Benson, Ciarán: Acts Not Tracts! Why a Complete Psychology of Art and Identity Must Be Neuro-cultural

In Roald, T. and Lang, J. (eds). 2012. Art and Identity: Essays on the Aesthetic Creation of Mind. Amsterdam, NewYork: Rodopi.

I. Acts Not Tracts! Why a Complete Psychology of Art and Identity Must Be Neuro-cultural

Ciarán Benson

University College Dublin

The act … and not the [association] tract is the fundamental datum in both social and individual psychology…, and it has both an inner and an outer phase, an internal and an external aspect. (George Herbert Mead 1934: 8)

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.
(Eliel Saarinen, Time Magazine, July 2, 1950)

Nature provides the ‘can’, but culture and language provide the ‘may’ and ‘must.’ (Rom Harré 1993: 5)

The great British literary critic Frank Kermode once asked why we represent a clock as going ‘tick-tock’ when it is actually going ‘tick-tick.’ On this observation he built an argument about human beings’ compulsion to organize experience into beginnings and, even more strongly, into endings. The ‘tick’ of the clock was for Kermode ‘a humble genesis’; the ‘tock,’ on the other hand, was a ‘feeble apocalypse’! From the days of the Gestalt Psychologists there has been a fascination with the variety of ways in which the ‘forward movement’ of subjective experience is organized, whether spontaneously due to the ways in which brains have evolved, or under the active control of a culturally constituted person. The imaging techniques of neuroscience are helping to deepen our understanding of how subjectivity is managed by the brain. The problem of how intersubjectivity is organized, however, is currently less amenable to these technologies. This is especially so in the case of the psychology of art. Because experiences with art are, as John Dewey (1934) argued, the most complete kind of experience—recruiting, as it does, sensation, perception, conception, judgment, emotion, memory, imagination, personal idiosyncrasy, cultural tradition, etc.—the making and the reception of ‘Art’ is therefore likely to be the most testing ground for the adequacy of any psychology’s ontology. But what is the nature of the phenomena to be studied, and what particular categories best assist the inquiry?
A strikingly obvious feature of subjectivity, and of inter-subjectivity, is the apparent seamlessness or unity of the ways in which many different neural capacities are bound together into ongoing, interwoven, subject-centered fields of consciousness. Since William James, words like ‘stream’ are routinely used to indicate the forward movement of such fields of consciousness, particularly when considered from the point of view of their subjects (James, 1890). The degree to which a person is not engaging in centering reflection for passages of that stream has, on the other hand, been described using words like ‘absorption’ (Dewey 1934; Benson 1993, 2001) or ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 2008). When the experience is ‘aesthetic,’ in John Dewey’s sense of that term, then absorption is one of its symptoms.

We should remember that ‘experience’ for Dewey is not the same as is currently understood by that word. Contemporary usage tends to emphasize the subjective or private aspect whereas, for Dewey, experience is both subjective and objective and is to be understood as ‘relational.’ Experience is always temporally extended. Subject and object together produce experience. In this sense, it is a suitably equipped subject aesthetically engaging with an ‘art object’ that together generate the ‘work of art.’ The ‘work of art’ is an outcome in time of the dynamic give-and-take between a subject and an ‘art object/event.’ Late in his life Dewey wondered whether, instead of trying to recover and defend this understanding of ‘experience,’ he would have been better off using and developing the concept of ‘culture.’ The course of experience/culture has both public and private phases.
In this view, experience streams, sometimes as a subjective phase, sometimes as an objective phase, which can in time achieve its own kind of ‘form.’ This form is one that unfolds over time with a beginning and a conclusion or, as the Pragmatists would say, a con-summation. Dewey himself tried to describe this idea of ‘form’ using the everyday idiom of English-speaking communities where people speak of an exceptional passage of experience as ‘An’ experience, as when, after hearing a great jazz trio, we might say “Now that was an experience!” A challenge for art theory, art criticism and for the psychology of art is to describe the elements and form of such experience well. As the title of Dewey’s great work on art alerts us, we should think of art as experience, not in our contemporary subjectivistic sense, but in the more complex relational sense that Dewey, vainly as it turns out, argued for (Dewey 1934). If the phenomena of Deweyan experience are to be studied over time, then the question of ontology has to be addressed. What aspects of these experiential phenomena are to be abstracted out for attention, or thematized, and what concepts can be usefully deployed by the psychology of art to study them?

The three epigraphs at the beginning of this chapter summarize the three particular elements I want to review and connect in this chapter. First, a psychology which is fit for purpose when describing and explaining the delightful, or confrontational, complexities of ‘Art’ must, to paraphrase the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, take account of the ‘nested hierarchies’ of action, act and obligation which form human psychological lives. Two kinds of hierarchy need to be distinguished here. A ‘non-nested’ hierarchy is, like an army command, vertical, or top-down, with control descending from the higher to the lower reaches. It has a top and a bottom. A nested hierarchy, on the other hand, is one in which all higher levels of the hierarchy are physically composed of elements at the lower levels, but with the higher levels having emergent properties not present in lower levels. Elements fit inside other elements, with no top or bottom. Living organisms are such nested hierarchies, and I suggest it is helpful to think of acts as being too, in the sense of the term used by Rom Harré (1993). Second, a key concept in the project of constructing a neuro-cultural psychology of art must be this currently neglected idea of ‘an act.’ Third, that project must also incorporate a normative account of human psychological life.
I believe that a neuro-cultural synthesis is the primary challenge facing psychological theory. As Harré (1993: 1) has long argued, “human psychology is best understood as coming into existence in the enormously variable discursive or symbolic interactions of persons, grounded in a common biological inheritance.” The psycho-logy of art, of all psychologies, must be cultural-historical as well as biological and neural. A neuro-cultural account would be a synthesis of both these strands of inquiry. This is a vast project for which we will need an appropriate conceptual armory. The appeal of the concept of an ‘act,’ much neglected by contemporary psychology, lies in its potential to contribute significantly to unifying the conceptual domains of the neural and the cultural.

Before proceeding further, let me offer some further clarifi- cations about my position on the idea of ‘art.’ As to what we should understand the word ‘Art’ to mean I follow Ernst Gombrich who, in his classic The Story of Art (1950) wrote that, “There really is no such thing as art, there are only artists.” By this he meant to revive and defend earlier usages when the word “signified any skill or mastery” as it still does when we speak of the “Art of War,” or the “Art of Love.” Decades later he clarified this further by pointing out that skill never exists in the abstract. On the contrary, skill is always “for something.”

For Gombrich that ‘something’ was, in the case of ‘Art,’ image-making. As it happens, this is an idea that contemporary art practices have overtaken. ‘Artists’ are today doing and making things that would seem bizarre by the standards of traditional ‘Art,’ even in 1950. Some kinds of contemporary art—such as ‘conceptual art,’ ‘installation art,’ ‘performance art,’ etc.—have turned away from ‘image-making’ per se. The implication of this is that psychologies of art will, of necessity, always trail behind contemporary art practices. In this context it is worth remembering Nelson Goodman’s (1978) argument for replacing the question “What is ‘Art’?” with the more productive formulation “When is ‘Art’?”

There is one final distinction to be made before proceeding. This is between what I want to call psychologies of ‘can’ as distinct from psychologies of ‘may’ (Harré 1993). This will become clearer in what follows but, in essence, it concerns the difference between accounts of the neural, physical, or cognitive capacities necessary for psychological functions, as distinct from the culturally and histori-cally shaped reasons given for, and governing, the exercise of those particular functions by the persons performing them. The study of capacities, of how it is that human beings can do some things but not others, has been a major concern of modern psychology. Differential psychology has focused on measuring differences in capacity (aptitudes, abilities, and attainments), developmental psychology has looked at the origination of capabilites, and so on. Contemporary psychologies of art tend to be preoccupied with neuroscientific and cognitive viewpoints which seek to describe and explain the necessary conditions for seeing color, for instance, or for finding illusion compelling. In essence, they explore how our seeing is shaped by neural infrastructure in dialogue with what is constructed for our attention by artists. These are orthodoxies, of great value but necessarily limited when facing the complexities of actual art practices in situ. This is what I mean by a psychology of ‘can.’ A psychology of ‘may,’ in contrast, would be one whose phenomena are fundamentally social in construction, normative in practice, and concerned with the personal making of meaning as opposed to the impersonal processing of information, in the sense outlined by Jerome Bruner (1990).

To summarize so far: I will argue, using concrete examples from different eras of art, that cognitive and neuroscientific psychologies of art are psychologies of ‘can,’ that social ‘act’ psychologies are psychologies of ‘may,’ and that a neuro-cultural psychology of art would be a synthesis of both.

1. Acts, Art, and ‘Why’ Questions: Peter Rubens and Anselm Kiefer as Examples
To clarify this distinction between ‘may’ and ‘can’ I will use some examples. The contribution of cognitive psychology and neuro-science to understanding art is not in question. My concentration is on what, from the perspective of a more complete psychology of art, they necessarily miss. To facilitate this argument for what would further need to be taken into account, let me briefly elaborate a few examples. In these cases I will draw upon art-historical and art-critical perspectives in order to fill out what seems to me to be a key question: What is it that Artist A is doing when s/he is making Work X? My examples reflect interests of my own, and the reader could substitute any others.

Between 1611 and 1615, Rubens painted The Death of Seneca. The scene is the final moments of the great Roman Stoic’s life as he struggles ineffectually to commit suicide under the orders of his former pupil, the emperor Nero. Applying our question to this work—what was Rubens doing when he was painting The Death of Seneca?—it is obvious that he was working simultaneously on many levels. He was manipulating pigments, brushes, canvas etc. in a constant, focused, and critical transaction over time with emerging marks on canvas. He was deploying all his knowledge of composition, color, perspective, line, form, and so on, to achieve a thematically chosen outcome. In doing these sorts of things he was utilizing his brain in all the ways necessary to successfully achieve the final look of the work. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience greatly enrich our understanding of how a human being can do things like this by, for instance, mapping the modular structure of the visual cortex and the temporal sequences and patterns by which visual stimuli are processed by the brain. The work of cognitive psychologists like Robert Solso and neuroscientists like Semir Zeki, both of whose ideas I use below, helps us understand the visual capacities of artists and spectators. But are these analyses of capacity sufficient to explain why an artist does what s/he does, and why they do it in this particular way rather than in some other way? Is the making and receiving of art not also a normative engagement involving the complex processes of selfhood and identity, of meaning and culture?

As a simple matter of fact this latter question tends not to be treated in contemporary cognitive or neuroscientific accounts of art and experience, beyond the rather superficial repetitions of evolutionary-psychological accounts to do with mate selection, status, and so on. To answer ‘why’ questions more convincingly one has to turn to cultural-historical perspectives of a kind that struggle to be heard in competition with current psychological orthodoxies. In the case of Rubens’ The Death of Seneca, how do art historians answer the question of what he was doing when he painted that work? Rubens had seen a restored black marble Roman statue while he lived in Italy between 1600 and 1608. It is now thought to have represented an African fisherman. The genitals are clearly depicted on the statue. Back in Antwerp, Rubens began transforming this image, of which he had made a number of drawings, into the flesh and blood depiction of the dying Seneca. But in doing so he made a number of changes which, tellingly, indicate another level of answer to the ‘why’ question. Here is what Rose-Marie Hagen and Rainer Hagen write:

Rubens was a Catholic and was familiar with Lipsius’s (Seneca’s Dutch translator) view of Seneca, so he painted the philosopher in the attitude of a Christlike martyr. […] Rubens lowered the angle of the head a little, but also emphasized the heavenward gaze and gave the thinker a larger forehead, a forehead that gleams as if with enlightenment in the last minutes of his life. (2005: 314-19)

The Hagens go on to say that Rubens assimilated the depicted figure of Seneca to his contemporary code of decency by lengthening the original wrap around the fisherman’s waist into a loincloth that covered Seneca’s genitals. More significantly, since suicide was not an option for a Christian martyr, and therefore unlikely to commend the figure of Seneca to potential Christian admirers, Rubens solved the problem by having an attendant cut Seneca’s veins rather than Seneca doing it himself, as had been recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus.

To return once again to the question, ‘What was Rubens doing when he was painting this picture?’ we can now answer in more abstract social act terms, informed by cultural-historical studies, and say that he was in fact inducting the exemplary Roman Stoic Seneca into the Christian pantheon of heroes. Is this the best answer to the ‘why’ question? If it is, then what further psychological perspectives would we need to add in order to achieve a more complete account if not social-psychological ones which utilize the concept of ‘an act’?

Here is one further recent example to reinforce this point. Kiefer showed his powerful, dark, suffocating painting Sulamith in 1982. From the post-war generation, Kiefer’s work grapples with the legacy of the post-Nazi era in a transformed Germany. Just as Rubens drew on the work of a Roman artist, so Kiefer built on a poem by Paul Celan, while also recruiting the work of the Nazi-era architect Wilhelm Kreis.

Celan wrote:

Death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
He strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
A man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
He sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany
Your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamith
(Excerpt from Celan’s Todesfuge/Death Fugue [1952], tr. M. Hamburger 2007)

The densely painted vault that is ‘Sulamith’—in oppressive blacks, browns, blues, and lines of white—is borrowed from the funerary crypt of the Soldier’s Hall built in Berlin in 1939 by Wilhelm Kreis. Using traditional linear perspective, Kiefer relentlessly draws the eye toward the vanishing point which now has the flames of the Jewish menorah burning quietly away, as in a Holocaust crematorium. In the top left hand corner is inscribed the name of the emblematic Jewess from Celan, ‘Sulamith.’ Once again, we can point to the neural and cognitive-psychological conditions which must be fulfilled for a painting such as this to be made and perceived and, in answering the question ‘What was Kiefer doing when he was making Sulamith?’ we can answer in terms of how he was fulfilling these conditions neurally and cognitively. But clearly there is much more to answering this question, and that again requires the concept of a social act.

Daniel Arasse (2001), for example, argues that Kiefer’s ‘quoting’ of Kreis’s 1939 Soldier’s Hall in Berlin is an act which furthers a ‘therapy of memory.’ It enables him to transmute the Nazi cult of the dead into a powerful memorial for their Holocaust victims. This is intelligible only within a cultural-historical perspective.

In the case of the Rubens’ above we have an instance of an artist suturing one tradition into another whereas in Kiefer’s case we have something similar but for quite opposite purposes. These, surely, must be aspects of art-making which a more complete psychology of art needs to claim as legitimate parts of its territory.

To further emphasize why we need to recover the concept of a social act for a more rounded psychology of art I now want to briefly consider the work of Zeki, specifically his account of what he understands the great Russian Suprematist painter Kasimir Malevich to be doing when he moved to abstraction in mid-career. Let me stress at the outset that I find work like Zeki’s illuminating, and have learnt much from it. Part of Zeki’s contribution to the argument for a more complete psychology of art is, paradoxically, what his neuro-aesthetic account is compelled to leave out. Zeki clarifies why it is that what certain artists, such as the Fauves, want to accomplish cannot be achieved because of the limiting nature of visual cortical functioning. Work like his helps us to understand the significance of the constraints imposed by neural capacities. Equally, it indicates what more is needed conceptually if a fuller, neuro-cultural psycho-logy of art is to be achieved.

2. Neuro-aesthetic and Cultural-historical Approaches to Malevich: A Contrast
In his book Inner Vision Zeki argues “that no theory of aesthetics which does not have strong biological foundations is likely to be complete, let alone profound” (1999: 217). He is, however, rightly cautious about the explanatory reach of his neurological perspective and is clear that “it is almost impossible to say anything beyond the most general about the relationship between brain physiology and the perception of some of the more complex, narrative and represent-tational works, which is why I say less about them” (2), and that “We have little knowledge of what brain areas are involved in the powerful subjective feelings that the painting arouses, or how these brain areas interact to give us the overall impression of the painting” (181). Yet it is in precisely these areas of narrative, emotion, and action, and in the cultural-historical circumstances that shape them, that ‘Art’ does its work, and for which we must find ways of incorporating, and nesting, neural perspectives into cultural-historical ones.

Malevich is a key artist for Zeki’s argument for the biology of abstract art. At first sight the ‘abstract’ art of Malevich might seem like a perfect choice for a neurology concerned with identifying and investigating those parts of the visual cortex that specialize in processing lines, angles, colors, forms, faces, or movement. Apparently shorn of all narrative and representation, Malevich’s abstractions appear to be tailored to the capacities of specific visual cortical regions. Yet, considered as productions nesting within wider cultural-historical acts, Malevich’s abstractions are intimately con-nected to specific narratives and values which are, in turn, served by those pared-down geometrical forms, but which are in no way free of them.

Zeki argues that the function of art is the search for constancies, and that this is also the function of the brain: “The function of art is thus an extension of the function of the brain—the seeking of knowledge in an ever-changing world” (1999: 12). But there is more to art than this. It also involves the creation of knowledge and of novel experiences which move from person to person and from group to group, via the expressive power of such creations and the networks into which they are embedded. No account of solitary brain function can account for this dimension of art. Because of this a psychology of art will only be intelligible, and profound, once it is based not simply on the workings of the brain, but on the workings of enculturated brains working collectively, and dialogically engaged with, and shaped by, their objectifications.
For Zeki, and for many neuroscientists, the concept of ‘a person’ and that of ‘a brain’ tend to be conflated. He writes: “That painters experiment is common knowledge. That they do so by working and re-working a painting until it achieves a desirable effect, until it pleases them, which is the same thing as saying until it pleases their brains” (1999: 30). This is a less than obvious proposition, but not one to be pursued here. The heart of his argument concerning artists is that they have inadvertently tailored their work to characteristics of specific brain physiology whose functioning is being revealed by neuroscientists. Kinetic artists, for example, have in their work discovered and used characteristics of the physiology of area V5. Fauvists, in discovering that color cannot be liberated from form—our brains won’t allow that—solved this problem artistically by investing forms with colors not usually associated with them (e.g., André Derain’s green Houses of Parliament, red Thames, and so on).

In the case of Malevich, it is Zeki’s contention that his new forms—lines, squares, rectangles are admirably suited to stimulate cells in the visual cortex, and the properties of these cells are, to an extent, the pre-existing ‘idea’ within us. While one cannot draw an exact causal relationship between the two, one can state with certainty that when we look at the paintings of Malevich, many cells in our brains … will be responding vigorously. One can also state the converse, that if cells in the brain did not respond to this kind of stimulus, then this kind of art would not exist. (1999: 124-125)

In essence, Zeki argues that artists like Malevich tailor their work to the capacities of specialized areas of the brain without knowing it. But still the question arises: is such ‘tailoring’ an act, or is it a precondition for an act whose ontology transcends individual brain functioning? Without cells specializing in orientation, and cells specializing in rectangular colored receptive fields, Malevich could not make the art he did, nor could we visually appreciate it without the same kinds of cell. To understand that it is cells in the V2, V3, and V4 complexes that are recruited here does advance our understanding of the neural underpinnings of what is happening when we make and experience elements of art like these. But this raises more questions. Did Malevich make that art simply because he had the neural capacity to do so, because he could? Was that all that he was doing? If not, how are we to think about what else he was doing when he was engaging these highly specialized modules in the visual cortex?

Malevich’s period of abstraction was necessarily short-lived, and was sandwiched between figurative phases that began and ended his working life. His revolutionary Black Square (1915), and other Suprematist works, helped change the course of art history, and this revolutionary turn became bound up with the political upheaval of the Russian revolution. Cultural-historical accounts of Malevich, however, of the kind one finds in John Golding (2000) or in T. J. Clark (1999) tell quite a different story of what it was that Malevich was doing during his revolutionary mid-career turn to ‘abstraction.’ The narrative sequence of events that leads to understanding Malevich’s radical turn to the non-representational in art is inextricably woven into the cultural-historical fabric of the early decades of the twentieth century in Russia. This can best be understood in psychological terms by the use of terms like ‘act.’

Readers can pursue this intriguing story more fully in the references, but here are a few points that should make us cautious in interpreting Malevich’s work as just pure ‘abstraction’ designed to stimulate specific receptive fields in the visual cortex.

In an insightful chapter titled “Malevich and the Ascent into Ether,” John Golding reflects on Malevich’s entry into abstraction through a preoccupation with the human body, his belief in ideal proportion, and his obsession with the mystic properties of geometry. Golding stresses the significance of Malevich painting in a square format and the fact that he spoke of his Black Square of 1915 using facial imagery. The revolutions in art that were taking place in Paris—notably Pablo Picasso’s cubism—were filtering back to artists in Russia and, although often misunderstood, greatly influenced artists like Malevich. Malevich was formed by Russian culture and when he exhibited his radical new work in Petrograd on December 30, 1915, of central significance was his placing of the painting of the black square. He hung it where an icon would normally hang, high across the corner of the room. Malevich’s revolution in art was to be understood as a spiritual revolution.

That painting was accompanied by text, and that text showed influences as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche, Walt Whitman, Henri Bergson, M.V. Lodyzhenski, and the American architect Claude Bragdon, whose book, Man the Square (1912), greatly influenced theosophy. The writings of P. D. Uspensky on the idea of a fourth dimension beyond the space of sensory perception, further influenced Malevich and led him to think about the scientific and the mystical aspects of geometry. There is much more to be said here but the main point is this: the clean geometrical lines of mid-career Malevich were deeply embedded in a welter of ideas and aspirations of the time. The purity of his abstraction cannot be understood apart from them. Whatever Malevich was doing, he was doing much more than inadvertently finding ways to stimulate his visual cortex.
Golding locates the precise origin of The Black Square in stage sets that Malevich designed for a futurist opera in 1913 called Victory Over the Sun. The set for the coffin into which the dead sun is laid is a black square, and its pallbearers have black squares on their chests and hats, not unlike the art students with Malevich in the photograph in Vitebsk after the 1917 revolution. His abstraction was further interlocked with ideas of flight (planes were now a visible part of warfare) and, to the mystically-inclined Malevich, flight was associated with the idea of release from weight. There is clearly more to his ‘abstraction’ than mere geometry; his focus, as Golding remarks, was on infinity, on ideas of ‘unbounded space’ beyond the knowledge of man. In the years after 1917 Malevich tried to harness his ideas to the movement of the Russian Revolution. His later Suprematist paintings “are signs, messages, pictorial planets, emanating from the artist’s skull … directed out through infinite space toward some ultimate, unknowable Godhead” (Golding 2000: 76).

Needless to say, this mystical dimension to his work failed the test of the newly emerging orthodoxy of Social Realism. Malevich’s return to figuration after 1923, with his peasants and sportsmen, ostensibly seems to move toward this new thematic political imperative but, to an eye familiar with his Suprematist work, the operative word is “seems.” In later portraits, such as of his wife, his signature has become a black square!
Malevich’s Black Square is an act of iconic rupture from a Russian-Orthodox Christian tradition, just as Rubens’ The Death of Seneca, or Kiefer’s Sulamith, can be understood as acts of iconic suture. None of these works could possibly be explained or described ade

quately in neuro-scientific psychological terms alone, but all could be well described and explained in neuro-cultural psycho-logical terms of which a central term would be that of an ‘act,’ and more specifically a social act.To recap, the claims so far are that psychologies of ‘can’ are nested in psychologies of ‘may’; that each has a different ontology; and that an adequate psychology of art requires both. It is time now to review the concept of an act in the recent history of psychology, and of its philosophical cognates.

3. Some Background for the Concept of the ‘Act’ in the Recent History of Psychology
Of necessity, contemporary neuroscience is thus far utterly individualistic. It focuses, as it must given the current state of imaging technologies, on individual brains. But the rest of psycho-logy tells us how fully embedded human beings are in social groups and networks, and how their identities are constituted by their positioning, and inter-actions, within those social networks. The future of a fuller psychology must lie in giving accounts of the creativity of networked, inter-acting people. In other psychological traditions this is known as inter-subjectivity.

The indices of textbooks are often very instructive in being records of significant absences. Psychology textbooks are no exception. What has fallen into, and out of, the indices of psychology textbooks tells us a huge amount about the state of the field at key points over the last century and a half. The fate of words like mind, consciousness, feeling, and emotion, to take just four, make that point forcefully.

You will search a long time for a contemporary psychology textbook that contains an extended entry on the word ‘act.’ Histories of psychology tend not to thematize the act (an exception is McNeill, 1968). Yet the importance of concepts (they are quite diverse) of an ‘act’ can be seen across the board in different European, Russian, and Anglo-American philosophical traditions in the twentieth century.

Here, for example, is a selected list of theorists for whom some version of an ‘act’ is central to their accounts of experience, selfhood, or art: Franz Brentano (1838-1917), Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), J. L. Austin (1911-1960), John Searle (1932-), Kenneth Burke (1897-1993), Susanne Langer (1895-1985), Jerome Bruner (1915-), Rom Harré (1927-), Jurgen Habermas (1929) and Charles Altieri (1942-).

All of these thinkers were grappling with ontological questions concerning what an adequate human psychology should be. More specifically, they were interested in questions concerning the temporality of consciousness, whether from a first or from a third person perspective, and more particularly still with formulating basic units of analysis for an adequate psychology, namely ones that could encapsulate both neural/brain and social/cultural-historical dynamics, units that could deal with both private and public psychological processes as they are constituted over time and as they engage other people.

There are deliberate, humanly created design features to our shared social lives, as well as attributes which emerge more casually from processes of bricolage. Any study of social-psychological transactions immediately faces questions about which level of complexity to abstract for attention—the chair in the room, the room in the house, and so on—and whether the available conceptual languages are fit for that task.

Acts transcend separate, individual agents while at the same time integrating them into working social units. This is an achievement of the concept. At a time when the potential dominance of, for want of a better phrase, neural individualism, threatens to curtail the scope of academic psychology, the concept of ‘act’ offers an opportunity to think productively in terms of networked brains, networked consciousnesses, and the cultures which are their creation. If we think of the power of social networks to shape individual conduct and subjectivity then, to use a metaphor, acts might be understood as the nodal synapses of these networks.

The idea of an act developed in parallel in America, Europe, and Russia. In America, pragmatists like Dewey and Mead made the act central to their philosophical-psychological theories of self and society. More recently in the US, literary critics like Burke and Altieri have productively deployed ideas of the act, as has the psychologist Bruner (cf. Bruner 1990; Burke 1969; Altieri 1981). Mead’s prescient call, now more than 80 years old, for acts not (brain) tracts to be the basic units for a unified social and individual psychology of self and others, is still valid and necessary.

In continental Europe an idea of the act was central to the work of Brentano, to the phenomenology of his student Husserl, and to the social phenomenology of Schutz. Schutz considered mapping acts onto verbs. Austin also had this idea and conjectured that the number of verbs might be as many as 10 to the power of 3. Schutz understood ‘action’ as behavior to which a subjective meaning is attached. The task of the social sciences was to be interpretive, to understand the subjective meanings of social action. Following Husserl and Bergson’s idea of ‘the stream of consciousness/lived experience’ (Erlebnisse), Schutz argued that experience acquired meaning by virtue of acts that turned inwards, via acts, that is, of reflection, recognition, identification, and so on. The temporal dimensions of experience were for Schutz, just as they were for Mead, crucial for the human sciences.
More recently, the concept of an act, particularly communicative acts, plays a pivotal role in the philosophy of Habermas. In Russia, Vygotsky and the young Bakhtin also gave prominence to ideas of the act.

A more idiosyncratic conception of the act is to be found playing a pivotal role in the late work of the American philosopher of art, and follower of Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer. The concept of an ‘act’ is central to Langer’s three-volume magnum opus, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (1967, 1972, 1982). Langer judged artists to be experts in pre-scientific knowing and she set herself to explore the biological roots of artistic thinking. The direction of her inquiry was substantially downwards, so to speak, into the biological roots that, in evolution, ultimately led to consciousness, which she understood as ‘feeling.’ I will not be arguing for Langer’s concept of an act as such except in one respect. In volume 3 we find that, for her, the act of ‘assertion’ is a primary act of mind, an affirmation of self. To jump ahead to the final section of this chapter, this idea ties in well with the notion that the deployment of the first person pronoun (‘I’ in English) is always part of acts that tie actions to self as a responsibility-taking, self-locating author.

While all of the above thinkers have insights to offer on how concepts of an act can advance our understanding of the psychology of art, I want to draw attention for present purposes to the work of Harré (1993) and his formulation of a social act. Harré’s version of the act is indebted to Wittgenstein, and to the English philosopher Austin whose work on ‘speech acts’ was subsequently developed by philosophers like Searle.
Where is a social act? In Mead’s thinking a social act is one which begins within an organism, and which then requires its completion in the actions of others. For him the basic act is a social act. This is one that involves “the co-operation of more than one individual” (Mead 1938/1972: viii). The individual act is an abstracted part of such a social act. In Harré’s terms we might say that acts belong to particular ‘irreducible relational systems’ (1993: 61-62). He writes that, “The interactions of everyday life are … orderly sequences of meaningful actions” (56) and that “Rules and narrative conventions … are amongst the tools or means that people use to create and maintain order in their joint productions” (56).

The distinctiveness of movements, actions, and acts “derives from the embedding of the same neutral core existent in three distinct and irreducible relational systems” (Harré 1993: 61-62). Harré summarized his idea of what constitutes the elements of a social act in the form of a nested hierarchy where “Actions are the meanings of movements and utterances, Acts are the meanings of actions, and Commitments and expectations are the meanings of acts” (74; for an early study of the nested structure of acts in ‘scripts’ cf. Schank and Abelson 1977). For example, a person may move their head in a nodding way; that movement takes on a specific meaning when it is nested in the action of ‘bidding’; that action becomes a bid when it is nested into the act of bidding at an auction where it finds its completion as a social act when it is taken by the auctioneer; that social act finds its meaning as part of the commitment and expectations that make up the cultural script which tells each player how to behave at this event called an auction. This is normative and is an example of what Harré means when he writes: “Nature provides the ‘can’, but culture and language provide the ‘may’ and ‘must’” (Harré 1993: 5).

A social psychology of art, shaped by this normative notion of an act, would be a psychology of ‘may.’ Harré argues that all human social activity can be understood as consisting of two main kinds of performance. The first kind is where people perform actions that find their meaning by being nested into acts performed in socially recognized episodes. The second kind is where people then speak about what they do. They give accounts of their actions in order to ensure that the act/action performances are given a particular meaning, one that signifies a rational person. His argument is that both kinds of performance stem from a single system of social knowledge, a system from which our rules of action are derived in the first place, and the principles by which they are to be interpreted (Harré 1993: 98).

Let us apply these ideas to one final example. Earlier I mentioned that the ways in which art practices have changed over the last sixty years since Gombrich insisted that there is no ‘Art,’ only artists and that image-making is the work of ‘Art,’ would puzzle and perhaps enrage many a traditional art historian. These new practices might also bewilder a psychologist of art whose perspective was ex-clusively a psychology of ‘can.’ My suggestion is that a psychology of ‘can,’ nested in a psychology of ‘may,’ is more open to these innovations in art while losing none of its applicability to the persisting streams of more traditional art making. This is because it accepts questions of meaning in art as legitimate and necessary for psychology. There is no good reason why the psychology of art should cede normative questions of meaning to other disciplines.

In the examples of Rubens and Kiefer above I looked at artists borrowing from other artists while grappling with the traditions and cultural-historical periods from which they emerged. But what of an artist thieving from another artist, and making that very act of theft the centre of her work? How can a psychology for which the concept of an act is central—in Harré’s sense—address a work of ‘conceptual’ art?

4. How a Social Act Psychology Can Keep Pace with Contemporary Art Practices: Roisin Byrne’s Look What You Made Me Do

Conceptual Art presents the psychology of art with interesting challenges. Toward the end of the 2000 German tax year the artist Jochem Hendrick finalized his calculation for his annual income tax, and noted what he owed when all exemptions were deducted. He subsequently took that sum and had it converted into its value in a gold bar. He then called this bar a sculpture and titled it Tax. Doing this allowed him to claim back the cost of the material, gold, as working material for art! This allowed him to keep his outstanding tax. What, then, was Hendrick doing when he did that? Keeping what belonged to the German revenue authorities? Challenging current conceptions of ‘Art’?

In 2009, Byrne exhibited her postgraduate work for Goldsmiths College in London. She called it Look What You Made Me Do. This consisted of a 24 carat 10 gram Degussa gold bar, a pay form belonging to the artist Mr Jochem Hendrick, a book, a postcard, and email correspondence, all presented for inspection in a room. This work had a history. Late in 2008 Byrne contacted Hendrick by email, expressed her admiration for his work, offered her services as an assistant in London should he need one, and gave him some information about herself. There followed further email correspond-dence and a trip to London by Hendrick to give an invited lecture at Goldsmiths. On returning to Germany after the lecture, he wrote requesting that Byrne arrange a signature so that he could claim his expenses for the trip. Byrne then wrote an email which contained the following:

I should tell you though that when I received your payment form back in February I was caught between a rock and a hard place. At the time I felt I had to use it as a piece of work. On the form I substituted your bank details for mine (sic) and acquired a 24 carat Degussa Feingold 10 Gram Gold Bar with your earnings, the beginnings of what would eventually be a copy of one of my favourite works of yours. The question that keeps nagging me though seems to be whether now this work is yours or mine.

How do you make a conceptual artist angry? Well, you could try stealing his concept! Roisin Byrne has emerged as the star of the BBC4 series Goldsmiths: But Is It Art? Her work is calculated to make artists themselves rage, like many puzzled citizens who find contemporary art baffling. She herself says that her primary interest is in ‘ownership.’ In an interview with the Chief Arts Correspondent of the London Evening Standard, Byrne was reported as saying that “I would hope that people would think about ideas of authorship and authenticity and desiring luxury goods that we’re all obsessing over. It’s robbery, it’s consumption.” In a statement responding to this publicity, Goldsmiths College added: “An ethical review process is in place to ensure students and tutors are protected from engaging in actions that might bring harm upon them, the public or the college. It is, however, unusual for a tutor to subject a student to an ethical review prior to the execution of a work. This discourages innovation” (quoted in Dury, 2010).

A psychology of this kind of ‘Art’ must be aware of the normative practices of contemporary Western culture and of Art’s often challenging relationship to them. In asking what Byrne is doing when she does a work like Look What You Made Me Do, we are inevitably led to ask further questions to do with the relationship between art and ethics, for example. Is Byrne’s work asking whether artists are free from Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative (“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”)? Is Byrne universalizing Hendrick’s actions and thereby hoisting him with his own petard? And why is it that what she does make us laugh? Surely work like this shows the limitations of traditional, individualistic psychologies of ‘can’ and moves us emphatically toward a more inclusive psychology of ‘may’?

5. Art, Acts, and Selfhood: A Summary
What has all this to do with art and ‘self’ or ‘identity,’ given the general theme of this book? I have used the examples from Rubens and Kiefer, from Malevich and Byrne to make the case that a psychology adequate to the highly complex, ever-changing world of art would need to be an integration of psychologies that explain the neuro-psychological bases for the capacities we use to make and receive art, and psychologies adept in explaining normative social conduct where some actions are permitted and celebrated while others are constrained and prohibited. For the ideal of that synthesis I used the term ‘neuro-cultural.’ Secondary to that main argument, but central to a wider focus on art, as considered in this book, are the problems that arise from recognizing that self, identity, and art comprise a rich nexus of connections. Here are some brief reflections on the connectedness of these ideas using the same examples I have relied upon throughout the chapter.

Concepts of self and concepts of art are inextricable if the psychology of art we aim for is to be a synthesis of psychologies of ‘can’ and ‘may.’ There is now a vast literature on concepts of self, and it is beyond our scope to review it here. I will simply present some relevant conclusions about ‘self’ which should be useful for a neuro-cultural psychology of art.

Self is best thought of as a process rather than as a product, as a verb rather than as a noun. The term ‘identity’ comes into play as a part of the process of ‘self’ when questions are asked like ‘Who are you?’ or ‘What are you?’ or ‘Are you the same person now as you were ten years ago?’ Identity is best understood, not as something you have or something you are, but as something you do and have done to you, as something that unfolds as you act in various ways. As the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen (in a novel called A House in Paris) put it: “Who would the Irish be without somebody to be Irish at”!

Different world languages have developed different pronoun systems to satisfy the organizational needs of selfhood and the management of social relations (Muhlhausler and Harré 1993). Pronouns are key constitutive elements in the linguistic construction of self. Linguistically constructed selfhood is founded on a more primal perceptual-motor selfhood which developmentally predates language acquisition, and which comes into play from the very beginning in organizing the infant’s burgeoning field of consciousness.

In the English language, the first person pronoun ‘I’ plays a central role in both personal identity (who I am to myself) and social identity (who I am to and for others). Harré has long argued, as have others, that the first person pronoun ‘I’ is deployed most prominently in acts of self-location (‘I am over here’), acts of authorship (‘I wrote that’), and related acts of responsibility-taking (‘I stole it’) or of responsibility-denying (‘I did not do that’). The words ‘self’ and ‘identity’ are shorthand we use to nominate our complex capacities and tendencies to act more or less coherently and reflexively, and it is these differently organized tendencies to act that distinguish persons and groups from each other.

To be succinct, and necessarily Anglo-centric, acts deploying ‘I’ tend to be nested in acts of assertion, and such acts play an intimate and vital role in people’s sense of themselves and of who they are. (This formulation applies to English. The pronominal systems of other languages, as Harré reminds us, require their own adjustments.) Selfhood and identity are constituted in and by acts of assertion (something Langer recognized), and specifically in and by acts of authorship and ownership, acts of responsibility-taking or responsi-bility-denying (argued by Harré and by Bakhtin 1993), as well as in acts of self-location generally (Benson 2001).
A normal human psychological ‘life’ is a long, but always finite, series of constantly changing subjective states, substantially shaped by successive intentional objects, that is, by objects which are the focus of a subject’s sequenced attention. It is the particular choreo-graphy of subjectivity and intentionality that characterizes the forward-moving stream of consciousness of each and every person’s life, with the balance of influence on what comes next constantly shifting between subject and object. Over time, the interconnections between the vast sequence of subjective states and intentional objects stabilize into both typical and idiosyncratic patterns filtered, edited and reconstructed by memory. Subject and object mutually constitute each other moment-by-moment.

Describing the passage of each subjective moment into its successor is less well served by the idea of a ‘transition,’ I believe, than it is by the notion of a ‘transformation.’ This leads us to think not of transitions of subject and object, but of successions of transforming subject-object relations. ‘Self’—of which a key organizing constituent is ‘the subject’—is the term used to indicate the centering tendencies (they are plural, being a coordination of both perceptual and linguistic systems) at play in organizing the fields of consciousness which subjectivity and intentionality ephemerally coalesce to form.

These ‘fields’ of consciousness are the dance produced by the moment-by-moment responses to each other of subjective state and intentional object. For philosophers like Richard Wollheim (1986) it is the constant dialogue of subjectivity and intentionality that yields phenomenal states. These ‘fields’ of consciousness are not reducible to their constituting parts, but require a descriptive language appropriate to themselves.
In temporal terms, subjectivity is Janus-faced: it gathers up into the present moment elements of its remembered past and, in tandem, it becomes what the current intentional object invites and allows it to become. Intentional objects, in addition to shaping subjectivity, carry with them an entire network of other potential objects—‘worlds’—in which they are themselves enmeshed. Our evolutionary history prepares our readiness to receive—or not—many potential objects whose primary place is in the natural world. Our cultural biography prepares our readiness to assimilate or reject what the collectives we belong to have constructed as significant, or as unworthy of our notice.

It is the constant transaction of a person’s subjective ‘readiness’ and objective ‘affordance’—to add James. J. Gibson’s concept into the story—that are the potential grounds for all creative action. Gibson’s concept of affordance, now part of psychology’s vernacular language, identifies the ways in which information from environ-ments suggest and shape behavior in those environments. It does this by favoring some options for action while simultaneously curtailing others. One kind of rock, for example, might have ‘afforded’ cutting for our hominid ancestors, while another with different properties could have afforded hammering or battering. Taken together, these ideas are important for questions of art, selfhood, and significance. What glues them together is the concept of an act.

This might all seem very abstract and remote but when applied to the artists whose work we have used to make the case for a neuro-cultural psychology of art, their relevance is immediate. In the flow of interconnected consciousnesses that is ‘culture’—the ‘great conversation,’ as it has been called by Harré—it is only as part of particular acts that the word ‘I’ comes into and out of play. These are, to reiterate, acts in which responsibility is taken or repudiated, where authorship of some action is claimed or disowned, or where the location of the person speaking or writing is requested. Outside the demands of such acts, the occurrence of ‘I’-thoughts is quite rare. Every time that a person uses ‘I,’ that use is nested in an act. So how do these ideas help us understand Malevich or Rubens, Kiefer or Byrne as we have discussed them above?

Either in the subject matter of their work, or in the specifics of their relationship to their own work, we can see a concern with one or other of the acts that constitute selfhood and identity. In each case we can ask which kind of ‘self’-entailing act is prominent in what they are doing. In The Death of Seneca Rubens was making a definite statement which, in terms of the moral basis of his own identity, advanced the worldview that he endorsed and asserted his own sense of himself, presumably, as a Christian. By taking a revered figure from early Roman life and culture and visually transforming his famous death into a language that could be easily assimilated to Christian iconography, Rubens turns the identity of Seneca-the-Stoic into that of Seneca-the-almost-Christian-martyr. Now the question of who, or what, Seneca actually was can take a different route. The historical Seneca’s identity—at best a proto-Christian, at worst a ‘pagan’—has been challenged by Rubens, and by those whose ideas he has built into this painting.

Kiefer has created a powerful body of work that is clearly expressive of the man, and of his concerns with issues of modern German history. That body of work is identifiably ‘Kiefer’ and each additional element develops that identity. In Sulamith Kiefer is painfully preoccupied with questions of German responsibility and identity, and he deliberately bases the painting on a deep understanding of the world of the Nazi Other, Judaism. A Nazi memorial has its identity held up for scrutiny at the point of its being transformed into a Holocaust memorial. Nothing empirical is denied here, but is used instead to a greater end. This work, amongst the many other things it is doing, is an exercise in taking responsibility, but also in allocating responsibility. These are key acts of selfhood and of identity, as we have described above. Only by taking re-sponsibility for one’s actions, whether personally or collectively, can certain emotions follow. In this case, the collective challenge is to work through the dynamics of shame, shock, guilt, uncertainty, and so on, but to do so en route to building a more viable national identity which warrants other emotions like affection, pride, tolerance, and commitment to humane ideals. This has been the challenge for post-war Germany, and artists like Kiefer have contributed greatly to the reconstructions of identity, personal and national, which these challenges have required.

What then of Malevich’s black square? How much of him was in it? How much of him was lost when Soviet Social Realism banished his square from the place he wanted it to have in the construction of the brave new Soviet world? Malevich was one of those artists in history who was caught in the vortex of epoch-making events that sought to revolutionize the very idea of personal and social identity. That is why Malevich is so interesting. In a transforming historical world, here is an artist who, along with others, sought to transform art as part of that revolutionary surge and in failing on one count he succeeded on another. It would take the best part of the twentieth century to vindicate that other significance in his homeland. We see in Malevich’s story and work the connections between acts, identities, and art. How intimate is our own name to our sense of ourselves? Name-changing is obviously a notable aspect of any identity and sense of self. What happens when the act of change is not simply within a language but is instead to yet another symbol system? Malevich ended his working life by signing his final works not with his name but with a little black square, defiantly asserting his own and his art’s identity. That is a notable act of assertion.

I chose the work of the newly-emerging artist Byrne primarily to show how any adequate psychology of art would have to deal with art that was ‘conceptual,’ and not solely concerned with the more traditional identification of art with image-making. I also wanted an example that was of the moment to make the point that the psychology of art, in its impulse to look for ‘essences,’ might be better served by being attuned to the inexorably onward movements and processes of creative cultures. But Byrne’s work is also an example of how key acts of selfhood, such as claims to authorship–claims that inquire into what is ‘yours’ and what is ‘mine,’ what is ‘ours’ and what is ‘theirs’—can be part of art. All such claims are normative and moral, and the Byrne example shows this with a welcome sense of humor. Byrne herself affirms that her work has to do with issues of ‘authorship and authenticity.’

6. A Last Thought: Do Particular Kinds and Patterns of ‘Act’ Identify Historical Periods of Art?
I conclude with a final question designed to suggest the utility of the act as a concept for the analysis of artistic development: can we explore the ‘Art’ of different cultural-historical periods in terms of predominant kinds and patterns of ‘act’? Using the idea (from Schutz and Austin) that acts can map onto verbs, I have abstracted below the verbs used in the exposition of a major show on modern art called the ‘BIG BANG’ which was held in the Musée National D’Art Moderne in Paris from June 2005 to March 2006. Seeing this show, and reflecting on it through its catalogue, it struck me that the distinctive list of ‘acts,’ understood as active verb forms, which constituted ‘the creative acts’ of twentieth-century modern art identified by the show’s curators, might have its counterpart for each distinctive art-historical period.

Here are the acts which the curators of that show judged to be those operative in the creation of modern art: to destroy, to redefine, to abandon, to distort, to recombine, to devalue, to reform, to deconstruct, to experiment with, to investigate qualities, to speculate, to cross-fertilize, to find again, to produce/simulate regressive acts, to refer to buried areas of thought, to explore other types of hybrid, archaic language, to affirm the right to sexual pleasure, to liberate women, to explore sex in terms of shapes, etc., to bear witness, to entail commitment, to mobilize, to remember, to parody, to provoke, to defy, to deride, to subvert, and to re-enchant.
Art historians might replicate this exercise for other periods. What, for instance, might be the pattern of predominant acts of the Italian Renaissance? Or of Byzantine art? Late in the staging of the Big Bang show came the work of the American artist Bill Viola. His summary of art’s role in society seems a fitting end to this chapter: “Our culture has taken away room for contemplation. There is nowhere in our culture which is officially devoted to subjective experience. Art fills the gap.”


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Ciarán Benson
Benson is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at University College Dublin. His research interests include the cultural psychology of self, philosophical psychology, and the psychology and philosophy of the visual arts. Amongst his publications are The Cultural Psychology of Self: Place, Morality and Art in Human Worlds (London/New York, Routledge, 2001), and The Absorbed Self: Pragmatism, Psychology and Aesthetic Experience (London, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993). He has long been practically active in the arts in Ireland as a policymaker, an occasional curator and as a critic. He was founding chairman of the Irish Film Institute and, from 1993-1998, was the government-appointed Chair of The Arts Council of Ireland with responsibility for developing and funding all the contemporary arts in Ireland. He is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). He has particular interests in gardens, birds and jazz.