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.