Monday, February 9, 2009

Pinker on the brain

A. C. Douglas approvingly quotes a book by linguist-neuroscientist-psychologist-author Steven Pinker on the "artistic malaise" of the twentieth century. According to Pinker:
The dominant theories of elite art and criticism in the twentieth century grew out of a militant denial of human nature. One legacy is ugly, baffling, and insulting art.
As so often happens when non-artists try to pontificate on the arts, Pinker's comment betrays a lack of appreciation for the art works themselves. But he also gets his facts wrong: Pinker cites a comment by Virginia Woolf "In or about December 1910, human nature changed". A quick search for the source of this comment turned up the original essay. What Woolf actually says is the following:
. . . On or about December 1910, human character changed. . . The change was not sudden and definite. . . but a change there was, nevertheless.
Not only has Pinker significantly misquoted Woolf, but he's removed Woolf's careful qualifiers in order to make the statement more sensational than it actually is. As I read the essay, Woolf's intent was to propose a more realistic portrayal of character than that of 19th-century authors, who dwelt on the surface details of characters rather than exploring their deeper humanity - or in Pinker's terms, their human nature:
That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.
Woolf's point, then, is one that Pinker would agree with - that art should focus primarily on the inner character of a person, not on the picturesque incidentals of their physical appearance, cultural background, and surface behaviour. Indeed, modernism is set apart from earlier movements precisely by its special focus on the human psyche. The aim of Woolf's fiction was not tp embrace cultural relativism, making each person an island; the aim was to paint convincing portraits of individuals, and thereby to show what these fictional characters might have in common with real-life people. I see that the New Yorker review of Pinker's book makes the same point, citing Ulysses as a case in point: by equating twentieth-century Dubliners with characters from Homer, Joyce makes a compelling case for the immutability of human nature. The argument that modernism denies a fundamental human nature simply doesn't hold water.

In retrospect, the twentieth century now seems one of the most astounding creative periods in human history, as well it might be: when else in history did so many people in so many countries have the economic means to become artists? Unfortunately, in many art forms - particularly music - the modernist tradition was hijacked by a problematic aesthetic, one which argued that music should be ugly because, well, life is that way. One can deplore the ideology while still conceding that much of the music written under its shadow (Boulez, Xenakis, Maderna, Dallapiccola) has a unique beauty of its own. Pinker thus fails on several levels:

1) He lacks the familiarity with modernist art works to judge them as aesthetic objects, or to make accurate comments about the movement;
2) He equates the aesthetic effect of the works themselves with statements made about them in essays;
3) . . . which he either misunderstands or deliberately misquotes.

But then, what do you expect from the man who dismissed the entire art of music as "auditory cheesecake?"

2 comments:

Andrew W. said...

Oswald, this is really good, especially the title!

Pinker merely appears to be using cognitive science to take pot shots.

At the same time, Pinker's comments about art appear to be pretty much worthless - I suppose he would say the same about Caravaggio then? Or Bosch? How do you explain them?

Or Dante, for that matter? Beneath his terza rima lies some real ugliness, how come he gets a free pass?

Thank you for eviscerating the eviscerator!

A.C. Douglas said...

My response to your above can be read here.

ACD