The brain, as I have said before, needs to acquire knowledge about the permanent, essential and constant properties of objects and surfaces, in a world where much is continually changing. To do this, it must discount all the changes that are superfluous, indeed an impediment, to acquiring that knowledge; it must, in the words of Glees and Metzinger, ‘sacrifice a thousand apparent truths’
—Semir Zeki, Inner Vision (185).
The question, what is art? is one of seemingly perpetual interest and discussion. I’m not quite fool enough to attempt an answer, nor to even believe that an answer is possible, but one thing I do believe is that art is the constant. As far back as our human minds can stretch into our history—there is art. I therefore think a better question is, why is that? Semir Zeki, in his wonderful book Inner Vision proposes a possible basis upon which an answer to that question can begin to be understood. Zeki begins, within his field of expertise: the neurology of vision.
[The] proliferation of newly discovered visual areas, many of which are specialised to process different aspects of the visual scene such as form, colour and motion, [raise] important questions about why the brain needs to process different attributes in different compartments […] vision is an essentially active search for essentials (21).
What Zeki proposes is that art, essentially, works the same way, or, shares the same purpose.
The neurological definition of art that I am proposing—that it is a search for constancies, during which the artist discards much and selects the essentials, and art is therefore an extension of the functions of the visual brain—is meant to have very broad applications (22).
By which he means that our aesthetic likes and dislikes are not covered under his thesis, but do rely upon it, because, “art must, after all, obey the laws of the brain” (125). And the laws are much more complex and fascinating then one might think. It is not simply a straight shot from “seeing” to “understanding,” both of these processes are more complex and more tightly bound to each other than previously imagined. The fun thing about Zeki’s work and passions, is that he looks to other vital areas of life, like love and art, to present evidence which science is newly discovering, but which art has always understood—at least insomuch as art unknowingly (innately?) exploits and reflects the brain’s method of organizing information. On the one hand, that seems obvious—painting (which is Zeki’s focus in this book) is obviously a ‘visual’ art and so it stands to reason that ‘successful’ art must obey visual parameters and preferences of line, color, form, and motion.
The brain, as it turns out, has highly specialized cells that are uniquely interested in single attributes—like color, form, or motion—and these cells are both concentrated in areas of the brain and also widely diffused (most dramatically in the cells concerned with form). More than that:
Recent experiments that have measured the relative times that it takes to perceive colour, form and motion show that these three attributes are not perceived at the same time, that color is perceived before form which is perceived before motion […] This suggests that the perceptual systems themselves are functionally specialized and that there is a temporal hierarchy in vision, superimposed upon spatially distributed parallel processing systems (66).
Fascinating stuff. The book expounds on all manner of visual maladies which have done a lot of work in showing just how specialized the processes are and then goes on to look at art (mostly modern) to point out philosophical consistencies between what artists (impressionists, cubists, modernists, fauvists) say they are trying to explore or achieve with what we know (which is some, but not all) neurologically about what the brain’s visual system tries to accomplish. Zeki’s brilliance is that he conjoins two disciplines for the same purpose. Artistic inquiry naturally has a longer, richer history than neurological inquiry, and yet the former seems to possess what artistic discourse lacks: the promise of quantitative and qualitative comprehension (seems to, at least….). Art has always been a difficult subject to capture in language, as Zeki writes,
Language is a relatively recent evolutionary acquisition, and it has yet to catch up with and match the visual system in its capacity to extract essentials so efficiently. To describe the power of art in words constitutes, in the lines of T. S. Eliot, ‘a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment’ (9).
All the same, sometimes we come out with some hilarious accuracy: Mondrian, for instance, whom we all know had a deep and abiding appreciation for the brain’s preference for horizontal and vertical lines, heroically defended the wisdom of our visual organizing system to Theo van Doesburg (founder of De Stijl group) writing to him:
Following the highhanded manner in which you have used the diagonal, all further collaboration between us has become impossible. For the rest, sans racune (115).
Well. What more can one say?
*painting by my daughter Victoria Accardi. To see more of her work go here.