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Thread: What is art?
June 15th, 2013 #46
"A direct, subconscious reaction to the physical, gestural elements of the work itself."
Is this completely animal and innate or is this also learned? Is the human subconscious response to artwork always the same or is it informed by experience? These discussions about the definition of art always come down to dogma on one side vs. dogma on the other. Neither side will lay claim to their truths being learned dogma. So any definition will be exclusive or meaningless as it will include everything. But does more than one definition of art mean that there is no definition or merely many definitions?
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What is art? Baby don't hurt me, don't hurt me, no mooorreee!
June 15th, 2013 #48
i think its a bower bird making nice nests to attract a mate x big frontal lobes x 30000 years of culture.
its decorative, emotional, and apparently rated pretty high on our list of things to do because once someone has air, water, food, shelter and some time to kill, theyll often pick up some aesthetic or enjoyable making-something task and get on with it. in many higher creatures who can achieve this state of free time, wolves, dolphins, etc, they play.
a culture without art isnt much of a culture and a childhood without play isnt much fun.
when i was a kid, i used to imagine stories and cool things happening, with my friends or alone. drawing and making things has pretty much taken over that buzz, along with playing Gran Turismo!
so i suggest art is a netoteny, a childlike activity thats preserved to adulthood, and shows the expected increase in complexity youd figure would happen in a larger more complex mind.
trying to pin down what art is is kind of a dull game, because although we can try to draw distinctions between things, nature doesnt so much. there are probably an infinity of ways to discribe art most people would agree with and an even bigger one of discriptions some people would agree with. yawn.
that said, taxonomy doesnt necessarily to just have to be stamp collecting; plenty of people are investigating what seem like difficult unresovable ponderables of the human condition. the downside i gues you might say is the reasons are invariably prosaic, basically evolution did it, and we have big brains. its as simple and complex as that.
Last edited by Velocity Kendall; June 15th, 2013 at 10:32 PM.sb most art copied to page 1
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June 16th, 2013 #49
The learned part would be more in line with another quote Chris stated: "And a conscious response that is context driven by our knowledge of its symbolic cultural associations." The perspective of art changes from culture to culture because art and culture have a tight bond. For example, various African art features fractal designs because traditionally, these societies' perspective is based on their cultural concept of a "self-structured" society. You will see a similar pattern in different African mythologies such as Legba, the trickster god, in the Vodun religion. However, if you brought samples of their art to, say, India, their meaning would not carry the same weight because of the differences in their cultural focus.
Like Chris mentioned before, mistaking the "subconscious response" with the "conscious response" and vice-versa is where problems can come in. I think this is where the different dogmas of "what is art" kicks in.
Last edited by BichNguyen; June 16th, 2013 at 06:51 PM.
June 16th, 2013 #50
I know exactly what Chris is saying. I also know that there exist proponents of many different things who make the same claim to an innate subconscious awareness that supports their own beliefs. Religions are built upon such beliefs.
So you think that there is a common physical response to great art no matter the background, geographical location or period in time? I'm not sure an exhaustive enough study has been or could ever be done that could prove something like that.
The questions I am asking have more to do with sparking discussion than ignorance or not understanding.
June 17th, 2013 #51
I'll take the example of music, because that is less encumbered by the 'conscious wool gathering' that can easily happen in the more concrete literal visual or literary arts that orochigenicide has just discussed and expanded on.
18th century music sounds 'old fashioned' and Indian classical music sounds 'trippy' because of our chronological and cultural perspective. But these are generalised, surface additions; intellectual barnacles that accrue on the hull of the work, not its deep design. Most can't see the ship for the barnacles, and interpret what they discover in accordance with their particular historical archaeology.
But the sailor in us senses the hull underneath, filters out the random cultural barnacles to get to the unfettered shape at its core and hears the music for what it is; a structure of sound that passes through us and activates the cams of our emotional commonality.
That is to say, when seeking deep meaning, our innate pattern recognition tunes out the cultural noise and seeks out the elemental grammar of our emotional language.
One concrete example to give everyone an actual taste of what I'm saying:
Think of what would go through a young child's mind if the odd pieces of rotting keel dug up from a Viking burial site were only explained to him.
Now think of what happens to their mind when you show them the full scale reconstruction of the long boat itself.
Two quite distinct ways to appeal to two quite distinct functions of the mind.
A lecture on wind dynamics.
A yacht straining under full sail.
One understood only by the educated, the other capable of touching us all.
Last edited by Chris Bennett; June 17th, 2013 at 06:06 AM.
June 17th, 2013 #52
Chris you know that I am only really trying to get some kind of real discussion going right? On the other hand you are conversing, so to speak, with an emotionally scarred person as we all are. Trusting emotions is a dangerous thing. My background in religion has tweaked my emotional receptors and makes me suspect of everything. I was taught to trust something spiritual, which it turns out was only really emotion, and believe in it.
So in my damaged state, again we are all emotionally damaged in some way, I trust intellect in equal measures. Something that is capable of touching us all does not necessarily make it valuable or good.
I have been physically and emotionally moved by visual art, I cried (a manly weeping) and was physically weakened when I saw a Vermeer on the wall for the first time. I went weak kneed in a room full of Rothkos and wanted to shout. But I will always be suspect of a universal shared human emotion; an emotion that exists in a vacuum of experience.
Perhaps we understand emotion in different ways Chris. Your first sentence hints that might be true. Maybe I've lost my way with the word emotion.
June 17th, 2013 #53
But I think what Chris is talking about is more than just an emotional response when he's talking about that "subconscious response". I think it's more like learning pure, raw information + emotional response. In fact, fast learners use emotional/ visceral responses in combination with pure observation to nail down complex concepts quickly. His example of "A lecture on wind dynamics" and "A yacht straining under full sail" is a fantastic example. We are more likely to understand the latter because it's based on sheer observation. Anyone can make observations. It's pure, raw information our brains are processing here. The yacht example can be comparable to how a child learns to read and write letters. When a child sees letters, they see them as pure shapes (sorta like the calligraphy border in Shazia Sikander's work or the text in Luigi Serafini's codex). They don't understand the symbolic representations of the language. That takes years of conditioning. This is the kind of conditioning that can filter our subconscious responses to art.
In Semir Zeki's book, Inner Visions: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, he draws a connection between neuroscience information and art to provide a context for how we see art. According to him, our brains have five distinct areas that focuses on certain aspects of visual information: color, shapes, line/orientation, movement, and face recognition. (There's more obviously, like light and depth, but I think that's lumped in amongst these areas if I remember correctly. Feel free to correct me on this.)
Anyway, Zeki provides some good examples of these brain areas in action. One of them is kinetic art. Under this sub-topic, he explains the relationship of these areas, namely color and motion. The area that focuses on color tends to pick up lots of color information, obviously. However, the area on motion limits the amount of color we see so that we can focus on seeing motion. (Here's a TED video on Project Prakash, which shows this relationship in action between 9:02 and 12:26). Alexander Calder's work in particular shows an intuitive understanding of this concept by limiting the amount of color he uses.
It's not to say that this applies to modern art alone. It can also apply to a variety of art, including the Old Masters! Take a look at an example of Vermeer's work.
Some of the things that our brains can see here is face recognition (seeing a believable rendition of a human face) and color, but there's more. Not only was Vermeer a master draftsman. He was also amazing with composition. Just look at all the rectangular motifs and how they're all oriented in relation to each other! What Vermeer is also doing here is "tickling" our brain's appreciation for shapes and line/orientation.
James Gurney has also written about this very same topic and book on his blog (and does a way better job than this lengthy post ): How Art Activates the Brain, Neuroesthetics.
My point though is that our cultural responses are very distinct from our physical responses, whether they be the motion in Calder's mobiles, the shapes and implied lines in Vermeer's painting, or even the object recognition in a moving image on a screen. If that weren’t the case, it’d be sorta like saying our brains depend on cultural associations to see how people move in space. That’d be kinda silly, wouldn’t it?
Last edited by BichNguyen; June 17th, 2013 at 06:21 PM. Reason: attachment
June 17th, 2013 #54
June 17th, 2013 #55
I was talking about a rollicking pages long discussion like in the old days of the site, which we are getting back to step by step, orochigenocide. It wasn't a derogatory comment pointed at this discussion but a nostalgic longing.
I've read James' posts about the subject and they are very informative. The way we process information is very interesting but the connection to the visual arts is a leap at best. We make leaps in science all the time to try and prove a point much as religionists make leaps and use interpretations of scripture to justify and prove a point. I am not willing to make that leap is all. I am not trying to deny that there may be an underlying connection in the ways we see but I am also not willing to concede that can trigger a "good" response. Much more easy for me to accept is that those underlying ways which we see are linked to survival and simply existing.
"But I think what Chris is talking about is more than just an emotional response when he's talking about that "subconscious response""
I can relate to the language of brain function much more than emotion. That we are all linked by instinct but with the function of survival not necessarily what we like to look at.
Possibly the stumbling block for me, which I have already conceded, is the use of the word emotion. And Cola, I disagree about trusting emotion to judge and decide anything in this world. Either we have very different definitions of emotion or different ideas about navigating this world. I do, however, agree that emotion can be a useful tool in navigating the world but only when used in conjunction with other tools like wisdom and intellect. But trusting emotions without the balance of other tools has gotten us as the human race into a lot of trouble.
Having said all of this I remain open minded. Knowing that there is a formula for what we might all respond to positively would make teaching easier for me. But playing the cynic is always more fun.
One more thing orochi, I'm not sure I understand your last paragraph at all. All my points are about trusting emotion to know what is good or bad. I fully concede that we recognize universal shapes independent of culture but there is not judgement of good or bad, pleasing or repulsive in that recognition.
July 1st, 2013 #56
Chris, sorry but I totally disagree. I don't think you can separate subconscious reaction and conscious response. To take Waterhouse's Lady of Shallot; it is a typical byproduct of hetero-patriarchal ableist power relations. It is Pre-Raphaelite imagery showing the gesture and composition of a vulnerable, frail and doomed woman as aesthetic and beautiful. That completely fits a system that is set on producing docile women who can then again produce children that fit the white alpha male gender role. We perceive it as beautiful because it is our gender role to perceive it as beautiful.
Even our appreciation of physical, graphic surface is different from person to person. There used to be decades where it was a real crime to show any brushstrokes at all. We have now a new found appreciation for decaying objects or unfinished paintings. The whole idea of a sketch being able to convey the same emotion as a completely rendered painting isn't that old either (the idea of a painting conveying emotion isn't that old either, in no way that was the goal of any church art during the middle ages). It also spurs the question: Why bother with figurative art at all? If the graphic surface is the only thing that counts we should all be painting abstract. Get away from the narrative and get closer to the real subject.
Talking about an intrinsic value of an artwork itself is something I find problematic. We don't shut down our eyes at the borders. We would perceive that painting totally different if we would place it at a garbage disposal instead of a museum. We would perceive it different if we would place purple light on it instead of natural light. We would perceive it different if we would feel ill or euphoric or high on xtc. You would look at it different if you would have heard that it was awesome or if it was shit. Even our subconscious reaction would differ from person to person, a heterosexual male looks different at it compared to someone who isn't quite living up to there gender expectations. In the end it is an inanimate object and the only intrinsic value is the value we place in it. Trying to find a grander narrative that constitutes as normal is just another method for the status-quo to oppress and exclude that what doesn't quite fit in.
Last edited by D.Labruyere; July 1st, 2013 at 01:00 PM.
July 1st, 2013 #57
July 1st, 2013 #58
To be honest, I find 'subconscious' a difficult word to use. I interpreted it within its context as topographically and not qualitatively. That said, trying to divide conscious and unconscious thought from each other is an over simplification of two tightly interwoven processes. All parts of the brain communicate with each other and often simultaneously. Besides that I think our beliefs and actions are actually deeply inter involved with our emotions and feelings. To give a simple example, if I feel fear, it is because I believe that I am being threatened. This would make my fear not only part of some unconscious reaction which I cannot influence but also the result of a complex thinking process that already happened before that.
July 2nd, 2013 #59
Our conscious mind is given information that suggests a future threat (as distinct from immediate, physical threat). The subconscious responds with a supply of adrenaline that we perceive as anxiety. The conscious mind says 'don't be silly, this may never happen'. But the adrenaline remains and infests the conscious thought into a vicious cycle of pessimism.
In this respect I agree with you concerning conscious and sub conscious mutual interference.
But in the aesthetic realm, survival does not play such a major role, if any. Thus the emotional cycles do not form the type of feedback loops that cloud the issue.
July 2nd, 2013 #60
I find the idea that aesthetics is not influenced by survival interesting. I think that one of the key factors in our survival is the ability to assimilate with aesthetic claims related to the dominant culture. So as a starting point we may be able to state that aesthetics is not influenced by survival but survival is definitely influenced by the politics of aesthetics.
I recently read an article about first nations literature in Canada. It was a study about the construction of identity in the literature of the First Nations. What is particularly interesting about first nations literature is that after European domination we see a shift from oral literature to a writers culture. With that shift we also see a political shift. We see a change in the way they look towards identity and location, there relationship with the 'other' and the way they look at history and memory.
What I think is most interesting is that they get introduced to the concept of the self, often seen, since the time of Descartes and Locke as one of the most important inventions of Western thought and an idea that has dominated our culture for a very long time. This is evident when you look at the vast literature that is written about it; Descartes 'I think, therefore I am', Diderot who in D'alembert's Dream had one speaker attribute both moral personality and social personality to bodily constitution, Marx when he pictured social relations as determining both consciousness and perceived bodily needs or the more complex strategies that Nietsche and Heidegger worked out in order to conceive self-hood in lower and higher forms, the first being 'the weak' and 'das man' formed through social structures and the second being 'the strong' and Heidegger's 'authentic Dasein' able to determine it's conditions through it's own self-referential agency. These are of course but a few examples.
What is interesting about these writers is that despite them trying to come to some genuine self hood and the claims that go along with it, all these claims are being fueled with historical processes, cosmic forces, biological drives, discursive regimes or semiotic systems. The problems they are facing are comparable to those of the First Nations who had to struggle to preserve there own agency against a vastly superior social construction.
The problem for me with authentic agency is that it is always embedded within a social construction. The conflict that usually happens is: the self tries to escape from it's social relations, but by doing so it acknowledges the existence of the other who in turn attacks our own agency. To get back to the idea that the aesthetic realm isn't influenced by the notion of survival.
Wouldn't it be necessary for aesthetic thinking if it wants to exist and not be annihilated by survival thinking, to have a build-in survival mechanism that constantly defends its own borders much like the self is constantly trying to defend it's own agency against bigger constructions? To put it in different words, if the aesthetic realm wants to succeed in neglecting or annihilating thoughts that have to do with survival the aesthetic realm has to have some form of defensive mechanism to do so.