All Art is Caricature
In a nutshell "neuro-aesthetics" seeks to uncover the "the biological basis of aesthetic experience" and how those interested in such discoveries go about it should be the topic of Mel Brooks' next movie. In his article, Hyman skewers two neuro-aestheticists, including one named V.S. Ramachandran:
Ramachandran claims to have discovered ‘the key to understanding what art really is’. He also calls this key ‘[a] universal rule or “deep structure”, underlying all artistic experience’ and ‘a common denominator underlying all types of art’.  He writes as follows:
"The purpose of art, surely, is not merely to depict or represent reality – for that can be accomplished very easily with a camera – but to enhance, transcend, or indeed even to distort reality. … What the artist tries to do (either consciously or unconsciously) is to not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it in order to more powerfully activate the same neural mechanisms that would be activated by the original object."
By ‘the original object’ Ramachandran means the object represented by an artist: for example, a man or a woman, the interior of a room, a landscape, and so on. His hypothesis is that the works of art we enjoy activate the neural mechanisms that are normally activated when we see the kinds of objects which they represent, but they activate these mechanisms more powerfully.
But why should a distortion of reality have this effect? Ramachandran’s answer, which he describes as ‘the key to understanding what art really is’, is that this is an example of a psychological effect called ‘peak shift’. He writes as follows:
"If a rat is taught to discriminate a square from a rectangle (of say, 3:2 aspect ratio) and rewarded for the rectangle, it will soon learn to respond more frequently to the rectangle. Paradoxically, however, the rat’s response to a rectangle that is even longer and skinnier (say, of aspect ratio 4:1) is even greater than it was to the original prototype on which it was trained … this principle holds the key for understanding the evocativeness of much of visual art."
Ramachandran’s favourite example of peak shift in art is the way in which the female figure was represented by classical Indian sculptors. Figure 2 [from Edward_: see left side, image below] shows an example from the eighth century, a sculpture of the goddess Kaumari. This kind of sculpture, Ramachandran says, is essentially ‘a caricature of the female form’. And he adds this:
"There may be neurons in the brain that represent sensuous round feminine form as opposed to angular masculine form and the artist has chosen to amplify the ‘very essence’ of being feminine by moving the image even further along the male/female spectrum. The result of these amplifications is a ‘super stimulus’ in the domain of male/female differences. "
So Ramachandran proposes a generalization about art and then postulates a mechanism to explain the generalization. The generalization is that ‘the purpose of art … [is] to enhance, transcend, or indeed even to distort reality. … not only capture the essence of something but also to amplify it’. More pithily: ‘all art is caricature’. And the mechanism which explains the biological function of art is peak shift. In this way, Ramachandran explains a profound and pervasive part of human life in terms of a simple physiological mechanism, which can be demonstrated in the laboratory with a rat, square, a rectangle and some cheese.
Hyman then goes on to dismiss Ramachandran via discussions of pigeon experiments and photos of Pamela Anderson, an exercise only slightly less ridiculous than what he's critiquing, but I did pause while reading to wonder about the assertion that "all art is caricature." To get the party started, I'll offer the following juxtaposition of the Indian sculpture used as an example by Ramachandran and a more contemporary work of art:
OK, I see no point in trudging out any musty arguments about whether Currin's work is "art," so let's just get to whether all art is actually caricature. It's probably better to leave abstract work out of the equation here as well, to avoid making this so complicated my brain squeezes itself out my ears in self-defense.
Always best to start with a definition, I find, so:
Caricature - A representation, especially pictorial or literary, in which the subject's distinctive features or peculiarities are deliberately exaggerated to produce a comic or grotesque effect.Now clearly, the editing process that takes place while making art could indeed be defined as a series of deliberate exaggerations...no one can recreate any object exactly as it appears in real life so choices are made and those choices do indeed represent exaggerations in one direction or the other. However, the intent of the artist is clearly not universally "a comic or grotesque effect" so does this fall apart? If we accept that definition, perhaps, but let's look a bit closer:
The history of the word caricature takes us back through the centuries to a time when the Romans occupied Gaul, offering the blessings of civilization to the Gauls but also borrowing from them as well. One such borrowing, the Gaulish word *karros, meaning “a wagon or cart,” became Latin carrus, “a Gallic type of wagon.” This Latin word has continued to roll through the English language, giving us car, career, cargo, carry, and charge, among others. Caricature, another offspring of carrus, came to us via French from Italian, in which caricatura, the source of the French word, was derived from Italian caricare, “to load, burden, or exaggerate.” Caricare in turn came from Late Latin carricre, “to load,” derived from the Romans' Gaulish borrowing carrus.Now I think you could make a more convincing argument that all artists attempt "to load, burden, or exaggerate" such that their work carries some significance (and yes, even as I type this I realize I'm bordering on being guilty of the same sort of angel-on-pinhead-counting fruitlessness I'm blasting Hyman et al. for. but...all this did allow me an excuse (weak as it may be) to juxtapose the Currin with the Indian sculpture, and isn't that rationale enough really? No? OK, let's salvage this train wreck of a post with a boiled down question: Is there representational artwork for which one cannot claim the result came via loading, burdening or exaggerating (i.e., distorting) the original? In other words, is all representational work actually caricature?