Sunday, March 7, 2010

If you don't like Picasso you're in denial.

If you don't like Picasso you're in denial.
So says V.S. Ramachandran, who's a neurologist investigating scientific explanations as to how and why we respond to art.
Of course I don't agree, and I'll explain why.

(skip to about 1:17 onwards for the Picasso bit)

It's as long as a movie, so I watched it in short bursts of ten minutes or so at a time since I have the attention span of an aphid, but it's fascinating. Definitely well worth watching the whole thing.
I'm going to paraphrase a lot, so watch the lecture for the man in his own words.

He points out how certain rules of thumb that are present in art relate to and stimulate certain known areas of the brain which have very specific functions.

For example, he suggests that multiple views of the face in one image, such as you see in cubism, stimulate brain cell a) frontal face recognition, brain cell b) profile recognition, and brain cell c) three quarter view recognition, all which then go to a master cell for remembering or recognizing an individual's face, which gets 3 times the stimulation as normal.
So cubist art has an intense effect on our more primitive brain which then stimulates an emotional response.

One thing he wants to do is explain Picasso's genius, and his arguments hinge on his assumption that his key prediction will turn out to be true.

That prediction, which is untested so far, is that everyone will have a measurably excited skin response to Picasso (which is unconscious).
This is of course because Picasso is a genius.
The skin response shows that the work is having an emotional effect on our 'primitive brains'.

But he is assuming Picasso is a genius.
I propose that notion is a con.

Anyway, he predicts our response would be like how seagull chicks get over excited by an abstracted and exaggerated representation of their parent's beak.
The parent bird's yellow beak has a bright red spot on it.
Three red stripes (instead of one red spot) on a rectangular yellow strip (not even beak-shaped), presented to a chick without the rest of its mother being present, excites a begging response even greater and more frenzied than the response to the normal real beak of the chick's actual mother.

If seagulls had art galleries, Ramachandran points out, they would all worship the artist who made a long yellow rectangle with 3 red stripes on it and pay millions for it, without knowing why.
The reason why is that the brain ignores irrelevant details, focusing the chick's attention on the key visual element of importance; the recognition of the beak.

And it's made even easier for the chick by not even needing to recognize the beak's shape, only a key element or two (red spot on yellow background).
And now it's got 3 times the stimulus (3 red stripes) so it gets over stimulated and goes nuts.

The thing is, lots of people I know don't like Picasso.
Some who don't like his work may begrudgingly admit he must be a genius since the experts say it's so.

But does Picasso really tap into the 'primitive brain' as Ramachandran assumes (ie IS Picasso a genius?), or did his work instead appeal to elaborate intellectual theorizing, while having little visceral effect (ie have we been conned)?
Did the adoption of his art by intellectuals become the reason for him being proclaimed a genius by those same people who were busy doing the theorizing?

I'm guessing V.S. Ramachandra has 'bought into' the established opinion of Picasso as genius, and therefore assumes Picasso is a great artistic genius, and expects his skin test results to prove it.
I think it would be funny if the results showed no more response to Picasso than to average 'control' tests.

And when asked why some people don't like Picasso, Ramachandran says that they do like Picasso on a visceral, underlying, more primitive subconscious level, but they don't let themselves admit it because the more advanced modern brain tells them it would be silly to like something that doesn't look real, or other reasons like that.
Our reasons for not liking it are revealed as 'the emperor's new clothes'.
We're just kidding ourselves that we don't like it.
He says we're in denial if we say we don't like Picasso.

But that's only if his assumption of Picasso's artistic genius is correct.

But what if it turns out his assumption is wrong?
What if it's the case that Picasso appealed to the 'higher brains' of the intellectuals of his day, which allowed them to get all Freudian with their theories (or whatever was the fashion at the time), while Picasso's work was actually leaving people's primitive brains un-tickled?

That trend (incomprehensible art-speak about incomprehensible imagery) would seem to have accelerated since Picasso's time.

If testing shows that to be the case, the emperor's 'new clothes' would turn out to be the opposite:
It would be Picasso's genius that turned out to be phoney, people only believing it because they've been told to by experts all this time.

I think a lot of testing will shed a lot of light over time. I'm very interested to find out what results show about people's underlying, physically measurable responses to various artistic stimuli.

I think that during testing people shouldn't know if they are looking at touted geniuses or vilified hacks or the work of kids or even animals during the testing. And control elements should of course be added of simple photos of faces, people, nudes, objects, hard to discern photos of unusual viewpoints of ordinary objects, almost random photo's of mud puddles, blurred bushes, as well as ordinary viewpoints of ordinary objects, and unusual objects, etc etc.

With a great deal of data and analysis, some predictable, repeatable effects to certain stimuli will no doubt be discovered.

If it turns out my, and many other people's smart modern brains don't like Picasso while our primitive brain responds, I can live with that. OK Ramachandran, I must be in denial!

If it turns out people's smart modern brains have been convinced that Picasso is a genius, while their primitive brain shows no significant response, I can live with that too.
I'd be surprised if it wasn't the case.

I read that Picasso made 86,000 artifacts.
Out of 86,000 completely random artifacts taken by a camera on a timer attached to a roaming cat I suspect some would stimulate the primitive brain by pure chance!
So some response, to some of anyone's work would be expected. But enough to be hailed a genius? How much would that take?

For instance, a photo of a bush with say a rock behind it (accidentally taken by the cat) would stimulate our primitive desire to make sense of partially obscured objects (is that a lion?).

I'm curious to see if I just 'don't get it' with regard to so much modernism, and other -isms, or if the hypothesis that people have been getting the wool pulled over their eyes for a long time is true (I suspect it is).
My curiosity can live with either outcome.
I'll keep doing doing what has value for me all the same.

This kind of stuff is really interesting. Science should try and tackle all natural phenomena in my view, including what makes us tick. I'm glad V.S. Ramachandran is having a crack at this no-man's land in his enthusiastic way, I know I'm capable of self delusion, as are many others.

I also know people are susceptible to accepting all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons.
Even things that seem to make no sense on any level.

So am I in denial or not? I suppose only time and lots of testing will tell...

p.s. I recommend listening to all of V.S. Ramachandran's lecture since my paraphrasing hardly does the man justice! His delivery is great, too!

click these links to visit my website... - Sculpture that loves you back
or my Etsy store, CritterVille


Tonya Vollertsen said...

I never particularly liked Picasso either but I thought he was considered a genius more for the innovation of Cubism than his general works.
I don't understand why a food and hunger response in a chick would presuppose an art response in humans. That seems like apples to oranges to me. This would only be helpful information to restaurant owners and fast food chains in my opinion. People don't respond to art in the same way they respond to hunger stimuli.
Interesting concept though. Wouldn't it be awful to find that there was one art concept or pattern that would stimulate everyone?

Steve sculpts critters said...

Here's what I got from it: the chick's brain responds to the stimulus (which happens not to resemble food) of a red spot on a yellow background. An abstracted and exaggerated version of the stimulus elicits an exaggerated response.

A range of visual stimuli in art elicit a emotional responses in our brains, and if the elements that are causing the response are exaggerated, so will be our emotional response.

I think his premise is that brains respond in different ways to various kinds of stimuli (some food related, some sex related, some emotionally related etc).

And a 'hyper response' can happen if the key element responsible for a normal response is exaggerated.

I think that's what he's saying.

Since people are turned on sexually by some many things in so many ways, I think it's safe to assume people will be turned on by different art stimuli in numerous different ways too.

I'd be surprised to find there was one art concept or pattern that stimulated everyone, and I don't think that will ever turn out to be the case!

V.S. says he's isolated a bunch of different sorts of stimuli (he lists them on his website). You can also find them by reading landscape composition books published a hundred years ago. And I wouldn't be surprised to find some people showed preferences for some of the isolated stimuli, and indifference to others.

People's pre-disposition to respond to a,b,c, and be indifferent to x,y,z, would explain how wildly different art styles which seem incompatible appeal to different people.

You might be right about the fast food chains...
Maybe McDonalds are on to something after all with the yellow and red logo! Maybe they discovered there's a chick brain in all of us!

Anonymous said...

I think that perhaps the word "like" is causing some problems in this conversation.

Implying that someone likes something- to me- implies a choice. Implying someone has a neurological response to something has little to do with their preferences.

As the Doctor said himself "we have 25 brains", I think that what we "like" is determined by all of them. If three parts of our brain have a primitive response but that response is over ridden by higher thinking, then we don't "like" it. It's not denial, it's our brain making sense of everything we feel and everything we have learned. That's what our brain does.

I certainly don't think Picasso thought he was tickling some primitive brain function in his art. People responded to his work though- so he continued to do what worked. Is that genius? Probably not. He did push boundaries, and he challenged and inspired people. That might make him a genius.

McDonalds is well aware of the little chick in all of us. Red and Yellow are natural hunger stimulants. They tickle our primitive brain all the time. It's our higher brain that lets us know the food is rubbish.

Love your work! Love your posts!

Steve sculpts critters said...

That's right.
It's not denial, it veto.
Works for me!

(and who was that masked commenter?)

Bob Coady said...

With respect to the title "If you don't like Picasso you're in denial," like most people I feel everyone should be entitled to their opinion, and I don't imagine one's honesty or level of self-awareness should really be in question. There does seem to be validity to the art/science connection to be sure. e.g., Although the golden mean (or golden ratio) may correspond to an aesthetic that can be mathematically described, rationalized and supported, it doesn't necessarily follow that an artist who applies it does so with a clinical scientific or mathematical awareness. Artists will generally attempt to do what feels "right" regardless of medium or technique. If the artist is especially gifted, perhaps, (and since we are all products of the natural world ourselves) their work might often correspond to what tends to cause effective, pleasurable responses in nature (critical use of focal points, balance points, awareness of interference patterns, even ratios of limb joints, or the spiral on a sea shell). Picasso and others' heightened innate sensitivity to this, their ability to use the information to manipulate responses, and their willingness to challenge preconceived notions or to explore new creative frontiers could, I think, be considered genius, but the claim made by the title remains debatable. It's a bit like telling me if I don't like Shiraz I'm in denial.

Thanks, Steve, for your thought-provoking essay and for drawing our attention to the video.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Okay, I spent some time today and watched this fascinating video. I had made my previous comment strictly on your synopsis(not that you didn't do a good job) but now that I have seen the whole video I think there are some valid points about the brain and the connection to art response. However, I think there is a little bit of a skip in reality with the conclusions.
The idea that someone "likes" something because they react to it, to me is not conclusive in itself. I wonder if the reactions could be the same as people who partake of alcohol and react differently. ie: one person likes the feeling of losing control and the next person detests that feeling although both are being stimulated in the same fashion.
So using that analogy on being stimulated with the work of Picasso, one person could actually dislike the feeling and another could love the feeling although both were being bombarded in the brain area with the same amount of stimuli. Thus, just because you don't like Picasso doesn't mean you are in denial. It just means you don't fancy that particular type of stemuli...... So there! LOL! It was a very thought provoking clip and I took quite a few notes, so thank you for bringing this to my attention. i am so wanting your curious mouse! I have to figure out how to acquire one.

Steve sculpts critters said...

That's a totally valid point!

My niggling suspicion goes like this: V.S. is basing his expectation that extreme brain stimulation will be shown to occur when subjects are shown work by Picasso. This is because presumably everyone already knows Picasso is an artistic genius.

But is Picasso's reputation the result of Picasso really stimulating brains, and really being an artistic genius?
Or is it possible he isn't really the art genius we've been told he is?

Could his reputation have been manufactured by a bunch of his contemporaries telling us of his greatness, and then using his work as an excuse to go on about their own intellectual theories, which Picasso's work neither confirms nor denies?

If that's the case, V.S. will be left scratching his head when subjects brains don't light up like fireworks when (unknown to the subjects) they are shown work by Picasso.

Those pictures would have to mixed in randomly with work by a range of others, from reputed artists, to those declared hacks, to paintings made by animals, random spatter created by cars driving past canvas, natural phenomena etc etc so the results are not tainted by the subjects pre-conceived idea of greatness (although, I suppose it could be argued that it wouldn't matter - on a sub-conscious level of response).

In Picasso's case, I am inclined not to believe the hype. And I'm curious to see if brain scans will show that I'm really missing something, or not.

Or will it really light up some brains and not others, proving that beauty is in the eye of the beholder?

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Well, you know, there was that part about the different parts of the brain that react to different views of a persons head and having several views available at once stimulating the single cell in an overwhelming fashion. That doesn't prove that all other Picasso paintings or drawings etc. are equally innovative and stimulating, and ...., genius? Does it?

Steve sculpts critters said...

Yes, he was explaining his hypothesis but he admits it has yet to be tested.
He hasn't tested it (at least not so far as I know, not at the time of recording the lecture anyway).
He kept saying 'you can test this' and even that you can come back in a week after testing it and say "you're full of it" and then at least he would know it's wrong and can go off and develop a new hypothesis.

He said 'we're looking into it'.

He's explaining what he expects the results to show, based on his expectation that Picasso will seriously pop people's corks and his knowledge of brain function.

I'd love to know the results of testing his hypothesis, with lots of controls and red herrings built in to the tests.