Sunday, October 30, 2005

Art and Neuroaesthetics

The best place to start when describing the goals of a research program is with the statements of the researchers themselves. V.S. Ramachndran, whose work on art and neuroscience has sparked a great deal of interest and controversy, put it this way1:
If a Martian ethologist were to land on earth and watch us humans, he would be puzzled by many aspects of human nature, but surely art—our propensity to create and enjoy paintings and sculpture—would be among the most puzzling. What biological function could this mysterious behaviour possible serve? Cultural factors undoubtedly influence what kind of art a person enjoys — be it a Rembrandt, a Monet, a Rodin, a Picasso, a Chola bronze, a Moghul miniature, or a Ming Dynasty vase. But, even if beauty is largely in the eye of the beholder, might there be some sort of universal rule or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience? The details may vary from culture to culture and may be influenced by the way one is raised, but it doesn’t follow that there is no genetically specified mechanism — a common denominator underlying all types of art. (p. 16)
The search for universals in art is by no means a new one, but Ramachandran and others (most notably Semi Zeki) have resolved to do so by understanding the neurological mechanisms that all (or most) art utilizes. Zeki writes2:
What is art? What constitutes great art? Why do we value art so much and why has it been such a conspicuous feature of all human societies? These questions have been discussed at length though without satisfactory resolution. This is not surprising. Such discussions are usually held without reference to the brain, through which all art is conceived, executed and appreciated. Art has a biological basis. It is a human activity and, like all human activities, including morality, law and religion, depends upon, and obeys, the laws of the brain. (p. 53)
If art, both in its creation and appreciation, is a product of brains, then it stands to reason that we may gain valuable insight into the nature of art by understanding how it acts on our brains. Specifically, we may be able to utilize our knowledge of the workings of the visual system, and its connections to emotional centers of the brain, to understand why certain themes, forms, and schemes can be found in art across cultures, and why some works of art are more aesthetically pleasing than others. In order to do this, Ramachandran, Zeki, and others have developed several hypotheses designed to produce testable predictions (often counterintuitive) about the role of the visual system in the production and appreciation of art.
This project differs, markedly, from traditional approaches to art, in which art is treated as amorphous, or ineffable; a product of irreducible subjective and cultural phenomena. Thus traditional aesthetic theories are untestable by their very nature. The hope of neuroscientists is not that art will be completely explainable from neurological principles alone. On the contrary, these neurological principles are meant to be foundations onto which the more subjective and culturally relative aspects of art are built. Even if the insights that we can gain from neuroscience constitute only a fraction of what art is (Ramachandran often uses 10% as a figure for the portion of art that he is attempting to explain0, then we will have accomplished something. We may then be better able to understand the development and utilization of subjective and cultural standards in art. posted by Chris @ Thursday, January 20, 2005

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Divine Carriers.

"Spirituality" may seem to some to be a nebulous term, providing a cover for a lack of serious engagement with existence. Indeed, expressions of spirituality in Indian art are varied and a few criteria may be helpful in distinguishing the features of its terrain. Based on the location of the artist relative to the spiritual life, we may have sacred art, mystic art, metaphysical art or yogic art. The sacred is characterized by the sense of worship. A gulf separates the human from the divine, and the sacred calls attention to the magnitude of this distance in existential terms. The mystic has an emotional relationship full of the sense of reciprocity. A closer approach than that of the sacred, human and divine mingle here in a transhuman adoration. In the metaphysical, an attempt is made to identify the elements of heightened experience and to question and articulate the relationships between these elements. In yogic art, the processes of spiritual experience become manifest, carrying the power to duplicate themselves in the viewer. In this respect, it is the last that is the most potent, and is the visual equivalent of the mantra. All these four features are to be found, in varying degrees in this exhibition.
Stylistically, I identify four major tendencies in the selections in this exhibition, and group them broadly according to these tendencies: Iconic, Romantic, Visionary, Abstract. There is often some overlap between these categories, but I stand on my understanding of primary tendency to dictate the grouping.
Romantic : These artists paint in idioms closest to the earlier Bengal School and are perhaps the closest in lineage as well. One is an eminent disciple of Nandalal Bose, a major master; another is the daughter of Sudhir Khastagir, another great master, and the third is a product of the Government Art College of Calcutta, where the influence of the Bengal School still runs deep. Their themes range from romantic treatments of Puranic subjects (gods and goddesses) through personal mythologies to "ideational portraiture" of spiritual personages. Mystical representation of nature and of classical literary episodes are also part of this tendency. Ramananda Bandyopadhyay Shyamali Khastagir Sandip Suman Bhattacharya
Iconic : The movement towards geometric abstraction in Western modernism has found a correspondence in the re-exploration of the Tantric meditational diagram, the yantra in Indian art. This has led to a new genre of contemporary representation, evidenced in the Neo-Tantra exhibition that traveled in Europe and the U.S. in 1985-6. Traditionally, the use of the word 'icon' has related to images of worship. In modern technological terminology, it has come to stand for diagrammatic signs that carry intuitive functional ideas. By iconism in art, I mean the minimized expression of a patterned interaction of signs with one another and with the viewer. Iconism thus covers formal abstraction and ranges from Neo-Tantra to structured symbols aiming at effecting transformational processes through perceptually initiated "magical engineering". To this end, the symbolism of Tantra is a powerful iconic device, incorporated to a different degree by all these artists. The visual metaphors of Tantra include the trikona, ascending and descending triangles, representing various levels of earthly aspiration and transcendental response respectively; the linga, phallic icon embodying the inexhaustible, infinite potentiality of spirit, the yoni or vagina, standing for the mystery of the birth in time of the timeless; the bindu or point representing the seed of the eternal and the infinite manifest through the impregnation of time and space, becoming immanent in every instant and every particle; and the kundalini or coiled serpent, consciousness latent at the base of the manifest, that 'uncoils' itself as evolution in time. Biswarup Dutta Amrita Banerji
Visionary : I have reserved the use of this term for those representations which, while maintaining a substantial relationship with the waking world of forms, yet arise from an immersion in "alternate reality" or trance-like experience. The nature of this experience is intended to draw us into contact with deeper psychological principles, revealing great intuitive and harmonizing ideas and vibrating at a level where opposites are resolved and united. Two of the artists in this category are inmates of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Dhanavanti Priti Ghosh Anjan Chakravarty
Abstract : If the iconic (which deals with crystallization and the essence of form) may be called the "pole of magic", where a higher law enters matter; at its opposite end is the transcendental liberation from form, the "pole of spiritual ascension". Aiming at depicting pure movements of consciousness through flowing forms and colors, the capturing of textures that repeat in microcosm and macrocosm, or in analysing the event-field prior to manifestation, these artists affirm a subjectivism that abandons all pretence to naturalistic imitation. The viewer is drawn into spirit-space, where the secret forces of the universe align themselves in pre-natal patterns. In this category also, are two artists from the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. Champaklal Kiran Mehra Sridhar Iyer
Contemporary spiritual art in India is a diverse and exciting field, and Divine Carriers modestly attempts to introduce international viewers to it. All the work in this exhibition was created after 1965; all are informed with a concern for communicating visionary messages in the context of a national and global community of seekers for deeper living solutions in the contemporary world. Debashish Banerji, Curator, Divine Carriers.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Sri Aurobindo on Indian Art

Selection from His Writing (Hardcover) by Aurobindo Ghose, Elisabeth Beck (Photographer) Customer Reviews Write an online review and share your thoughts with other customers.
Parvati, Goddess of Love, December 20, 2000
Dr. Leonard Stein (New York. N.Y.) - See all my reviews
Of the many Indian art books I would rate this the best as it not only is visual but poetic and philosophical at the same time. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading about this Indian goddess.
Beautiful Ideas, Beautiful Images, September 17, 1999 Reviewer: A reader
This is an elegant book. It is at once philosophical, poetic, and visually stunning. The text and images beautifully complement each other. After reading this book, I not only appreciated the richness of the Parvati tradition, but also of the Hindu artistic and philosophical tradition. Never again will I look at work of Indian art as merely beautiful at a sensory level. Hindu art exists harmoniously within a cultural, philosophical, and literary context, as does this wonderful book.

Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on Beauty, Art and Yoga

Music, painting, poetry and many other activities which are of the mind and vital can be used as part of spiritual development or of the work and for a spiritual purpose: it depends on the spirit in which they are done. (Ref: Letters on Yoga. P: 859)

Literature and art are or can be a first introduction to the inner being - the inner mind, vital; for it is from there that they come. And if one writes poems of Bhakti, poems of divine seeking, etc., or creates music of that kind, it means that there is a Bhakta or seeker inside who is supporting himself by that self-expression. There is also the point of view behind Lele's answer to me when I told him that I wanted to do Yoga but for work, for action, not for Sannyasa and Nirvana, - but after years of spiritual effort I had failed to find the way and it was for that I had asked to meet him. His first answer was, "It would be easy for you as you are a poet." (Ref: Letters on Yoga. P: 536)
In art also we must remain on the heights.