Flatness, Performance and Brain ArtWhere did Andy Kauffman go?
Weave an MRI pattern onto a family quilt. Paint a cortex onto a canvas. Scan the brain of a philosopher contemplating her own death and hang it in a museum. Is this art? What does it mean? How might we respond? In this post, I tango with artistic representations of the brain and argue that they expose what we lose when we suppress (or repress!) the idea that identity is constructed and disciplinary knowledge is, well, disciplined and rhetorical. So what do we lose? Simple. Andy Kauffman.
Understanding Brain Art as flatly rejecting Flat Art. Flat Art?
For Frederic Jameson (1991), “the supreme formal feature of all postmodernisms” was a “a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality” (p. 9). Like most articulations of postmodernism, what this means is probably best explained with reference to Modern art and the flattening out of pictorial space absent shadows and shadings.
A Modern movement toward a flat visuality marked a recognition of form, painting as painting without the pretense of realism (Greenburg, 1948). This Modern movement shuns concern with the exterior objectified world-out-there, looking instead to the interior world of the artist’s feelings and imaginations. Flatness emphasizes the role of art as expression while showcasing the inherent limitation of the pictorial medium. In postmodernism, however, the edge of flatness turns on itself, adopting a new, playful or cynical recognition of constructedness.
Consumer culture’s wild self-spectalism imagines a (postmodern) Self completely void of essentialisms but full of showtime possibility. David Joselit (2000) puts it this way: “the psychological depth [of Modernism] undergoes deflation, resulting in a [Postmodern] visuality in which identity manifests itself as a culturally conditioned play of stereotype” (p. 20). Like Andy Warhol’s (1962) “Marilyn Diptych,” the deployment of mass production techniques, flat repetitive color blocks, and celebrity adulation exemplify both desire and disgust for objectification and stereotype (Carrier, 2009). The true or locatable Self dissipates in a soup of metafictive intertextuality.
Image source: Mairlyn Diptych, by Warhol
In the long aftermath of many postmodernisms wherein the construction of Self ties so directly to the performance of form and the flattening of surfaces, what can be said about alluring scientific representations of the human brain in museum settings?
At first glance, ‘brain art’ seems, all too often, like commercial opportunism wrapped in epistemological privledge. The impulse is to showcase the wonderous complexity of the brain and the achievements of neuroscience, positioning the artist as amazing cutting-edge innovator unbound by society’s artifical demarcation between art and science. A true hero. But there’s more than the simple cynical story here – more than an artists’s self-indulgence – more than naieve celebration of neuroscience’s contemporary influence over human self-understanding and self-improvement. At least, sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn't.
Let's Look At Brain Art!
Consider Greg Dunn’s recent brain art installation, Mind Illuminated, at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia as a case study (“Mind,” 2016). To me, the feature work, “Brainbow Hippocampus,” displays a repressed return to realism—repressed because the work actively visualizes the twisting depth of the human brain in pursuit of “the real” but self-denies (or REPRESSES) its own objective access and claim to “the real” in giving scrupulous attention to its own constructed and flashy materiality.
Image source: Brainbow Hippocampus
“Brainbow Hippocampus” visualizes 3-D space and shadow, favoring a technical ambition to capture “the actual” complexity of the probabalistic human brain, but it ultimately (seems to me) conflates the “real” of psychological experience with the “real” of scientific representations of materiality (not to mention materiality). The repressed nature of the work surfaces at the moment when the meticulously manicured micro-etching tempts the viewer to lean inward and closely examine its shimmering “brainbow” decadence and note the hundreds of hours of reconstruction and translation from brain scans - all amid the wonder of a show declaring that this is 'our mind' now 'illuminated' for all to see (note the all-encompassing objectivist title "Mind Illuminated" - not "one mouse and one human brain illuminated.") Put differently, the work performs the old joke, “Who’s on first,” delivering the Costello line as well as playing Abbott, calling attention to the two sides of brain scan images—objectivist and rhetorically constructed; but the work does not seem to get the joke. Nobody is laughing.
A Celebration or a Critique of Neuroscience?
Arguably, the piece feeds on a fascination with “neuro-everything” (Farah, 2014) and evidences, perhaps unintentionally, the “seductive allure” of brain research (Weisberg et al., 2008) but does so without any obvious critique of neuroscience. Because Dunn worked with neuroscientist Dr. Brian Edwards to produce the exhibit, the intent seems to be the same as Dunn’s other works—“to elucidate the nature of consciousness” within an oversized map of colorful neural connections (Dunn, 2016). Herein, “brainbow decadence” unabashedly celebrates scientific product and achievement, elevating the imaging tool and the human brain such that the viewer might well stand there in awe and imagine Leonardo Da Vinci himself making this piece in contemporary pursuit of “universal and all-encompassing knowledge” composing beauty by deepening the scientific gaze (Baucon, 2010, p. 361) pronouncing art and science to be perpetually enmeshed, stoking the belief that human perception discovers truth and beauty in nature (De Girolami Cheney, 2011).
Yet in an almost anti-scientific and anti-affective (or anti-bodily) move, “Brainbow Hippocampus” champions the brain-in-the vat, presenting Descarte’s dualistic human, a body absent from the production of the mind (Ventriglio and Bhugra, 2015), a position reinforced by Dunn himself when he stresses that “brains govern everything” (See: Kim, 2015, para 4, 11). This is to say nothing yet of the intensity of algorithmic and networked thinking in the production and visual form of the work, a palpable imposition of the computational discourses dominating neuroscience and the tendency to think of ourselves as “connected” in an age of Social Media. Yet, here again, visible, outward criticism of tools and technologies, of ordering and disciplined influences on human formation, in this work remains elusive.
Image source: "http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2013.00376/full" ROI Analysis from Chen et al., 2013
What's The Long and Short For Theory-Interested Folks?
Brain art like Dunn's might help to expose some of the stakes of losing those playful, self-effacing constructivist performances at a time when new (and multiple/variable) forms of New Materialism and New Realism abound. For me, Dunn’s work instigates thought about the way that contemporary cultural theory now tends to re-position the “thing” over cultural and semiotic constructedness in accordance with revised approaches to the real. Recognizing this shift in cultural theory, Janet Wolff (2012) notes the general displacement of “critical theories of culture—sociological, hemeneutic, semiotic, interpretive” in favor of the “agency of objects” and an “embodied nature,” suggesting that the “power of images” now, as a result, lies in their “engagement of the material world” at the expense of other interpretations and potentials (p. 4-7).
“Brainbow Hippocampus” looks to be a good example—a visual instance of institutional power in the spotlight, dazzling audiences with a story of materiality’s dominance without the benefit of the heckler in the audience mocking the need to take materiality seriously and laughing at the way we choose to “emphasize “manifold entanglements” (Connolly, 2013), jeering at our calls to “give objects their due” (Marback, 2008), standing up like Andy Kauffman for a few minutes, putting on a new hat, a little epistemological boozing, upending any repression of the social and historical influences on 'entanglements' and 'speculations' and 'emergence' and 'ontological meshing' and other flash words we (including myself) love. What we might well need in 'Brain art' as in theory is a new Tony stumbling into the room and forcing the formal TV presenter to sing along karaoke style, tripping up the producer's schedule, embarrassing everyone, and exposing the fraud of the television schematic (See: Smith, 2013).
Image source: "http://www.ew.com/article/2012/07/06/andy-kaufman-tony-clifton-comedy-store" Entertainment Weekly
I offer as remedy to the problem that Wolff (2012) identifies not serious loathing about the displacement of constructivist performance but a new restless tour of the funhouse, a crazy uncle in the back of the room screaming 'It's turtles all the way down, damn it!' Tony (or Andy) puts forward a challenge to tromp on and off the New Materialist stage with postmodernism’s props, throw open a spectacular impersonation of long lost heroes out of the blue to keep things real, “tank u verrry much” (“Andy”).
“Andy Kauffman’s Elvis Presley Impersonation on Jonny Carson’s Tonight Show, 1977,” Available at: "https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kpBzUQHYtM" (Accessed Aug 1, 2016).
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Kim, M. (2015). “Mutter Museum features artist's 'mind-blowing' images of the brain” Philly Voice, July 7. Available at: http://www.phillyvoice.com/mutter-artist-mind-blowing-images-brain/ (Accessed Aug 1, 2016).
Marback, R. (2008). “Unclenching the fist: Embodying rhetoric and giving objects their due” Quarterly Journal of Speech 38(1): 46-65.
“Mind Illuminated: Art and the brain at the Mütter Museum.” (2016). June 4th. The Mütter Museum. Available at: (Accessed Aug 1, 2016).
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Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470–477.
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