Of Two Minds

New York
03.11.11

Artist David Salle and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. (Photo: Michael J. Palma)


I’M A FAN OF THE RUBIN MUSEUM. The former Barneys flagship in Chelsea has rebirthed itself, Shiva-like, from a temple of high-end schmatas to a sanctuary of Himalayan art. Seekers of retail therapy can now “transcend” by communing with a lavish trove of icons, mandalas, and ceremonial tchotchkes as rare as couture. In keeping with the integrative project of Eastern thought, fab programming animates the collection with contemporary practitioners and mavens. “To reach enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, you need to have total control over your mind,” the charming producer Tim McHenry announced at a program last Wednesday. “This week’s Brainwave puts brain scientists together with people of other walks of life.” Wednesday’s conversation, between painter David Salle and Iain McGilchrist (“Oxford-educated psychiatrist just flown in from Britain”), addressed the burning issue: “Which side of the brain controls you?”

Both sides of my brain arrived early, when “Himalayan Happy Hour” was in full swing. Live Asiatic music wafted from the lobby, and amber mood lighting created a spalike vibe where you half expected bodywork as well as a museum fix. I browsed the shop, where you can get your Dalai Lama Paper Doll book (featuring the spiritual leader and his parents “at various stages of their spiritual development” in different outfits); your Four Noble Truths fridge magnets; a wide selection of animal hand puppets; plus the expected beads, candles, scarves, and Buddhist titles.

The coat-check fellow was so happy, I couldn’t help but comment.

“I enjoy this,” he beamed.

The mostly mature crowd also seemed delighted to be there. All smiled back when I met their gaze. They all looked like off-duty therapists to me. It was upscale New Age happyland.

“Welcome to this integration where we’re going to use David Salle’s art to explain our minds,” McHenry greeted us. Fortunately, instead of the brain scientist explicating Salle’s tableaux, the evening featured McGilchrist discussing his new book, The Master and His Emissary, with Salle as a thoughtful foil, probing the scientist’s left brain–style case that we need to cultivate more harmony between the “spheres,” and adding much-needed nuance when the subject veered toward aesthetics.

McGilchrist opened by citing a vintage Salle interview: “Art doesn’t deal with issues.”

“Of course I was being a little hyperbolic,” Salle said. “My bias in that interview was partly a reaction to the flood of issue-oriented art of the past thirty to forty years. I’m mistrustful of the phrase ‘this work is about,’ a phrase you hear incessantly. My heart sinks when I hear the phrase.”

In turn, the scientist moaned about pedantic wall text. I almost enjoyed his curmudgeonliness until he started to dismiss all commentary wholesale, including psychoanalysis, and revealed himself to be Susan Sontag in drag, a brain-science version of “Against Interpretation.”

“We can’t blame the artist explicitly for the wall text. What is the compulsion to explain?” asked Salle, who was soigné in a crisp white shirt, pin-striped jacket, jeans, and elegant brown boots. Who knew he was so lucid? “It comes from the idea that art should be accessible. Accessibility, usefulness, personal expression are all confused in our culture.”

“Bach didn’t have to ‘explain’ his work,” noted the shrink.

“I don’t read academic journals,” divulged Salle. “But aren’t there some examples of embodied right-brain criticism that expand your ability to enter into the work?”

“Nothing good comes out of the academy,” McGilchrist chuckled, confessing that he had been a literary critic before going to med school. I felt for the psychiatrist. He seemed to be traumatized by early exposure to bad academic criticism. He deplored a “scientific impulse in criticism,” a misguided attempt by critics “to up their status in a culture that values science.” An excellent point. But he didn’t acknowledge that there was any other kind. This was strange, because he titled his book after an aphorism by Nietzsche, the “dancing philosopher” who was a master of embodied right-brain critique—the “poetic Socrates” who mingled art and thought.

I’m going to continue with their twirl on commentary because they raise some interesting points:

“Reading the work of art as autonomous wasn’t enough,” Salle said. “There’s nothing autonomous that exists outside the power structure that allows it to exist.” A truly “integrative” critique can’t isolate the work of art. Salle reminded us why we even turned to “theory” in the first place.

Unswayed, McGilchrist seemed to reduce all critique to the type that mistakes the map for the territory. “Discursive, dissecting minds replaced art with a bunch of ideas, concepts, and that literally happens in the brain.” The professor slyly pivoted to our topic: “The left brain’s takeover of our culture!”

“What’s the antidote?”

McGilchrist: “To raise consciousness.” Ironically, although the psychiatrist seemed to make the case for commentary that puts the artwork in context, his aesthetic touchstones were formalist and traditional. Art combines “technique” and “intuition,” like William Blake. Or requires “potent metaphors to carry over part of the reality they speak of,” like devotional art, “which at its best induces an experience in the beholder.” I’ll skip his brain hemisphere–based dash through art history as filtered by the vicissitudes of our “drive toward certainty.” (“A bit programmatic,” responded Salle. “Even a Roman sculptor has a sense of agency.”)

“I could think of pieces like Damien Hirst’s every night when I’m in the bath,” the scientist actually said.

In response, Salle told an anecdote in which he was gallery hopping in London and asked the cab driver to wait for him in between stops. He would tell the driver what he’d seen, and started having fun, embellishing: “Two potatoes and a piece of string.”

“You’re pulling my leg, mate,” the driver would say.

“But the cabbie loved Damien Hirst!” said Salle.

“Sensationalism,” scoffed McGilchrist.

Salle defended “Damien’s” work: “The theater almost shifts back again to something metaphorical . . . ”

Damien Hirst’s art is about as nourishing as chewing on an old boot,” proclaimed the shrink.

DS: “It’s intensely literal-minded.”

IM: “In other words, it’s not art.”

DS: “It makes people feel they’ve come into some contact with art.”

IM: “That’s why it’s toxic. Because they haven’t but they think they have. Art is not just a commodity, like our trash culture. If you’re trying to mimic the trash to get them in, what have you accomplished?”

DS: “I have a great respect for Damien’s work.”

IM: “I have a great respect for nothing.”

Salle brought us back from the brink (though a shout-out to nothingness was apt in this venue): “If it’s the case that our culture has moved to literal-mindedness, or left-brain bias, one: What’s the cause? Two: What to do about it?”

McGilchrist responded that we need to cultivate “two forms of attention to the world. One: You need to be able to focus narrowly. And two: You need to have a wide vision. These are two kinds of phenomenological worlds. One is very seductive—a map—totally non-self-contradictory. Everything that’s contradictory is not on the map. We put this into our environment and it creates a feedback loop. But you’re not listening to half your brain.”

Salle: “Are there exercises to help us be more ‘integrated’? In the 1960s there was LSD. That was the program.”

McGilchrist: “Meditation. There’s also yoga. Focus on a point on the wall and, at the same time, be aware of the environment around you. Like patting your head and rubbing your tummy.”

Suffice it to say, it was a lively discussion. To be truly integrated, McGilchrist seemed to suggest, we need to be able to move freely between the narrow focus (of cognition which seeks control, certainty) and the broader context (which tolerates ambiguity, receptivity).

“But the problem is, the left side thinks everything is just fine,” the doctor declared. “In terms of cultural bias, the ‘left side’ has won. Only the right side ‘knows’ both sides need to be brought together. We might be the human dodos. We need to be far more skeptical when science tells us we know it all.”

One audience member (who looked like a shrink) cited psychoanalysis “as a practice which requires intuitive passivity.” Helpful, n’est-ce pas?

McGilchrist dismissed analysis as surely as a Hirst carcass: “Psychoanalysis can be dogmatic, rigid, disinterested in the person.” He contrasted this caricature with his own practice of “the whole person encountering the whole person. Who you are in relation to the patient and the rapport is what heals.” (Unlike psychoanalysis?)

I marveled at his left-brain “phenomenological” style and was even more impressed that he had reached the conclusion that we must work on “integrating” both sides. Physician trying to heal himself?

To close, the cheeky producer asked Salle what he had gotten from the professor’s book.

“We share a distaste for pre-Raphaelite art,” replied the artist deftly.

Shelley and Donald Rubin, the founders of the museum, stepped onstage to present each speaker with a long white scarf, like a Himalayan tallis, “to harmonize your hemispheres.”

Rhonda Lieberman