So what were the take home messages of both speakers?
One of the chief points that Starr brought across was that art engages internally focused (top-down) and externally driven (bottom-up) brain systems, as evidenced by the co-activation of default mode and sensory brain networks. She goes so far as to state that "Neuroscience has enabled us to identify a subset of aesthetic responses that are nearly unique to our experience of the arts." Starr's focus - like so many others within the field of neuroaesthetics - is on classic aesthetic categories. Judgements of artworks as being beautiful, sublime or pleasant. The state of feeling or being moved (Menninghaus et al., 2013; Vessel, Starr & Rubin, 2013).
For Noë, on the other hand, being moved is an antecedent to actual aesthetic experience. When talking about the feeling of being moved, he says "That's not the aesthetic experience." He argues that the state of reflecting on and questioning what one experiences when viewing an artwork, in a range of different ways and to multiple reference points - that is what is central to the aesthetic experience. The blow he delivers to the field of neuroaesthetics is that because this kind of aesthetic information processing is an unpredictable and temporally extended phenomenon, it does not have stable data-points to which one can pin neural correlates in a reliable or valid manner.
What was striking about the debate though was all that was left unsaid. Alone the irony that the expert who whose focus lies primarily in the emotional side of the aesthetic experience (Starr) would look to the brain for finding answers, whereas the expert whose focus is on the cognitive side of the aesthetic experience (Noë) estimates the neuroscientific approach as being inadequate to deliver useful answers.
More critically though, both experts are in actuality talking about quite different aesthetic categories. Starr is mainly heading towards the sublime, whereas Noë roots for what is interesting. What is rarely considered (at least explicitly) within the neuroaesthetic literature is the brain response in terms of commonalities and differences in relation to dissimilar aesthetic categories. There is little reason to doubt that there are several categories that we ought to consider and contrast in terms of the brain's response. The question to determine is which ones are the most relevant in a given context. Contexts can be the art form in question, the audience, the cultural relevance of the piece, etc.
In her 2012 book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting, Sianne Ngai makes a great case for these comparatively weak or trivial yet genuine aesthetic categories, which:
"... are the ones in our current repertoire best suited for grasping how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism" (Page 1)
"Classic aesthetic categories like the sublime and the beautiful thus make insistent if necessarily indirect claims for their extra-aesthetic power (moral, religious, epistemological, political), asserting not just a specifically aesthetic agency but agency in realms extending far beyond art or culture. In contrast, by forefronting their own aesthetic weaknesses and limitations, the cute, the zany, and the interesting enable a surprisingly more direct reflection on the relation between art and society ... " (Page 22)
"Indeed, the equivocal nature of "cute," "zany," and "interesting" as judgments (neither entirely positive nor negative) clarifies something that the beautiful and the sublime tend to obscure, which is that to aestheticize something is not necessarily to idealize or even revere it." (Page 23)
Of these three contemporary aesthetic categories, the judgement of "the interesting" renders itself to being readily investigated across art forms and genres from the purview of neuroaesthetics. Noë's misgivings notwithstanding, the questions broached in the neuroscientific study of the aesthetic experience can only gain from being more representative of the aesthetic experience. And adopting oblique or indirect approaches to do so may be more fruitful. In any event, opening the field to include more aesthetic categories stands to, at the very least, make the whole enterprise more interesting.