Why art isn't strictly for the birds

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The Independent Online

The distinguished neuroscientist VS Ramachandran believes gallery-goers are bird-brained. Well, OK - that's not quite how he put it himself in his recent Reith Lectures, or in The Emerging Mind, the book that resulted from them - but I thought I'd indulge in a little "peak shifting" to get your attention.

Peak shift, I should explain, is the first of Professor Ramachandran's 10 universal laws of art, a list of qualities that he suggests are common to art from all cultures. It refers to the way that art tends to exaggerate the attractive or distinctive features of an image. The example he uses is a cartoon image of President Nixon - an image that has more Nixon-ness in it than the original. Similarly, my opening sentence is a caricature of the professor's arguments. To press his point home, Ramachandran cites a famous experiment performed with herring-gull chicks, in which an abstracted representation of the mother's beak - a yellow stick with three red stripes on it - provoked the chicks into feeding behaviour more effectively than a real beak. This, he suggests, offers a possible explanation of our behaviour in a modern art gallery. "That's what you are doing when you are buying contemporary art. You are behaving exactly like those gull chicks."

The obvious objection to this is that, barring a few specialised species, lots of people tend to flock away from contemporary art and towards paintings of cottages at twilight with smoke curling out of their chimneys. But Professor Ramachandran was ready for that when someone raised it after his lecture. Why doesn't everybody like Picasso, someone asked, if it's true that he's worked out a short cut to our primal instincts? "Everybody does, but most people are in denial about it," Ramachandran replied - raising the intriguing possibility that, were it not for the heavy weight of cultural convention, Page Three girls would have been replaced by Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. It was a good example of how quickly you can get into trouble when you try to work out essentially mechanistic explanations for human culture. It seemstelling, too, that when Professor Ramachandran first published a paper on this subject in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in 1999 his list of universal laws consisted only of eight items, not 10. I'm willing to bet that the longer he thinks about it, the more laws he needs to cover the anomalies.

The problem is not that it makes no sense to try to tie up our perceptual ancestry with aesthetics. Unless you believe that the human passion for art was fitted as an afterthought - along with the divine spark - then there must be some connection between our lives as animals and our most sophisticated pleasures. And it certainly isn't that Ramachandran has trespassed on territory that, as a scientist, he should have left well alone. There have been some crude attempts to treat culture as a kind of behavioural conundrum that can be solved by digging up the instincts for safety or procreation that lie beneath our appreciation of a Constable landscape, but this isn't one of them. Ramachandran concedes that 90 per cent of aesthetics remains firmly within the realm of culture and only 10 per cent in the realm of biology.

The difficulty is that it's very awkward to bridge the gap between the basic building blocks of aesthetic experience and anything even a little more complicated. Ramachandran's arguments depend on treating visual art as essentially representational. Another of his laws, for example, suggests that all art contains an element of Perception Problem Solving - so that the satisfaction of making sense of a visual pattern (valuable in adaptive terms, since the pattern might be planning to eat you) is also triggered by a Mondrian or a Rembrandt. But while this makes sense at an elementary level, it doesn't match up to the experience of actually entering a gallery. Tate Modern isn't a walk-through edition of Puzzler magazine, in which we decipher one visual riddle before moving on to the next, and feel a little jolt of triumph when we "get" the answer.

What's more, the moment you start thinking about art history, the biological arguments fade before culture. Were the male critics who found Manet's Olympia "repugnant" and "corpse-like" just lying to themselves - in denial about their responses to a painting that tweaked at their sexual appetite? Or were they unwittingly demonstrating the way in which an acquired characteristic can almost entirely obliterate an inherited one? As Jake Chapman put it recently, "Art isn't about looking, it's about thinking" - and though that, too, has its evolutionary underpinning, you suspectit involves something more complicated than herring gulls feeling peckish.