Paul Bloom has a review essay in the New Yorker where he looks at two books that seek to provide neurological evidence of how we understand and respond to abstract and conceptual art. Bloom has much praise for Nobel laureate Eric Kandel’s book on Reductionism in Art and Brain Science:
take Willem de Kooning and Gustav Klimt, whose works, Kandel tells us in a very interesting discussion, combine aggression and sexuality. But then Kandel goes on to explain that, in the hypothalamus, there is one population of neurons that regulates aggression and another that regulates mating, and it turns out that “about 20 percent of the neurons located on the border between the two population can be active during either mating or aggression. This suggests that the brain circuits regulating these two behaviors are intimately linked.” But presumably the reader is already aware that sex and aggression are linked.
Bloom goes on to combine Kandel’s insights with Ellen Winner’s How Art Works which seeks to do explain whether and how we experience conceptual art like Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made objects or Piero Manzoni’s famous little cans of “artist’s shit” as art:
Winner appreciates how our perception of abstract art is powerfully influenced by our understanding of the performance underlying the work’s creation, and particularly our beliefs about what’s going on in the head of the my own work artist. In my own work with the psychologist Susan Gelman, supported by more recent experiments from Winner’s laboratory, it turns out that even children are sensitive to the intentions of an artist: four-year-olds will see splotches of colored paint as a mess if they believe they were the result of a spill, but if they think the image was the product of intense concentration, they are far more likely to call it “a painting.”
This sort of focus on the artist’s intention is what goes on in the reaction to work such as Manzoni’s; you can appreciate it only if you know what it was intended to be. This understanding doesn’t mean that you will like the work of art; you might nd the idea uninteresting or the performance uninspired. Denis Dutton, for instance, talks about Duchamp’s “readymades”—such as his urinal turned into an art piece—as works of “incandescent genius,” but he sees this sort of artistic innovation (what Arthur Danto described as “the transfiguration of the commonplace”) as akin to a joke that can be laughed at only once. Dutton has a low opinion of “Artist’s Shit,” not because he doesn’t appreciate the idea but because he finds it boring and derivative.
What We Know About Art and the Mind (New Yorker)