Aesthetic Response to the Unfinished: Empathy, Imagination and Imitation Learning

From Firenze University Press journal: Aisthesis

Fabio Tononi, The Warburg Institute, University of London, School of Advanced Study

To investigate the power that unfinished works of art exercise on the beholder, it seems essential to explore the activity of the brain in relation to their observation. Cognitive neurosciences have made important contributions toward a better understanding of the functions of the human brain, with direct and significant resonances in the history of art and aesthetics. The encounter between art and neuroscience has allowed scholars to produce some original interpretations of works of art — particularly those that emphasise the representation of motions and emotions — and opened an authentically new field of research.

The first remarkable attempt in this direction was accomplished by David Freedberg with The Power of Images(1989). In this book, Freedberg recovered the dis-course of the role of the observer in art and set it on new foundations, enlarging the boundaries determined by Ernst Gombrich (1960) years ear-lier. Freedberg’s pathfinding work has since been carried forward and deepened, both by Freedberg alone (Freedberg [2008]; Freedberg [2010]) and by Freedberg in collaboration with prominent neu-roscientists, such as Vittorio Gallese (Freedberg, Gallese [2007]) and Ulrich Kirk (Kirk, Freedberg [2015]).

In a similar, albeit not symmetrical, way, cognitive neurosciences have gained a great deal by operating with philosophical and artistic concepts and by playing a part in theoretical debates. In this way, cognitive neurosciences have remained involved in the general intellectual context, rather than enclosing themselves in a safely circumscribed, specialized field of expertise and practice. They contributed not only to shed light on the way we process reality but also on our engagement with the arts and images in general (Changeux [1994]; Zeki [1999]; Ramachandran [2003]; Gal-lese [2017]).

The fusion of these two disciplines, art history and neuroscience, gave origin to a new interdisciplinary approach, which has its roots in the philosophical and aesthetic debate inaugurated by some of the most important philosophers, psychologists and art historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Gustav Fechner (1876, 1998), Carl Lange (Lange, James [1922]), William James (James [1890]; Lange, James [1922]), Robert Vischer (1873), Theodor Lipps (1903, 1903–1906), Aby Warburg (1999), Wilhelm Worringer (1907), Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945, 1948), and Ernst Gombrich (1960).

Building on this tradition, the present study intends to cast light on the way beholders perceive the unfinished in the visual arts, particularly in sculpture. Under examination is a specific kind of unfinished, that is, the one that presents a rough surface and makes the signs of the tools used by the artist well visible. An emblematic example that deserves new attention in this sense is Michelangelo Buonarroti’s unfinished output. By considering Giorgio Vasari’s and Benvenuto Cellini’s statements, which stress the pedagogical function of the unfinished, for its peculiarity to show the process of art creation, I intend to validate their hypotheses by focusing on specific neuroscientific research.


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