Bugs and Glitches vs. Art

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

I am still in the middle of Dianne Durante's fascinating article, "19th-Century French Painting and Philosophy" in the Fall 2006 issue of The Objective Standard, but I have noticed an interesting parallel between the historical progression it describes and a scene from a clinical tale from the field of neurology.

Consider the common analogy between man's brain and his cognitive ability on the one hand and computers and programming on the other. Man's brain, the hardware, has a definite nature and must be functioning properly, at least in most respects, for him to have the ability to reason and act efficaciously within reality. His philosophy, the software, will help or impede his ability to reason depending on how "glitch-free", or correct, it is. (The analogy is not perfect because, among other things, man has free will and thus the power to question his philosophy and change it.)

With the above analogy in mind, consider the effects of progressively worse "programming" on a succession of French artists, taken from the conclusion of the article on p. 140:

As a result of the changes in philosophical ideas from Enlightenment assumptions to Kantian premises, we have seen the subjects of French 19th-century paintings move from the heroic to the ordinary to the unrecognizable, and style move from the careful evocation of texture and atmosphere to daubs and smears applied with a palette knife. By the early years of the 20th century, the works being produced by the French avant-garde were bizarre and incomprehensible, but were defended vehemently by the artists and critics. Hence, although it is startling that Matisse's Luxe, calme, et volupte (fig. 2) was accepted as an admirable work of art a mere century after David painted Madame Recamier (fig. 1), it is understandable in the context of the time. Art is, after all, subject to cause and effect. Most artists, like most other people, uncritically adopt the ideas circulating in their culture. The philosophical ideas circulating by 1900 were horrendous. Art followed suit.
Compare this to the following passage from the clinical tale whose title lends itself to the collection The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, by Oliver Sacks, in which he shows us the dramatic toll a physical illness can take on a man's cognitive powers:
"Yes," Mrs. P. said, "he was a gifted painter as well as a singer. The School exhibited his pictures every year."

I strolled past them curiously -- they were in chronological order. All his earlier work was naturalistic and realistic, with vivid mood and atmosphere, but finely detailed and concrete. Then, years later, they became less vivid, less concrete, less realistic and naturalistic, but far more abstract, even geometrical and cubist Finally, in the last paintings, the canvasses became nonsense, or nonsense to me -- mere chaotic lines and blotches of paint. I commented on this to Mrs. P.

"Ach, you doctors, you're such Philistines!" she exclaimed. "Can you not see the artistic development -- how he renounced the realism of his earlier years, and advanced into abstract, nonrepresentational art?"

"No, that's not it," I said to myself (but forbore to say it to poor Mrs. P.). He had indeed moved from realism to nonrepresentation to the abstract, yet this was not the artist, but the pathology, advancing -- advancing towards a profound visual agnosia, in which all powers of representation and imagery, all sense of reality, were being destroyed. This wall of paintings was a tragic pathological exhibit, which belonged to neurology, not art. (p.17) [link added]
Fortunately, if we regard Western civilization, too, as a patient with an illness, the prognosis is uncertain, but it is far from hopeless.

-- CAV


Today: Two minor edits.
11-22-06: Corrected a typo. (HT: Adrian Hester)


Adrian Hester said...

Heh, this reminds me of a short chamber opera I lent you many years ago, Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, which might well be the first and only neurological opera ever written; dunno if you ever got around to listening to it. The scene viewing the paintings was very well done--the opera is filled with themes from Schumann's songs when the patient is doing well in his life, and it becomes increasingly fragmented and chilly when his system breaks down; this is echoed in the painting scene as Dr. S and the wife discuss the paintings. (You can hear the first part of it in the 19th selection on the Amazon site.) Nyman's an interesting composer who's done some very good work, but he keeps some odd company...

Gus Van Horn said...

I saw indirectly from the Wikipedia entry on agnosia that there was such an opera, but that was the first I'd heard of it.

I also noticed yesterday that the Sacks book was ranked 18th greatest science book of all time by Discover.

The book is very good, but that seems a little high. 18th? Of all time? Ooookaaaay.

Adrian Hester said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "I also noticed yesterday that the Sacks book was ranked 18th greatest science book of all time by Discover. * The book is very good, but that seems a little high. 18th? Of all time? Ooookaaaay."

I just looked at the list and found it quite odd. What are the criteria for inclusion? Nothing coherent. There are two broad categories of books given, original classics of scientific writing and good popularizing works. The first 8 and #24, Micrographia, are classics of science; the rest are at least to some degree works of popularization or first-person historical accounts. (Well, and then there's Schrodinger's book, which certainly has something of the philosophical importance of the great 19th century treatises, and then the political advocacy of Rachel Carson.) The great preponderance of the second batch can't be explained simply by the fact that so many of the important scientific publications of the 20th century are journal papers either.

And look at the dates of the works--besides Aristotle, there were works published in 1543(two), 1632, 1665, and 1687, then nothing until three books published in the 19th century (one an account of exploration). All the rest are 20th century, 4 from the 1940s and 11 from 1962 or later. Think about what's missing--first and most appallingly, Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, and such other influential books as Laplace's Celestial Mechanics, Lagrange's Analytical Mechanics, Lavoisier's Elementary Treatise of Chemistry, Lyell's Principles of Geology, perhaps Carnot's Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire or Huygens' Treatise on Light or Agassiz's Studies on Glaciers and Discourse of Neuchatel or anything by Buffon or Cuvier, and so on, all classics from the 18th and 19th centuries that are certainly more important to the history of science than Gould's essays or Carson's Silent Spring. (And Aristotle's Physika but not the works of Aristarchus or Archimedes or Hippocrates, say?) All the works consolidating and vastly extending the Newtonian Revolution and establishing what we call the Newtonian worldview (even though Newton himself wouldn't have shared all its tenets), which is of course too old hat and unsexy for our (or at least our times') pomo sensibilities.

But notice too the fields covered by the books--a catholic sprinkling of physical, biological, and social sciences, basically a grab bag of the towering and the faddishly sexy. Think about it--Sacks but not Hebb's Organization of Behavior, Freud getting honorable mention but not William James' Principles of Psychology (a much more interesting book than Varieties of Religious Experience but no less frustrating), Dian Fossey's Gorillas in the Mist but not the enduring classics of ethology? I remember when I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Discover that I finally allowed to lapse after four or five years because of this gosh-wow ain't-it-nifty approach to science.

Gus Van Horn said...

Well, Silent Spring is hands-down the most galling on the list. Unless holding the record for the highest body count due to a "scientific" work qualifies it as "great".