do some authors refer to other articles in the book; at times writers offer more than one perspective on a topic.   While these papers do not explicitly address the early reductionistic way of placing art in the spiritual realm, their efforts to recognize the systemic qualities that are a part of art making and art appreciation will no doubt help us to further move beyond the framework that either relegated art to the spiritual realm or inadequately spoke about cognitive functions, environmental influences, and experiential/experimental aspects of all art forms.

For example, Joel Krueger and Liliana Albertazzi both connect art with extended space.  Krueger’s essay, “Enacting Musical Content,” presents music as an active skill that involves a physical interaction with the space where the music is heard and performed.  This includes an investigation of how sensorimotor regularities grant perceptual access to music qua music.  In other words, he argues that music is more than just sound. Thus, musical expression requires some attention to the music qua music, an approach that looks beyond “mere sounds.” Presenting such an approach, Krueger defends the ideas that music manifests experientially as having spatial content and presents the holistic component of the externalistic view.

Albertazzi, who writes from a visual art and pictorial representation perspective, focuses on the structure and nature of extended space. She sees “extended space” as a structure of our aesthetic experience and of the perceived physical world. Thus, for Albertazzi, the extended space is neither a purely phenomenological description of the lived nor a merely physical notion, but rather a concept we can use as an explicative bridge between externalist and internalist views.  Her view offers a path beyond the self-referential and an approach that allows for artistic expression as well as the audience’s aesthetic experience.

“Externalism, Mind, and Art” by Erik Myin and Johan Veldeman and “Art and Extensionism“ by Robert Pepperell are also compelling articles. As his title suggests, Pepperell uses the term extensionism to stress the extended dimensions of objects and events rather than the distinctions between them. Applying this approach to the analysis of art reveals the widely distributed nature of artworks and the mental qualities they convey. Pepperell explains concerns that are not brain-centric and his view is a fertile argument for the analysis of art as extended into the environment.

By contrast, Myin and Veldeman emphasize the importance of the externalist approach more generally. They first analyze the pros and cons of active and exploratory externalism in their analysis of cognitive mental processes.  Then, they apply their ideas to contemporary art and aesthetic experience.  Compiling complicated ideas in this quite readable essay both challenges the contextualist’s claim about the existence of an anti-aesthetic art and also includes an analysis of useful work that is (overly) focused on the brain. Their conclusion, that contemporary artworks challenge the assumption that our visual response to visual artwork is “purely” phenomenal, is convincing, as is their argument that the activity of looking at artworks serves many purposes.

It is noteworthy that Imprint Academic, the publisher of this refreshing volume, also initiated several of the early art and the brain discussions.  Their 1999 issue on “Art and the Brain” (a volume of the Journal of Consciousness Studies) presented the now classic articles on the subject by V. J. Ramachandran and Semir Zeki. When the editors invited commentary of the scientific articles, it was clear from the varied reactions that implicit tenets of the scientists were not shared by all with an interest in a systemic approach to art and the brain.  Imprint Academic has since published a number of special issues probing art, aesthetics, and other related topics.  Extending the discussion has helped the field grow significantly.  To oversimplify how the trajectory has changed and matured, while many argued that the early work of Ramachandran and Zeki neglected artistic process and the realms outside of brain activity, Situated Aesthetics shows that the artists, theorists, and scientists are clearly intent on filling in some of the early lacunae within the field. Not only does this volume expand the dialogue, it also feels much more contemporary than the early papers, which seemed out of touch with today’s art world and the experimental media that has transformed the way artists work.

Finally, the book states that the workshop showed there is common ground for future research activities. These authors show both that there is a broadly based constituency for using cognitive and neural inspired techniques and that the domain of art extends way beyond the limited brain approach. No doubt the ideas presented by these authors will help art historians, museum curators, art archiving, art preservation, scientists, and philosophers. The volume also shows bridges are developing across disciplines. Now cognitive scientists and neuroscientists appear open to using art as a special way of accessing the structures of the mind, artists and theorists add cultural/experiential concerns to the equation; and there are also artists who explicitly draw inspiration from current research on various aspects of the mind.  This book, which is substantive and yet easy to read, has whetted my appetite.  I look forward to seeing how the methodological paradigm that emerged from this workshop takes form once these ideas become a part of the broader conversation.

Reference:

[1] Imprint Academic’s three publications on Art and the Brain and their other art related special issues are available at http://www.imprint.co.uk/.


Last Updated 1 September 2011

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