Monday, June 22, 2009

Art at the Schönbrunn zoo in Vienna

"The artist-duo Steinbrener/Dempf have set up six installations in several enclosures at Schönbrunn zoo - from a sunken car wreck in the rhino pen, railroad tracks in the bison enclosure to toxic waste in the aquarium. The installations are designed to interfere with our notions of idyllic wildlife and question the authenticity of places like zoos which recreate 'natural' environments for animals that are increasingly endangered".

As seen in the Guardian.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"The neurological basis of artistic universals"

I heard V.S. S. Ramachandran discuss this on UCTV and thought it was interesting. Essentially - many of the compositional techniques artists use are described as having evolutionary/neurological reasons/effects.

A clip:
There are hundreds of types of art; Classical Greek art, Tibetan art, Khmer art, Chola bronzes, Renaissance art, impressionism, expressionism, cubism, fauvism, abstract art; the list is endless. But despite this staggering diversity of styles, are there some general principles or "artistic universals" that cut across cultural boundaries? Can we come up with a "science of Art"? Science and art seem like such fundamentally antithetical pursuits; one is a quest for general principles whereas the other is a celebration of human individuality — so that the very notion of a "science of art" seems like an oxymoron. Yet that’s what I will suggest in this chapter — that our knowledge of human vision and of the brain is now sophisticated enough that we can speculate intelligently on the neural basis of art and maybe begin to construct a scientific theory of artistic experience. Saying this, as we shall see, does not in any way detract from the originality of the individual artist, for the manner in which she deploys these universal principles is entirely up to her. (After all, knowing the rules of grammar does not diminish our appreciation of Shakespeare’s genius!)

There are other problems too. What, if any, is the key difference between "kitsch" art and the real thing? Some would argue that what’s kitsch for one person might be high art for another — that the judgment is entirely subjective. objectively distinguish the kitsch from the real, how complete is that theory and in what sense can we claim to have really understood the meaning of art? One reason for thinking that there’s a genuine difference is that one can "mature" into liking real art after having once enjoyed kitsch, but it’s virtually impossible to slide back into kitsch from having once known the delights of high art. Yet the difference between the two remains tantalizingly elusive. I speculate here on the possibility that real art involves the "proper" and effective deployment of certain artistic universals, whereas kitsch merely goes through the motions — as if to make a mockery of the principles without a genuine gut-level understanding of them....

To assert that there might be universals in art does not in any way diminish the important role of culture in the creation and appreciation of art. Indeed if this weren’t true there wouldn’t be different styles of art - Renaissance, impressionism, cubism, Indian art, etc. As a scientist, though, my interest is not in the differences between different artistic styles but in principles that cut across cultural barriers.

Here is a tentative list of my ten laws of art:

1) Peak shift
2) Grouping
3) Contrast
4) Isolation
5) Perceptual problem solving
6) Symmetry
7) Abhorrence of coincidences/generic viewpoint
8) Repetition, rhythm and orderliness
9) Balance
10) Metaphor

But it isn’t enough to just list these laws or describe them in detail; we need a coherent biological perspective for thinking about them. In particular, when exploring any universal human trait such as humor, music, art, language we need to keep in mind three basic questions — roughly speaking what, why and how. First, what is the internal logical structure of the particular trait you are looking at (corresponding roughly to what I call laws)? Second, why does the particular trait have the logical structure it does? What is the biological function it evolved for? Third, how is the trait or law mediated by the neural machinery in the brain?

Let me illustrate with a concrete example — the law of "grouping" discovered by the Gestalt psychologists around the turn of the century. Figure 4 shows a striking example of this. All you see at first is a set of random splotches, but after several seconds you start grouping some of the splotches together and start seeing a Dalmatian dog sniffing the ground. The brain "glues" the dog-splotches together to form a single object and you get an internal "Aha!" sensation as if you have just solved a problem. In short, the grouping feels good.

.........For a detailed analysis, I refer you to my forthcoming book The Artful Brain. This text is an edited extract of Chapter 4.

(A previous essay about the Eight Laws was published in The Journal of Consciousness Studies 6, 1999: Art and the Brain, ed. J. Goguen.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Art, art and more art

Some of the highlights of my recent forays over to France, the Netherlands and Denmark...

The Nymphéas at Musée de l'Orangerie (by Monet) - one of the best things created by a person, ever. There was also a great collection of art there, in addition.

Impression Sunrise and the Berthe Morisot paintings at the Musée Marmottan.

The Kandinsky show at the Centre Pompidou.

The Camille Claudel sculptures at the Musée Rodin.

Various galleries in Paris - esp. those in the Rue de Seine area.

Musée National du Moyen Age-Thermes de Cluny - esp. the Lady and the Unicorn series of Tapestries.

Various Dejeuner sur l'herbe paintings at the Musée d'Orsay (Including Manet's and Monet's), plus Monet's Poppies at Argenteuil .

The gardens/ponds at Monet's place in Giverny.

The Musée des Impressionnismes Giverny - the museum as well as the poppy field.

The gardens of the Hotel Baudy.

(I recommend staying at The Robins).

The Van Gogh Museum. They even had Starry Night from the MOMA - for their Van Gogh and the colours of the night exhibit. I also enjoyed seeing his progression/change when he went to Paris to study art.

The Van Gogh Museum is sticking to the old story - but there is a new book out by by Hans Kaufmann and Rita Wildegans of Hamburg University, Van Goghs Ohr, making the case that that Gauguin cut part of Van Gogh's ear off in a fight. Gauguin fled after that - Van Gogh covered up for his friend. I'm inclined to believe this version. (link to article in the

The Vermeers and Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum. Also Amsterdams Historical Museum. Various art galleries in Amsterdam.

The NationalMuseet in Copenhagen - prehistoric and Viking art & metals. The Gauguins at the Ny Carlsberg Glytotek. The Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen. I enjoyed seeing the Danish versions of various modern art movements.

Randers Kunstmuseum & Kulturhistorisk Museum Randers.

The Louisiana Museum for Moderne Kunst in Humlebæk, Denmark - great modern collection.

And back in the States - on my detour home - I was able to see the Hudson Valley Center-Contemporary, in Peekskill, NY - which had a great show - Origins. It included: Zhang Huan, Ash Army, Bruce Bickford's animation, Prometheus Garden, Huma Bhabha's Fear Eats the Soul and Anselm Kiefer's Rorate Caeli.

I also visited the Storm King Art Center - I esp. wanted to see Maya Lin's Wave Field - but the whole thing was great.

And MASS MoCA. esp. the Anselm Kiefer show. I love how he does textures and landscapes.