The Arts are More than Aesthetics:

Brown, S., & Dissanayake, E. (2009). The arts are more than aesthetics: Neuroaesthetics as narrow aesthetics. In M. Skov & O. Vartanian (Eds.), Neuroaesthetics (pp. 43–57). Baywood Publishing Co. 

Neuroaesthetics as Narrow Aesthetics

Steven Brown and Ellen Dissanayake

BUT tremendous ambiguities inherent in the terms “aesthetics” and “art,” ones that limit a proper understanding of human art


It is only during the last two centuries that the terms “Art” (with an implied

capital A, connoting an independent realm of prestigious and revelatory works)

and “aesthetics” (as a unique, and even reverential, mode of attention toward such

works) have taken on their present elitist meanings and become unavoidably intertwined

(Davies, 2006; Shiner, 2001

Evolutionary aesthetics investigates

sensory preferences in animals and humans that promote selective attention and

positive emotional responses toward objects in the environment that lead to adaptive

decision making and problem solving (Orians, 2001). Objects perceived in this

manner are considered to be beautiful (Thornhill, 1998).

Although workers in evolutionary aesthetics do not overtly adhere to the elitist

philosophical connotations of aesthetics, some nevertheless write as though their

findings are applicable to an understanding of human responses to art and beauty

(e.g., Thornhill, 1998).

we suggest that present-day neuroaesthetics is limited in three

important respects by a narrow, culture-bound sense of aesthetics/art

FIRST Neuroaesthetics, like evolutionary aesthetics and

other scientific notions of aesthetics, is predicated on a class of emotions whose

biological function is to generate an appraisal of the properties of objects


for assessing a wide variety of objects

important for biological survival, as in evolutionary aesthetics, where they include

landscapes, food quality, the appearance and behaviors of conspecifics,

So the aesthetic data used in neuroaesthetics apply to a fat bigger category of objects than art objects

‘Strictly speaking, it is this broad area—not works of art alone—that defines the

domain of neuroaesthetics’

As presently

conceived, neuroaesthetics has no way of distinguishing art from nonart.

we present a view of art as a behavior of “artification,” a neologism that allows us to

think of art as an activity, in other words as something that people do (to “artify”).


……..The realm of human experience of the arts is far wider than aesthetic response to individual features……..

A focus on such responses and preferences, even in individual artworks, reduces the arts to the level of receiver psychology and social functionlessness, as presupposed in many philosophical approaches to the fine arts based on Enlightenment principles.’

…..complex behaviours eg making art include an aesthetic dimension but they are not reducible to the aesthetic dimension……..

THIRD ……….art deals with the emotions so a neuroaesthiec study of art needs a basilisks of a theory of emotion. BUT th BET theory of emotion is inadequate to cope with emotions produced by art and saestheric response………..

……… is a fuzzy category – mixed up with eurocentric conceptions……


a comprehensive scientific understanding

of art must include its manifestations in all human cultures


… in other cultures is not the ‘disinterested’ thing that is western fine art and also may not be connected with beauty………

A foray into

the arts of non-Western cultures not only compels us to confront art practices that

are removed from the “disinterested” aesthetic practices of Western fine art, but also

forces us to consider the arts as behaviors that may have no necessary connection

with beauty (Dissanayake, 2007

……art in premodern society is ritual:…….



ceremonies, as behavioral manifestations of cognitive belief systems about the

way the world works (Alcorta & Sosis, 2005), have some common characteristics.

They are performed at times of perceived uncertainty, when individuals and groups

wish to influence the outcomes of circumstances that they perceive as vital to their

livelihood and survival (Dissanayake 1992, in press; Rappaport, 1999; Turner,

1969). They are typically multimodal, combining singing, instrument playing,

dancing, literary language, dramatic spectacle, and the decoration of bodies, surroundings,

and paraphernalia. In addition, they are typically participative: even

when an audience observes specialists performing, they join in by clapping, moving,

shouting, singing, and so forth. As John Chernoff, a scholar of West African

drumming, has observed: “the most fundamental aesthetic in Africa is that without

participation, there is no meaning” (Chernoff, 1979, p. 23).

……the arts in ceremonial contexts have very many functions identity feasibility life cycles, relief of stress foster cooperation maintain social harmony etc etc…..

………so they question a neuroaesthetic approach to art….

…….they suggest instead a not in of the arts as ‘things that people do’……..

We suggest that it is profitable to consider the arts not as objects (paintings,

songs), qualities of objects (beauty, consonance), cues to sensory-cognitive preferences,

or passive registrations of sensory/cognitive stimuli, but as behaviors of

artification—things that people do. Over several decades, one of us [ED] has gradually

refined such a concept (Dissanayake, 1988, 1992, 2000, in press). Artification

(originally called “making special”) refers to the universally observed penchant

of human individuals (and groups) to “make ordinary reality extraordinary”

(Dissanayake, 1992, p. 49).

ritualisation as part of art

…..ritualisation and artification……….

Briefly, ritualized

behaviors are communicative displays that take ordinary, unremarkable behaviors

drawn from everyday life (e.g., preening, nest building, pecking for food) and use

them in an altered manner and novel context in order to communicate something

entirely different from their original source

…altered by a)simplified – formalised stereotyped or patterned b)repeated c) exaggerated d) elaborated e) manipulation of expectation

These alterations or operations

serve to attract attention to and sustain interest in the new message, which is often

concerned with aggression or courtship.

……….they make the point that artification (the things enumerated above) has not only an aesthetic effect but also a cognitive one………

mainly to generate a new signification for something compared with

its ordinary meaning or use. For example, ornamentation of objects like weapons or

vessels is a way of giving them special power: the placement of a crucifix in a new

church is a way of sanctifying and protecting it, and the utterance of special texts like

prayers or incantations is a way of making contact with remote deities. Hence, the

emphases that underlie the “alterations” of artification involve not only changes

in context or performance properties such as repetition and exaggeration but include

cognitive changes in the signification and function of an object or event. Arts

behaviors are among the most important mechanisms that link ritual practices with

cognitive belief systems

note that interactions between mother and child rely on features of ratification mothers

….diss says that this coordinated dibasic behaviour evolved because od ‘the obstetric dilemma’ of 2 million years ago with bipedalism = narrower pelvis conflicted with enlarged brains and skulls……..


(2000; in press) suggests that human sensitivity to and competence for the operations

of artification originated phylogenetically in evolved interactions between ancestral

mothers and their immature infants.

…..need for a theory of emotion……

……….brown/diss define emotions….:

responses to events or objects in the environment,

driven by appraisals of goodness or badness

strongly tied to goaldriven

motivational states important for survival,

….also focus and BET….


……….four foci outcomes objects agency social interaction

2) Objects. The second category deals with valenced reactions to the aspects of

objects and events. Importantly for this volume, it is this category that comprises the

aesthetic emotions, spanning the range from liking/attraction to disliking/disgust.

This is also the category that is invoked when people discuss preferences and taste.

Hence, feelings of aesthetic attraction, whether for a face, a food item, a melody, or a

building, fall into this category, as do negative-valenced counterparts such as hate

and disgust. Regarding neuroaesthetics, it is telling that the basic emotion theory

does not contain a positive-valenced aesthetic term (e.g., attraction, liking, love),

only the negative-valenced emotion of disgust.

Aesthetic emotions are unquestionably an integral part of the arts, but they are

neither necessary nor sufficient to characterize them. Thus, a narrow focus on

aesthetic responses is ultimately a distraction from the larger picture of what the arts

are about. Finally, to the extent that the arts are perceived as rewarding, this is not so

only because artworks are appealing objects. There is a wide variety of rewarding

emotions that occur when people create and experience art apart from simply

object-based emotions, including the pleasure of social communion and the moral

zeal of common cause.

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