Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Brain on Art

This is not a Rembrandt! (Or is it?)

he French Art historian and critic, Jean-Daniel Mohier and I have been having quite a fascinating and impassioned debate on the topic of how a painting is experienced by the viewer. As I have asserted before, I think the aesthetic response is largely objective, that is: instinctual. This is based on the fact that we, as humans, share nearly all of our genetic material and that we, across all cultures, share nearly all the same fundamental kinds of experiences. However, we cannot say that the aesthetic response is completely objective, for then, how could we have different (though overlapping) ideas of beauty? My hypothesis was that the instinctual response we receive from a painting in the very first instant of viewing, is immediately distorted by subjective elements to varying degrees; such as learned culture, and individual experiences, which may not be shared by most people: such as experiencing war, rape, or starvation, etc...

Jean-Daniel responded by sharing this fascinating article entitled "How does the Brain Perceive Art?". It discusses a study conducted at Oxford University, which concluded that brains can't tell the difference between a real Rembrandt and a fake. They tried to gauge the response of viewers of both Rembrandt paintings, and students of Rembrandt, with the goal of testing this very question. Just how subjective or objective is our aesthetic experience? It addresses a question I've posed many times before: does it matter if "the Polish Rider" is a real Rembrandt, or a student? Is it not a masterpiece either way?

Before we go on, I have to point out that they only included 14 participants in this study, all of whom had no education in Art history nor any education in life drawing... so we can't really say that this study is conclusive, as it includes too few people and does not have a sufficient cross-section of people.

But, without further adieu, this was my response:
"I guess the question is whether you consider the physical object to be the truth, or the flawed perception of the observer to be the truth. Was the consensus correct when they believed that the world was flat? It just goes to show how influenced people are by false illusions. But, this all goes back to whether you believe the theosophy of Plato, or the scientific objectivity of Aristotle, or the irrational rhetorical tricks of the sophists. That's what we're really debating here! Plato, or Aristotle, or the pre-Socratic sophists (in the case that you follow Hegel instead of Kant).

As a representational painter, I have many years of training to be able to see what's actually there in front of me instead of the symbol or illusion of what people say is there. This is the only way you can paint representational work. Of course you have to be able to project your vision onto the reality. This is more interesting... but you have to be able to discern the difference between reality and a dream, in order to make such a work.

More than a century ago, art critics, historians, and the art viewing public all had studio practice in drawing and painting to some extent, so they all had some ability to see what's in front of them and form their own conclusions. So, this is perhaps the reason that today, they only follow the false illusions of fashion.

So, one can say that this is simply the way it is, this is the way the world works... and that I'm describing the way it "should be". One can conclude that it is very naive, or very arrogant of me to say that it should be any other way than it is. Who am I to say that the world is round? I don't know who " I am" in that sense... I don't know who it is that gives one the right to think for themselves, and relegates other people to the crowd of sheep, but I'm sure history will sort it all out for us. As for today, I can't accept "the way things are" and sacrifice the very fibre of my individuality to mass delusion. No, I must say again that the world is a sphere and is not flat.

I'm deeply sorry if this makes the clergy uncomfortable. ;)

But you asked an interesting question the other night: why paint like Rembrandt today? Well, why not paint "like Rembrandt", if you like? This is something Odd and I have discussed extensively. You could ask the same question about any modern painter or artist. Why paint like Francis Bacon, or Otto Dix, or De Kooning, or Koons, or Hirst, or Picasso? Yet most contemporary artists do. Those who know art history can see that 99.9% of contemporary artists are copying 20th century artists. And they are congratulated for it!!! Somehow to copy a "modern" artist is more "original" because it's a "modern" voice - which must be inherently more genuine. Apart from the faulty logic here, I frankly can't say I care whether or not someone wants to copy Otto Dix, and whether or not a critic likes it, but quite simply, why this double standard? Why is it not acceptable to be influenced by Rembrandt? (As an aside note, an honest look at either Odd Nerdrum's paintings and my paintings will tell you that we are not copying Remrandt, but simply influenced by him. And it's evident that I'm not copying Odd, but deeply influenced by him. You can just as clearly see the influence of Hammershoi, Vermeer, Andrew Wyeth, and Goya.) So, the real question is: why reject the Greco-Roman tradition?

The answer to the question of this double standard, is that the zeitgeist (spirit of the time) is modern....

But, you see, this zeitgeist idea is also a false illusion. Obviously my zeitgeist is different from Koons'. And Ai Wei Wei's zeitgeist is different from Lucien Freud, who's zeitgeist is different from Andrew Wyeth, who's zeitgeist is different from, though related to Odd Nerdrum's zeitgeist. So, exactly how many zeitgeists are there?

So, again. What we're really debating here is Plato vs. Aristotle vs. the Sophists. Kant vs. Hume vs. Hegel... and dozens of other incarnations of the same. If you look at philosophy, all philosophers are more or less regurgitating either Plato or Aristotle (or in the case of the German Idealists like Hegel, they regurgitate the sophists). I, for one, can't see any progress, only a wheel on a treadmill. "