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Russian and Soviet views of Modern Western Art

Dans l'atelier de l'art Expériences Cognitives (The Art Workshop - Cognitive Experiments)

by Mario Borillo
Champ Vallon, Seyssel, France, 2010
284 pp. Paper, €21
ISBN: 978-2-87673-507-1.

Reviewed by Florence Martellini


In the Art Workshop - Cognitive Experiments, a collection of scientific papers, the publisher Champ Vallon presents a subject of increasing interest in the cognitive science community, the functioning of the brain - more specifically, what the brain of both the creator of an artwork and its viewer can tell us about how they perceive the world. Curiously, understanding a contemporary artwork ever more requires an analysis of the artist's behaviour/creative process rather than purely exploring the emotions it triggers. Mario Borillo goes even further by claiming that some contemporary artists purposely create artworks that focus on the working of the mind - this trend may be influenced by the debates generated by the cognitive scientists. Numerous research studies have looked at the social impact of the artistic creation in the history of mankind as well as that of the artists and their patrons. However informative these works are, they do not really bring a critical scientific eye on the actual act of creating arts.

Encouraging exchanges between artists and scientific researchers is another theme discussed in this book. Increasingly artists and cognitive science experts realise that they can learn from each other, that despite their different methods and tools they have a perception of the world that deserves mutual collaboration. French researchers and funding are lagging behind and, in some extent, the rest of Europe with the American scientific approaches leading proudly in this research field. Given the variety of relevant questions, methods and available tools, this inter-disciplinary research theme is very broad and requires an adventurous mind to embark on it. This book proves, though, that a real interest in it exists in France. The articles are very interesting; however, most are not reader-friendly for a layperson - even to an artist - only one author out of the 12 presented articles is an art expert.

Taking a closer look at some of the articles presented, Mario Borillo remarks that a cognitive analysis of an artwork allows for a discussion for processes, both mental and the emotional, but can we talk about the logic of the emotions? In his article, he examines the complexity of art and cognitive sciences working together. The latter provides the structure of mental processes, and their understanding would allow, for example, one to decide whether someone is an artist or not. This cognitive knowledge could be extended to the perception process. Cognitive researchers are interested in the creative process itself to go to the roots of aesthetic experiences. The artwork is only its trace; to analyse the artist poses problems in that an external observer would disturb the process itself - the viewer can only bring a subjective perspective of that process. Borillo reviews briefly the history of the cognitive sciences and discusses two theoretical models amongst many others in existence. He stresses that defining a work of art is paramount to overcome these challenges; however, within the confines of cognitive sciences is not an easy task. He concludes that contemporary art, being predominantly conceptual, may constrain cognitive science to adapt theories to use art as a research field.

Jerome Dokic questions whether there exists a cognitive architecture underlying an aesthetic competence. He presents two thesis 1) reductionism - the aesthetic experience is the result of a mix of cognitive competences that are not intrinsically aesthetics; 2) modularism - the aesthetic experience is the product of stand alone, aesthetic responses that are cut off from reasoning and other underlying/existing beliefs. The author favours reductionism, which brings together aesthetic responses and meta-cognitive feelings such as the sense of knowing, surprise, fear, illusion, etc. He claims that the aesthetic experience cannot really be considered as a process independent of judgment and existing belief and denies the existence of an underlying sense of aesthetic. Hence, it is a melting pot of competences of which nature and contribution vary according to the context in which it is used. The arts are a broad cognitive field for experiment - they bring cognitive experiences but also questions about cognition itself.

Jean Vion-Dury, on the other hand, refutes that the aesthetic experience of the sublime can be interpreted by a reductionist model, such as neurobiology or psychology. He claims that the sublime in art is a sort of auto-hypnosis triggered by an external agent that can vary from an artwork, a landscape to a human gesture, or a music piece. It cannot be communicated by words and it is a shared experience in which empathy is paramount. The sublime brings also ethic changes, i.e. changing ethos (where we live), hence, how we live in the world. Art can bring such a debate to cognitive sciences, and it should not stay at the bare level of studying works of art and neural processes but should also enter the field of philosophies of art and of the mind.

Jean-Luc Velay and Marieke Longcamp look at motor visual perception and aesthetic judgment, in particular, and at how our own movement and emotions react to visual information created by human being movements, such as graphics and handwriting.

The way we know and react to objects around us are conditioned by how we have learnt to interact with them. Velay and Longcamp claim that some interactions are learnt by repetitions, while others obey more general and universal laws. Awareness of our own movements constrains our visual perceptions e.g. mirror neurones are permanently and automatically active when we observe the actions/the movements of another person. Applied to graphics, our brain seems to be able to re-construct a movement out of a series of static traces appearing, say, as in painting (brush strokes) or a handwritten document. Hence, it seems that when the traces/prints left by a human being are there in the environment, in front of us, they are automatically analysed a posteriori by the motor cortex of the viewer. A study by David Freeman and Vittorio Gallese reveals that canonical and mirror neurons play an important role because they simulate embodiment that are relevant to aesthetic responses, thus, offering the basis for understanding the neural substrate of empathetic reactions to works of art. They help bridge visual perception movements and the embodiment that occur when looking at works of art.

Jean-Fran¨ois Bonnefon and Henri Prade believe that cognitive psychology helps to understand what makes us tune in with some artworks and suggest two cognitive theories 1) structural theory, which claims that understanding art requires the knowledge of the history of art, of its social context, etc; 2) individualistic theory, is a study of the individual and his cognitive structure i.e. the perception process of the viewer in front of a particular artwork and the artist's need, intention of revealing, materialising a reality hidden to the world. Despite being critical of Semir Zeki's and V.S. Ramachandran's most influential neurological theories, they state that High Art could be defined as the art that offers the brain the most interpretations possible, all being relevant. They conclude that art has evolved in its relationship with the viewers - today, the artist expects more from the viewers than a mere cognitive response relating to beauty and the sublime; viewers must show an interest. Hence, studying the viewer's mind is paramount. Today, new technologies offer new opportunities to manipulate light, colours, and texture of copied originals to study further the viewer.

Finally, the only art expert in the book, Pascal Pique, explains that an interest in the mind in contemporary art is making a come back e.g. the symbol of the brain is ever more present. Jan Fabre, visual artist and writer, creates pieces in which the brain is a central theme - the brain is a physical organ but is also the centre of thoughts, imagination, the mind, etc. Pique asserts that contemporary art has never been as productive as it is today. And because art has no longer boundaries, philosophy has difficulties in analysing it, to classify it as it used to when the notion of 'beauty' was the reference point. Pique acknowledges that the art and creation are paramount to the permanent re-invention of our relationship to the world. Cognitive sciences must avoid reductionism, and the scientist Francesco Varela opened a new door by claiming that the brain is an organ/a limb that builds worlds rather than reflects them. Hence, the human being and the world inter-connect, exchange. Alva Noë, philosopher, suggests that we should look at the relationship of artist and artwork not as what they represent but rather as how they interact with their external realities. Artist Basserole believes that artists show us how our perception of the space and time has changed - it is broader, to the scale of the cosmos. Does this transformation already affect our physical and psychological make up? Cognition creates new worlds in continuity. There is a need to rethink the relationship of 'science and art' to re-introduce a symbolic dimension, which suggests that the scientist and the artist be more open-minded to each other's mindset.

Last Updated 1 December 2010

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