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Art and the New Biology of Mind

THE DREAM of discovering a science of art once took the form of attempting to render systematically the variety and appearance of the visible world, an endeavor intimately entwined with Renaissance developments in mathematical perspective, anatomical drawing, and optics, and, later, with seventeenth-century catalogues of nature. In more recent times, the project has turned inward—to the body and mind—expressed as a desire to hunt art and aesthetics back to some allegedly biological source, motivating work ranging from Hermann von Helmholtz’s thesis that the mechanics of the human eye made it in principle impossible for a painting to produce the same visual effect as nature (On the Relations of Optics to Painting [1871–73]) to Max Nordau’s infamous fin de siècle positing of a common neurological deficit behind modern criminality and the degeneracy of modern art. But even the most well-founded

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