art claims an intellectual foundation based on ideas proposed at the start of
the 20th century, including a rejection of aesthetics by artist Marcel Duchamp
and author Walter Benjamin. Today we can draw on readily available studies in
the sciences of anthropology, sociology, and psychology to correct these
mistakes. A review of language as the formative structure of thinking suggests it
is likely the intellect is but one of many linguistic functions in the brain;
feelings, for example, are obviously part of the equation. Duchamp’s process of
discarding aesthetics and making art intellectual does not enhance but reduces
the work’s complexity. This calls for a reassessment of the postmodern
paradigm. An intellectual art is dysfunctional without aesthetics, according to
the science now available.
ideas presented in this essay draw on studies of non-verbal languages to suggest
that such languages operate continually alongside the intellect. Among
non-verbal languages we discern body language, both unconscious and in
ritualized forms such as dance; acoustic language in the complexity of sounds,
including music; and visual language, where a picture is worth a thousand
theory finds that language has its origins in biology, in bodily functions,
since there has to be a language for the brain to think with. This
proto-language and similar codifications of momentary experience are an
evolutionary inheritance, a complex abstraction built on an almost infinite
range of sensations and reactions since the dawn of time.
arts, aesthetics is a system of value judgments, of comparisons and evaluations
that provide statistical data by which we organize sensations pouring in from
without, and reactions emerging from within. Aesthetics plays a meaningful role
in this linguistic theory of intelligence, because as a set of judgments it
covers the entire spectrum from attraction to repulsion, from dark to light,
and similar sensory dualities. Art and aesthetics are not simply cheesecake for
the mind nor are they simply decorative. They are an evolutionary adaptation of
the highest order in creating and processing subtleties of knowledge and
complexities of thought.
know that those who learn music as children acquire an omega-shaped fold in the
lower right at the back of the brain. Neuroscientist Karl Friston developed an
imaging technique that was used in a famous study to show that the rear side of
the hippocampus of London taxi drivers grew in volume as they memorized maps
when applying for a taxi license. It would be fascinating to compare the visual
cortex of an experienced artist with the population at large. It is not that phrenology
is making a comeback, but rather that data confirms knowledge resides in neural
networks. The brain, much like the rest of the body, is therefore improved by
practice, by repetition, by acquiring experience that turns into skill.
process of learning and the skills acquired contradict any suggestion that art
is about ideas and not about the making. In this regard, Marcel Duchamp’s work
serves as a cautionary tale. From his experiments we learn that an intellectual
art was, and still is, reductive and harmful. In a 1968 BBC interview with Joan
Bakewell, Duchamp claimed the conceptual mantle when he said that until his
time painting was retinal, what you could see, and that he made it
intellectual. Today we know that Duchamp stopped painting once he made painting
intellectual. "It was like a broken leg" he said, "you didn't mean to do it."
Soon after, Duchamp stopped making art altogether. Discarding the sensory base of
aesthetics, he’d lost the desire and ability to make art. Yet all was not forgotten.
For twenty years he poked and prodded at Étant
donnés as if trying to revive a lost relationship. But the Muse was gone
and like any spurned lover she was not coming back.
tell us humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. Dennis Dutton wrote that
aesthetic perceptions are evolutionary and likely to enhance survival of the
perceiving human's genes. If art is based in biology then it is specific and
not socially conditioned, nor is it "anything you can get away with," as
Marshall McLuhan declared. Art plays a fundamental cultural role as essential
today as it ever was in the past, so we might infer that a counter-aesthetic
postmodernity nurtured and contributed to the social disorder and political
trauma of our time.
art now risks a critique and requires analytic consideration. Ideas cannot
overleap entropy. They cannot replace a work of art, whose validity is found in
creative work, in entanglement with material. Ideas cannot substitute for an
engagement with life, for the effort and skill that is the sine qua non
of fine art. "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we
must do." Goethe
Visual artist and Toronto editor at the New Art Examiner
Published February 7, 2019.