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Against the reduction of art to galvanic skin response

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This essay exposes several problems with reductionist approaches to art, placing some specific focus on ‘The Science of Art’ by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein (1999). Their article seems to be representative of this genre in general, though particularly egregious in certain dimensions. My approach will differ greatly from that of a neuroscientist, philosopher, or psychologist, since I primarily take a critical feminist, social-literary perspective. I will argue that reductionist approaches to art are an intoxicating composite of arrogance, insight, confusion and precision, an amalgam that challenges the commentator to distinguish what is worth praising, what is worth attacking, and what is best left alone. In particular, I will demonstrate that Ramachandran and Hirstein confuse arousal (in a certain technical sense) with beauty, with the disastrous result of excluding most of what is usually taken to distinguish ‘high’ art from its ‘lower’ forms, such as advertising, industrial design, and pornography.

Document Type: Review Article

Affiliations: Donnya Wheelwell is the pseudonym of a science professional.

Publication date: August 1, 2000


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