What Happens To Your Brain When You Look at Modern Art?

Something happens to your brain when you look at art, especially modern art. Sure, in formal art there are stories that paintings tell, that you may try to recall, analyze, unpack symbolically. But what of more abstract or minimalist art? How is looking at a white-washed wall different from looking at Malevich’s White on White? To answer these sorts of questions requires extensive knowledge of not only art history, but also neurology.

Enter Jonathan Fineberg,  Visiting Distinguished Professor at UC-Irvine and the Edward William and Jane Marr Gutgsell Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, U-C, who has a fine new book out called Modern Art at the Border of the Mind and Brain. The Secret History of Art interviewed him exclusively for ArtInfo.


Noah Charney (NC): Your subtitle might surprise some readers. You make the distinction between the mind and the brain, which in casual conversation we used interchangeably. What is the difference between the two?

Jonathan Fineberg (JF): The brain is a very complicated organ that performs many tasks.  Every day science reveals more and more about how it works.  Our brains regulate the beating of our hearts, our breathing, our ability to balance on a bicycle with little conscious awareness.  We are more aware of deciding to press down harder on the pedals in order to make that bicycle go faster, and the more we are aware of making decisions the more we depend on an increasingly complex interaction of reasoning, feelings, memories of what happened when we did something like that before, and all of that involves greater and greater consciousness about everything.  But what is consciousness?  That is the biggest unanswered question in neuroscience.

This book begins with two premises:  1 If we are still making images after 30,000 years (ten times longer than we have had written language), there must be something about it that we need.  2) Because our technology is not precise enough to see how a thought comes into existence in the brain, we may learn more about how the brain works by looking at what it produces and a work of art is one of the most complex products of the brain.  So works of art may be able to tells us a great deal about how the brain puts a thought together.

With these premises in mind, this book attempts to answer the question of why we make works of art and value them so highly.  The first chapter looks at how visual form can embody meaning.  The second chapter attempts to explain how we can think about that kind of meaning in the language of form.  The third chapter addresses how works of art may change the way an individual brain functions and whether that may in turn be communicable to other individuals thought processes.  The fourth chapter considers whether we need works of art and other challenging mental experiences to develop the function of the brain.  In all four chapters we are trying to understand the border between the brain as a functional organ and consciousness.


NC: Why the focus on modern art for the study? Do you feel that modern Art deals more with issues in neurology than, say, Old Masters?

JF: This inquiry is already so complex that I’m making it easier for us both and also more relevant by dealing with art that is about the times which are most familiar to us, our own times.  I don’t doubt that the same issues apply to the art of other periods but with artists of my own time and in several cases artists I know or knew personally, I have more access to the kind of information I need to show how these things work as I understand it.


NC: Throughout the history of art the biggest strides forward in terms of new discoveries and the groundbreaking studies seem to happen when someone brings another discipline to the study of art. I am thinking of mathematical studies of Piero Della Francesca, for example. Tell me about your own interdisciplinary approach. 

JF: Big strides in understanding come from being able to question fundamental assumptions and restructure them.  This often goes against the “normal” and “accepted” practices or understandings in a field.  I try my best to free myself of orthodoxies of thinking about things.  My book The Innocent Eye: Childrens’ Art and The Modern Artist for example took a cliché that every specialist in the study of modern art rejected (“my kid can paint a Picasso or a de Kooning”) and asked whether there was some kind of valuable insight in this very common misconception.  It led to my discovery of great collections of children’s drawings that were used specifically by many of the great masters of modern art in their most important innovations.  It did not show that any of these great works could actually be made by a child but rather that these great artists were going deeper into human experience by studying childhood and that the average non specialist, who didn’t already know that these works could not possibly be made by a child, were able to see something important that the specialists could not see.  For me psychoanalysis has given me tools to understand how visual thoughts work, social history has taught me how to understand how art fits into the big ontological issues of its times (how I determine who I am in the time and place that I live), and neuroscience is beginning to open perspectives for me on questions of consciousness that I will never be able to answer, but I will know more about because of this.


NC: How did you choose which artists and artworks to focus on in your study? What was a distinctive characteristic in all of them that made them ideal case studies?

JF: I wanted to pick artists who provided the best examples of the particular mechanisms I wanted to illuminate and for whom I had the greatest depth of evidence from which to answer my questions about how things work.  In some cases my personal relationship with the artist (as with Motherwell) or my witnessing of the work in its social context (Christo) gave me particular depth to draw on.


NC: What is your view on why our prehistoric ancestors made cave paintings?

JF: I think each chapter of the book is a different part of the answer to that question.  In the end I think that once we see what Dubuffet did with visual form and how he experienced it, we can understand better how the making of images helped to develop complex thought and creative thought.  I think those cave paintings exercised those abilities and built them up and helped cave men make a coherent whole out of their experience which in turn helped them survive.


NC: Magritte’s paintings have been the subject of much study by psychologists and neuroscientists especially related to the idea that we store images in our mind that our ideal versions of the objects we want to recall (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). He is not one of the artists you cover but I am curious for your thoughts on his work.

JF: The problem with Magritte for what I wanted to show is that his content has been processed to a greater extent through words, too manipulated by the conscious intellect to reveal the fundamental processes of visual thought as clearly as the artists I chose.  I like Magritte very much but I have to say he moves me less on a visceral level than Motherwell, Calder, Miro, Christo, or Dubuffet.


NC: You describe looking as a form of thinking that helps develop our minds. But how do you distinguish looking from just an intake of one of the senses that is processed by the mind, as opposed to its own form of thinking?

JF: Again, this is so complicated that I was hoping to learn more by isolating a few variables and confining myself to visual thinking.  There has also been more useful (to me) science on vision that on the other senses.  But you are absolutely right to point to sound and touch, tastes and smells as other components of our thought processes.  It is artificial to confine ourselves only to vision but it helps us to understand the whole better by virtue of the narrower focus.   If you look at an fmri of someone looking at art you most see the visual processing centers light up (the fmri measures blood flow so we know those areas are active).  But in much lesser degrees all kinds of other areas in the brain also light up and that tells me that other senses and memories are brought in to make up what we think we see.  The actual input from the senses is probably just a fraction (maybe 20%) of what we think we see.


NC: If you had to choose just one artwork to illustrate your argument which would you choose and why?

JF: That’s impossible.  In a sense any one would do and none of them illustrate the argument in all aspects as well as all of them together.  That said, I did put Dubuffet’s Fluence on the cover…


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