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The Mental Life of Modernism: Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

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An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one. At the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry, music, and painting all underwent a sea change. Poetry abandoned rhyme and meter; music ceased to be tonally centered; and painting no longer aimed at faithful representation. These artistic developments have been attributed to cultural factors An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one. At the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry, music, and painting all underwent a sea change. Poetry abandoned rhyme and meter; music ceased to be tonally centered; and painting no longer aimed at faithful representation. These artistic developments have been attributed to cultural factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution and the technical innovation of photography to Freudian psychoanalysis. In this book, Samuel Jay Keyser argues that the stylistic innovations of Western modernism reflect not a cultural shift but a cognitive one. Behind modernism is the same cognitive phenomenon that led to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century: the brain coming up against its natural limitations. Keyser argues that the transformation in poetry, music, and painting (the so-called sister arts) is the result of the abandonment of a natural aesthetic based on a set of rules shared between artist and audience, and that this is virtually the same cognitive shift that occurred when scientists abandoned the mechanical philosophy of the Galilean revolution. The cultural explanations for Modernism may still be relevant, but they are epiphenomenal rather than causal. Artists felt that traditional forms of art had been exhausted, and they began to resort to private formats--Easter eggs with hidden and often inaccessible meaning. Keyser proposes that when artists discarded their natural rule-governed aesthetic, it marked a cognitive shift; general intelligence took over from hardwired proclivity. Artists used a different part of the brain to create, and audiences were forced to play catch up.


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An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one. At the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry, music, and painting all underwent a sea change. Poetry abandoned rhyme and meter; music ceased to be tonally centered; and painting no longer aimed at faithful representation. These artistic developments have been attributed to cultural factors An argument that Modernism is a cognitive phenomenon rather than a cultural one. At the beginning of the twentieth century, poetry, music, and painting all underwent a sea change. Poetry abandoned rhyme and meter; music ceased to be tonally centered; and painting no longer aimed at faithful representation. These artistic developments have been attributed to cultural factors ranging from the Industrial Revolution and the technical innovation of photography to Freudian psychoanalysis. In this book, Samuel Jay Keyser argues that the stylistic innovations of Western modernism reflect not a cultural shift but a cognitive one. Behind modernism is the same cognitive phenomenon that led to the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century: the brain coming up against its natural limitations. Keyser argues that the transformation in poetry, music, and painting (the so-called sister arts) is the result of the abandonment of a natural aesthetic based on a set of rules shared between artist and audience, and that this is virtually the same cognitive shift that occurred when scientists abandoned the mechanical philosophy of the Galilean revolution. The cultural explanations for Modernism may still be relevant, but they are epiphenomenal rather than causal. Artists felt that traditional forms of art had been exhausted, and they began to resort to private formats--Easter eggs with hidden and often inaccessible meaning. Keyser proposes that when artists discarded their natural rule-governed aesthetic, it marked a cognitive shift; general intelligence took over from hardwired proclivity. Artists used a different part of the brain to create, and audiences were forced to play catch up.

41 review for The Mental Life of Modernism: Why Poetry, Painting, and Music Changed at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    'Cognitive science emerged in the 1970s when it became apparent that experimental psychology by itself was insufficient to understand the human mind; it needed injections of theory from theoretical computer science and philosophy, together with information about the richness of language from linguistics. Cognitive science itself became overshadowed by neuroscience in the 1990s and artificial intelligence in this decade, but I think those fields will need to overcome their theoretical barrenness 'Cognitive science emerged in the 1970s when it became apparent that experimental psychology by itself was insufficient to understand the human mind; it needed injections of theory from theoretical computer science and philosophy, together with information about the richness of language from linguistics. Cognitive science itself became overshadowed by neuroscience in the 1990s and artificial intelligence in this decade, but I think those fields will need to overcome their theoretical barrenness and be reintegrated with the study of cognition - mindless neurophysiology and machine learning have each hit walls when it comes to illuminating intelligence.' Keyser views Pinker's admonition as a warning shot across the bow of artistic intelligence as well. Virtually none of the neuroaesthetic studies he encountered while writing his book made use of a level of mental representation exemplified by rules as a way of characterizing human intelligence, while doing just that has been of revolutionary importance in understanding the ability of human beings to acquire and use language. ### What caused artists to abandon 'commonsense' art? The answer is contained in a conversation that transpired between Noam Chomsky and Benjamin Boretz, a composer and music theorist: Chomsky once asked Boretz, 'Why don't you compose Beethoven's Tenth Symphony?' Boretz replied, 'Because it's too easy. ' ### Chomsky speculating on the exhaustion of the natural aesthetic: 'So maybe the exhaustion of normal cognitive capacities is much broader: science, the arts, every domain that humans had pressed to the limits of ordinary understanding once economic surplus reached the point that at least some groups of humans could be freed from labor to survive and explore the limits of human cognitive capacity - reaching limits at roughly the same time, and then going beyond in exotic ways no longer comprehensible to those not introduces into the arcane genres created.' ### Like Dante in hell, the audience sorely needs a guide.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Rose

    Absolutely bangin' crescendo of ideas at the end. Absolutely bangin' crescendo of ideas at the end.

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