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How Art Made the World (Review)–A Naturalistic Explanation 12 July 2006

Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Culture, Evolution, Painting & Sculpture, Religion, Reviews.
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PBS’s new series How Art Made the World has really captivated me over the past couple weeks. The first two episodes combine art history with cognitive science and neurobiology, archaelogy, human evolution, and anthropology—interdisciplinary inquiry at its best. Dr. Michael Spivey (Art Historian, Cambridge University) narrates, easily moving back and forth between between various disciplines to explain the human need for and ability to create representation in two-dimensional images and three-dimensional sculpture. The questions asked move beyond art criticism to explore why humans create certain kinds of images and why certain kinds of representations seem to produce heightened pleasure in our consumption of art. My inner Deweyan loves the way Spivey’s explanations seamlessly blend scientific knowledge with interpretive discussions of art’s meaning. My only quibble, especially in the 2nd episode, was that the narrative is a kind of triumphal progression: each episode begins with a mystery and ends with The Answer. Although it makes for great educational television, the social scientist in me would blanched at Dr. Spivey’s certainty about his answers; I would have prefered a more open ended, provisional answer (especially where archaelogical speculation is concerned!).

mujeres-mitologias-venus-of-willendorf-palaeolithic-gravetian-austria-25000-20000-bce-facsimile_book-379.jpgEpisode One, “More Human than Human” begins with the Venus of Willendorf and asks why human artists seem to have an inexplicable tendency, cross culturally, to create images of the human body that are exagerated in proportions. Spivey gives examples from ancient Egypt and Greece and from around the world to illustrate. Interestingly, Greek sculpture went through a brief period where it created realistic images of young men (kore), standing statically upright, and accurately proportionate. But it wasn’t long before the sculptors began to produce what we now think of as “classical” greek bodies were born. What is so fascinating about the statues is that they aren’t proportioned naturally; rather, they are exaggerated proportionally (i.e., real human beings don’t look like that!). Anyway, in comes neurologist V.S. Ramachadran to explain how our brains respond to certain stimuli with pleasure. Spivey illustrates with a species of seagull from the west coast of Spain, whose chicks respond to a red stripe on their mother’s bill during feeding. The chicks respond more vigorously if presented with a dummy-head with three red stripes! In other words, it seems that our brains respond to certain aspects of our bodies, and they REALLY respond to those same aspects when exaggerated. And so around the world, human beings produce art that is “more human than human.” Cool.

cave-bison-2.jpgEpisode Two: “The Day Pictures Were Born”: There are two big questions in the second episode. One is why homo sapiens, who have been around for over 150,000 years, only began creating representational art about 35,000 years ago. The debates among biologists, evolutionary linguists, paleo-anthropologists, etc., wage on about what has been called “The Great Leap Forward,” or in Dr. Spivey’s words, “The Creative Explosion”, which includes the development of language (around 50,000 years ago). That question is left a mystery, and the second big question is, what do these 35,000 year old paintings mean and why did humans start making them? The episode leads us through the discovery of Altamira and Lascaux and then through several theories regarding the origins of cave painting. The most famous of these proposed that they were hunting rituals preceding the hunt; problematically, people around the world seemed to eat different animals than they painted.

Then there’s the problem that cave art is not only of animals, but of humans, human body parts, humans morphed with animals, geometric patterns, spots, webs, and even abstract images (who knew?). Using anthropology from South Africa and the San people, Spivey and a couple experts theorize, rather plausibly given their evidence, that these early cave paintings were part of solitary shamanistic rituals, and very likely were produced after trance states. A neurologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry demonstrates a really cool machine that produces trance-like responses in the brain through the visual cortex, and show that our brains are hardwired to receive certain kinds of geometric patterns and that trance states actually turn those into hyper drive. Finally, as trance states get deeper and deeper, the entranced begins to see images of things that are emotionally resonant with the individual. Spivey hypothesizes that for this reason, different cultures around the world had trance-visions of different objects and animals. As I mentioned, it is here that I had reservations with the surety with which Spivey declared that the mystery is solved.

Regardless, in both the representation of human bodies and in the cave paintings, I find it fascinating that our brains respond with such intense pleasure to representations of the world wrought by our own hands. And I find it interesting as well that some representations are pleasurable and others aren’t — and that which images produce pleasure is a complex interaction of the biological wiring of our brains and the cultural contexts within which we have developed our aesthetic values and sensibilities.

I have Episode Three, “The Art of Persuasion”, about political art and propaganda recorded on TiVo, but haven’t watched it yet. I’ll return and report after I watch it.

Schaffensdrang 4 March 2006

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Culture, Painting & Sculpture.
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Tom Ford interviewing Jeff Koons? Only on Iconoclasts. If you can get past Ford's tendency to talk more than his subject (tell me again why artistic egos are such a cliché?) and to interpret for us what it all means as if mere Groundlings just can't get it (think: George W. Bush saying, "America is addicted to oil!"), Koons art is actually arresting.


Koons has a huge, multi-million dollar studio with faithful minions executing his will, making everything from paintings that reference Warhol, put together in a paint-by-number process so that Koons can have final control of the product, to his current project of large statues of blow-up toys.

What fascinated me—despite Ford's cloud of cologne-induced garrulousness—was Koons' description of what it feels like to create and why he uses every-day objects to force a rethinking of our daily, often unnoticed experiences. Whereas Warhol often feels staged or cynical to me, the younger Koons seems to understand intrinsically that, while our mass culture might deprive objects of their meaning through the speed and scale of their production, we nonetheless have meaningful relationships with them. His work playfully mimics kitsch (as in the 1988 statuette of Michael Jackson and Bubbles, in the style of an 18th century French ceramic) or inverts pornographic forms so that staged sex becomes somehow innocent and exhuberant (as in his 1991 series, Made in Heaven).

Karl Marx believed that all human beings had something native to them, their "species-being" (der Gattungswesen), which was marked by the desire to create, to build, to make—our Schaffensdrang. Marx believed that one of the effects of a modern capitalist society was to alienate us, or tear us away from our deepest nature, this Schaffensdrang. Marx was more concerned with the products of labor than with the production of art, but his insistence that there is something innate about creation included the production of art (although he had very narrow ideas of what counted as art). For a few years now, I've been wondering if consuming art—seeing it, listening to it, touching it, eating it, wearing it—is enough to satisfy that urge, or if individuals are all compelled to create.

Consuming artful objects—from philosophy to food, from painting to MTV, from poetry to Brittany Spears—may be instead the focus of our species being. John Dewey argued that art was simply a particular and purposeful organization of "things" such that, when they were experienced by someone else, this organization provoked an affect response, that is, a particular feeling experience. For Dewey, what distinguishes art from other objects is that their very reason-for-being is that consummatory experience, that feeling produced when it's encountered. There is no difference in kind, according to Dewey, between so-called "high art" and popular art or even personal art. That is, Jeff Koons and Tom Ford are not different in kind from the WB or from the picture your four-year-old drew, now hanging on your refridgerator. They are all purposeful organizations of elements, "things," to provoke a particular affect. "High art" in this view becomes merely an artful object that requires education or particular specialized knowledge to interpret, before the individual can experience consummation.

Art is always context-specific, for Dewey; that is, it can only produce a consumamtory experience in individuals from the same or related cultural contexts, because the art's consummation is that it lends meaning to the life-experiences of the individual, shared in some way with the artist. Through imagination and the embodied experience of the art itself, art connects communities together in their consummatory experiences. Art, then, can be judged by its effectiveness in provoking that response within the context of its production and/or consumption. A child's art may be "bad" because it is so limited in its affect to the child and her parents; whereas Brittany Spears's pop music is readily accessible nearly world-wide; and whereas Koons' art may require art history (to understand his references and methods and media) and critique (to understand its cultural significance).

But after all this philosophizing, I am left wondering what is the relationship between my experience of seeing Koons' Balloon Dog (2003, above) and my desire to create something that affects others or speaks that affect to the world?

[Note: For some reason the whole time I was writing this, I could hear my friend Peter making fun of me for sounding like Camille Paglia.]

Art in My Innards 1 March 2006

Posted by Todd in Culture, Painting & Sculpture, Philosophy & Social Theory.
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Those of you who know me well know that despite my taciturn, academic Capricorn exterior, I'm pretty much a cheese ball, loving all kinds of pop-culture trash. I tend to feel things pretty deeply and have been known to cry at extremely bad television (such as the utterly sentimental and manipulative endings of every episdoe of Cold Case…hey now, don't be getting all art-snob on me; I watch it to spend some time with the steamy and sensitive Borricua cop for an hour on Sunday nights!). But at a deeper level, I'm always on the lookout for those rare images, melodies, words that move the soul, that work inside of me, almost parasytically, that shift my perception of the world, even if just for a little bit.

In the past few months, I finally submitted to Brokeback Mountain; I exulted yet another time with Allen Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl" (here read live in 1959); I fought alongside Johnny Cash to get out of my own "Rusty Cage"; and was stopped dead by the works of Hung Liu (below or see more here).


Since I was a teenager, I've been trying to speak the pit in my stomach when I hear Mozart's Requiem or Ärvo Pärt's Berliner Messe or Chopin's Nocturne in c minor. Then yesterday on the train home, I came upon this in my continuing adventures with the old German syphilitic, my favorite companion of late, describing what a genius heart can effect in a willing subject:

…the genius of the heart from whose touch everyone walks away richer, not having received grace and surprised, not as blessed and oppressed by alien goods, but richer in himself, newer to himself than before, broken open, blown at and sounded out by a thawing wind, perhaps more unsure, tenderer, more fragile, more broken, but full of hopes that as yet have no name, full of new will and currents, full of new dissatisfaction and undertows… (from Beyond Good and Evil)