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. "


John Sanchez said...

Great post and I might agree most of the way. Maybe I am splitting hairs here: I think that your argument about "painting like Rembrandt"and the contemporary painters being influenced by the moderns strikes a "yeah but" to ring in my mind. I can't see that many of the zeitgeist paintings going on today are either. It seems like many are doing their best at transposing a photograph (I should know about this since it has been discussed in relation to my work ) Though I very much prefer being influenced by Rembrandt, it seems that what is going on today is "honest" looking but instead of nature we may be looking at photographs of nature as our reference while copying flashes and blurs.

New York City said...

"Maybe I am splitting hairs here: I think that your argument about "painting like Rembrandt"and the contemporary painters being influenced by the moderns strikes a "yeah but" to ring in my mind."

Point well taken.
Though, I would have to say that unlike the contemporary art world, our goal is not originality for the sake of originality. Whereas "originality" is one of the primary criteria for modern and post-modern art, our goal is to make the best paintings we can. We strive to reach the masterpiece. And consequently, the masterpiece is the most original thing there is.

Craig Banholzer said...

Indeed, a great post abput a vast topic. Why reject the Greco-Roman tradition? I think there are a number of reasons people think it necessary to do so, some of which go something like this:

1. The Greco-Roman tradition is only the voice of Western, imperialist civilization, which needs to shut up and give someone else a turn.

2. Traditional art is two invested in beauty, which is only a Potemkin village disguising the vileness of the world. If we are to change things, we must first open our eyes to how bad things really are.

3. All those old paintings of gods and nymphs and kings and queens are elitist. A person's gotta have a PH.D to understand them.

4. Modern Art is the art of our time. Greco-Roman is not.

5. Art is all about innovation, right? If you're trying to paint like Rembrandt, you aren't doing something new.

Let me quickly add that not one of these prejudices is particularly valid or well-thought-out, and they don't add up to a coherent philosophy of art, but I find myself encountering, and occasionally having to answer to, variations of all of these on a regular basis.

Craig Banholzer said...

On further reflection, I think these prejudices reflect a deeper layer of cultural values. Despite the fact that we live in a technological society driven by reason and scientific method, our intelligentsia tend to see a world dominated by randomness and irrationality. The attempt that Traditional art makes to find order and meaning in the world is seen as invalid.

On the sociological level, we are living in a time when once-marginalized groups are still striving to change the status quo in order to have a voice. Any attempt to create permanent meaning, and to connect that meaning to tradition, is seen as an impediment to social progress. Beyond a general cynicism about religion, rationality, history and authority of any kind, there is no consensus, only different, often warring camps based on ethnicity, gender and sexual preference. The feeling is that all voices must be seen as equally valid, and that any attempt to craft a single over-arching world-view is bound to be distorting and ultimately exclusionary. The idea that the art of the old masters should serve as a model for contemporary artist is seen as laughable. After all, weren't the old masters just a bunch of Dead White Men?

I think to many people, this sociological level trumps everything. It seems to me that vast numbers of otherwise educated people today are radically philistine when it comes to art. Politics and economics dominate the thinking not only of the general educated public, but also of many who travel under the label, "artist." Even to these would-be artists, the very idea that aesthetic values and fine craft really have anything to with art is seen as absurd. To them, art is about "ideas," and the general appearance of the package in which these ideas are delivered is absolutely irrelevant.

My impression is that all of the above will simply continue to play itself out, and, since the parties purveying it are fairly impervious to argument, all that we can do is seek the solace of our craft, nourish our minds and not be distracted too much by the tumult around us.

New York City said...


Very insightful! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

It's also interesting to point out that many of the points in your list could equally apply to modern art.

That is, I've heard many people say things such as:
"Modern Art is the voice of western imperialist civilization..."
"Modern Art is elitist - it takes a Phd to understand it."
"Modern Art is too abstract and doesn't respond to the real problems in the world."

You're absolutely right that the primary problem is that this group of intellectuals & pseudo-intellectuals in academia see everything in a political context. As a matter of course, they make faults of logic into cultural laws, and use whatever tools they can to promote their own agenda.

One thing I've noticed is that among the people I've spoken to, those who repeat your list tend to be people who've gone to college (such as myself).
I've found that people who are self-educated or did not follow a "traditional education" often find representational work to be much more interesting. So, I think the situation is a bit more optimistic than you've put it. We don't have to appeal to academia.

There are great numbers of very intelligent, independent thinkers of all levels of education, in all sexual, political, and religious groups, of all races, who love what we're doing. To build upon what you suggested, the key is to focus on reaching this larger, less biased audience as opposed to convincing the academics. The academics typically follow the power, not the truth. (Again, I'm considered to be an academic because of my education - so I'm trying not to make too many generalizations. This sophistry that we speak of exists in varying degrees in different institutions.)

"My impression is that all of the above will simply continue to play itself out, and, since the parties purveying it are fairly impervious to argument, all that we can do is seek the solace of our craft, nourish our minds and not be distracted too much by the tumult around us."

I agree, but I think we can do even more than that. We can be intellectual without being elitist. We can build our own communities, institutions, and press ... and we're already succeeding at this. We can collaborate and promote each other. We can positively promote our work without advertising for our critics by mentioning and criticizing them. Just as they do, we can simply repeat our message and enough people will find that they agree with us.

Craig Banholzer said...

I suppose the difference between an education in Traditional as opposed to Modern Art is that understanding, say, an allegory by Titian, opens a door onto an entire realm of philosophy, theology and poetry that spans the ages, whereas understanding a Modern painting requires only a very narrow and specialized knowledge of recent critical theory.

It is unfortunately true that a university education, far from spawning true critical thinking, sometimes amounts to little more than a kind of indoctrination. Students are encouraged to be skeptical of the Western canon, but Modern art is treated as something sacrosanct.

I guess it does sound a bit like I'm recommending a kind of seclusion for traditional artists, so you are right to correct me. Clearly we have something valuable to offer the world, which the world will never know if we just hide out.

John Sanchez said...

Great insights guys. If only to add my two cents I'd mention more about a subject that has been in your threads; Since the large umbrella of art seems to reflect the "life and times" it was created in, especially as it regurgitates the slogans, pop culture, and thoughts that ultimately may come from general education or acedemia, I would suggest that we think of the economic woes of our time is fast becoming a catalyst for changing these tired clich├ęs of University Art departments. I've been seeing quite a lot about a new bubble that will burst under its own bloated weight, namely Education. As a whole we are waking up to see that the value in what has been considered necessary is in fact morally and culturally bankrupt. I, for one, am excited to see what education will change into which will ultimately affect our Art.

New York City said...

Very well said!

Also a very good point.
In your opinion, do you think it's better to focus on collaboratively building institutions to replace these when they collapse, or to get positions within the existing educational institutions and collaborate on trying to mold them from within?

Craig Banholzer said...

Well, speaking as someone who has a teaching position in an existing institution, I can say: It ain't always easy. The typical college schedule allows far from enough studio time, and then there is the curious prejudice in the liberal arts curriculum against the idea of "technique." I fully agree with Joshua Reynolds that painting is a liberal art, but, as is the case with writing, a large body of technical knowledge must be mastered before it can be practiced as such. College curricula seldom take this simple fact into account. The result is that after a semester or two of fundamentals, the student is judged capable of doing "independent work," which, because of the limited means they have acquired, more less requires that they drift towards whatever comes easily, or give up painting altogether.