Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898 | SUBSCRIBE

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Montage | Open Book

An Empiricist on Art

March-April 2019

Illustration by Matt Chinworth


Illustration by Matt Chinworth

Prisoners rehearse and perform The Tempest behind walls. People reportedly queued on the New York docks in 1841 awaiting the ship bearing the final chapter of Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop to find out Little Nell’s fate. A granddaughter churns out “abstract impressionist” paintings. What do these examples—arrayed by Boston College psychology professor Ellen Winner ’69, Ph.D. ’78, RI ’99—have in common, and how do they function? Those are the subjects of her simply, but provocatively, titled How Art Works: A Psychological Exploration (Oxford, $29.95). It moves beyond philosophy and aesthetics to social science, to “unpack what art does to us—how we experience art.” Continuing beyond her introductory list:

 

These strange behaviors we call art are as old as humans. As early as Homo sapiens, and long before there was science, there was art. Archeologists have found ochre clay incised with decoration from 99,000 years ago, musical instruments from over 35,000 years ago, and masterful figurative paintings on the Chauvet cave walls from 30,000 years ago. There has never been a culture without one or more forms of art—though not all cultures have had a word for art. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss placed art above science, describing the work of the painter, poet, and composer as well as the myths and symbols of primitive humans as “if not as a superior form of knowledge, at any rate as the most fundamental form of knowledge, and the only one that we all have in common; knowledge in the scientific sense is merely the sharpened edge of this other knowledge.” In modern, literate societies, there is no end to wondering about “art” and “the arts.” What makes something art? Do two-year-old Olivia’s paintings count? If I say that Harry Potter is a greater novel than War and Peace, is this just a subjective opinion, or could I be proven wrong? Are the primitive-looking paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat that sell for millions something any child could have made? If a revered painting turns out to be a forgery, does it become less good? Does the sorrow we feel when we read about the death of Little Nell have the same quality as the sorrow we feel when someone we know dies? Did reading about Little Nell make us better, more empathetic people? Do we make our children smarter by enrolling them in music lessons?…

Over the centuries, philosophers have tried (and failed) to define art. Psychologists (perhaps wisely) ask a somewhat different question: not “what is it,” but rather what do people think it is. And this is an empirical question.

You Might Also Like:

Photograph of a mathematician's blackboard, from the book Do Not Erase

Ana Balibanu’s chalkboard, like the others in Do Not Erase, provides a glimpse into the mathematical mind at work.

Photograph by Jessica Wynne

Off the Shelf

Composite illustration of African American poets Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes

Critique and Joy

The painting, "Overseers in the Field #1" (2007), informed by Winfred Rembert

Click on white arrow to see full image
Overseers in the Field #1
(2007), informed by Winfred Rembert’s life

© 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Open Book: Hiding in a Tick Mattress

You Might Also Like:

Photograph of a mathematician's blackboard, from the book Do Not Erase

Ana Balibanu’s chalkboard, like the others in Do Not Erase, provides a glimpse into the mathematical mind at work.

Photograph by Jessica Wynne

Off the Shelf

Composite illustration of African American poets Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes

Critique and Joy

The painting, "Overseers in the Field #1" (2007), informed by Winfred Rembert

Click on white arrow to see full image
Overseers in the Field #1
(2007), informed by Winfred Rembert’s life

© 2021 Estate of Winfred Rembert / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Open Book: Hiding in a Tick Mattress