Rose-Paule Vinciguerra – Does neuroesthetics learn anything about aesthetic feeling?


The word “neuroesthetics” was proposed around 2001 by Semir Zeki[1], a specialist in the visual brain of primates at University College London. In 2007, the wealthy Wellcome Trust donated £1 million to create the world’s first Neuro-Aesthetics Institute. In 2009, the European Science Foundation dedicated one of its prestigious exploratory symposia in Germany to this new field and the Max Planck Society for the Development of Science – one of the largest scientific organizations in the world –  is about to establish an Institute for Aesthetic Empirical Studies.

This new discipline, neuroesthetics, is searching for the “neural bases of aesthetic pleasure”. To do this, it first identifies a phenomenon (an aesthetic perception) and then explores how the brain’s functioning could account for this phenomenon. Thus, the neural network underlying psychological phenomena can be described, but these phenomena are already known. In front of a painting of Western figurative art, there would be the perception of colors, then the arrangement of forms in space, and finally the movements of the viewer’s gaze relating to the figures [2]. Then comes the functional explorations of the brain.

Althusser spoke of a spontaneous philosophy of scientists. Well, here, it is the psychological doxa that is taken for granted, but among these “scientists”, everything happens as if it emanated directly, empirically from imagery. In fact, it is only in a second phase, after these phenomena have been recognized at the psychological level, that neurosciences use the physics of light, the chemistry of the materials used, the physiology of visual perception [3] and come to the analysis of the brain’s interpretation of them.

This spontaneous philosophy, however, claims to be a kind of ontology (we are our brain) and promotes a deterministic physics of causality (the brain produces culture). In this respect, if neuroscience can reveal through fMRI[4] what happens in the brain (for example, when one dreams), the question remains as to the “meaning” that a work of art can produce, a fortiori the polyphony of meaning, ambiguity, meaning as it is lacking, “the ab-sense”.

Thus, following S. Zeki’s idea that artists would be neurologists who ignore themselves, Michel Paysant[5], creator of eye drawing, makes drawings by recording in a sophisticated apparatus the movements of his eyes in front of a model, movements directly reflected by lines that overlap on the screen constituting his painting; but once the drawing is finished, it says nothing of what its author could have meant. He may think he is leaving traces of a subject, but what is he subject to? Unless we consider the variations in the movements of his eyes to be directly guided by his unconscious thinking. But what unconscious? Certainly not the one of his fantasy, because no fantasy can be elaborated without the insertion of a subject in a discourse. In this vein, we could all be artists. Is this painting then a pure body effect mixed with the machine? Yet the hybrid “cyborg” effect can in no way attest to the jouissance of the body, of which, in any case, the trace cannot be inscribed. Moreover, there is no aesthetic effect in these intertwined lines, which simply evoke the observed external shape. The opposite of Francis Ponge’s “the objoie“. And the intended meaning seems to be reduced to the meaning of the demonstrative effect of the technical prowess of neuroesthetics. For vision is one thing, the gaze is another. For an aesthetic effect to occur, it is necessary to experience in fine that the painter has knotted his vision to his gaze. This leads the spectator to experience himself, as Lacan says, under the painter’s gaze.

Thus, neuroesthetics assimilates the feeling of the beautiful to the pleasure of the pleasant, to the sensory well-being. In this respect, aesthetic judgment cannot but be linked, in the end, to the brain circuit of “reward” from an adaptive perspective. This is what J.-P. Changeux calls the satisfaction of “desires”[6].

As for the displeasure generated by what is ugly, it is only considered from the point of view of unpleasantness. It is the orbital-frontal cortex that is at stake for the “beautiful” and the motor cortex for the “ugly” – although it is recognized that many other brain areas are involved in aesthetic judgment. But how can it be explained that the displeasure experienced at first sight with such a violent painting by Picasso as “Big nude on a red armchair” or monsters by Goya can nevertheless be part of an aesthetic emotion?

If beauty is distinct from any feeling of pleasure, is it not rather, as Lacan said, what “very seriously stops us” when we approach “the central field of desire”[7]? And he continued: “the beautiful,[…] has the effect of suspending, lowering, disarming, as I would say, desire. The manifestation of the beautiful then intimidates, prohibits desire”[8]. Thus, beauty does not satisfy the desire mistaken for need – as neuroesthetics believes it demonstrates – it produces on the contrary “extinction or temperament of desire”[9]. Let us add that, far from the aesthetic feeling leaning against an object, it produces a “disruption of any object”[10], noted Lacan, referring to Kant for whom the pure judgment of taste is pure of any interest in the existence of the object [11].

Translation: Jeroen Sollie

Re-read by Lorena Hojman Davis

[1] Zeki S., (1999), Inner Vision, an exploration of art and the brain, Oxford University Press.    

[2] Changeux J.-P., Reason and pleasure, Éditions Odile Jacob, 1994, (2nd part: The gaze of the collector).

[3] Cf. Walter P., Perception of works: from matter to neuroaesthetics, Collège de France, chair of technological innovation Liliane Bettencourt (2013-2014).

[4] Functional magnetic resonance imaging.

[5] I owe it to Nicolas Tourre to have made me aware of Michel Paysant’s initiative.

[6] Changeux J.-P., op. cit., p. 41.

[7] Lacan J., Le Séminaire, Livre VII, L’Éthique de la psychanalyse, Paris, Seuil, Paris, 1986, p. 256.

[8] Ibid., p. 279.

[9] Ibid., p. 291.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kant E., The Critique of Judgement. Part I: Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Section 1, Analytic of Aesthetic Judgement, Book 1, Analytic of the Beautiful, § 2.

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