Thursday, July 31, 2014

Abstract Art (pt. 6)

But can the human mind comprehend "random"?  Michael Shermer, author and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, has written an article on what he calls "patternicity"—the brain's ability to connect sequences and find order in random phenomena.  Commonly referred to as pareidolia or apophenia, this condition of the mind finds patterns and systems within otherwise chaotic environments or situations.  In the post-WWI world which we are studying, notions regarding this study within neuroscience were characterized under the invention of the psychological inkblot test by Hermann Rorschach in 1921.  This staple of modern psychology is one with which we are all familiar on an anecdotal sense.  A white card, stained randomly on one side with spilled ink and then folded to create a symmetrical image, is presented to a viewer who then expresses what he or she believes to see within the stain upon first glance.  In Kandinsky's day, this test was used for diagnosis of mental illness, but it has since grown to operate within much broader functions to apply to personality tests and other psychological studies.  It demonstrates the ability of the mind to find meaning within abstraction and see structure in anarchy.  Shermer's article on patternicity, published in Scientific American in 2008, pushes the concept to argue that our minds constantly do this and that in fact "our brains are belief engines."  Supporting evidence for Shermer's article comes from the 2008 study conducted by Harvard University professor Kevin R. Foster and Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki (Finland) and published in the leading research journal of the Royal Society's Biological Sciences field.  Although both the article and the peer reviewed study examine the operations of "patternicity" within the context of Evolutionary Theory (and consequently remain within the category of pseudoscience), the thought is relevant to our look at Abstract Art.
Remember back to Michelangelo's fresco of The Creation of Adam, where God stretches his arm down from Heaven to touch Adam's hand; and there is a space between their two index fingers.  They do not make contact, but our mind's eye fills in the gap; it connects the dots, so to speak, even though they are left open.  People describe the work as "Adam touching God," when in fact the opposite is true.  They are not touching, and given the historical context of Renaissance Humanism we can see that the work's entire point is to show that this disconnectedness is Adam's fault.  But what is it about our perception that we find in images things that aren't really there?  This comes back to haunt us here and now with Kandinsky's artwork.  Do you see anything in these paintings?  Isn't this just a completely random combination of colors and shapes on a canvas which contains no implicit meaning or message?  If it is truly random, then what are the implications for art?  Is art something random?  Up to this point, we have looked at a whole history of Western art and have no doubt found a fair amount of inherent significance in the study.  I have humbly sought to explicate several important works of art and communicate something of their meaning and importance within the field of art history.  But supposing we come now to a painting that has no latent meaning, an invention which can't be explained through artistic terms or any terms?  In the context of art's historical sequence, paintings like these of Kandinsky come as total backlashes against not just the previous generation but against the structure of art on a whole.  Like the Dada movement in the early 1920s, this style of painting is attempting to deconstruct art theory.  It gives us an opportunity to look closer inside the medium and inspect the elements we've seen up to this point for establishing a definition, or at least a clear understanding, of art.
The surprising thing about music which we learn when we study music theory is that it is very mathematical.  Jazz, however consistent with other musical forms, is arguably the least mathematical of genres because it deconstructs the structured order of compositions.  (Don't get me wrong: jazz—at least the jazz developing around this time, the post-WWI Modern period—retains much dependence on formula; but it, probably more than any other style of music, pulls away from that).  So, is art mathematical?  What is structured in art that needs to be disassembled?  I'm not just talking about craft or the making of art.  Does the body of Western artwork which we have studied up to now contain some overarching formula for construction, like the Ancient Egyptian grid system that dominated hieroglyphic art styles during the Middle Kingdom?  Do we see mathematics in G√©ricault's Raft of the Medusa or geometry in Murillo's Return of the Prodigal Son?  A 2010 article from The Guardian, quoting chairman of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage Silvano Vinceti, expressed the views held by some experts that the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's famous masterpiece, contains hidden symbols of numbers and letters within the scene and even in the figure's own facial features.  What do such findings indicate—that art is truly mathematical in formula, or that it is merely our own minds looking for patterns and structures within a flat surface of randomized shapes and colors?

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