Sunday, September 12, 2010

Biology, evolving aesthetic, and perception

Our evolutionary history has defined the continuum of what we find beautiful. The biological wellspring our species' aesthetic is a matrix of cues, colors, shapes, and an awareness of solidity or fluidity embedded primarily in the sensory cortices of the brain.

Resting atop this is the associative neocortex. With this newly evolved forebrain we've not only generated cultural elaborations on aspects of our innate sense of beauty, but we've also bootstrapped our feelings of aesthetic pleasure into the world of abstracts. In our species a math formula, scientific theory, or strings of software code can evoke the same sense of elegance or harmony that a landscape or deftly rendered portrait might.

Occasionally there are works of art that stimulate both the older and more recently evolved wetware systems to create an experience on both the aesthetic and rational levels. Two of my favorite artists of the mid 20th century who nail this are Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein. Their spring period and blue works initially appear to be nonsensical chaos, but these pieces quickly become arresting. Somewhere in that white noise on canvas is mesmerizing a pseudo order that teases us.

And that would be pattern recognition.

One of the basic functions of our brains' cross-talking sensory modules is to pull order out of the jumbled impressions that the world throws at us. Thus we sometimes see shapes in clouds, faces on our nearest celestial neighbor, and all manner of semi-hidden threads of meaning in the events taking place around us.

The fractal chaos of Pollock and the almost subliminal texture of Klein's supersaturated pieces challenge us at this level. They push the preconscious filters of our biological minds to chase after suggestions of regularity embedded under or within the chaos.

And with good reason too. We are surrounded move through the artificial world and occasionally out in the natural world, and hidden within both are patterns of cause and effect. Some can be discerned only through careful observations and reason, and others very quickly through intuition and an animal-like situational awareness.

As the visual signals from any graphic artwork traverse the brain's sensory switchboard and then the visual cortices, indicative colors, critical shapes, and important motions are tagged with meaning in order to standout in our awareness. Shapes are assembled into objects, human faces are identified and their emotive expressions are recognized and sympathetically reflected by specialized neuronal pathways. Thus a coherent awareness of the artwork emerges. This visual feed is refreshed several times each second, even as additional cascading emotional cues fire and semantic associations are made between the piece and existing internal bodies of knowledge.

In the case of Pollock and Klein, there are no fixed shapes or content for the mind to settle on, only underlying suggestions of pattern without finished forms. Almost as though order has been divorced from substance and taken on its own Platonic life.

And there is also the raw stimulation of colors, with dozens of possible meanings on this level. Though even here, the lack of set shapes deprives us the context needed to definitively assign a hue any single emotion or material association.

This kind of stimulation--the emotional reaction and rational realization of why it works so well--is part of why I love going to art museums. There is both the power of the initial impression and followed by the fun of thinking out the underlying reasons behind it.

And there is another level of understanding that can be reached in museums. One not found  in any single piece, but seen in the collection as a whole. That would be human cultural evolution.

Most institutions group works by period, so paintings tend to grow more complex as you move from room to room and advance through the centuries. Along the way, deliberate perspective enters the artistic took kit, and greater efforts are made for realism and even historical accuracy.

There are also similar patterns of development in far-flung societies with regards to the topics of depiction. At first the natural world predominates, with spiritual and then historical themes joining the mix. During periods of increased commercial activity, human beings and facets of their lives seem to move to the fore. There are striking similarities in themes between ink drawings in 14th century Song China during its mercantile revolution and the paintings of Renaissance Italy.

Then these trends swing back. Industrialism can spark a return to nature as a topic of the visual arts, though often in a highly romanticized form. Nascent nationalism as societies transition from kingdoms to nation-states often brings about a disregard for historical veracity in favor of national myth making. Complexity can invert to simplicity when modernity begins to clutters life with cheap consumer goods. Periods of stylization can displace realism or lead to whole new territories of abstraction.

In art museums you can glimpse the interplay between biology, culture, and technology playing out over time.

Which leads me back to my previous post on why I write science fiction within the context of human evolution and try to incorporate aspects of our developmental history into the lives and struggles of my characters. In the next post I'll discuss some of the specifics of doing so within the SF and fantasy genres.


Women In Art from Philip Scott Johnson on Vimeo.

Morphing by digital artist Philip Scott Johnson

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