What is Art?

parvati2.jpgArt is a lie that makes us realize the truth’- Pablo Picasso

Some of Vilayanur Ramachandran's speculations about art and neuroscience;

“In particular what I'd like to do is raise the question: "Are there such things as artistic universals?" …

Let me put it somewhat differently. Let's assume that 90% of the variance you see in art is driven by cultural diversity or - more cynically - by just the auctioneer's hammer, and only 10% by universal laws that are common to all brains. The culturally driven 90% is what most people already study - it's called art history. As a scientist what I am interested in is the 10% that is universal - not in the endless variations imposed by cultures. The advantage that I and other scientists have today is that unlike we can now test our conjectures by directly studying the brain empirically. There's even a new name for this discipline. My colleague Semir Zeki calls it Neuro-aesthetics - just to annoy the philosophers.

I recently started reading about the history of ideas on art - especially Victorian reactions to Indian art - and it makes fascinating reading.

For example if you go to Southern India, you look at the famous Chola bronze of the goddess Parvati dating back to the 12th century. For Indian eyes, she is supposed to represent the very epitome of feminine sensuality, grace, poise, dignity, everything that's good about being a woman. And she's of course also very voluptuous.

But the Victorian Englishmen who first encountered these sculptures were appalled by Parvati, partly because they were prudish, but partly also just because of just plain ignorance.

They complained that the breasts were way too big, the hips were too big and the waist was too narrow. It didn't look anything like a real woman - it wasn't realistic - it was primitive art. And they said the same thing about the voluptuous nymphs of Kajuraho - even about Rajastani and Mogul miniature paintings. They said look these paintings don't have perspective, they're all distorted.

They were judging Indian art using the standards of Western art - especially classical Greek art and Renaissance art where realism is strongly emphasized.

But obviously this is a fallacy. Anyone here today will tell you art has nothing to do with realism. It is not about creating a realistic replica of what's out there in the world. …

But what's it got to do with the rest of art. Let's go back to the Chola bronze of Parvati. Let's talk about Indian art. Well the same principle applies. How does the artist convey the very epitome of feminine sensuality? What he does is simply take the average female form, subtract the average male form - you're going to get big breasts, big hips and a narrow waist. And then amplify it, amplify the difference. And you don't say: "My God, it's anatomically incorrect". You say: "Wow! What a sexy goddess!"

But that's not all there is to it because how do you bring in dignity, poise, grace?

Well what you do is something quite clever, what the Chola bronze artist does is something quite clever. There are some postures that are forbidden to a male. I can't stand like that even if I want to. But a woman can do it effortlessly. So what he does is he goes into an abstract space I call "posture space", and then subtracts the average male posture from the female and then exaggerates the feminine posture - and then you get elegant triple flexion - or tribhanga - pose, where the head is tilted one way, the body is tilted exactly the opposite way, and the hips again the other way. And again you don't say: "My God, that's anatomically inappropriate. Nobody can stand like that." You say: "My God! It's gorgeous. It's beautiful! It's a celestial goddess". So the image is extremely evocative and it's an example of the peak shift principle in Indian art.…

John Hyman criticizes neuroscientists’ interpretation of art.
The neurological basis of artistic universals
The Cognitive Science of Art
Pamela Anderson and the hindu goddesses
PsyArt is an online, peer-reviewed journal featuring articles using a psychological approach to the arts.
What makes us human?The unfortunate 'rat people' of Pakistan could provide the answer.

From Mirror Neurons to Mona Lisa- Visual Art and the Brain
Cognitive science podcasts from Science and the City
The Lost Temples of India
Ramachandran interview-starts in the middle of the program
Miscellaneous; Short videos of well-known visual illusions, Brain and Behavior, The Exploratorium; Seeing, Vision Experiments, Ramachandran's own page of illusions
Dissociation between cat brain and cat's anatomy


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on August 26, 2006 1:54 PM.

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