Ramachandran_Artful_Brain

Ramachandran_Artful_Brain - The Artful Brain V S...

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The Artful Brain V. S. Ramachandran W hat is art? When Picasso said, “Art is the lie that re- veals the truth,” what exactly did he mean? Neuroscientists have made remarkable headway in under- standing the neural basis of psychological phenomena such as body image or visual perception. But can the same be said of art—given that art obviously originates in the brain? In particular, we can ask whether there are such things as artistic universals. There is obviously an enormous number of artistic styles across the world: Tibetan art, Classical Greek art, Renaissance art, Cubism, Expressionism, Indian art, pre- Columbian art, Dada . . . the list is endless. But despite this staggering diversity, can we come up with some universal laws or principles that transcend these cultural boundaries and styles? The question may seem meaningless to many social scien- tists; after all, science deals with universal principles, whereas art is the ultimate celebration of human individuality and orig- inality—the ultimate antidote to the homogenizing effects of science. There is some truth to this, of course, but even so I’d like to argue that such universals do exist. 169
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First, a note of caution. When I speak of “artistic universals” I am not denying the enormous role played by culture. Obvi- ously, without culture there would be no different artistic styles—but neither does it follow that art is completely idiosyn- cratic and arbitrary, or that there are no universal laws. To put it somewhat differently, let us assume that 90 percent of the variance seen in art is driven by cultural diversity or— more cynically—by just the auctioneer’s hammer, and only 10 percent by universal laws that are common to all brains. The culturally driven 90 percent is what most people already study—it’s called art history. As a scientist, what I am inter- ested in is the 10 percent that is universal—not in the endless variations imposed by cultures. The advantage that scientists have today is that unlike philosophers we can now test our conjectures by directly studying the brain empirically. There’s even a new name for this discipline. My colleague Semir Zeki calls it neuroaesthetics— just to annoy the philosophers. I recently started reading about the history of ideas on art—especially Vic- torian reactions to Indian art—and it’s a fascinating story. For example, let’s go to southern India and look at the famous Chola bronze of the goddess 170 the internet and the university Fi gu re 1. Parvathi, co n sort o f Lord Shiva, twel f th-ce n t u ry Chola dy n asty (replica).
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Parvathi dating back to the twelfth century. (See Figure 1 . ) To Indian eyes, she is supposed to represent the very epitome of feminine sensuality, grace, poise, dignity, elegance: everything that’s good about being a woman. And she’s of course also very voluptuous.
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