-Robert Genn
September 2006


A new art buzzword is "neuroarthistory." It's the brain-blatt
> of a couple of U.K. professors. Art history expert John Onians
> of the University of East Anglia, and neuroscientist Semir Zeki
> of University College, London, using new scanning techniques,
> are probing the brains of artists, including dead ones. They
> are attempting to answer questions such as: What went on in the
> brains of Monet, Leonardo, and the ancient cave-painters? What
> goes on in the brains of today's working artists? How do the
> brains of amateur and professional artists differ? Why do
> artists in certain times or places have certain visual tastes?
> "The most interesting aspect of neuroarthistory is the way it
> enables us to get inside the minds of people who either could
> not or did not write about their work," says Prof. Onians. "We
> can now understand much about the visual and motor preferences
> of people separated from us by thousands of miles or thousands
> of years." The profs speculate on 32,000-year-old art in the
> cave of Chauvet in France. "No approach other than
> neuroarthistory can explain why this, the first art, is also
> the most naturalistic, capturing the mental and physical
> resources of bears and lions as if on a wildlife film," says
> Onians.
> Examining these cave drawings in person, I noticed effects not
> unlike modern drawing. There's the characterization of species
> differentiation through broad expressive strokes. For example,
> the back-lines of the rhinoceros-like beasts on the left side
> of the cave--repeated five times--are strong and
> weighty--merging directly into their tails. I've often wondered
> if these "primitive" drawings were done without the
> interference of advanced language skills. Did these artists
> have words such as "back" or "tail"? So you know what we're
> talking about, I've asked Andrew to illustrate these remarkable
> works in the current clickback. See URL below.
> According to the profs, neuroarthistory can also explain why
> Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters
> more of colour. (Did they? The sophisticated use of colour
> includes lack of strong colour.) Jargon such as "neural
> plasticity" and "mirror neurons" is used to explain the
> "formation of different visual preferences and artists'
> deportments." For example, the profs mention that Europeans
> such as Leonardo stood before vertical canvases while the
> Chinese sat before horizontal sheets of silk or paper.
> Different strokes for different folks.

> PS: "We can also use neuroarthistory much more widely, both to
> better understand the nature of familiar artistic phenomena
> such as style, and to crack so far intractable problems such as
> 'what is the origin of art?'" (John Onians)
> Esoterica: A sensitive looker, by looking at the art of any
> age, can "read" energy, power, ignorance, understanding,
> carelessness, wonder, worship, laziness, honour, fear, humour,
> bias, denial, stupidity, and senility, among other things.
> Living artists evolve and develop by learning to see these
> sorts of nuances in the works of themselves and others. In the
> meantime, we all look forward to seeing the posthumous
> brain-scans of long-empty skulls.