Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thoughts on painting II

The Aesthetic Experience

Painting is a visual art, it communicates through sight. Although it may use symbolic elements (images, or other symbolic tokens) as part of its construct, paintings communicative power occurs when it evokes an ‘aesthetic experience’ as a result of the sum total of these constructs in both their visual and conceptual (symbolic) forms. Some will argue that the visual is primary, that form and content are coincident, but in thinking about the aesthetic experience I disagree. I believe that the ‘retinal’ and the ‘conceptual’ coexist in a fashion similar to a quantum state, where both exist simultaneously and it makes little sense to elevate one over the other.

In thinking about how one experiences a painting, I began by analyzing what actually happens as a sequence of events over time. I wanted to make a subtle distinction between what I will describe as the ‘subconscious’ or primordial event and the intuitive event. Some may want to think that this distinction is either not there or unnecessary, I don’t. The process in the order I think it occurs.

The primordial event.
I’m suggesting this is a near instantaneous subconscious form of perception which may be in part genetic, as a form of ‘filtering’ in the brain. There is considerable evidence that visual perception is the result of a processing activity which occurs within the brain. The information, as signals from the retina, is processed into an ‘image’ by the brain. However this happens, the brain does perform certain filtering processes, some of which must have had survival benefits for the species in the past. Some of the filtering operations are designed to enhance our awareness of the environment and some seem to exist to trigger other psychological responses which have had a survival benefit. These processing events are not limited to the human species.

The intuitive event.
If you so desire you can say, my primordial event is something that is ‘intuitive’ It really doesn’t matter because, regardless if you make the distinction or not, what I described as the primordial event happens first. It is the minimum basis for intuition.

‘Intuition’ must occur in the brain. Intuition is described as ‘direct knowledge’ which occurs without ‘conceptualizing’ (the cognitive). An event which occurs ‘without conceptualizing’, that is, without active cognitive thought, must use whatever information is already present in the brain. Since there is no way to get information into the brain other than experience, this would have to include both the primordial and memory directly acquired through ones life experience.

The cognitive event.
This is the active process of thinking, reasoning, remembering, imagining, or learning about what we are seeing. It’s the stuff we talk and think about.


Since intuition has no way of occurring without some form of previously acquired knowledge (awareness) in the brain it must be evoked based upon the (prior) knowledge of the viewer. There is no reason why ‘intuition’ need be rational, in fact with little prior experience or because of psychological or neural disorders, it may well not be.

If ones ‘intuition’ can be improved over time, for example by looking at a lot of excellent paintings, then this suggests that the ‘intuitive response’ is indirectly affected by prior memories which were in part the result of cognitive thought and reasoning. If not, then it can only be a result of the primordial response, which I do not think is the case.

While intuition may be ‘the direct knowing’ of something, this does not in fact suggest what one intuits is correct. People have the wrong intuition about things all the time. Again, this would suggest that ‘good intuition’ is partly a result of good training or conditioning of the mind. The longer we work with something, the more intuitive it may become.

In the cognitive process, one may subject a painting to rational (or irrational for that matter) analysis and try to understand ‘why one had such a strong intuitive response’ I would suggest that these cognitive activities add up as (abstracted) memories which provide part of the basis for later ‘intuitive responses’ by reinforcing particular aspects of ones visual responses by repetitive focus.

If my assumptions are correct we can conclude that the ‘intuitive’ experience will be affected by the knowledge of the viewer, what we might call their ‘taste.’ This will have a direct affect on the ‘aesthetic experience,’ their emotional or gut response to a painting. As a result both the visual and cognitive components of a painting combine to produce the aesthetic response. Beauty is more than skin deep.


arthur said...

Its impressive that you're trying to put forth a full-scale theory of aesthetic response (and perhaps interpretation) on an art blog. I haven't read every single post of yours, but would not have expected something like this. Your blog is one of the more intelligent ones certainly, but still, this is ambitious. I'm not sure if this post particularly coherent (I'll have to read it over again, probably after drinking copious amounts of coffee). I assume that it is speculative and preliminary.

You need to do more with this. Hopefully, it won't take several months for you to begin. In particular, I would be interested in whether or not you can relate this cognitivist and naturalistic perspective with your interests in specific modern and contemporary artists, as well as their social, cultural and historical background.

I don't really know who you are, but I think that the above is an important future direction for theorizing about art. Its almost certain that there are people out there in the world more qualified to do so than you (or I, needless to say). But these people probably don't pay attention to blogs and probably lack street-level knowledge of what young artists are trying to do.

George said...


I'm a painter with several years experience not a theoretician.

In arguing the merits of various paintings with other artists the question of the aesthetic experience occasionally became a difficult topic of discussion because it was hard to define. The initial impetus happened when another painter and I went to see an exhibition of Pollock’s works on paper. I noticed that the other museum goers would cluster in front of certain drawings. I made a comment to my friend about this because, I thought the drawings in question were stronger. He suggested it might be because the viewers knew they were Pollock’s. I replied that was why they were there in the first place, but wasn’t it interesting how they gravitated towards certain works?

We ended up discussing the ideas for several hours afterwards. I told him that several months ago I had suggested that the aesthetic experience might be somehow genetic. It seemed to me that certain visual responses might have survival value for the species. For example, how the sky looks gives a warning about the weather, take shelter or take a walk. The face of a baby. A smile may be more than just a friendly greeting, it can be an indication of the health of a prospective partner. Still, on my part it is all speculation.

Later, I tried analyze the process abstractly based upon my own experience and from what I had observed in others. Today I noticed that in the NY Times there is an article, "An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong" which suggests that moral decisions might be genetic. The article also mentioned Naom Chomsky’s proposals that language ability is genetic trait.

I have started writing some thoughts I have on the state of painting as we enter this new century. I want to look at the state of the art empirically, with the idea that any form of critical thought should be subject to value testing. Does the philosophy fit the facts? In the current discourse there seems to be a polarization over the conceptual and visual (Duchamps ‘retinal’), both sides desiring to claim priority for their point of view as a path towards great art. I think this is incorrect, that both aspects are important and integral to the process. So before I moved forward, I wanted to establish a point of view about the aesthetic experience because I think it is central to what is considered great art.

I appreciate your comments, feel free to join in.

Chris Rywalt said...

This is an excellent beginning. It sounds like you may need a heap more background to really tackle this subject; in its outlines I think you have the right idea, but a lot of people have been over this ground before, I suspect.

I'd recommend reading Consilience by Edward O. Wilson and Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson to start. From there you can branch out all over the place.

It seems to me you've got a good start, though. Some things are certainly programmed into human hardware (to use a metaphor). Babies recognize the basic shape of the human face very early, for example. Babies are programmed to respond to faces. When you see an infant -- under six months old -- try sticking out your tongue at them. If you get the chance to repeat it a couple of times, the baby will most likely stick their tongue back out at you. (Then again the parents may chase you away with a rolled-up newspaper.)

I've been saying for a while now that my drawings use the viewer's brain to complete them. I just make marks on the paper -- sometimes very few marks. It requires a viewer to turn those marks into, for example, a naked woman. If human brains were programmed differently, my drawings wouldn't work.

The sensory filtering and processing mechanism of the human brain is vast and largely unknown, but very interesting to read about.