In his piece entitled “This is your brain on art: A neuroscientist’s lessons on why abstract art makes our brains hurt so good,” Noah Charney writes for @Salon about a Nobel Prize-winning scientist specializing in human memory who is attempting to “break new ground in art history.”
Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine? Science? Art? This string of words is as titillating as it is tantalizing.
The Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Kandel of Columbia University was initially interviewed by Mr. Charney in a piece called “On Memory, Klimt, Sex and Sea Snails.” Sounds sexy mild, right?
In the former article, Noah Charney postulates that the average person enjoys – and is less intimated by – traditional, naturalistic, formal art. It’s what Hitler called Hellenistic art. The German leader actually hated anything except this classical fine art medium so much that in 1937 he went so far as to hold what will probably go down in history as the biggest art sale ever, partly to raise money for his burgeoning army, but mostly to purge his borders of the “filth” that he believed painters like Picasso, Manet, Monet, Dalí , Miró, Gauguin, and van Gogh embodied. The führer lumped Impressionism, Surrealism, Expressionism, Cubism, and abstract art all into one category: scheisse (poo poo ca ca).
But I digress. As Mr. Charney argues, abstract art “poses such an enormous challenge to the beholder [because] it teaches us to look at art – and, in a sense, the world – in a new way. Abstract art dares our visual system to interpret an image that is fundamentally different from the kind of images our brain has evolved to reconstruct.”
Dr. Kandel backs this up with scientific data about the brain, discussing something every neuroscientist knows intimately: the difference between bottom-up and top-down thinking. The former refers to mental processes that are ingrained over centuries. In a nutshell, our safe zone from a cognitive point of view. The latter, on the other hand, refers to personal experience and knowledge.
Put in the context of art, “Top-down thinking is needed to interpret formal, symbol, or story-rich art. Abstraction taps bottom-up thinking, requiring little to know a priori knowledge.”
Personally, my favourite abstract painter is Wassily Kandinsky. As seen in this painting below, Sketch for Composition VII, 1913, Kandinsky does so much with what on the surface appears to be nothing but some random colours thrown together. But just as Dr. Kandel has shown through numerous brain experiments, a painting such as this bends and warps and pushes the mind to move in different directions and to essentially think outside the box.
Now, that’s not to say that I love all abstract art. I’ve been very fortunate to have visited some of the finest museums in the world, and every time I run across a Mark Rothko piece, like the one seen below, I scratch my head in wonder and say to myself, How on Earth is that meaningful or aesthetically appealing? Split the canvas in half and paint two colours? For true and for serious? It just looks like a bad European flag to me.
From a literary perspective, I highly recommend reading Lynn H. Nicholas’s The Rape of Europa if you’re interested in learning how modern art, especially abstract art, survived the Nazi purge of World War II, and how Peggy Guggenheim almost single-handedly saved Europe’s treasure trove of artistic treasures.