by

Here Come the Neurothugs! Run!

One of Francis Bacon's self portraits

In this New Atlantis essay about art and science, Roger Scruton coins a word: neurothugs.

Neurothugs are researchers who believe that, when it comes to beauty, there is “such a thing as the fMRI of the beholder, and this does contain the secret of the image in the frame.”

As thugs go, the neuro-variety are among the least threatening. At most they might try to convince you that a brain scan means more than it does. They probably won’t rough you up in an alley.

Scruton, a visiting professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, isn’t the only one exercised about scientists invading art criticism. A new paper in the journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences alleges that those who study so-called neuroaesthetics are misguided because “they make the rewarding feeling of beauty the cornerstone of aesthetic experience.” There are multiple other essays making roughly the same case.

Here’s an example of what these neuro ne’er-do-wells are up to: In a 2004 study, researchers showed subjects abstract and representational paintings, and asked them to rate which ones they liked better. Turns out subjects preferred the representational paintings. Researchers also performed fMRI scans of their brains while they were taking in the artworks and found that, when they viewed the representational paintings, three areas (ventral occipital poles, posterior middle temporal gyrus, and precuneus) showed more activity when subjects saw representational paintings than when they looked at abstract paintings.

That doesn’t prove that Degas is somehow better (whatever that would mean) than Kandinsky. Maybe Degas lights up my brain in the moment, but Kandinsky speaks to me in some harder-to-quantify way.

Neuroaesthetic researchers tend to begin their papers by admitting that their work isn’t art history or art criticism or aesthetics and that it can’t answer every question about art or artists. They note the importance of “distinguishing investigations probing the brain from those probing aesthetics,” and they warn repeatedly that the field is in its infancy. In other words, they do their best to insulate themselves from the perception that they are trying to waltz in with their lab coats and clipboards, and “solve” art.

Critics of neuroaesthetics do make good points. Roy Behrens argues, reasonably, that scientists who study art would do well to bone up on the topic before attaching sensors to people’s heads. He singles out a paper that confuses the artists Marcel Duchamp and Jean Dubuffet, which, he writes, is a lot like “confusing filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein with physicist Albert Einstein.”

But some neuroaesthetic researchers, at least, appear to have done their homework. In an essay that draws on interviews and art criticism, Semir Zeki and Tomohiro Ishizu consider the artist Francis Bacon and why his distorted faces produce a kind of shock that, say, a distorted chair or shoe would not. The short answer, according to those two, is that human beings evolved to recognize and read faces, a crucial skill for survival, and consequently Bacon’s freakish mugs “subvert the brain’s inherited concepts of what bodies and faces should look like,” and thus are more disturbing and weirdly fascinating.

Bacon is toying, perhaps unintentionally, with primitive, hard-wired reactions.

That doesn’t explain why Bacon’s distorted faces sell for many millions, but it’s still kind of interesting, no?

[The painting above is one of Francis Bacon's self-portraits. H/t Andrew Sullivan for flagging the neurothug paragraph.]

Return to Top