“Should art respond to science?” That’s the question art critic Jonathan Jones raised this week in Britain’s daily newspaper The Guardian. His answer? “No way.” He decided that on seeing an installation called “Supersymmetry” by Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda at a particle research center in Central London.
Ikeda’s installation is supposed to reflect his experience at the research institute, and to hear Jones tell it, the installation is “a lot of sound and light, signifying nothing.” He also rightly pointed out that “Supersymmetry” is about something that hasn’t been proved – the logic of the universe – at least so far. And he added this zinger: “There is a depressing lack of wonder in this technically sophisticated but intellectually and emotionally empty art.”
No surprise. The negative review was predictable. Ikeda’s s aim to make art respond to science was a fool’s errand. Art and science don’t talk the same language. This isn’t to say that art and science can’t serve one another.
Last year, this column noted how science proved that visiting an art museum affects both brain activity and heart rates. The Smithsonian noted a study by a neuroscientists and an art historian that asked ten people to look expressly at Adam’s wrist in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting “Expulsion from Paradise.” The image describes Adam attempting to keep an angel’s sword at bay by bending back his wrist.
By monitoring brain activity of the ten people with a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the researchers saw that Adam’s wrist action stimulated the part of the primary motor cortex that controls the viewers’ own wrists; “Just the sight of the raised wrist causes an activation of the muscle,” reports David Friedberg, the Columbia University art history professor who worked on the study.
Such cause and effect explains why people looking at Degas’ ballerinas say they experience the sensation of dancing. As the Smithsonian report put it, “the brain mirrors actions depicted on the canvas.”
Studying how the brain processes art by mapping blood flow and oxygenation in the brain is part of the growing field called neuroaesthetics. But art lovers have known about the neuroaesthethetics before there was such a word. I’m thinking about the Stendhal syndrome – the rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even hallucinations in the face of art, which has been known since the French writer Henri-Marie Beyle (penname Stendhal) wrote of his experience during a visit to Florence in 1817.
On seeing Giotto’s frescoes in the Basilica of Santa Croce, Stendhal was bowled-over:
“Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty… I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations… Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Stendhal’s experience isn’t unique. Many art lovers report dizziness, even fainting looking at art in Florence. In 1979 Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, described more than 100 similar cases among tourists in Florence.
So, it appears useful to have science authenticate the art experience. But here’s the thing. If we keep nailing experience down, if we keep squeezing out all that can be known, won’t we drain the life out of it? Just asking.