Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, has written a thought-provoking piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “Art History Can Trade Insights With the Sciences.” No link, alas, but here are some excerpts:
psychologist previously trained in the humanities and in studio art, I
have spent my career applying the science of cognitive psychology (and
recently cognitive neuroscience) to studying the creation of and
response to art.
To be sure, we scientists who wander into the art museum have to guard
against many pitfalls: blind empiricism, testing hypotheses that are
not theoretically grounded; unconsciously finding data to fit our
theories; waiting for others to try to falsify our theories. We need
to avoid reductionism: A scientific explanation of an artistic
phenomenon — say, why we are moved more by some paintings than others
— is not superior to a humanistic one, nor does it replace an
explanation at the humanistic level….
To decide whether or not to accept a scientific
explanation of an artistic phenomenon, one must evaluate the evidence.
One has to determine whether the evidence supports the claim, and if
not, how the claim could be subjected to further, decisive test. One
has to think scientifically. And therein lies the problem. Humanists
are not trained to think in terms of propositions testable via
systematic empirical evidence. A scientific finding about the arts may
therefore be unfairly rejected without a careful evaluation of the
Today neuroscience is moving into the study of the arts. Brain imaging
allows us to track how the brain processes works of art, what parts of
the brain are involved as artists develop a work of art, and how
training in an art form stimulates brain growth. Scientists who do
that kind of work will need a deep understanding of the art form they
are studying. Humanists and cognitive scientists are, therefore, most
likely going to be teaming up more to study humanistic phenomena from
a scientific perspective.
It’s interesting that I ran across this essay the same day I posted a link to a piece of scientific research with powerfully humanistic implications. As a card-carrying aesthete, you’d think I’d be resistant to that kind of thinking, but it happens that I once spent two years preparing to pursue a graduate degree in psychology, in the course of which I studied statistics, cognitive psychology, and experimental design (as well as spending more than a few sleepless nights trying to talk crisis-line callers out of killing themselves). Hence I’m more open than most critics to the kind of research-driven scrutiny of the arts about which Dr. Winner writes in her essay. At its best, it can be both provocative and illuminating–so long as the practitioners never lose sight of the ultimate end of art, which is beauty.
No doubt it’s significant in this connection that I started out as a musician. Music is non-verbal and thus radically ambiguous, meaning that it doesn’t lend itself to what might be called content-oriented analysis. Yet it is possible to talk about what makes a piece of music beautiful–or, at the very least, what makes it beautiful to you. Since I’m both a musician and an intellectual, I’ve scrutinized my tastes closely and analytically enough to have isolated certain musical “tricks” that I find especially appealing. I know exactly what it is that I like about, say, Gabriel Faur