Monday, March 16, 2015

Ben Ehrlich - Definitions

Reading over my notes from the session, I remembered my criticism of the conference. When I say criticism, I am thinking of a book by George Steiner called Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, whose first line is: “Criticism should arise out of a debt of love.” I loved, and I owe. However, I have to report that at a conference called “Neuroscience and Art,” we never defined neuroscience or art.

I have Charles on the record saying that “creativity is simply the generation of something new.” At the time, I thought about Ecclesiastes, the Biblical wisdom text: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Also, isn’t every thought arising my head technically new? Charles also said, and I copied down, that art is “a homogenous form of total creativity.” If I have that wrong, please correct me immediately. I really appreciated that Charles would attempt to define his terms, but then these terms were never formally challenged, and so we could not have a debate. There were many implicit assumptions, which I will try to falsify here, at least enough to demonstrate a need for more work.

What is art? There is widespread disagreement about what constitutes art, even within the art world. We have the avant-garde, expanding the territory, not always earning recognition. How would we treat Duchamp’s “Fountain” or John Cage’s “4’33”, to name two important examples. There is also art brut, or outsider art, which can include work by psychiatric patients and children. Does intention matter? Or is the art the product? A masterpiece American poem, frequently taught to children in school, can also be described as a domestic apology note, written by a doctor. If you encountered William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” on the refrigerator in the kitchen, would this be a poem? In an interview, William Faulkner once said that what the artist is trying to do is essentially scribble “Kilroy was here” on some wall. Would bathroom stall graffiti be considered art? Can we scan Kilroy’s brain? Most of Faulkner’s books were out of print during his lifetime. Was he still an artist when no one was reading his books, or did he only become an artist in 1949, when he won the Nobel Prize? What motivated the first cave drawings? Was that another Kilroy? Should we treat ancient Greek religious artifacts the same way as a giant Rothko canvas? The other day, I read about poets who use Google algorithms to completely determine their language. Scanning their brains would tell you nothing. Sometimes nobody creates a work of art, sometimes more than one person creates a work of art, and sometimes a robot can create art. You will probably disagree with a lot of these categorizations, which is exactly the point. We need aesthetic philosophy and critical theory. At least, we can’t pretend as though the work in those fields has not happened. or at least we can’t forget that these fields also exist and have contributed work. There are stakes when we say art.

What is neuroscience? At this point, I understand neuroscience to be an umbrella term for different ways of studying the brain. People have warned me not to call Santiago Ramón y Cajal “the father of neuroscience,” because he was only an anatomist, and there are other important branches (have a look at the Wikipedia list of “major branches” in the page on neuroscience). I used to know a neuroscientist who worked in the psychology department at a university, but who did not want me to call her a psychologist, because of the implications. Neuroscientists will say that there is “hard” and “soft” neuroscience. Incidentally, “soft” is the same term that one would use to insult an athletic opponent, in certain macho sports. Recently, a prominent cognitive neuroscientist was upset at his marginalized role within the Human Brain Project. Some neuroscientists do not respect the work of others. At a workshop, a theoretical neuroscientist once admitted that he wasn’t even sure that he believed in the efficacy of models! Is the neuroscientist who doesn’t think he is a neuroscientist a neuroscientist? Then there are computational neuroscientists, who speak in binary code. Obviously, that is not true, but their language is different. Neuroscience is less one than many. How would a molecular neurobiologist talk with a developmental neuropsychologist? Are artists and scientists always further apart than scientists and scientists? Here let me reveal that the term transient hypofrontality has been a resonant lyric for me. This is probably the most accurate way to describe my current state, traveling from place to place, with my guard down.

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