*European Art: A Neuroarthistory*, by John Onians

by on January 2, 2017 at 3:49 am in Books, History, Science, The Arts | Permalink

I wanted to like this book, as I am keen to discover new perspectives on the arts, even if I don’t agree with them.  “False” books on the arts often illuminate the artworks themselves, sometimes more than do the “true” treatments.  Yet this work I had a tough time making sense of.  I will confess to having read only about a third of it, and browsed some more.  As I understand the book’s thesis, the plasticity of the brain, as it changes across historical eras, helps explain changes in the content of the visual arts.  But I view brain plasticity as a generally overrated idea, evidence for such claims about the arts is hard to come by (how much do we know about differences in brains in ancient Athens for instance? And how good is our theory linking brain differences to artistic content?), and most of all neuroscience itself so often disappears during the book’s exposition.  Even the Amazon summary indicates the rather mysterious nature of the book’s main argument.  It is a beautifully produced volume, and it feels important, and maybe there is finally scope for a book of this kind, but…

Here is a (very) negative review by Matthew Rampley.  Some of you may nonetheless find this interesting.  It is a big ideas book, and perhaps it can prompt you to write a more clearly defined big ideas book in response.

1 Thiago Ribeiro January 2, 2017 at 4:34 am
2 Ray Lopez January 2, 2017 at 8:53 am

My fiend TR, there’s convention at play in ancient art (the stylized pose of the Pharaoh, e.g. showing the profile of the king; the less rigid shape of the fifth century bc Greek kouros is believed to signal a transition to city-state democracy).

As for TC’s point, without reading the book’s summary I can say that definitely ‘changes in the brain’ affect how one views art: the most famous example to me–and it’s comical–the famed ‘blurry looking’ water lilies of French Impressionist Claude Monet (1840–1926) are now believed to simply be Monet painting what he saw: Monet at that advanced age had cataracts! LOL! Far from being some art genius, Monet simply was painting what he saw. The same claim has been made about the schizophrenic drawings of Van Gogh (he was painting how his brain saw the world, rather than making a profound statement). The Byzantine artists were also not ignorant of perspective, it is claimed (which any decent artist like myself can intuitively draw) but adhering to convention (how society wanted them to paint), a form of ‘groupthink’. Further, you could argue modern artist Jackson Pollack was dripping paint because he was an alcoholic trying to get a little extra money for drink and this was an easy way for an unskilled painter to paint (chimpanzees also paint the same). Picasso? Why his early minimalist paintings were aping the famous cult fertility statues found in the Greek Cyclades islands (Arianna Huffington in a book on Picasso once made this point, and it’s pretty obvious if you simply Google “Cycladic sculptures” and look at the pictures).

“Paint what you know” as the advice to artists goes. Sometime quite literally. Why does this sound like a Prior Approval post? lol. Ray showing he is a master of all subjects. All.

3 Ray Lopez January 2, 2017 at 9:04 am

I did read the negative review by Rampley (“Matthew Rampley is a chair of art history at the University of Birmingham”, a chair perhaps, but he’s not the rock of all ages), and it’s not that negative. Also the thesis that artists are allowing viewers to vicariously enjoy what they themselves see or feel like is consistent with my analysis above: if you had cataracts you would indeed see Monet’s lilies just like he painted them. If you were a drunk who needed quick cash you would understandably paint like Pollack. If you wanted to rip off an artist long dead without fear of copyright infringement you would plagiarize Cycladic ancient cult figures like Picasso did. And so on. It’s all understandable without resorting to MRI scans of the brain.

4 dan1111 January 3, 2017 at 9:58 am

“Not that negative”? I think you may have been misled by the somewhat mild academic tone of the piece. To me it seems like a devastating review. The concluding sentence is: “Its value as a work of art history is questionable.”

5 Thiago Ribeiro January 2, 2017 at 10:07 am

But why are their skulls so oblong?!

6 Ray Lopez January 2, 2017 at 10:52 am

@TR “But why are their skulls so oblong?!” – because ‘they’ may be doing what the Huns did in Roman times: skull shaping. Google this. To make themselves more fearsome, the Huns would take infants, whose skulls are plastic, and ‘shape’ them by binding and wrapping the infants skulls with cords to they grow to be ‘pointy’, making the Huns look like aliens. It worked, as most people seeing Huns fled. That’s why.

7 Dmitri Helios January 2, 2017 at 11:48 am

I’m beginning to suspect Ray and Thiago are the same person.

8 Thiago Ribeiro January 2, 2017 at 12:25 pm

Who ever fled from the Greeks and their strange skulls? Not even the Turks and the Italians did.

9 msgkings January 2, 2017 at 3:12 pm

@Dmitri: whether they are one or two posters, he/they are extremely lonely in their third world hells.

10 Thiago Ribeiro January 2, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Brazil is not a hell and, althought there are some spots of Third World-like squalor, there are also a thousand points of First World-like light, scientific achievement and even overwhelming luxury. I, myself, live in a quiet, inspiring, prosperous college town. On average, Brazil is neither Third- nor First World, but maybe Second World, which may suit the theory of unequal e combined development of the Trotskyte Russian leader Leon Trotsky (Lev Davidovich Bronstein), whose main works were published in Brazil in the early 50’s after the fll of Doctor Vargas’ fascist Regime (1937-1945). In conclusion, Brazil is a land of contrast.

11 Nodnarb the Nasty January 3, 2017 at 10:25 am

Brazil is a land of thieves and racists.

Didn’t an American swimmer get robbed there during the Olympics. The Olympics?

Ah yes, the Olympics…

12 stephan January 2, 2017 at 12:54 pm

Monet developed cataracts after 1911. “Impression, soleil levant” , perhaps his first impressionist painting is from 1872 almost 40 years prior.

13 Ray Lopez January 2, 2017 at 6:04 pm

@Stephan – His lilies got worse over time, no? Proves “my” point (not my point, I’ve read it from a medical doctor and art critic).

14 stephan January 2, 2017 at 11:32 pm

@Ray I am skeptical that we owe impressionism to cataracts. You can already see some impressionist strokes in the 1869 painting “La grenouillere”. It’s hard to believe he had cataracts severe enough to affect his vision at 29. At any rate there were other impressionists in that time (Pissaro, Morisot and Sisley for example). I am not sure he was truly independently the first in that style. Some of these guys were good friends and were well aware of what each was doing.

Still It’s possible yes that some of his much later paintings, may have reflected his falling eyesight like this one

15 uair01 January 2, 2017 at 2:01 pm

If you google “early Jackson Pollock” you will see that he was a skilled painter. Most of the abstract painters were skilled draughtsmen and painters. In those times you still learned to draw and paint classically at the art academy.

16 Faze January 2, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Well, Jackson Pollock was never really a very good draftsman or painter. He struggled to emulate his mentor Thomas Hart Benton up until the late 1940s, and only came stumblingly and haltingly to his own style, and ultimately, the world-famous drip paintings. Nonetheless, the story of Benton’s influence on Pollock, and their intertwined lives is fascinating, and is well-rendered in the book “Tom and Jack” by art historian Henry Adams. Adams makes bold claims for Benton’s influence on Pollock, and offers a startling analysis of Pollock’s Peggy Guggenheim mural. There you can see that Pollock’s early work was embarrassingly crude.

17 Robert January 2, 2017 at 11:25 am

I am convinced that he would say that, in his opinion, Brazilians like this “Thiago Ribeiro” are overcompensating by making fools of themselves with persistently strange comments on the internet.

18 Thiago Ribeiro January 2, 2017 at 12:24 pm

There is nothing to overcompensate. If anything, there would be a lot to be undercompensated.

19 Jonathan January 2, 2017 at 8:04 am

The review reminds me a bit of Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind — big think without the science to back it up, and the science was wrong, but the book was nonetheless interesting….

20 anon January 2, 2017 at 10:57 am
21 dearieme January 2, 2017 at 11:14 am

I find cave paintings, at Lascaux and the like, quite beautiful. Does this mean I have a Stone Age brain?

22 derek January 2, 2017 at 11:21 am

It is disconcerting to learn these things about oneself.

Isn’t ‘brain plasticity’ being used here like ‘relativity’ and ‘chaos theory’ were used? They refer to specific phenomena, but the concept is stretched beyond recognition by people who really don’t understand what they are talking about.

23 dearieme January 2, 2017 at 11:24 am

I’m sure that Quantum Theory would prove you wrong.

24 Robert January 2, 2017 at 11:26 am

“Stretched beyond recognition…” Saw what you did there.

25 Li Zhi January 2, 2017 at 11:19 am

I guess I shouldn’t comment without reading the book, but arguing that our brain’s “plasticity” (whatever that means – is it different from intelligence in any meaningful way?) has changed over history (a span of what? 4,000 years?) either means Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism is wrong, or that the change is due to the enormously higher reproductive success of those with the “new” plasticity. Or perhaps the book (or TC) confuses plasticity (a property or set of properties) and structure (structure is what plasticity is expressed with). I am curious: how do you determine that someone who died 1000 years ago had “different” neuro-plasticity than ours today? ESP? Plasticity is expressed by neurostructure changes, I’m guessing any 1000 year old brains we have lying around are finished with their changes – other than decay.

26 anon January 2, 2017 at 11:26 am

Diet, trivially vs starvation, but also vs eating enough fish or nuts for good brain development, can vary tremendously over 4000 years, or 4000 miles.

27 So Much For Subtlety January 2, 2017 at 6:44 pm

Some times I look at Hipsters and I can’t believe we are the same species. I think Pyjama Boy proves this conclusively.

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