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Léger’s The City and neuroaesthetics

By Anjan Chatterjee

Facing The City painted by Léger in 1919 can be an overwhelming experience. Geometry of bright colors, bits of human figures, mechanical structures, columns, stairs, lettering all crowd the painting and beyond into an immersive experience. The large canvas (7 feet 7 inches by 9 feet 9½ inches) is the focal point of the Philadelphia Museum of Art exhibit currently on view till 5 January 2014. The painting conveys the sense of being in the center of the cultural and intellectual maelstrom that was Paris after World War I. The exhibit places Léger’s art alongside the work of Delaunay-Turk, Mondrian, Duchamp, Picabia, van Doesburg, Le Corbusier, Ozenfant, Exter, and many others. Curiously, the painting also serves as metaphor for issues very much alive today in neuroaesthetics.

The City painted by Léger. Fair use via http://www.philamuseum.org.

One is struck by the painting’s reduction of forms. Humans are simple shapes, anonymous and colorless. They wend their way through streets and stairways. The industrial age rises as gray ovals of billowing smoke. The mechanical age is constructed with lines that hint at the Eiffel Tower. Advertisements are stylized as letters and angular frames that assault our senses.

Another striking feature of the painting is its fragmentation. Partial depictions, teeming, and overlapping, each piece vies for our attention. The image lacks a gravitational center that can anchor our gaze. Our eye is released to wander across the scene distracted by a bold color here, a disc there, and a partially obscured figure beyond. A third striking feature of the painting is the way Léger gives coherence to what could easily be visual chaos. He provides a compositional structure that organizes these reduced fragments into dynamic balance.

Reduction is the life-blood of any science. Take a complex system, break it down into component parts, and study those parts. The challenge for scientists is to reduce the complex system without losing sight of the whole. Knowing the properties of individual neuronal firing may be inherently interesting, but an individual neuron will not tell us much about aesthetics. By contrast, investigating whether a beautiful face activates part of visual cortex that is specialized for identifying faces as distinct from other objects like buildings might tell us whether the neural machinery that evolved to classify information is also used to evaluate that information. Alternatively, these functions of classification and evaluation might be neurally segregated.

Neuroaesthetics, like any experimental science, is also fragmentary. It moves forward by constructing experiments to test hypotheses that are confirmed or rejected. Advances are tentative and incremental. Each experiment, each publication, each claim is but a fragment. Discovering that people like curved architectural interiors and that this preference is etched into the general reward circuitry of the brain is a fragment of information. The fragment begs to be completed by further study. Is the preference for curved spaces accompanied by a desire to live in those spaces? Do people like curves in general or does this preference vary depending on the object of our interest?

Finding coherence within crowded data is a struggle for every scientist. One’s focus is typically narrow, trained on the details of specific experiments. How to frame those experiments, the way in which results might generalize and help give the field coherence, is not always obvious in adolescent fields like neuroaesthetics. This lack of coherence is also what makes the field exciting. Anticipating the compositional structure of neuroaesthetics might reveal where fragments need to be added, modified, or even deleted. One tentative framework for neuroaesthetics is to consider aesthetic experiences within the triad of sensations/movements, emotions, and meaning. Empirical aesthetics has traditionally focused on sensations and their relation to emotions in a simple way. Do you like this object or not? We need much more.

For me, The City evokes excitement. The vibrant energy and pulse of the image conveys optimism and an open sense of possibilities. I adore cities and this painting taps into that adoration. However, the very same painting might alienate someone else. The reduced and fragmented forms could feel soulless and evoke the anomie of being another cog in an indifferent mechanical world. One of the most pressing areas of neuroaesthetics is to understand how knowledge and experience modulate our emotional responses to artworks.

The name of the Philadelphia Museum of Art show is: “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.” The City, more than metropolitan turns out to be cosmopolitan. Anna Vallye, the curator of the show, offers an appealingly broad view of the man and his art. Léger disregarded traditional boundaries. He moved fluidly through painting, theater, film, advertising, and architecture. Furthermore, he immersed himself in the intellectual and cultural fervor of the time. The exhibit displays his work in the context of his contemporaries many of whom were friends and collaborators. As pointed out by Roberta Smith in the New York Times, Léger through his art exemplifies the fact that culture is a collective project.

We in neuroscience could benefit from Léger’s example. There are too few of us working in domains like neuroaesthetics that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. We need more scientists working in this field to make substantial progress and fill in the many fragments awaiting study. It also behooves us to think of neuroaesthetics as a collective project. We need to be in conversation, consultation, and collaboration with artists, philosophers, art historians, architects, critics, and cultural theorists. Neuroaesthetics can be a cosmopolitan science.

Anjan Chatterjee, MD, is a Professor of Neurology, and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience and the Center for Neuroscience and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art. In 2002, he was awarded the Norman Geschwind Prize in Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology by the American Academy of Neurology. He is the President of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics and the President of the Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology Society.

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