Chapter Three: Can Science Help?

Review of Chapter 3 in What Good are the Arts? by John Carey.  Transpositions is hosting reviews of each chapter of this book from 28 March – 3 April 2011.

As we have seen from James McCullough’s post and Sara Schumacher’s post, John Carey believes that there is no ultimate value that can help us to orient our lives, or that can help us to answer questions such as “what is a work of art?” and “what is the difference between high and low art?”  In his third chapter – “Can science help?” – Carey looks to science for an objective foundation that will help him to answer these two difficult questions about art.  Of course, Carey could have avoided writing this chapter altogether by pointing out that the “pure objectivity” of modern science is a pipe dream, and that there is no “value-free” mode of human investigation.  But if he had, his book would have been far less entertaining.

Carey catalogues (and then ruthlessly picks apart) several scientific forays into the art world.  He begins with E. O. Wilson who makes the bold argument[1] that “all human activities and ideas originate in the brain, and since the brain is a material object which brain scientists will hopefully one day understand, it follows that all human activities, including art and ethics, can be explained scientifically.”[2] This leads Wilson to the conclusion that all human activities are guided by “epigenetic rules” that can be discovered through the scientific method.  Thus, Wilson surmises that there must be certain “archetypes,” which correspond to the “epigenetic rules” governing the arts and account for the enduring quality of some works of art.  Carey offers a brutal critique of Wilson’s argument, concluding that “if there were indeed certain identifiable works that appealed to everyone in every age and culture, then it would be reasonable to conclude that they corresponded to something universally human.  But the reality is that no such works exist, except in Wilson’s imagination.”[3] Carey is equally scathing about other scientific attempts to “explain” art.  He is particularly ruthless toward a study by V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein that reduces art to the activity of caricature or exaggeration[4]

Even if many scientific explorations in the arts have proved fruitless, it is not the case, as Carey points out, that the arts are somehow “out of bounds” for scientific investigation. Indeed, he notes that the attempt to explain art scientifically is an “ancient quest,” and that many modern attempts are based upon the accurate observation that works of art illicit a scientifically measurable response in human beings.  The problem with most scientific studies on the nature of artistic experience is the complexity of those experiences: “This virtually infinite variation in the experiences of those exposed to artworks necessarily undermines all endeavours to find a key formula.”[6]

Carey is highly critical of every scientific study that he mentions, and so one wonders if he has carefully chosen only the most problematic studies in order to support his overall argument about the futility of defining art in anything but relativistic terms. The scientists he discusses are primarily working in biology and brain science.  Could anthropology or sociology shed any light on our understanding of the arts?  Ellen Dissanayake, for example, has put forth the very well received theory that human artistic activity exercises and is reliant upon the more fundamental human activity of “making special.”[7] According to Dissanayake, art derives from the human ability to frame reality: to bracket a space that is extra-ordinary within the ordinary stream of life.  Her theory comes out of research on the function of artifacts in primitive cultures.  Dissanayake posits that today’s contemporary art world is so distant from art’s “original function” (to make special) that we fail to see the ways in which making and appreciating art may actually be connected to something of evolutionary benefit to the human species.

I don’t know what Carey would say about Dissanayake’s idea of “making special.”  Undoubtedly, he would find some way to criticize her argument.  But it is interesting that the concept of “making special” is essentially tied to the human capacity to evaluate: to say this part is important and that is not, to say this is qualitatively different from that.  It seems to me that evaluation is the one activity that Carey wants to deny himself in his attempt to answer the question “what good are the arts?”  But maybe there is no art without evaluation.  Maybe evaluation is one of the keys to (though not the definition of) art.  As a Christian, I can ground the human capacity to evaluate within the imago dei, and I can also orient my values according to the story God is telling in creation.

[1] See Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Westminster, MD: Knopf, 1999).

[2] What Good Are the Arts?, 65.

[3] Ibid, 67.

[4] ‘The science of art’. Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (1999): 15–51

[5] What Good Are The Arts?, 72.

[6] Ibid, 80.

[7] Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.


  • Bruce Herman says:

    Jim – Thanks for this continued conversation on Carey and related positions. Your posting raises the question of criteria — which continues to haunt all discussions on how we evaluate or judge art — not just whether some particular art object is good or less good — but whether or not it is art at all. Every conversation I have had with art theorists and art historians on this matter has yielded the same silence. No one wants to commit to an evaluative grid, because the tacit understanding is that art is judged subjectively. The most honest critic I know, Robert Hughes, has stated it bald-facedly, saying essentially that his own judgment is more valid and nuanced than that of most people due to his high level of sophistication and cultivated taste. His remarks invite outrage by those who are offended by any kind of elitism, but he at least is honest.
    Leo Steinberg has given a stimulating discussion of the problem in his book “Other Criteria” (current edition is Univ Chicago Press, 2007). The upshot of his argument is that those who are most offended and shocked by each successive wave of new art are the immediately preceding generation of avant guard artists (who stand to lose the most by the new criteria being accepted, hence displacing their own “revolution”).
    The problem of stable criteria is really part of a much bigger “problem” — namely, the collision of multiple cultures whose criteria for what “makes special” vary drastically at times. The conceit of scientific universals when it comes to art seems to me to be a bit of gossamer. It’s akin to catching the wind in a net (like those born of the Spirit, impossible to pin down).
    But frank admission of criteria would be a refreshing if parochial move. Confessing that we need to make art that serves a specific community would be humbling and freeing I think — and if an artist then submitted to the evaluative grid offered by that community she would be sure of at least one thing — the possibility of “success” in some deeper way other than mere celebrity status taht can be achieved in an unstable and artificially hyped art environment. As I said in a previous post, that hype machinery depends on a scarcity economy that supposes that works of genius are utterly mysterious.
    Science may not be able to discover universal criteria in bio-chemistry, but by the same token I do not think that the romantic mystique of the “genius” is much help either. What is needed, I feel, is an artistic ethic of humility and service — and a vision of meaning that includes mutual submission.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Bruce, thank you for these comments, and for extending my post further into the problem of finding criteria by which we can judge works of art. I very much appreciate your statement: “Confessing that we need to make art that serves a specific community would be humbling and freeing I think.” It seems to me that the problem of finding criteria is so complex because human beings operate within multiple ‘communities’ at the same time. Surely this has been the source of much tension for Christian artists who find it difficult to reconcile their ‘art community’ with their ‘Christina community.’ Both communities appear to offer different sets of critieria according to which we evaluate a work of art. I think that John Carey is basically running away from this problem because he refuses to accept the reality of criteria set by any community (i.e. those criteria do not help us to know or perceive anything real).

      I am interested in your last sentence: “What is needed, I feel, is an artistic ethic of humility and service — and a vision of meaning that includes mutual submission.” Would you be able to elaborate on this? Does this ethic apply to the artist, the art ‘object,’ the critic or to all three? If an artistic ethic of humility and service could provide a criterion by which we can evaluate works of art, how does it relate to the criteria set by the ‘art world’ or by the tradition in which the artist works? I would like to think that an artistic ethic of humility and service is compatible with many communities beyond Christian ones, but of course there are many artists who have based their careers on exactly the opposite ethic. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  • Sue Watkins says:

    Interesting article Jim!

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