Tuesday, November 26, 2013


This is a detail of an eighteen inch figure I've been working on since August.

The Visual Idea

When I talk about art as idea what I’m thinking about is different than verbal idea. Just like the beauty and order of the universe, it can be apprehended without breaking it down into parts. Different people connect to different qualities. The visual idea is the seed from which many ideas can unfold. Revealing particular relationships, it stimulates new ideas, allows loose fragments of thought to organize from that example. The feelings we get from the form in the spectrum between being drawn to or repelled by it signify the kind of relationship we have with it, the inner dynamic it expresses. What you can say about it has many levels. Art is more about the question, the exploration of implications. A visual idea is open-ended, stirs what connects to the structure emphasizing what matters about it.

The bigger role for art in the future has to do with its attention to essences. This is the overlap with the brain sciences. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki writes of how the focus on constants in art helps scientists distinguish the priorities in different regions of the brain’s processing. The focus of a particular artist can stimulate regions of brain cells specialized to particular forms. The goals of the artist aren’t stated in those terms but what they are exploring is what is most important to them in the organization of form, the conscious perception of which is paralleled by the visual brain.

In David Foster Wallace’s first book, “The Broom of the System”, one of the underlying messages was to look for meaning in how something functions. Definitions and ideas can actually confuse and mislead us since words mean different things to different people and context affects relationships. The phrase, “broom of the system” might seem like nonsense at first, but everyone knows what a broom does, so sweeping out the system would suggest clearing away the dust and garbage. The image initiates the idea. Seeing what something does is a clear fact influencing other facts. Actions and results demonstrate meaning in the moment. Reality is not meaningless. Traditional modes for finding meaning have become outdated. We have to let go of the need to pin it down. Meaning points forward.

The meaning we see increases the scope of our understanding. Looking at the whole is the only way to see significant relationships and not definitions of things. Biases related to inner categories skew thinking toward maintaining them. With self-awareness we can see what’s being protected and how that blocks a clearer picture of what’s happening at a particular time. The more we include in our picture the better our understanding will be. Intelligence grows as perspective increases and art increases the range and sensitivity of our perspective.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Coping Strategy

Art and Evolution

A recent TV news report celebrated a museum in Arkansas that brought
in underprivileged children to see the collection and talk about it.
The report ended with the comment that their test scores improved in
other subjects after that. Such a small exposure, such a big result.
This is the real news story. Art’s benefit to intelligence is showing
on many fronts. Many of our most evolved brain regions are stimulated
by art. Active areas get more fuel and grow larger and stronger.
Housen and Yenawine’s “Visual Teaching Strategy” has been succeeding
for years, showing that discussion of art improves all academic
performance. One of their techniques to begin a discussion about a
painting is asking kids, “What’s going on here?” This lets their
imagination and creative thinking loose without any fear of right or
wrong. They can generate new ideas and invent stories stimulated by
the mood and structure of the work. Art strikes deep chords of
feeling. The work of neurologist Antonio Damasio has shown that
feeling precedes and directs thinking. What we experience as a feeling
is the result of the bodily adjustments as the image is processed. Art
has always shown what it feels like to be human at a particular time.
The feeling stirs thinking and practice in thinking is more important
than any particular knowledge they might learn. The children are
exposed to how others use language and discover how much is within the
deepened attention to a subject. Art stimulates the mind to create new
meanings. The urge to look deeper is reinforced by reward chemicals so
carries over into all other subjects.

With the twentieth century approach to knowledge being overcome by the
volume of information solutions that look at the whole are essential.
When knowing something better meant closer examination of parts,
localized solutions were the norm, often creating negative side
effects. Looking at over arching patterns and relationships is the
emerging approach. When the existing organization is overloaded it
needs to be reorganized to handle the increased complexity. The new
supporting system starts with the belief system as image, a way of
seeing the world that organizes the rest of thinking. Looking at the
whole includes us all within it. A me first attitude is discordant and
eventually should evolve out as the intellectual scope of more
intelligent generations ascends. The truth is in how things function
together. Having one point of view running the show, based on power
instead of what fits circumstance seems hopelessly archaic in an
interconnected universe where influence grows from what matters to
people, not what has been anointed by empire.

The role of art in the mind’s evolution is multilayered. Just looking
at it stimulates the parts of the brain that make us more sensitive to
what is significant in the whole, attuned to proportions and to what
will balance the system. Talking about art develops creative thinking
and the core of ideas, allows for the freedom to theorize and invent.
Understanding of essential ordering structures boosts intuition and
big picture awareness of the interacting systems.   And today’s
artists can search out constants that help us see what is most
essential in today’s reality and what we haven’t yet envisioned.