[-empyre-] Introducing John Onians, Alan Dunning and Paul Woodrow

John Onians j.onians at uea.ac.uk
Thu Sep 4 04:15:25 EST 2008

My interest in neuroscience goes back to 1977, when I was inspired by  
Colin Blakemore's Reith lectures on the BBC to try to start to use  
neuroscience to understand the origins of representational art in the  
Palaeolithic.  I thought then that ,in the absence of any texts or  
talk, from that period, knowing more about how people's brain worked  
could be a help in solving the problem.    The result was the first  
article in the first issue of the journal Art History, March 1978, on  
the origins of art.  Fortunately I was the editor. Someone else less  
sympathetic might have turned it down.  More recently I turned again  
to neuroscience in a more substantial way when, in 1992, I persuaded  
my colleagues in the School of Art History at the University of East  
Anglia, Norwich  England to change our department's name  to School  
of World Art Studies.  Besides signalling our intention not just to  
study the art of the whole world from prehistory to the present,  
something already done to varying degrees in the US and elsewhere,  
the idea was that the new name would also  challenge us to ask the  
big questions that no-one else was asking, such as why do humans  
make, look at and use art, and why have then done this in such  
different ways at different  times and in different places.   It was  
to help answer such questions that I started reading neuroscience  
intensively in the 90's and was amazed to discover one door after  
another opening during what  turned out to be 'the decade of the  
brain'.    The other thing that amazed me was that i was not the  
first to want to use neuroscience to answer questions about art. I  
slowly started to realise that many writers from Aristotle to my own  
teacher Gombrich had been trying to do the same on the basis of much  
less knowledge, and when I discovered that Semir Zeki had written a  
whole book, Inner Vision, on art and the brain, I decided to write a  
book telling the story of these earlier attempts.  The book,  
Neuroarthistory. From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki, came  
out last year with Yale.
I chose the term 'neuroarthistory' deliberately to differentiate what  
interested me from those concerned with the closely related area of  
'neuroesthetics'.  Neuroesthetics I understand as principally being  
concerned with  responses to art that are universal.   My own concern  
is to find a way of understanding art in terms of responses at the  
level of the community, the group and the individual.    This has a  
profound effect on my enterprise, most clearly in requiring me to pay  
great attention to neural plasticity, that is the way the structure  
and chemistry of the individual brain changes from millisecond to  
millisecond in response to our changing experiences.  It is through a  
study of neural plasticity that I am now trying to build up a  
theoretical framework for  explaining not only the differences  
between the art of communities, groups and individuals, but  
differences between the works of a single  individual, and even  
changes within a single work by a single individual, following  
changes in their experiences.   I already outlined this approach in a  
very general and low key way in the introduction to the Atlas of  
World Art (now reissued as the Atlas of Art) which I edited and which  
came out originally in 2004,  and over the last fifteen years I have  
published separate studies of the  art of different periods and  
places and different individuals, which I plan to bring to together  
in two books which I am now writing, the first on the art of Europe  
and the second on the art of the whole world, in which I will treat  
Europe at the same level as everywhere else.    Both tasks are a bit  
unnerving and require a lot of reflection and exchange of ideas,  
which is why I welcome this wonderful initiative of Michele Barker.
On 3 Sep 2008, at 08:05, Michele Barker wrote:

> Firstly, thanks to both Ben and Luigi for some initial points for  
> discussion.
> Before we delve into them too much however, I'd like to start by  
> introducing 3 of my guests for this month.  I'd like to open the  
> initial discussion by inviting  John Onians,  Alan Dunning and Paul  
> Woodrow to introduce themselves and outline what projects they are  
> currently working on. All deal with the issues of neurology and its  
> relationship to art but in clearly varying ways.
> And, to all 3, I would be curious as to their take on what exactly  
> is neuroaesthetics? Do we need to be careful of creating a 21st  
> century catchphrase that is potentially devoid of meaning?
> - Michele
> _______________________________________________
> empyre forum
> empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
> http://www.subtle.net/empyre

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