What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art (and Literature)

In ‘What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art‘ (New York Times, April 12, 2013), Eric R. Kandel writes:

Alois Riegl….understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture….In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

Kande’s focus in his article is on visual art, but these considerations apply equally to the printed word. Here are the passages excerpted above with very slight emendation:

Literature is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the reader  collaborate with the author in transforming two-dimensional printed words on a page into an imaginative depiction of the world, the reader interprets what he or she sees on the page canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the text….In addition to our acquired reading abilities, each of us brings to a work of literature our acquired memories: we remember other works of literature that we have seen. We remember scenes and people who have meaning to us and relate the work of literature to those memories. In order to read what is printed on a page on a page, we have to know beforehand what we might read in the text.

So, we get the collaborative theory of the reader: a literary work is brought to life by the reader, it acquires meaning in the act of reading.  This ensures that the work serves as raw material for an act of active engagement with the reader, who brings a history of reading, a corpus of memories, and thus, an inclination and disposition toward the text. The more you read, the more you bring to every subsequent act of reading; the more you engage with humans, the more varied the archetypes and templates of the human experience you have playing in your mind as you read.

The classic work then, which endures over time and acquires a new set of readers in each successive generation, becomes so because it remains reinterpretable on an ongoing basis; newer bodies of text and human histories surround it and it acquires new meanings from them.  We are still unable to analyze this phenomenon, to determine what makes a particular text receptive to such reimaginings over time; its success is the only indicator it has what it takes to acquire the status of a classic.

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