PRINT May 1986


Biology 101 invades Art History 407. The canary graduates, with flying colors.

PITY THE SEA SLUG APLYSIA, famous in biological circles for its predictability, manipulability, and naiveté. Poke an Aplysia in the side and it’ll withdraw its gill (whether in terror or in pique, it’s impossible to say); poke it every twenty seconds or so for several minutes and the animal, on to the game, stops cringing. Now pat it just once on its little head or its little flipper—a new stimulus—and you’ll find the gill-withdrawal reflex is back in full force. Biologists call this phenomenon habituation. As sensory experiences go, habituation is fairly complex, believed to involve not only receptor neurons but also the central switchboard known, in higher life forms, as the brain. It admits of a kind of learning (the sea slug learns it doesn’t have to shrink from something that isn’t immediately hurtful), but the learning is devoid of memory or conviction. And just as the sea slug is understanding that it doesn’t have to shrink back, the deviser of the experiment announces that it’s time to move on to the next thing.

Biologists like to oppose habituation to another kind of sensory ordeal they call adaptation. Adaptation is a much simpler affair, involving only the receptor neurons in a specific sensory organ. For instance: you enter a room filled with lilacs; you are overcome by their smell; within minutes you can’t smell them anymore. Giving you a new smell won’t help; neither will reminding you that the smell still exists. Adaptation is simple, but it is also chronic and complete: it can be reversed only by your getting the hell out of the room.

The biologists’ theories of habituation and adaptation are worthy of our attention now because, together, they limn the history of the avant-garde, as it is today written and spoken by both the keepers and the dousers of the flame. Habituation can be seen as the cycle, adaptation as the trek, the long march, Progress with a capital P. However, it’s more complicated in the museum than in the aquarium because in life, and in art, the adaptation and habituation models are not without consequence—positive as well as negative. The adaptation model says that while we may once have thrown stones, fifty years ago, at women wearing trousers, or, fifty weeks ago, at men wearing skirts, soon we’re anesthetized enough by the whole business that we just keep walking. Likewise, though we once tried to ban James Joyce’s Ulysses as nonsense and obscenity, we now open it for inspiration, much as we line up in the museum to see Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Which makes for a predicament: so much adaptation can make it hard to see the lilacs.

Habituation—in art, in life, and in the laboratory—is by contrast frazzling. Just ask the woman who for decades was coerced into shopping yearly for whole new wardrobes, as skirt lengths went up and down, shoulders out and in. Under the spell of habituation, fashion (and everything else we look at with an eye to consuming) becomes fashionability, the flush of perception transformed into the fever of purchase; media and marketplace take turns poking and prodding us to make sure we never stop seeing something, anything.

The history of art shows that habituation may be a way, in fact the only way, to keep us, like the Aplysia, on our toes. Thus the century-long struggle of avant-garde artists—among the most canny of lab technicians, with an unerring sense of where to prick us next for maximum responsiveness. Thus, too, all the "neo’’s of the last five years, without which we might have failed to ask if habituation (and lurid cyclicality) and adaptation (and psychic numbing) are really the only two ways we can hope to grapple with all the stuff we’ve been through.

As indeed they are not. In another laboratory, far from the one where the Aplysia cringes, live some canaries, canaries who are reputed to have changed the structure of their brains as they learned to sing new songs, replacing whole neurons in order to lay down new circuits. Computer buffs, as opposed to biologists, will recognize this as the hardware’s changing to meet the complexity of the latest software Either way, though, the message is that in our heads, as in the Philippines, we are not necessarily stuck with what we’ve got.

The creative life, like the marine one, has always had its sea slugs. But it has also had its canaries, who, precisely because they have seen a new way, a way that reworks the world rather than flinches at it, are able to lay down new pathways—for themselves first, of course, but pathways ultimately traversable by others. How to account for a canary’s success? Two things. First, note that the canaries changed their brains in the wake of having really learned something. Second, appreciate that the canaries were expected (and expected themselves) not to serve as pincushions but to sing.

William Wilson is a New York City writer and editor. He writes a column on fashion for Artforum.