Two Cultures: The Art of Neurology Challenges the Science of Art Criticism Reign 'Mirrors in Mind' Shows Graham Farmelo That Paintings Are Experimental

By Farmelo, Graham | The Independent (London, England), November 8, 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Two Cultures: The Art of Neurology Challenges the Science of Art Criticism Reign 'Mirrors in Mind' Shows Graham Farmelo That Paintings Are Experimental


Farmelo, Graham, The Independent (London, England)


You don't have to agree with Constable that painting is a science to accept his conclusion that its pictures are experiments. To get the most out of them, we have always needed good art critics, but we are now entering an era in which our appreciation of art is being given new depth by what might seem like an unlikely profession: brain scientists.

Whenever human beings look at a painting - or do anything else, for that matter - they are using the most complicated object we know of in the entire universe: their brain. Just how the ten billion neurons and the rest of the grey matter between every human pair of ears make sense of the world promises to be a mystery for some years to come, but there's no doubt that neuroscientists are now making breathtakingly rapid progress.

Only last week, the leading science journal Nature reported another advance on how we perceive colour. Neuroscientists have long known that colour itself is not out there in the world about us but is "created" in the eye and in the brain. Now two scientists at the University of California have shown that brain cells in our cerebral cortex engage in continuously dynamic cross-talk to make sense of the light entering our eyes. Research like this will soon be influencing how we think about painting. Meanwhile, thanks to the enterprise of the National Gallery, we have an opportunity to see the kind of light that well- established science gives to our understanding of art. In Jonathan Miller's fascinating exhibition "Mirror Image", the redoubtable doctor explores how painters use reflections and how we perceive mirror images in art and in the real world. Miller is at his most engaging best here. By using both his artistic imagination and his formidable analytical skills, he positively teems with insights and helps us to see old pictures with new eyes. In one of my favourite moments in the exhibition Miller analyses Jan van der Heyden's charming View of the Westerkerk, Amsterdam (1660), which features houses reflected from the surface a canal flowing across the foreground. This surface has a sheen which disappears immediately if we block out the houses and leave only the water's surface exposed. What is happening here, Miller explains, is that the sheen is not included in the painting, but is "brought to" the reflected image by our sensory system. Remarkably, our brains add something to the picture it sees in front of itself. Miller delivers analysis like this with his usual engaging didacticism. One price that we have to pay is that the exhibition is decidedly heavy on words, which bombard us from both the labels and the audioguide. Miller's interpretive style is scientific not only in content but also in tone: he is much more direct and literal-minded than is usually thought seemly in art criticism.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Two Cultures: The Art of Neurology Challenges the Science of Art Criticism Reign 'Mirrors in Mind' Shows Graham Farmelo That Paintings Are Experimental
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?