The arts are more than aesthetics: Neuroaesthetics as narrow aesthetics

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Ellen Dissanayake, Steven Brown: The arts are more than aesthetics: Neuroaesthetics as narrow aesthetics. In Martin Skov & Oshin Vartanian (eds.), Neuroaesthetics. Amityville, NY: Baywood, pp. 43-57.



Neuroaesthetics is a young enough field that there seems to be no established view of its proper subject matter. Morphologically, the term implies the scientific study of neural aspects of the perception of artworks such as paintings, or elements of artworks such as musical intervals. We are concerned, however, that practitioners of this new field may not be aware of the tremendous ambiguities inherent in the terms “aesthetics” and “art,” ones that limit a proper understanding of human art behavior. Connotations of these terms are particularly inappropriate and mis- leading when considering the experiences, practices, and functions of the arts in preindustrial, folk, aboriginal, or Pleistocene societies, and even in contemporary popular culture. It is only during the last two centuries that the terms “Art” (with an implied capital A, connoting an independent realm of prestigious and revelatory works) and “aesthetics” (as a unique, and even reverential, mode of attention toward such works) have taken on their present elitist meanings and become unavoidably inter- twined (Davies, 2006; Shiner, 2001). The word “aesthetic” (from the Greek aiesthesis, having to do with the senses) was first used in 1735 by a German philosopher in a book on poetry (Baumgarten, 1735/1954), and since that time has been employed in two different, but not always distinct, ways. Enlightenment philosophers and their followers gradually developed the now elitist notion of “the aesthetic”—a special form of disinterested knowledge and appreciation—to describe the emotional response elicited by the perception of great works of art (Shiner, 2001). While this meaning of aesthetic has strong historical connections with the arts and with artworks, a second usage has come to refer to any value system having to do with the appreciation of beauty, such as the beauty of nature. In recent decades, for example, some ethologists and evolutionary psychologists have adopted this second, broader notion of aesthetics in a new field, originally called “landscape aesthetics” (Appleton, 1990; Orians, 2001; Ruso, Renninger, & Atzwanger, 2003) or “Darwinian aesthetics” (Thornhill, 1998), but generally called “evolutionary aesthetics” (Voland & Grammer, 2003) today. Evolutionary aesthetics investigates sensory preferences in animals and humans that promote selective attention and positive emotional responses toward objects in the environment that lead to adaptive decision making and problem solving (Orians, 2001). Objects perceived in this manner are considered to be beautiful (Thornhill, 1998). Following Darwin (1871), who noted that animals (especially birds) seemed to appreciate beauty and who attributed the spectacular colors and patterns of male birds to female choice, some workers in evolutionary aesthetics have proposed that human art arose by sexual selection in a similar manner to the courtship displays performed by male birds to attract females for mating (e.g., Miller, 2000, 2001).

Extended Abstract


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