Week 3 / the artist’s ego in the age of mechanical reproduction / stephany howard

VS Ramachandran MD, PhD is the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Professor of Neurosciences and Psychology at UCSD.   In his book A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness he spends a chapter addressing art and the brain.  In defining art, he says “anyone today will tell you that art has nothing to do with realism.  It is not about creating a replica of what’s out there in the world.  I can take a realistic photograph of my pet cat and no one would give me a penny for it.  In fact, art is not about realism at all—it’s the exact opposite.  It involves deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, even distortion, in order to create pleasing effects in the brain.” (43)   I find it refreshing to hear a scientist’s definition about art because he brings a rather traditional view into the conversation, which is illustrated by two assumptions:  (1) art is a picture, a depiction of something (which can be realistic or not), and (2) it strives to create “pleasing effects in the brain.”   For better or worse, art has moved away from both these traditional qualities; that is, contemporary art often denies any form of representation or pleasing effects.

In fact, psychologist Steven Pinker has argued in his book The Blank Slate that it is precisely the problem of contemporary art to deny human nature—the modernist destruction of beauty has ruined elite art in Pinker’s mind. But if we use Ramachandran and Pinker’s concepts of art being pleasing imagery (as it has traditionally been defined), it’s interesting to think about what has happened to art since mechanical reproduction has fundamentally altered our relationship to images.

Walter Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction, photography, and film have fundamentally shifted the direction of art and how we relate to images.  Benjamin argues that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element:  its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”  He says that “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…the whole sphere of authenticity is outside” technical and all kinds of reproducibility.”  He later describes that this movement away from the authenticity of the object and its ritualistic production—the loss of a work’s aura led to art’s function becoming political.

I find this politicizing effect that reproduction has had on art to be really depressing.  It’s all too obvious how art made today (especially in LA) is created and circulated within a thick web of false social interactions—art has become (since Andy Warhol) an increasingly egotistical activity, designed to show status in an extremely elitist social hierarchy.  Since artists incorporated reproduction into their work, the emphasis has moved even further away from the object itself and the experience of the work and towards a social obsession with the image of the artist as some romantic figure.

As a painter, I fear that traditional forms of art (like painting) are grasping onto an antiquated egotistical approach to art making—paintings are like the tail feathers on a peacock.  Ramachandran mentions the argument that “artistic skill may be an index of skillful eye-hand coordination and, therefore, an advertisement of good genes for attracting potential mates.”(55)  Of course the ego of the artist has always attracted attention, and there have always been stereotypes of the artist as romantic, insane, genius, etc.  And with technology, I see art moving even further away from the maker than we have ever seen it.  I think that as art merges with technology, it will become increasingly about the experience of the work (as has occurred in film), not about the mysterious maker or her ritualistic mode of production.

Watch VS Ramachandran talk about art and the brain!

stephany howard

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