The “Privileging” of Visual Art

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes —

Cover of Berman's book (detail)

Levy's painting "Mounting a Turbine" (detail)

LOS ANGELES, February 24 — CAA Panel: Is it Time to Question the “Privileging” of Visual Art?

Greta Berman, The Juilliard School – Synaesthesia: Art & The Mind
Ellen K. Levy, New York – CAA Interview

Except for Rosalind Krauss who overflowed the largest room of the conference, all the panels I have attended at CAA 2012 have been in 80 or 90% empty rooms. CAA is a large event, but the LA Convention Center is a gargantuan facility that is inappropriate for this conference. I understand that a conference that trades in the analysis and formation of culture wants to be in a large cultural hub, but the price, besides a probably hefty rental fee, is empty, listless rooms and long walks from room to room. It is as if CAA has done everything in its power to suck all life from this event, save, of course, for the densely packed trade show. A more realistically scaled venue with energized attendees packed close to energized presenters might evoke far more of the urgency that some of this week’s ideas deserve.

Since most of the rooms at CAA are mostly empty, it’s not fair to pick on this panel, still, when those presenting represent 8 of the 45 people in the room, you have to wonder if perhaps it isn’t time to move past the hegemony of the visual. Alternately the thin audience might suggest how pressing this topic is.

Ellen Levy opened by showing 8 videos and then offered, “This is a good time to question the privilege of visual art.”

I thought this panel would make the case for art modalities other than the visual. It did, but not through a perceptual or experiential appeal, but through a neuroscientific approach that considered the nature of brain and aesthetics. As one questioner from the audience put it, “the panel was labeled as questioning the visual, but it was really about exploring art and science.” Added another attendee: “Creativity and abstract thinking, is exploring the world creatively and conceptually which happens in many different fields.”


Seckel's webpage at UCSD

What Has Happened to the “Peak Shift” Theory & Other Related Ideas about Art?
Elizabeth Laura Seckel, University of California, San Diego
• Greta Berman, The Juilliard School

Elizabeth Laura Seckel began by asking, Do art and science meet? And answered “I think they do: in the human brain.”

She then spent the bulk of her time explaining Peak Shift and Synaesthesia. Peak Shift is a concept articulated by her mentor at UCSD, Villanor Ramachandran and synaesthesia is the crossing of two senses, for example a person who sees numbers in colors. The descriptions were a little bit lengthy so I won’t repeat them here, but they are quite fascinating and worth reading about if you’re interested.

Actually, I have long felt that Peak Shift says a lot about avatar bodies in virtual worlds. In a world of infinite embodiment possibilities, why do so many female avatars have enormous “Pamela Anderson” breasts? And why do so many male avatars have equally enormous “Arnold Schwarzenegger” biceps? Peak Shift is the idea of identifying the aspects of a thing… be it “rectangle” or “mother’s beak” or “female shape” or “male shape” and then exaggerating it, “subtracting” out the other to identify the most unique aspects of the thing.

From these ideas Seckel suggests the idea of “neuroaesthetics,” that what we like, while obviously do in large measure to culture, to “art history,” must be at least in some part, be due to our wiring, to our “neuroaesthetics.”

Yayoi Kusama installation photo from Chatterjee's flickr photostream

A Conversation about Ocular Centricity
• Ellen K. Levy, New York
Anjan Chatterjee, University of Pennsylvania

What is it about art beyond “beauty”

Semir Zeki – the father of neuroaesthetics.

Chatterjee: “Whether they’re installations or performances, a lot of artworks I’ve seen recently are experientially based.” Do we have an art instinct? It’s really hard to know. Animals have various instincts, but they’re very specific, predictable, and ubiquitous. “The Peacock’s Tail” – more sex, shorter life – is that what artists are doing?

The variability and unpredictability of art seem to make the “instinct” example the wrong example for art. The Bangalese finch has an instinct for song. When these birds were bred for color, and their mating song became unimportant, this “relaxation” seemed to allow for more diverse and improvisatory songs. Chatterjee thinks The Finch’s Song is a better model for art than The Peacock’s Tail. The relaxation allowing for diversity, experimentation and improvisation.

He thinks it would be really fruitful if neuroscientists and artists had more dialog together. “Neuroaesthetics” is actually a “hot new field” but also a long tradition.

Cover of Schoonover's book (detail)

Cover of Onians' book (detail)

An Interview with John Onians
Carl Schoonover, Columbia University
John Onians, University of East Anglia, Norwich

Schoonover: Has there been an emphasis on vision?

Onians: Yes, the sense of sight is SO important to us. As Leonardo said, “we need sight to find food and to find sex.” This “makes clear that sight is never only sight.” It draws on emotions, memories, hopes. “As soon as we seen something, we are drawing on all resources, including sensory modalities.”

Schoonover: Steven Pinker’s “Auditory Cheesecake” – “the brain has systems that respond… to music… but they’re nothing more than ’empty calories’ or ‘auditory cheesecake’”
“What do you make of Zeki’s view of painters as proto-neurologists?”

Onians: “I think he’s absolutely on the button.” “Leonardo described how he felt his judgement moving his hand without any conscious volition.” Mutual distrust betwen the humanities and the sciences? I have no trouble talking with Neuroscientists and Artists, they get it. It’s Philosophers and Art Historians that are a problem. The tend to lay so much Marxist or Psychoanalytic or other theory on everything. “That’s another 15th century Madonna that was made for this commission… that’s not what we were given brains for.” People like Kant had impovershed tools and so they adopted philosophic frameworks, “discourse theory” etc etc… you have to build up new neural pathways to get beyond these restrictive theoretical frameworks. When you read something, you are reconfiguring your neural network.

David Rosenboom & J. B. Floyd in performance

Brain Music
David Rosenboom, California Institute of the Arts

Rosenboom: “The one problem I have with the bird [Chatterjee’s analogy] and applying it to humans, is that I think good improvosizers really do have more fun.”

One can take a view of composing as making models of the universe that are propositional, and because we’re artists we can experience and explore them. “I got involved with music and the brian by getting involved in ‘biofeedback’ in the 1960’s.” “When we tried to take an analytic approach to this work we found that the ‘theories’ of music were not applicable. It seemed to some of us that were exploring that going inside the brain might be a place to start.”

We started calling this “experimental music.” “We were interested in extending the boundaries of experience.” “At that time (mid to late 1960’s) I got to experience some of the early work in brain bio-feedback.” I made quite a few pieces designed to explore [these new ideas]

1972: alpha waves: two participants sitting across from each other with a half-silvered mirror between them and lights over their heads. Depending on their alpha waves the light over their head goes up or down letting you see either yourself, or the person opposite you, depending on whose light is brighter.

Home Page of Ramakrishnan's website (detail)

Sniffing Booth
Siddharth Ramakrishnan, Columbia University

Sniffing Booth: a collaboration with Victoria Vesna, UCLA Art/Sci Collaborative. Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of umwelten or surrounding worlds – idea that different species share the same enviromnent but they have different “surrounding worlds.”

(I’ve actually thought about this idea a lot. Dogs have, I think, 10,000 times more sensors in their nose than humans do. Humans live in a rich, trichromatic visual world, whereas dogs are more impovershed dichromats. So when we walk down down the street with our dog it seems or we feel or imagine that I and my dog exist in one world, when in “reality” although we occupy the same physical space, we inhabit remarkably different perceptual worlds, and are walking down remarkably different streets.)

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