The topic of the book intrigued me because of my recent foray into abstraction–a path I didn’t anticipate but one that injected rocket fuel into my landscape career. Why this happened was a mystery, and I wanted to know more about the possible process.
The book’s technical subject matter is accessible to non-scientists and I found the ideas extremely informative and stimulating. When Kandel does get technical there is adequate information to sort things out–often using charts, relevant paintings, as well as labeled images of the brain–in case, like me, you have trouble distinguishing your hypothalamus from your hippocampus.
Kandel’s main thesis is that the brain has multiple means of processing information which it synthesizes into what we commonly refer to as reality. Two brain processes (of many) identify what things are and where they are. These factors working in tandem allow us to form a sense of reality. Abstraction disorients this conventional process and allows for atypical cerebral processing of visual information (an example of such disorientation is cubism). Additionally, brain scans reveal that viewing abstract art lights up a broader range of cerebral regions than conventional, realist art.
Using eye scanning technology scientist observe that while looking at an abstract painting the eye does not settle on a focal point. The lack of objective cues allows the eye/brain to process the surface differently. With a conventional painting, the eye will slide along the horizon, get caught in a focal point like a red barn, or in the case of a portrait zero in on the eyes like a beacon.
In the case of abstract art processing, the viewer participates, in a sense, in the creation process. This more active experience is what Mark Rothko referred to when he said that “painting was not a picture of an experience. It was an experience.” This participation can induce a powerful aesthetic state, occasionally akin to what many people feel listening to music.
Abstraction can also give a sense of distance to the visual experience which can incite creativity. Abstraction also activates disused functions of the brain and suppresses areas not generally repressed–a condition that can lead to a unique frame of mind (or altered state). Such a condition, akin to the creative act, removes the barrier between our conscious and unconscious selves, allowing those two aspects of consciousness to communicate in a relatively free and uncontrolled manner. That freedom allows the viewer to participate in the creative process by lending self-defined meaning. The viewer embraces an imaginary response that is induced by the artists work. The painting, therefore, is not the experience but what the viewer experiences from the trigger of the visual image. The reward is not the object itself but what the object evokes in the mind of the viewer. The experience becomes everything. In my mind, this concept taken to extremes has limitations and is the reason so many postmodern creations have devolved into visual sight gags.
While many might find it odd that the basis of abstract art is that it defies the way our brains are conditioned to process visual information, that is precisely the reason it has value. An additional aspect of art that challenges the visual system is that it allows us to project ourselves, like a psychological transference, onto the physical structure of the painting. Such projection explains why surreal art, an art form that defies convention in many ways, can be so powerful.
The book offers not only fascinating insights such as why the sense of sight and touch jointly induce aesthetic pleasure, but numerous fascinating facts (such as that Chuck Close suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness). The book offers an avalanche of ideas sure to stimulate any artist’s imagination.
Brad Teare –February 2018
Golden Hills, 48″ x 48″, oil on canvas. Available at Anthony’s Fine Art.