My answer to this question is yes and no. And yes again, but with a twist.
The normal scientific approach would be to look for a biological basis for art. We are all humans, aren’t we? We have essentially the same biological basis, so there should be a genetic basis to art, an art instinct or something like that that can be scientifically explored. Or not?
Scientific methods might be applicable to some aspects of art. For example, a lot of art, although not all, has something to do with beauty. I think that the emotion of beauty has a biological basis. I have a hypothesis about what it is. I have explained this hypothesis in my article On Beauty and some other articles. The phenomenon of beauty does not only apply to art alone (and there is art that does not depend on beauty) and investigating it would be tricky because it depends on individually different and developing knowledge, but at least this question has some relevance to art. My hypothesis may be partially or completely right or wrong and it should be possible to do science on it. Questions like this can be investigated scientifically. So that is the yes-part or my answer.
Now to the no-part. The general approach of science is that phenomena are explained on the basis of laws. There is the general assumption that there are laws of nature on the lowest levels of reality and that higher level phenomena can be explained on the basis of lower level phenomena. So chemistry can be explained on the basis of quantum mechanics and elementary particles. Biology can be explained on the basis of chemistry. Neurology can be explained on the basis of cellular biology. Psychology can be explained on the basis of neurology, and culture – and art as a part of it – can be explained on the basis of psychology. Or so the thinking goes.
However, this approach has not been very successful when we enter the psychological, let alone the cultural level. This failure is sometimes attributed to complexity. However, I suppose the whole idea is flawed.
In a way, yes, cultural phenomena are embedded into biology. It is our brains that are doing the art. I don’t think there is anything going on in the brain that is beyond physical processes. But still there is a problem with the normal approach of science. What is it?
Well, the problem here is that the way science is defined, it is always looking for laws. It can, therefore, not deal properly with systems that do not have fixed laws.
If the rules governing a system’s behavior are changing with time, in such a way that there is practically nothing in them that cannot change, the normal approach of science fails. Scientist are trying to come up with hypotheses for general laws or rules. They then invent experiments to test the hypothesis. If the experiment says that the phenomenon is not the way the theory predicts the theory must be wrong. But this approach fails if the laws are changing.
But this is the situation we are facing in the humanities. The systems we are investigating (humans, societies, cultures) do not follow fixed laws. The human brain can take up information from the environment and store this information in memory. This information can then influence the way further information is processed, effectively altering the way the brain is working. So the brain is able to reprogram itself. The changed behavior depends on the information stored in its memory and that information is something not derivable from the biological basis.
The biological, chemical and physical basis of the brain only describes the platform on which the “cultural software” is running. So what is going on on the higher level is not controlled by the lower level, it comes in “laterally”, from the side.
The scientific description of the lower level determines the platform but not the application running on it.
To return to the topic of art, art can be understood in terms of biographies and histories of objects, people and culture but not in terms of brain biology. Some aspects of art can be understood in biological or neurological terms but many of its aspects are not part of the “vertical stack” of explanations from elementary particles to cognitive processes, they come in “from the side”.
What is happening in the brain at a particular moment could be described by physical laws, at least in theory, but this description would lack generality. A general explanation would have to include the history of mankind and the complete biography of every human being (if not more) because it would have to take into account all information stored in our memories.
So what has to yield here is the concept of science as a system of explanations in terms of laws, and that is the twist I was mentioning initially. The description of humans and their cultures necessarily has historical aspects. People change during their biographies. They are individually different as a result. Cultures and societies are historical entities as well. The way they work is changing. There simply are no general laws because whatever law-like processes there might be operating at a particular time, these processes are themselves part of the knowledge of the people or part of the culture. They can change.
So a science of human culture, and as part of it, a science of art is possible – if the concept of science is broadened to include the description of systems which do not have fixed, unchanging laws. Reality contains such systems and science will remain blind to them as long as it insists on the special case of law-based explanations alone and excludes historical processes. It is this insistence that artificially creates the science/humanities divide. This divide cannot be breached by applying the common methodology of science to the topics of the humanities but only by redefining what science is, and thus introducing humanities-like methods into science, methods that take incompleteness and imperfection as being normal.
In fact, many sciences actually have a historical side already, so the official image of science in reality does not capture the totality of science as it is. There are historical aspects in astronomy, for example, in geology and other geo-sciences, in paleontology and parts of biology.
Psychology and cognitive science also have these historical aspects. The human brain is creative in the sense that if you describe how it works, it can move out of the scope of applicability of that description by assimilating new information from the environment, information that was not part of – and is not derivable from – the original description. A description of such a reprogrammable system like the human brain in terms of laws would therefore necessarily be incomplete.
However, when it comes to art, this incompleteness is one of the things that make it so interesting. There is always another interpretation and the possibility to create more.
(The picture is from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collapsed_Platonic_Solids.jpg)