January 2003

Art and Cognition: Mimesis vs. the Avant Garde

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

[A]rtists themselves have been pushing the boundaries of any . . . definition [of 'art'], challenging our preconceptions, and leaving most philosophers, psychologists and critics well behind--to say nothing of the general public. . . . Environmental art pushes the definitional boundaries by placing art outside the museum, in a (more) natural environment. Well known examples include earthworks, e.g., by Robert Smithson, and wrapped buildings by Christos [sic]. --Joseph A. Goguen, "What is Art?" (Introduction to Art and the Brain, Part 2, Journal of Consciousness Studies, special issue, August-September 2000)

One of the hottest topics of academic inquiry in recent years has been the relationship between art and cognition. This interest is a natural outgrowth of the cognitive revolution that began in the early 1960s, producing a growing body of knowledge about cognitive processes. As philosopher of art Cynthia Freeland noted two years ago, in an article on "Teaching Cognitive Science and the Arts," scholars in her field increasingly recognize that the burgeoning understanding of cognition should influence their approach to their own discipline. Along these lines, several prominent colleagues of hers--including Jerrold Levinson, president of the American Society for Aesthetics--organized an academic institute entitled "Art, Mind, and Cognitive Science," at the University of Maryland last summer. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), with an express aim to develop a set of resources to aid humanistic scholars of the arts wishing to take account of cognitive science and the philosophy of mind in their undergraduate courses.

Scholarly journals have also been active in this area. The interdisciplinary Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS)--edited by Joseph Goguen, a computer scientist at the University of California-San Diego, whom I quote in the epigraph above--devoted two special issues to "Art and the Brain" in 1999 and 2000, to be followed by a third, "Art, Brain and Consciousness," in 2004. In addition, the philosophic journal The Monist plans an issue next year entitled "Art and the Mind."

These are but a few of the many recent explorations of how cognitive processes are involved in the creation and perception of works of art. Nor have such efforts been confined to higher education. Art educators concerned with elementary and high school students have also been keenly pursuing this line of inquiry. Cognitivist approaches to the teaching of art occupied numerous sessions at the 2002 annual meeting of the National Art Education Association in Miami last spring. Further symptomatic of this trend is a book entitled Art and Cognition--by Arthur Efland, professor emeritus of art education at Ohio State University--published by Teachers College Press last year.

Examining Basic Premises

Little of value is likely to come of all this ferment, however, without a fundamental reassessment of what exactly is meant by the key term, art, in relation to cognition. Scholars must begin by asking themselves whether that term can coherently encompass all the modernist and postmodernist innovations of the past hundred years. Some of those innovations are alluded to in the epigraph above, taken from Goguen's Editorial Introduction for one of the special issues of JCS on art and the brain. Others mentioned by him in that essay include Marcel Duchamp's "readymades" (such as the urinal he dubbed Fountain), Andy Warhol's images of Campbell soup cans, and John Cage's use of chance operations in his musical compositions. One would be hard pressed to discover, for example, how such works fit a view of art as "a particularly poignant manifestation of human consciousness"--to quote from the call for papers posted by JCS for its forthcoming issue on "Art, Brain, and Consciousness."

The Overview for the NEH summer institute on art and cognition aptly notes that when the eighteenth-century philosopher Alexander Baumgarten coined the term "aesthetics," he envisioned it as pertaining to the study of "sensuous cognition." As the Overview continues:

Because of the connection of the arts to perception (the sensuous element in this formulation), aesthetics made the arts its central domain. However, the perception of artworks is not merely an affair of sensation. Memory, expectation, imagination, emotion and reason (including narrative reasoning) play an ineliminable role as well. Consequently, since its advent, the field of aesthetics has been concerned with the operation of fundamental psychological and cognitive processes.

Baumgarten was ahead of his time in understanding that the arts constitute a distinctive and significant realm of "sensuous cognition," in which emotion also plays an important part. It was Baumgarten who coined the term aesthetik (from the Greek aisthtikos, "perceptible to the senses") to designate a new branch of philosophic inquiry--which he defined broadly as "the science of perception." It was with the nature of perceptual knowledge conveyed through the arts, however, that he was exclusively concerned. In fact, the work in which he first used the term aesthetik was his Reflections on Poetry. The treatise aimed mainly to persuade his fellow rationalist philosophers that questions of art were as worthy of their attention as the more abstract spheres of thought with which they had theretofore concerned themselves. Baumgarten's view of art was largely shared by his younger contemporary, Immanuel Kant--though Kant has often been mistakenly associated with formalist theories that attempt to divorce art from cognitive considerations.

In the sections of his influential Critique of Judgment that focus on the "fine arts" per se (as contrasted with the broader discussion of aesthetic attributes in general), Kant makes clear that the value of an art work depends on its presenting what he terms "aesthetical Ideas." He explains:

[B]y an aesthetical Idea I understand that representation of the Imagination which . . . cannot be completely compassed and made intelligible by language. . . . [It] is the counterpart (pendant) of a rational Idea. . . .
The Imagination (as a productive faculty of cognition) is very powerful in creating another nature, as it were, out of the material that actual nature gives it . . . , and by it we remould experience, always indeed in accordance with analogical laws. . . .
Such representations of the Imagination we may call Ideas, partly because they at least strive after something which lies beyond the bounds of experience, and so seek to approximate to a presentation of concepts of Reason (intellectual Ideas), thus giving to the latter the appearance of objective reality.

What Kant seems to be saying is that the arts present perceptual embodiments of important ideas--not only ideas about existential phenomena, such as death, envy, love, and fame, but also conceptions of other-worldly things, such as heaven and hell. In all cases, Kant implies, the products of the artist's imagination are essentially mimetic, for they resemble to some degree the appearance of nature, or "objective reality." As he indicates, however, a work of art does not merely copy nature, for it embodies concepts more fully than any single instance in nature. Philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand--one of whose four essays presenting her theory of art was entitled "Art and Cognition" (written in 1971, when the cognitive revolution was just getting underway)--suggested much the same thing when she argued that, through the "selective re-creation of reality," art "brings man's concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as if they were percepts."

Anyone wishing to understand art in relation to "sensuous cognition" needs to begin by recalling what sorts of objects Baumgarten and other eighteenth-century aesthetic theorists had in mind when they spoke of "art." For them, this term meant, pre-eminently, the mimetic arts-- which came to be known, however misleadingly, as the "fine arts." What basic forms of expression did they include? According to a broad consensus from antiquity until the mid eighteenth century, the mimetic arts comprised, chiefly, painting and sculpture (that is, two- and three-dimensional visual representations), "poetry" (which, in Aristotle's view, included all imaginative literature), music, and dance. The mimetic arts did not include either architecture or objects of "decorative art"--whose primary function was physical, rather than cognitive or emotional. Nor, obviously, did they include such things as "abstract" (nonobjective) art, noise music, conceptual art, performance art, film, photography, video, or digital art--none of which had yet been invented.

If the nature of art is now to be examined scientifically in relation to cognition, the question must first be asked, what coherently qualifies as art? Does every new art form invented since the advent of modernism constitute a medium of "sensuous cognition" in the sense meant by Baumgarten? If works of art are held to be "cognitive devices aimed at the production of rich cognitive effects" (to quote The Monist's call for papers on "Art and the Mind"), then aestheticians need to reconsider whether certain phenomena of modernism and postmodernism qualify as art at all. In considering art forms unknown to the eighteenth century, it is easy to envision that feature films, for example, may be readily subsumed by the concept of mimetic art, which has always included forms of dramatic and narrative story-telling. But the status of much so-called avant-garde art is highly questionable.

Would what Baumgarten wrote in his Reflections on Poetry be applicable to the largely incoherent postmodernist "poems" of John Ashbery, for example? Can they be said to exemplify his concept of sensuous cognition? Further, can the phrase "rich cognitive effects" meaningfully apply to works ranging from Mondrian's grid paintings to Duchamp's "readymades," much less to Minimalist works such as Ad Reinhardt's all-black paintings or Carl Andre's "floor pieces," or to John Cage's chance compositions? Finally, can there be any but the most flimsy connection between "sensuous cognition" and the whole postmodernist category of "conceptual art"--defined by the 1988 Oxford Dictionary of Art as "various forms of art in which the idea for a work is considered more important than the finished product, if any"?

In attempting to analyze or define art, contemporary aestheticians are apt to cite avant-garde innovations as conceptually difficult cases, implying that they are essentially incommensurate with the traditional categories of art. Yet on the basis of such deviant work, most aestheticians have adopted "institutional" definitions of art--which hold, implicitly or explicitly, that "art is anything an artist declares it is." While some philosophers of art are critical of such definitions, they nonetheless tend to accept as "art" the contemporary works they subsume, no matter how outrageous or absurd.

To discuss art rationally in today's context, however, requires admitting the possibility that the answer to the ubiquitous question But is it art? may well be No. That question appears as the title of a recent Oxford University Press book by Cynthia Freeland, for example. Yet, as is so often the case when it is raised in a title, the question is never dealt with head-on in the text. Nevertheless, Freeland seems to imply that the answer is always Yes, for she discusses as "art" twentieth-century examples ranging from Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes to the French "performance artist" Orlan's surgical manipulations of her own body and the scenarios with "counterfeit currency" enacted by another postmodernist, J. S. G. Boggs. Though Freeland is critical of some aspects of such work, her tacit assumption appears to be that all of it is art.

Re-Examining the History of the Avant Garde

In pursuing the question, But is it art? it is instructive to retrace the history of the twentieth-century "avant garde," beginning with the development of abstract (i.e., "nonobjective") art in the early 1900s. The art historical record leaves no doubt that the pioneers of abstract painting--Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Malevich--abandoned mimesis because they were seeking escape from the material conditions of existence. While each in his own way earnestly strove to embody metaphysical and spiritual values in his work and to engage the emotions (as artists always have), the means they employed were wholly inadequate to the task. As their ample theoretical writings reveal, however, they based their work on unwittingly mistaken conceptions of the relationship between perception, cognition, and emotion (on this point, see chapter 8 of What Art Is). All the same, they were well aware that art had always depended on mimesis for the perceptual embodiment of meaning, and they were therefore haunted by fears that, having rejected mimesis, their work would be perceived as merely "decorative"--as indeed it still is by many art lovers, even after a century of cultural habituation. It was owing largely to influential critics, collectors, and curators, that "abstract art" nonetheless soon gained legitimacy in the art world.

A half century after the European pioneers' invention of nonobjective painting, artists in America drastically shifted its focus and aims, attempting to employ it as a means of direct personal "expression." Yet they, too, had persistent doubts that their work would be understood. Like the pioneers of abstraction, leading Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko feared their canvases would be perceived as mainly decorative. It comes as no surprise, therefore, to see a typical Rothko canvas reproduced and advertised for sale in the Fall 2002 home furnishings catalog from Crate & Barrel, with the caption: "Bright yet soothing, this appealing . . . abstract Rothko reproduction makes a contemporary color statement."

The postmodernist reaction that began with Pop art in the mid 1950s was, on the whole, a deliberate reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism, and of all that it stood for in the artworld. Since the view of art that the abstract movement was based on was a largely false one, a reaction was surely in order. But the postmodernists went to another false extreme. True, they reintroduced imagery, on which the intelligibility of visual art depends, but it was an imagery deliberately devoid of values, either personal or social. Their work therefore controverted the very purpose of art. It was, in effect, anti-art. Influential early postmodernists such as Henry Flynt and Allan Kaprow frankly admitted that their work had virtually nothing in common with past art, as such. Nonetheless, they appropriated the term for their own work. And their successors have shown no hesitation in calling themselves artists, although the means they employ--mechanical reproduction, and the appropriation of both readymade objects and images--are the antithesis of the "selective re-creation of reality" (to borrow Rand's phrase) characteristic of artistic mimesis.

While more recent postmodernists have ostensibly reintroduced value and meaning into their work, mainly in the guise of political and social critique, they continue to employ spurious forms such as "conceptual art" and "installations," which grew out of the anti-art impulses of the 1960s. A major tendency of those impulses was the deliberate blurring of the distinction between art and life. But if so-called art works can now be "indiscernible" (to use philosopher-critic Arthur Danto's term) from the stream of everyday experience, then what becomes of the special significance that philosophers originally placed on art in relation to "sensuous cognition"? If there is nothing distinctive about art, why study it at all in this context?

The "cognitive turn in aesthetics" of recent decades is often attributed to the publication of the late Nelson Goodman's Languages of Art (1968)--which focused on the study of "representation and other symbol systems and processes." Goodman's emphasis on symbol systems (his book is subtitled An Approach to a Theory of Symbols), however, was itself a major step in the wrong direction, in my view, for it diverted attention from the mimetic nature of the major arts. That nature was not only recognized by Western thinkers from Aristotle and Plato to Baumgarten and Kant, but seems clearly implied in the thought of other cultures as well. The language of art is fundamentally mimetic, not symbolic, for it depends primarily on what the art historian Erwin Panofsky referred to as the "natural meanings" of representations--in contrast with the arbitrary, culture-specific meanings assigned to symbols.

It must be stressed that (contrary to Plato's view) the mimetic arts never merely "held a mirror up to nature." As classics scholar Stephen Halliwell argues in his recent book, The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts and Modern Problems, mimesis applies to a wide variety of artistic styles, ranging from realism to idealism. Imagination, stylization, and selectivity have always played their part in the mimetic re-creation of reality--even in the most ostensibly "realistic" styles--just as the highly stylized art of ancient Egypt, tribal Africa, and the Cyclades are all mimetic, albeit in varying degree. In the Yoruba culture of Africa, for instance, mimesis is said to involve depicting "general principles of humanity, not exact likeness. . . . It is 'midpoint mimesis' between absolute abstraction and absolute likeness"--to quote art historian Robert Farris Thompson. As Thompson has noted, moreover, the distinction between art and reality is always maintained by the Yoruba people (in striking contrast with postmodernist tendencies in Western culture).

Why Mimesis?

One must then ask why mimesis is the primary means by which art performs its cognitive and emotional function. In his Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition, published in 1991 (as well as in his more recent book, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness), the Canadian neuropsychologist Merlin Donald has proposed a promising answer to this key question. He suggests that mimesis played a crucial role in human cognitive evolution, serving as the primary means of representing reality among the immediate ancestors of Homo sapiens, just prior to the emergence of language and symbolic thought. Mimesis, in Donald's view, refers to intentional means of representing reality that utilize vocal tone, facial expression, bodily movement, manual gestures, and other nonlinguistic means. As he insists, it is "fundamentally different" from both mimicry and imitation. Whereas mimicry attempts to render an exact duplicate of an event or phenomenon, and imitation also seeks to copy an original (albeit less literally so than mimicry), mimesis adds a new dimension: it "re-enact[s] and re-present[s] an event or relationship" in a nonliteral yet clearly intelligible way. Here, again, I am reminded of Rand's concept of the "selective re-creation of reality."

As Donald further emphasizes, mimetic representation remains "a central factor in human society" and is "at the very center of the arts." While it is logically prior to language, it shares certain essential characteristics with language, and its emergence in prehistory would have paved the way for the subsequent evolution of speech. Yet mimetic behavior, he stresses, can be clearly separated from the symbolic and semiotic devices of modern culture. Not only does it function in different contexts, it is still "far more efficient than language in diffusing certain kinds of knowledge . . . [and in] communicating emotions." Moreover, the capacity for

mimetic representation remains [fundamental] . . . in the operation of the human brain. . . . When [it] is destroyed [through disease or injury], the patient is classified as demented, out of touch with reality. . . . But when language alone is lost, even completely lost, there is often considerable residual representational capacity.

Commenting on the power of mimetic representation in his Anthropologist on Mars, neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of Stephen--an autistic boy whose capacity for abstract and symbolic thought and communication are severely impaired--that he comes fully to life through artistic expression, through his "genius for concrete or mimetic representations, whether drawing a cathedral, a canyon, a flower, or enacting a scene, a drama, a song." Mimesis, in Sacks's view, is "itself a power of mind, a way of representing reality with one's body and senses, a uniquely human capacity no less important than symbol or language."

If, as Donald suggests, this prelinguistic mode of representation and communication developed relatively early in the course of human evolution, it would have been closely linked to the evolving psychological and physical mechanisms for emotional response, which play a crucial role in both social interaction and the arts. That would help to explain the emotional immediacy of the mimetic arts. Mimesis is not the end of art, but it is the powerful means by which art works convey their cognitive and emotional content. The avant-gardist tendencies of both modernism (most notably, abstract art) and postmodernism have flouted this basic truth, to the detriment of both art and cognition.

An updated version of this essay appears in After the Avant-Gardes, edited by Elizabeth Millán (Open Court, 2016).

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