Can Art Investigate the Brain?

To ask such a question is to presuppose that a certain form of empirical knowledge can arise by establishing relations of reciprocity among diverse structures. Be it in terms of contrast and polarity or in the form of shared qualities that emerge in correspondences which are manifest in a quasi-experimental manner, such a question assumes that something can be shown of the brain in art and, moreover, that the brain thus exposed would otherwise remain hidden from view.

If one is to refrain from conceiving of this question as either a construct or already as a description of “inner intuition” (as a kind of “atmosphere”), then one must approach this question on the assumption that something of the brain can be shown. For example, that the aesthetic world of images and language is able to grasp and represent the brain in ways that are different from neurobiology – but this must of course be taken for granted. At issue is thus the type of representation for the fundamental building materials of the brain, and not any specific neurological data, definitions, descriptive functions or language – in a word, “higher” cortex functions of the brain. Following E. Kris’s formulation of the meaning of the word art “in our culture,” art is a message and an invitation to a unique and common experience of a shared imaginative faculty. An idea can be met within the loci of imagination. An emotive dialogue starts off “playing” in the court of imagination (cf. Kant, Critique of Judgment, section 40, “On Taste as a Kind of Sensus Communis,” the last three paragraphs) which as an experience is realized actually (actual facts) but needs to speak in representations (cf. J. Albers’ distinction between factual facts and actual facts in Structural Constellation, 1957). With this definition in hand, the building materials of the brain are simultaneously not reproduced as competing streams of consciousness in representations but are rather always represented after the fact – simulated as an expression and not as an image (I will return to this point later).

These considerations recall the situation of experimental physics at the end of the 19th century. The juxtaposition of art and the brain can only function with the schemas and creation of “virtual images” (Scheinbildern), that is, images which are artificially produced and only appear to resemble existing natural forms, without thereby being deceptive (like “illusions”).

In these virtual images, questions as to the reality of the established relation between nature (“art”) and the human mind (in this case, the brain) are overcome by experience. Nevertheless, as H. Hertz pointed out, virtual/internal images are never direct images or objective images of nature, though the deductions drawn from these images – the ratio formula – which produce new images are necessary depictions of the necessary results and thereby an effect of nature. In his final work, The Principles of Mechanics (1894), Hertz stated that “we do form (bilden) internal virtual images or symbols of exterior objects, that is we form them in no other way as to allow for images whose mental effects and consistencies are the physically necessary consequences of the initially depicted objects. For something like this to happen a certain correspondence between nature and the human mind has to exist. Experience teaches us that this demand is met; that indeed, such correspondences do exist.” Hertz’s statement is made within the context of developing his laboratory notes on the “curious rays of electrical energy.” He concludes his reflections with the caveat that it is not necessary that these virtual images correspond with things.

We have here an example of a passive and basic, yet functioning “pictorial material” (Bild-materialen: this includes the ‘mental material’ for an image which is accepted in a given social context). Through “experience” and perception, these function according to a method of analogical thinking (of memory) in order to depict the unrepresentable character of electro-magnetic waves, not in terms of a representation but in terms of a virtual image that makes them visible on a piece of paper. For such waves, we are dealing with a movement of “anti-gravity” with no extension and which cannot be perceived. It becomes objectified in structural pictures and in turn becomes a point of departure for further experimental investigation. If we transport this model of the accumulation of knowledge over to art, we perceive a similar dichotomy in art between accessible and inaccessible elements. This dichotomy is especially important in the sciences (as is known, an electron microscope can reveal everything except electrons) and this means that art can only potentially – never fully and actually – represent the brain (just as with experimental physics and atomic particles). But art can – as mentioned before – create an emotive dialogue which perceives information as actual rather than factual, thereby allowing for the physically necessary, the experience of the mental or imaginative faculty which is bound to be realized as a “communion,” a spatial entity, a space, a body, so to speak. It is in this sense that art can not escape representation. In respect to the brain this would mean that art would create an image of the brain as a space within a space-setting. And still – with this model in hand, potentiality is the effective bond between art and the brain and it becomes possible for the respective inaccessible elements of both art and the brain to encounter each other. In such an encounter, not an image, but a “portrait”, the “it-looks-as-if” comes into view. And in fact, one observes that 20th century art increasingly distances itself from the direct representation of things and turns instead toward less stylized presentations and art-settings. In contrast to Marcel Duchamp’s playful references to “non-retinal vision exercises” through the verbalization of neuronal retinal processes, the “content” of art in 20th century works such as Picasso’s “Harlequin,” Schwitters’ “W. C. Fields,” Borotsky’s “Dancing Clown,” and Naumann’s “Clown-Torture” emerges as an aesthetic object in the transformed role of the artist. Concomitant with these developments in art, neurological investigations of the brain, largely influenced by mechanics, represented brain functions in terms of linear forms. Cortex “spirituality” (Geistigkeit) and reason are organized in terms of the sensory and motor-reflexes. This is Helmholtz’s legacy, who professed in 1869 that the “final purpose of science” is to arrive at an explanation of “all the basic movements that underlie motions and bodily changes, and their mechanical forces.” From Helmholtz, a path is opened that leads to Paul McLean’s “Dreieiniges Gehirn” (1949). In this work, Freud’s schema of Id / Ego / Super-Ego is further radicalized and integrated into neurobiology. A structural transformation (quasi neo-Aristotelian separation of memory from recollection) is described here; learning is described as the transformation of network connections among cells and the maintenance of change.

Similarly, questions in experimental physics regarding the perceivability of photons, leptons, neutrinos and quarks are also relevant for neurobiological conceptions. Especially, it seems that data-points, graphs, formulas and measurements are transformed into structural images of the surgical intervention into nature, thereby trying to integrate the maintenance of change (not dissimilar to art-settings). As a consequence, the common view of the brain as an “unaesthetic” object must be modified. The separation of science into its accessible and inaccessible elements is also affected.

The brain is suddenly surrounded by phenomenal qualities in an atmosphere. The brain is compelled to appear itself and to appear in a manner that is proportional to the experimental situation or interrogation (one can but hope that Heidegger’s stumbling block of the “vulgar” can be overcome by art). The aim of constructing an inner design of the “aestheticized surfaces” of the brain connects the work of the neurobiologist with that of the engineer and the material sciences. Representations of inner designs (for example, microphotography) play an important role for the makers of inner designs, especially in view of motivational factors, self-understanding and the identification of materials (cf. Gernot Böhme, Atmosphäre, p. 59 ff.) But even this condition progressively disappears into the unseen (invisible) of a structural design.

The history of neurology demonstrates such examples of showing the brain as a two dimensional circuit design and as spatial architecture to an interested novice who is curious to investigate the functions of the brain. Both, however, cannot be brought into correspondence. The cyto-architecture of cell materials is organized according to the boundaries of localized functions (“lobes”). This is indeed curious since form and content are here separated. One can therefore surmise that the functional physiognomy of lobes does not reveal the inner spatiality of cell architecture and thus that concept and incarnation are not united.

This is similar to the description of a Greek statue, as given by Plato through the voice of Alcibiades in the Symposium, which depicts the figure of Socrates. Alcibiades evokes the image of Socrates: “Look at him! Isn’t he just like a statue of Silenus? You know the kind of statue I mean; you’ll find them in any shop in town. It’s a Silenus sitting, his flute or his pipes in his hands, and it’s hollow. It’s split right down the middle, and inside it’s full of tiny statues of the gods” (215b). A comparable complex difference between inner and outer appears in the functional descriptions of neurobiology. The recognition of this complex difference often ends up with the classical dilemma of circularity, as in the case of Phineas Gage. In this case, damage to the pre-central gyrus did not result in any motor-sensory damage and this was taken as an indication that the frontal lobe was a silent region – even when a self-composed and restrained person suddenly becomes transformed into “a-no-longer-Gage-person.”

The emotive structure of the formula applied here (dilemma of circularity) – the unseen design of linearity – realizes purity of construction which falls short of the and/or construction already discovered in experimental physics.

A contrary course to the predicaments of neurobiology can be seen in the history of art within the parameters of the 19th and 20th century. Art appears foremost as a statement and self-reference, where what becomes important are the environmental qualities and material aesthetic and less the rigorously substantive and pure constructions. Art creates spaces with affective shadings (from Impressionism to Turrell) which construe the subject as a receiver of the presence of something. The presence in question is, however, not comparable to the purposeful presence of portraits, historical representations, or icons.

Meanwhile neurobiology is still ruled by a tight scientific canon of “iconographical” conclusions. A central problem in neurobiology, for example, is the difficulty of bringing together a concept of energy (electromagnetic energy in vision, mechanical energy in touching and hearing, chemical energy in smell and taste) with an information concept of nerve impulses and stimuli. With this problem in mind, until the middle of the 20th century we see the dominance of the localization of brain functions and the preponderance of testing the nervous system in correspondence with external physical expressions (motor and sensory symptoms). However, the strategy of analyzing two-dimensional neuronal designs with a type of anatomy of complexity (or with an anatomy of emotions) on the basis of spatial and mechanical principles of cell construction could not be integrated with an analysis of chemical energy (smell and taste), since the pathways between the relay-circuits in the cortex does not, as is the case with other sense-organs, pass through the secondary associative region to a tertiary region (a kind of “sensus communis” which is not irrelevant to aesthetics and art). This explains perhaps why the senses of smell and taste are often relegated to a less important status. The “hyper-presence” of mechanical energy and the dominance of the function of knowing naturally leads to viewing the brain as topography of parameters. In this topography, the inaccessible or “invisible” of the brain dovetails into the function of a passive in an active construct, i.e., a machine without an and/or option.

A similar dilemma exposing the weakness of establishing a relation between inner and outer, active and passive, emerged for 18th century physiognomy. In this case, the facticity of the body could not be united with a concept of the soul as interiority and freedom. Even though Lichtenberg and Lavater were in agreement that “the soul constitutes the body,” Lichtenberg opposed Lavater with the observation that what made man specifically human was not that he possessed an external appearance of a body but his possession of an infinite perfectibility. Lichtenberg contested the necessary objective-subjective construction of Lavater’s order of things which assumed functional descriptions without any reference to specific subjects and without any self-organization; the nose of one figure or another no longer means either to be a libertine or an aesthete. With the concept of perfectibility there emerges a specific social reality of the nose and of the person. Linking concept and incarnation is a processed content and a type of storytelling – the quasi reversal of the Aristotelian claim that “wheat that isn’t ripe is still called wheat.” The infinite concept of variability builds onto a structural constellation and onto situational thinking in which the exchange between information-time and the invisible time-interval is manifest; what Albers detected in the interaction of color (see J. Albers, 1957). According to Albers, color is a virtual force that conditions a “culture of material production” (Flusser). Color’s extreme motility leads from abstraction to narration. Viewing Lichtenberg’s concept of “perfectibility” as a model for potential narratives and complex movements, it is possible to read this concept as an anticipation and perfection or as the expression of a decision which relates to the “efficient environment of partial information” (Cytowic). Efficiency arises from an empirical world from the concrete nexus of movement. In both cases, emancipation arises by way of a systematic nexus of movement which connects to a specific, but not necessarily a linear (systematic) capacity for responsiveness; in other words, for a mature potentiality of the subject. The “exo-cortex” of language/society points to what every person should reflect on – and which has to be done “purposefully,” as Kant would say, “with taste” (see Critique of Judgment, section 40).

This evokes Lacan’s “certitude anticipée,” which refers to the individual’s hope to be a mature/full member of the society. Without this feeling of anticipation an existential object that fortifies and thereby establishes a deeper connection between the brain’s cortex and the limbic system can not be created (see Kant, op. cit., section 41). According to Thierry de Duve, for whom art draws out the implicit ethical dimension of neurophysiology, because art’s maxim “emancipation” (regrettably realized as a “Project” of the avant-garde) means – to paraphrase Beuys – that everyone is an artist, thus every person is an emancipated individual, every brain is its own avant-garde. If so, then every art object, even virtual objects like Heinrich Hertz’s virtual images of electromagnetism as well as the images from experimental physics, are not contemplations of an independent nature (cf. P. Mittelstaedt, Der Begriff der Natur in der modernen Physik).

In consequence, art that does not define things but describes them comes to approximate with its functional descriptions the systematic terrain of science and therefore gives up any systematic image that pretends by incarnation to communicate the presence of other things. Art thus receives a mediating role and a systematic function in the accomplishments of neurophysiology. The concept of “perfectibility” is reduced to the concept of dynamics as opposed to movement (cf. Marinetti’s various “bodies” and Tatlin’s memorial for the 3rd International).

By contrast, we can also understand art as an act of recollection which presents to us representational images which are recognized as pictures. In the ecstatic condition of recollection, dependent objects are transformed into independent objects, much like Aristotle described. Art must become “de-animated” in order to incorporate recollection. “Acts of recollection occur when one impulse [literally, movement-Ed.] naturally succeeds another” (Aristotle, On Memory and Recollection, 451b12, Loeb Classical Edition translation). Recollection seeks to discover those connections between earlier, similar and contrasting movements and does so from the perspective of the present moment of thinking.

For recollection is neither the recovery nor the acquisition of memory […] [memory is not constructed out of the initial experiences, rather], it is only at the moment when the experience has been induced that there is memory […] It is in this that the difference between recollecting and learning lies […] For remembering consists in the potential existence in the mind of the effective stimulus [literally, movement–Ed.]; and this, as has been said, in such a way that the subject is stimulated from himself, and from the stimuli which he contains within him. But one must secure a starting-point. This is why some people seem, in recollecting, to proceed from loci. The reason for this is that they pass rapidly from one step to the next; for instance from milk to white, from white to air, from air to damp; from which one remembers autumn, if this is the season that he is trying to recall (On Memory and Recollection, 451a-452a).

As with Kleist’s conception of the soul in On the Marionette Theatre (vis motrix), Aristotle’s conception of physiognomy (connected as it is with his concept of recollection) ascribes a central role to the soul as the life-principle of all bodies; everything relates to movement. If a representation of movement were possible, and on its basis the possibility of an insight into the brain, one would be compelled to accept a non-linguistic system. The defining characteristic of such a system would not be “cross-modal associations” (kreuzmodale Assoziationen) even though these associations would build off such a system. One would therefore be compelled to discuss “color-spaces” (Farbenraum).

“The finest factor is color” (P. Florenski) and the quality of “petites perceptions” and the reality of their organization by the consciousness of color (which apprehends the structure of bodies) is what Goethe called the shadow or the gray of transformed nature “according to which colors are brighter as black and darker as white.” One recognizes the problem: the mixing and elevation in the background of a “massless” metaphor of light is thereby not fully possible. There emerges a complex and spatial darkness and an experience of a concrete threat which, when viewed as black, is apprehended directly and, when viewed as blue, is perceived as a demarcation. Color functions primarily for the creation of optical pictures and a series of information. The concrete meaning is then expanded by the brain with an elegant (gray) intervention. Color-space as perceptual space reveals the complex elasticity of information. Here the “multi-sensory shades” are sensorialized on surfaces. In the color signal the light signal appears as a time-signal (with reference to the problem of ambivalent and polyvalent figures), thereby introducing into time the property of color: space and body. It is this which led up to the basically “moral” concept of the deceptive nature of color. But with the assistance of hemoglobins in neuro-transmitters, light – which entails color (even Newton mentions that in a strict sense light is not white) – can be transmitted by skin and blood-vessels to the brain (cf. “Surprise on Working of Body’s Clock” – The New York Times – Dr. Dan Oren / Yale School of Medicine). Skin and eyes, therefore, are equally connected in a reciprocal fashion much as the cortex and the limbic system. In the case of the eyes the received photons are represented by the sensitivity of photoreceptors and are not dependent on the energy of the photons.

According to Poincaré, colors are carriers of combinations. They are nevertheless a mimetic inheritance for the rational construction of phenomena. One often oversees their positive ontological consistency. Nonetheless, the fusion of senses and series of tones in colors (which connects sound and color linguistically) are closely connected, as is shown in Mondrian’s efforts to construct a universal and linguistic meaning with the triad of primary colors. From similar reasons, Kandinsky’s linguistic painting (painting as a language of the world) used colors in their pictorial potential and introduced them into a “Denkraum” (for example in Kandinsky’s Rückblicke where we find a “virgin primal forest” of colors is subsumed to the will). For his part, Duchamp introduced colors into production and then in philosophy; A. Reinhardt introduced color into the space of recollection, the dogma and eschatology of a pure and final painting: “Painting is black.” In their investigations of Basic Color Terms Brent Berlin and Paul Kay see instead the possibility of a non-verbal model for the construction of metaphors for the experience of gravity and visual experience that connects stimulation of the limbic system with wave frequency information, thereby overcoming the linguistic dimension of early 20th century color theory, which has influenced art as well as art theory ever since (Seurat/ Duchamp/ Kosuth). In his essay Basic Color Terms and Basic Color Categories, Clyde L. Hardin writes:

Berlin and Kay were struck by how easily common color terms could be translated between languages from places as diverse as Tahiti and Mesoamerica. But if, as cultural relativists had suggested, languages divide color space arbitrarily, and moreover, shape the way that their speakers perceive colored objects, how is this possible? […] Historical linguistics have performed several reconstructions of earlier states of present-day-languages, proto-Mayan, proto-Polynesian, and Anglo-Saxon for example, and have generally found the roots of their basic color terms to be in accord with the Kay-McDaniel sequence. It is of no small interest that in virtually all cases linguistic terms undergo development in time devolve as well as evolve. According to linguistic typologist Greville Corbett (oral communication), there are just two known counterexamples to this: numeral systems and systems of basic color terms. […] There remains the question of what drives the evolution of basic color terms as related to social complexity, though what one is to understand under ‘social complexity’ is a question that is bound to be provocative. Others link the development to color technology.

It remains to be noted that the responsiveness of the color spectrum as energy signals (tone levels/time signals) can only be conceived in a purposeful manner, for example, with the statement “everybody can recognize the color red.” The statement “x = red” assumes the nominal interest of a proto-ideological pluralism that is unable to designate the element of movement in color. The pedagogical utopia of modernism therefore borrowed from Diderot the statement that every color can be judged. With regard to the “purity of color,” the divisions in society must be transformed into possibilities of participation. This is precisely not what is meant here. Since in fact this line of thinking leads to the optimization and the “de-corporation” (Entkörperlichung) of colors in the electronic media. For all that, color is not pure. It is basic and highly contextural, volatile and stable. But the pluralism of the electronic media need not specifically address the problem of co-presence (the and/or construction) even in colors.

Color is an anti-entropic model and a complex movement. When used to investigate the ways in which the brain functions, such a notion of color, and the notion of art as situated in social complexity (shared imaginative faculty), could contribute to a concrete representation of the brain.