Viola, Christian Nold, Yves
Teresa Margolles, Valerio Magrelli, William Kentridge
Katharina Grosse, Andrea Ferrara, Elisa Biagini
Maurice Benayoun, Antonella Anedda
|EMOTIONAL SYSTEMS I Publication l Lectures l Education l Contact l Italiano|
Forword by James M. Bradburne
Emotional Systems by Franziska Nori
feelings are" Antonio Damasio
|The article that appears in this catalogue provides a significant example of how art history, with its new interest in the frontiers of neurology, may now be employed in a most unusual way: to analyse viewers’ emotional ‘responses’ (empathy, movement) to images and works of art, not only from a social and contextual perspective, but also in the framework of genetics, evolution and physiology.|
|For many years I made three proposals to fellow
historians of art in particular and to scholars of the humanities in general.
The first was to consider the potential of drawing connections between how
pictures look and how beholders respond to them on the level of emotions
and feeling. In 1987 I suggested the possibility of determining what I then
referred to as the neurophysiology of visual and psychological responses
to particular forms; and implied that this might entail the assumption of
certain biological and psychological invariances across cultures. This was
not a claim against difference; it was quite precisely in favour of considering
the ways in which responses might be culturally and historically inflected.
Yet the resistance was profound. Art historians stood back from the challenge
laid down by the cognitive neuroscientists, including those who had begun
to set out aspects of the specific work of the brain in the creation of
and responses to works of art. It was a deep challenge, since it involved
a reconsideration of traditional scepticism about the possibilities of bridging
the disciplinary gap. It meant acknowledging the hermeneutic potential of
the relationship between the neuronal bases of response and their historical
and cultural inflection. Even these days, when the evidence for genetic
and evolutionarily determined responses has grown so substantially, little
seems to shake the resistance to understanding the neurobiology of behaviours,
particularly corporeal behaviour. The standard social sciences model continues
to prevail in the humanities, and the dominant mode in the study of the
history of art remains the social history of art. Other approaches continue
to be anathematised, as if social history and biology were doomed to be
at eternal odds with each other. But they are not. My second proposal was
that the emotions might indeed be classifiable. The common position in the
humanities has continued to be that the emotions are too ragged and too
specific – personally, culturally and historically – to be capable
of definition in transcultural terms. Ekman’s research in particular
suggested the possibility of identifying a number of basic emotions, in
terms of both feeling and expression. Over and over again I suggested that
however culturally variable or contextually determined some responses might
appear to be, it was important to take into account the increasing evidence
for the identification of particular areas and neural networks in the brain
responsible for particular feelings and emotions. […] But the notion
that some responses to works of art might be automatic or directly dependent
on the structure and neural networks of the brain has remained hard to accept
outside the cognitive sciences.
My third claim, which now encounters less resistance (because of the fashion for ‘the body’), was that it was impossible, as Darwin and James already insisted, to conceive of the emotions apart from the body, and in particular apart form the movement of the body. It is probably this intimate nexus between body and emotion that for so long lay at the basis of the intellectual unfashionability of the emotions, since the body remained an embarrassment for pleasures that were allegedly (and in retrospect preposterously) uncorporeal. […]
For much of the twentieth century the emotions were excluded from the history and philosophy of art. These days old-fashioned art historians acknowledge that while it may be true that pictures arouse emotions and desire, this is not what art history is about. They – and most philosophers – maintain that when they go to a gallery they know that a painting is just a painting, the sculpture just a sculpture, and that one doesn’t respond to a work as if it were real. Or they might say that one doesn’t really respond to it as if it were real – and maybe that one oughtn’t to either. R. G. Collingwood’s often-admired book The Principles of Art of 1938 bluntly put forward the view that art has nothing whatsoever to do with the arousal of emotion. In his view, genuine artists do not strive after the production of emotional effects. This, he asserted, was best left to entertainers and magicians (not to be confused with artists!). And he deplored those “numerous cases in which somebody claiming the title of artist deliberately set himself to arouse certain states of mind in his audience”.
Collingwood cannot have recalled the case of Nicolas Poussin, who wrote explicitly to Chantelou in 1647 that paintings, like music, should be put together in such a way as to arouse the souls of those who behold it to different passions, ‘induire l’âme des regardants à diverses passions’. Of course one could say, with regard to Collingwood, that Englishmen have always been notorious (according to the national cliché) for their inability fully to express their feelings and emotions.
Moreover, the strain of German art theory in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that concerned itself deeply with the issue of emotional responses to art was almost entirely ignored by the German scholars who dominated twentieth-century art history. For the most part, they were high rationalists, fearful of superstition and emotion. The emotions were felt to be too random, too embarrassing and too incidental to the transcendental value of art. The three dominant modes in twentieth-century art history thus came to be formalism, connoisseurship and contextual studies of one kind or another. All excluded the emotions. Instead of attempting to discover relationships between the formal aspects of a work and the specific psychic efforts they generate, formalism remained purposeless; and both it and connoisseurship were placed disparagingly alongside each other, or replaced by contextual studies. From the late 1960s this became the main paradigm for art historical investigation. When I declared some time ago that I was planning a book entitled Mind, Body and Emotion in the History of Art, I was written off both by progressive and by reactionary colleagues. Yet more than ever it seems legitimate to interrogate the relationships between the formal aspects of an image and the emotional responses it evokes; and to examine what might be codifiable or capable of correlation.
But this idea has found surprisingly little resonance. One might think that to leave the emotions out of art was to suck art dry; but art history had first to be made academic – and therefore non-emotional. It is significant that E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, perhaps the finest attempt ever made to bring art and scientific psychology together, scarcely referred to the emotions – and made no mention at all of the German tradition which did, and which bound physicality to emotion.
Though I addressed some of these issues in my work on iconoclasm, and then in The Power of Images, my concerns were with symptoms, not with explanations. These concerns were neither neuroscientific nor much involved with approaches from cognitive psychology (then much more detached from the neurosciences than it has since become). It has only been with the work of neuroscientists, such as Antonio Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team from Parma, that some vindication has come. Before them, the only thinker to have seen the problem clearly – though with different theoretical and epistemological aims – was Nelson Goodman. In Languages of Art, Goodman attacked what he called ‘the domineering dichotomy between the cognitive and the emotive’. ‘On the one side’, he wrote in his typically vivid fashion, ‘we put sensation, perception, inference, conjecture, all nerveless inspection and investigation, fact, and truth; on the other, pleasure, pain, interest, satisfaction, disappointment, all brainless affective response, liking, and loathing. This pretty effectively keeps us from seeing that in aesthetic experience the emotions function cognitively’.
Here is a writer whom Damasio, with his own project of combining reason and emotion, might have cited with profit. More recently, a few art historians have begun to take the emotions seriously, most notably James Elkins. But neither his Pictures of the Body, Pain and Metamorphosis, full of the most compelling illustrations, nor his Pictures and Tears: How a painting can make you cry, deal with the neural substrate of emotional response. These books are all about the emotions generated by pictures, and yet they offer no sense of how such emotions might arise (other than the vague idea that they are related to corporeal involvement), nor where they come from, nor what the connection might be between the look of a picture and the emotional response it triggers. In the ‘Preface’ to Pictures of the Body, Elkins trenchantly remarks that ‘because the body intromits thought, important aspects of my responses to a picture of a body might not even be cognized’ (Elkins, 1999, p. VII). This, in slightly different terms, is one of the fundamental points of the present paper, namely that the body’s handling of the visual information it receives via the brain may in many cases be precognitive. Yet in neither work does Elkins show any awareness of the remarkable work being done on the relationship between art, emotion, body and brain. In what follows I will concentrate on aspects of neuroscien- tific research relevant to the old question of the relations between motion and emotion. In doing so I will touch on questions not only of apparently automatic behaviours (and of the brain correlates thereof), but also of the complex question of embodied simulation and simulations that are felt rather than expressed through behaviour. In other words, I will deal with the sense of reacting as if one were behaving in physical ways without actually thus behaving. This form of reaction, it seems to me, is of particular relevance to the ways in which one responds not only to other beings, but also to paintings and sculptures. I will be moving away from the kinds of visceral and outward emotional behaviours described at length in the Power of Images to their neural correlates. For the most part, the focus will be on recent work relating to the identification of specific cortical areas responsible for both our motor actions and our simulated actions. The question of the relations between inner and outward movement has a long history in the history of art and aesthetics, from the famous controversy about the meaning of Rembrandt’s phrase ‘die meeste en de naetuereelste beweechgelickheit’ in his 1639 letter to Constantijn Huygens to Aby Warburg’s 1893 Botticelli dissertation and the notion of the Pathosformel, via the writings of Robert Vischer, Hermann Lotze, Theodor Lipps, Johannes Volkelt and so on. The satisfaction will be to discover the neuroscientific resolution (or at least refinement) of some older intuitions, hypotheses and theories. How does a picture or sculpture engage the body, and what are the emotional responses that may ensue? It is now possible to be more precise than ever before about the relations and correlations between corporeal and emotional responses.
In 1936–37 Virginia Woolf wrote about her responses to some terrible photographs of the Spanish Civil War. ‘This morning’s collection contains the photograph of what might be a man’s body, or a woman’s; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those certainly are dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a birdcage hanging.’ (Woolf, 1938, p. 30).
In reading these lines it is impossible not to think of any one of the thousands of photographs that have poured forth from the war zones in Ruanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq. Woolf had no doubt at all about the universal disgust and horror which she believed such pictures must surely provoke. ‘Our sensations’, she insisted, ‘are the same, however different the education, the traditions behind us.’ In 2003, in her book on war photography entitled Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag took issue with Woolf. She resisted the assumptions that lay behind that ‘our’ and that ‘us’. She felt that it was mistaken to suggest that photographs, however shocking, could somehow offer a universal basis for opposition to war, and that in any case, ‘we’ could never suffer so much as the people shown in the photographs, or experience what the photographs showed. All this is banally true – but it misses the point. Not to be pained by these pictures, Sontag continued, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish what causes this havoc, this carnage – these, for Woolf, would be the reactions of a moral monster. And, she is saying, we are not monsters, we members of the educated class. Our failure is one of imagination, of empathy; we have failed to hold this reality in mind. (Sontag, 2003, p.7)
It is the core of both Woolf’s and Sontag’s arguments that require examination, not the conclusions they draw from them, with which it would be impossible to disagree. In fact, Sontag and Woolf are in accord about the immediate effects of the photographs of war and suffering. They are images that provoke horror and disgust. We are pained and recoil from them. And ‘we’ can hardly bear to look at these photographs not just because of the obvious political and moral indignation they arouse, but because they touch on more basic, more visceral, more immediate and automatic levels of response. Sontag suggests that if we fail to be shocked by these images, it is a failure of both imagination and what she calls empathy. She uses the term ‘empathy’ in the popular sense of a deep sympathy for those who are shown suffering. It is the sense that beholders often have of feeling that they somehow and to some degree can partake in the suffering of others. Sontag does not define the term at all. But it is capable of closer definition, along lines that bring us close to some of the fundamental ways in which humans relate to the images they see.
The leitmotif of Sontag’s discussion is Robert Capa’s famous 1937 photograph of a Republican soldier falling backwards – or is it sideways? – at the very moment he is hit by an enemy bullet. In looking at this picture, grainy as it is, the phenomenology of spectatorial engagement with it seems relatively clear. Somehow one feels in one’s own body the instability of the dying soldier. One seems to be falling oneself, off-balance, and yet vainly trying to keep oneself upright. It is almost as if, looking at this picture, one has to stop oneself from flinging one’s own arm backwards, as if one were about to lose that recently-held gun oneself. (I will shortly discuss these ‘as ifs’.) The utter precariousness of the man’s physical state seems, momentarily, to be projected on to his beholders; or perhaps it would be better to say, becomes part of their own physical sensations. It is almost a relief to find that one is still seated – ‘normally’, one begins to say, but somehow not ‘normally’ at all – as one looks at this image. One seems to feel in one’s bones (as we say – but perhaps in one’s head, as we shall see), that one is engaged in this picture. Our bodies respond to it as if that body, somehow, were our own. Momentarily we are left with a slight feeling of anxiety and desperation. Physical engagement with a picture like this, physical empathy, translates very swiftly into emotion.
The tradition of empathy theory that was so prominent in German art theory in the second half of the nineteenth century merits reevaluation. It is of more than simple historical or even epistemological interest. For many years little attention was devoted to the notion that felt corporeal involvement in a painting or with a sculpture, or even in architecture, enables both physical and emotional empathetic responses. But recently there has been a certain renewal of interest in the subject– without any awareness of the contemporary evidence for the embodied simulation of observed actions and movements.
In Das optische Formgefühl of 1873, Robert Vischer distinguished between sensation and feeling in a way that anticipates recent neuroscientific distinctions between emotions and conscious feelings. Being at a lower stage in the perceptual process, sensations are more intuitive and precede conscious feeling – which in turn precedes empathetic feeling with the form of the object. Each of these stages, for Vischer, has to do with what he called the stimulation of ‘motor nerve function’ and the relationship between the form of the object and our own bodily form. By Einfühlung Visscher meant physical responses generated by the observation of forms within paintings. He set out at length how particular forms aroused particular responsive feelings, depending on their conformity to the design and function of the muscles of the body, from those of the eyes to the limbs and to bodily posture as a whole. Developing Visscher’s ideas, the young Wölfflin outlined his views on the ways in which the observation of specific architectural forms engage the beholder’s bodily responses.
August Schmarsow wrote of the experiences of architecture in terms of muscular sensation, the sensitivity of the skin, and the structure of the body. Already before Vischer, Herman Lotze had argued that one invests every visual impression with emotional experience as a result of our understanding of the physical motion within the image we see. Just before the century turned, Aby Warburg, adapting Vischer’s notions of Einfühlung developed his own theory of the Pathosformel, whereby the outward forms of movement in a work of Renaissance art (say the hair or flowing draperies of a paintings by Botticelli or Ghirlandaio) revealed the inner emotions of the figure concerned. Already by then Theodor Lipps was developing his views of the relationship between aesthetic enjoyment and bodily engagement with space, in architecture as well as in the other arts. All these writers believed that the feeling of physical involvement in a piece of painting, sculpture or architecture not only provoked a sense of imitating the motion either seen or implicit in the work, but also elicited or even enhanced the emotional responses of the spectator. Wilhelm Worringer’s Abstraction and Empathy approached the problem rather differently from the other works mentioned here. Although it was concerned ways in which form is allegedly invested with life, it set the processes of empathy against what for Worringer was the opposing notion of abstraction, and thus led to his insistence on the superiority of the latter on the grounds that it was somehow purer for its distance from empathetic feeling. By then William James had also articulated the broader question of the relations between bodily action and emotion, while at the core of all of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work from the 1940s on lies a profound concern with the ways in which beholders are and become corporeally involved in works of art, and in particular with the problem of felt movement in response to them.
Current images from war zones provide no shortage of examples. To look, for instance, at the heart-rending 2001 photograph by Tyler Hicks of three Iraqi women grieving with their whole bodies over the lifeless bodies of their daughters, is to have a sense of simulating each one of their movements. It is to open one’s own mouth (or to have a sense of doing so) in a similar form of the expression of sorrow, and to wish to cast outward one’s own arms in grief in almost exactly the way the mother does. As one’s eyes traverse the scene, it seems as if one’s own body is overcome by a kind of emulatory slump, as if in some attempted imitation of the prostrate position of the dead child (it is almost the same feeling of keenly empathetic slump as that provoked by the famous 1968 photograph by Don McCullin of the collapsed body of a North Vietnamese soldier). How easily one seems to grasp the pain of these figures through feeling the gesture of the woman clutching her hands over her chest in the background, or the desperation of the way in which the woman next to her moves her arms outward in grief! All these figures serve as trenchant reminders of the importance of Warburg’s notion of the Pathosformel. Not only do the gestures ring humanly true, one also knows immediately how often one has seen them in art (in particular that of the wailing mother with her arms outstretched in sorrow, recalling the classic gestures of the Pietà). It is perfectly true that these are formulaic bodily expressions of grief, and that they form part of a repertoire of emotional expression via the body used by generations of sculptors and painters, or deliberately draw on yet more ancient vestiges (as in the all too well-known cases of Renaissance artists copying from antiquity). But these examples are so convincing because they feel – not just look – so convincing. It is not just case of having seen these gestures before, of knowing these particular cultural correlations between gesture and the expression of emotion. They are convincing because these are gestures that are predicated on a deep and intuitive body-knowledge linking movement to emotion. The better the artist is at conveying such body-knowledge, the more effective the beholder’s identification with it, and the better her understanding of the emotions such gestures and movements of the body are intended to convey. It is not, in the first instance, a matter of cultural knowledge; it is a matter of intuitive recognition via the body.
Examples of just this conflation of intuitive body-knowledge and the long traditions of emotional expression through the body are legion. They include Giotto’s St John in the Lamentation in the Arena Chapel, the unforgettable terracotta group of Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation in Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, Rosso’s Pietà in the Louvre, the upraised arms of Mary – as well as the slumped body of Christ – in Caravaggio’s Vatican Entombment, the opening page of Goya’s Desastres de la guerra, tellingly entitled Tristes presentimientos. Anyone seeing the many modern images of war, loss, destruction and grief, will immediately think of a host of similar examples from both the present and the past. The very fact that so many examples of this kind do indeed leap forward and present themselves to the mind’s eye is striking evidence of the peculiar trenchancy of certain classes of gesture, of specific types of physical movement. Another example – to take one of many possible instances from the history of art and now repeated in modern images of grief and atrocity – is the wiping of tears from the eyes with the back of the hand, such as Giotto so strikingly depicted above the Lamentation in the Arena Chapel, and Claus Sluter carved beneath the Crucifixion above his great Well of Moses in Dijon. All such movements, actions and gestures strike deep chords within us – and it has now become possible to speak more clearly about what we mean when we say just this.
It is not just a matter of the activation of cortical areas relating to memory, of the fact that responses to the Tylor Hicks photograph are somehow predicated on recollection of similar images, or of a visual repertoire of forms. One’s responses are more basic than that; less cognitive, so to speak, more unconscious. They have to do with the activity of areas of the brain dedicated to the imitation of specific forms of movement in others. It is now possible to describe the neuronal bases of just this form of embodied simulation. The topic of empathy needs no longer to be regarded as a matter of sentimentality, or of armchair intuition. It can be shown to be predicated on a particularly striking form of the cortical representation of action. […]
Much good cognitive work has also been done in the last dozen years or so on affective responses to pictures, both pleasant and unpleasant. Teams under researchers such as Peter Lang (one of the pioneers of the study of emotional reactions to pictures) and Richard Davidson have done an array of experiments involving eyeblink startle magnitude and corrugator and zygomatic muscle responses to pictures, while relatively simple heart rate and skin conductance measurements may be obtained for visceral reactions. The imaging method of choice is now functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), but PET (Positron Emission Tomography) measurements of regional Cerebral Blood Flow (rCBF) in the case of both pleasant and unpleasant visual (as well as auditory and olfactory) stimuli have also been made.
To this array of work chiefly on negative responses one can now add the very large amount of recent research on the amygdala. Its role in the neuro-physiology of fear responses in particular, and of many other emotional reactions as well, is now well documented. The usual and most striking examples offered are of fear responses to snakes, but amygdalic responses to threatening faces and masks, animals baying and displaying their teeth, are of a similar order. The neural networks involved in the instinct for self-preservation overlap with that of the emotions. The effectiveness of apotropaia depends on this kind of instinctive knowledge as much as on the cultural connotations of what it represents. New knowledge of amygdalic processes and their interaction with the prefrontal cortex will further refine older views of evolutionary and biological responses to fear signals. […]
[…] As for the face, so too, perhaps even more significantly, for
the body. The extrastriate body area (EBA), a neural system specifically
dedicated to the visual perception of the body, and of the human body
in particular, has recently been identified in the right lateral occipitotemporal
cortex. When subjects are shown still photographs of human bodies and
body parts there is a significantly stronger response in this body-selective
area than when they view other inanimate objects and object parts, and
significantly, than when they view the body parts of animals.
The central problem of this paper is this: how might it be possible to
describe more rigorously and less intuitively the ways in which the inward
imitation of movement and action occurs and how does it issue in emotion?
An important body of literature has been dedicated to the phenomenon known
as response facilitation, that is, the automatic tendency to reproduce
an observed movement, whether with or without understanding (as in the
case of Meltzoff and Moore’s well-known work on the imitative buccal
and manual movements of babies). […]
[…] In humans, activation occurs during the observation of intransitive
and mimed actions as well, and the facilitation of motor-evoked potentials
recorded from the observer’s muscles is present in the case of apparently
meaningless hand/arm gestures, as well as when we observe a transitive
[…] What I propose, therefore, is a model of empathy that is not dissimilar from the integrated one recently offered about the emotions by Preston and De Waal. Their main proposal is precisely that observation or imagination of another person in a particular emotional state automatically activates a representation of that state in the observer with its associated autonomic and somatic responses. My own rather obvious suggestion here has been to acknowledge the need to incorporate bodily responses – whether of movement or touch or any other kind of sensual response – into this model. […]
[…] while the distinctions between art and non-art are cognitive
and cultural, the new discoveries relating to the neural systems that
underlie empathetic responses to pictures, even if they do not help much
with such distinctions, provide considerable insight into the ways in
which artists have unconsciously exploited the kinds of knowledge I have
tried to set out in this paper.
|The text, which was provided directly by the author in its unabridged version, is a selection of excerpts from an essay that has recently appeared also in Italian in the anthology Immagini della mente. Neuroscienze, arte, filosofia, edited by Giovanni Lucignani and Andrea Pinotti, and published by Raffaello Cortina Editore, Milan 2007. As Freedberg explains in a footnote to the title, this text is a reworking of two separate papers, one read at the third annual conference of neuroaesthetics, organised by Semir Zeki first at Berkeley in January 2004, and then at Villa Medici in Rome in May 2004; and the second presented first at Stanford in November 2004, and then at the Università degli Studi in Milan on 8 December 2004.|