A man in a blue suit left the Italian restaurant just four paces in front of me, turning right to walk the same direction as me. I was already gaining on him, I walk fast because I like to get where I’m going with a minimum of extraneous detail. He was about fortyish, stocky with black hair coiffed and gelled. Approaching to pass on the left, just a pace behind him, he peels off a long quacking fart, obviously saved up during the big meal. I giggled the rest of the way to the video store. Am I retarded?
But seriously, have you ever pondered the true nature of art? What is art? Why do we do it, whatever it is? If martians came down and watched us, would they get it? If art were a flavour of ice cream, which would it be? If art just went away, would you notice or care? What can scientists tell us about art?
The last question and also the one about the martians are discussed in this excellent series of posts at Mixing Memory. I found them interesting, especially the first one about the foundations and justifications for studying art via neurology.
The neuroscientist Zeki wrote, “Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain.” I guess that depends what it means to obey a law of the brain. Law or tennis or marriage obeys the law of the brain in the sense that only things with brains can engage in those activities. This seems trivial to me, like the claim that it’s really just atoms all bumping and bonking around, or turbulence in the quantum foam. Since I reject all supernatural shenanigans, I guess I agree. Metaphysics: solved.
Onto the epistemology, where Chris (of Mixing Memory) follows the Zeki quote with:
If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others.
The explanation is backwards. It seems blatantly ridiculous to use our understanding of the visual cortex which, while being the most thoroughly mapped and understood part of the brain, is understood hardly at all, (to say nothing of the areas responsible for emotion), to ‘ground’ visual art which has been produced, criticized and discussed extensively for quite some time now.
Rather, what Zeki and Ramachandran and others are doing is using the data of cross-cultural visual art preference to test their neural theories. If the latest visual cortex schematic was unable to account for commonalities in visual preferences, the neurology would be revised, not art. Broad aesthetic generalizations are being used to inform our view of visual processing, not the other way around. This may give us a great deal of insight into neurology, but it’s unlikely to change our feelings about Picasso to be told that the multiple combined perspectives of cubism causes a pleasant increase of activity in the face-recognition area of the brain.
The neuroscientists are modest in their aims. They don’t think they can explain all of art, that would be foolish, just roughly 10% of it. My guess would be more like 1%, but that’s kind of a wierd thing to say anyways. What proportion of art is currently explained? What happens when we’ve explained 100% of art?
At the video store, I rented “How to Draw a Bunny,” an excellent documentary about the artist Ray Johnson. Here we see the other 90-99% of art in action. Ray Johnson was a true zen master, for whom ‘art’ was something more akin to religious devotion than ‘visual aesthetic pleasure’. He lived his art with full seriousness and total irony. One scene shows Ray at a backyard party conversing with two bemused young artists, explaining to them he was a performance artist who is presently engaged in a performance of the serious artist who is discussing his work. This scene explicitly captured the sense in which his art was not just visual depictions on a flat surface, but were self-reflective comments upon themselves. His work contains frequent self-references to the visual, social, cultural and commercial roles played by the works themselves, and his own role as an artist. In stark contrast to the infantile mockery of most absurdist art, what is remarkable about Ray Johnson is how he embraces these roles with honesty, wit and gravity even while demonstrating their absurdity.
He was an artist full-time. His collages, called “moticos”, and performances, called “nothings”, (and include such diverse works as whipping a cardboard box with his belt and showering Manhattan with foot-long wieners thrown from a helicopter), were not his occupation, retired from in the evenings and weekends to take part in normal life. Like a zen master, he was able to live life with grave seriousness and utter dedication and self-mastery, while at the same time never ceasing to actively create brilliant nothing.
His art cannot be explained by reference to the goings-on in the temporal lobe of the viewers of his paintings, and it remains unclear to me in what way the neural facts ought to “ground” the discussion. Nobody will ever whip a cardboard box with a belt like Ray Johnson could, just as no one will ever sit silently on a piano bench as masterfully as John Cage.