Art and the Brain: Chapter 9. Art and Anatomy: Critics and Hired Hands


William Hogarth (1697–1764)
William Blake (1757–1827)
Jan van Rymsdyk (c.1730–1788/1789)


Finally, it is evident that, while both artists and scientists saw value in studying the body and the environment, their overall investigative goals differed. Thus, contextual variations from era to era are evident within each era as well. For example, the role of dissection has clearly changed in 21st century research. Non-invasive technologies allow experimenters to avoid some of the noisome aspects of the earlier approaches and to probe healthy brains and bodies in ways unimaginable in the 18th century. We can study more discretely, with greater specificity, and without needing to cut through the formerly opaque surfaces. Perhaps this explains why we are more apt to use a broader definitional framework when thinking in terms of the mind and brain. For example, rather than defaulting to imagination and genius we can consider how the specialist, normal, naïve, and abnormal (e.g., brain-damaged) differ.

Despite the broader leeway in characterizations now, what is perhaps most interesting is that we have not “solved” the problem of creativity, so to speak. Yet, we continue to reframe it. When brain imaging reveals that specialist brains function differently from those of non-specialists we have a visual analogy that re-frames some of the controversies discussed in this and earlier chapters. We can also re-visit the different skill sets people bring to tasks. Of course, research has also shown that the erudite scientists, who “visualized” what the artist should record, were largely working in accordance with the fashions of their time (Daston and Galison 2007), in addition to having a different skill set than the artists they hired. There is also the tension between technical virtuosity and insight: technical skills and potent insights often speak to different mental qualities. The story of electricity in the next chapter further grapples with these points.

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