Between heaven and earth I write one line.
Sometimes another line follows --
ambitious legions singing their way nowhere,
or ordinary messengers carried deeper into human life
by the music and its woman stepping out of her clothes
to the heartbeat of what comes next,
What goes on for its own sake--
the page after the last page, on which we do not appear
"WHY do you paint?" An informal Facebook poll...
For privacy, I've removed the painters names, "likes", or other Facebook information. It seems this was a very personal question and some decided to answer by private message rather than in public. I did not share those private answers in this post, but many were of similar content to what the other painters shared.
Having this conversation with different painters through the years, a common theme seems to emerge that suggests a compelling 'urge' or 'search' of some kind that drives their effort. A need that must be met. This also seems to be an inward and self directed event more than an outwardly directed or altruistic effort, although those elements might contribute. Often referenced is a sense of 'timelessness', a 'zone', or some state of meditative bliss that is reached. We won't explore the 'timeless' nature of art making in this article as I have a great deal of information to share, but you can read something here related to this plasticity of time.
WHY ask this question?
Thinking from people such as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Baudelaire, Fry, Bell, Beardsley, Greenberg, Derrida, Heidegger, Lyotard et al has had an impact on the Art World. Artists themselves such as Alberti, Vasari, Bellori, Le Brun, Reynolds, Whistler, Cox, Duchamp, Newman and others have contributed various points of view or theory. Religion, war, socioeconomic shifts, invention, discovery, politics and profits have all hammered away to shape how we think of art today. In 2011, the self-interest of the fractured, disparate groups from all genres, from all styles, are vying to be seen and heard and can make the conversation about 'What is Art' unwieldy.
Yet, through all the nuanced debate or convoluted experimental directions one thing has remained constant: Art is made. Art Makers make art. And the consideration of art and it's assigned values all come after that fact. The consideration and valuation of art are "effect". Art Making is "cause". In circular fashion, the valuation and consideration do influence art making, but always and again, art making takes other directions.
If the continuum of Art Making itself is the primary cause for the existence of the Art World, a singular question seems of most importance to me: what is the cause of Art Making itself? This seems the likeliest place where the truest purpose and intent of art can be found, and in discovering those answers we might newly consider art and perhaps it's aesthetic valuation.
In order to keep transparent an attempt for the understanding of the cause of art making, it is necessary to divide the conversation and cull out the consideration and valuation influences of the Art Industry. For this approach, the non-maker's self-interest is better nullified from the discussion.
So in order to begin this exploration for the cause of Art Making itself, I reached out and asked Art Makers why they make art. Other people in other fields have been asking some related questions.
The 21st Century frontier; your brain.
The range of exploration and specialized focus on our brain is astonishing. Neuroscience, philosophy and psychology departments are undergoing a process of convergence in effort to discover answers about questions ranging from mental illness, drug addiction and disease to "what is consciousness?", and "how does the brain view art?". Philosophy and psychology have had historical impact on the Arts, but discoveries made in brain science may affect the Arts for the course of this century in ways not yet imagined.
When I talk with artists, I'll sometimes hear facts quoted from old art instruction books or art theoretical texts for which in 2011 we've acquired better information about. For example, a broader understanding of visual perception, it's mechanics and it's ultimate function, as well as a richer understanding of our emotional apparatus is available to us and can inform our artistic efforts. One approachable source for artists seeking to better understand some core mechanics behind their craft and that can also provide an overview and introduction to brain science, is the Charlie Rose show. Charlie Rose has for some years now explored these topics in different episodes. Of particular value is the twelve part 'Brain Series" on his website. I've spent the last year watching these and related episodes, and each time have picked up a new thread to explore. At the least, I encourage you to watch this first episode to better understand the immense overall impact brain science will likely have on visual art this century.
When brain science is introduced into conversation, there is often an immediate suspicion that an argument for pure subjectivity or a materialist/reductionist position will be introduced. I know that some of my friends reading this are people of strong religious faith and conviction, and who create from that position of faith. I don’t believe that any of the information I’ll share here poses a challenge to faith of any kind. God, or your personal concept of a Higher Power, can always seem to take one step back from these discoveries and if God remains the source for your understanding of these workings, there is not necessarily a conflict here.
This information need not be viewed as a materialist/reductionist argument. There is a great deal unknown.
It can be said that since the discoveries of quantum physics science has moved from a more deterministic outlook to one of 'probabilities'. The enormous amount of what we do not know seems to grow larger with every scientific discovery, the Hubble Deep Field Survey being one example.
It is not incontrovertibly decided what parts of reality are ontologically objective or subjective. Brain science can be said to be conducting an "epistemically objective search for what is ontologically objective or subjective." There are interesting developments, such as regarding emotion itself. While feeling states may be ontologically subjective, the emotional apparatus that all humans share and even share with animals, seems universal. As brain science is understanding 'components', some are suspected to be universal and 'hardwired' at birth, but how all these components work together is unknown; there is still no overall "theory of the brain".
The hard problem of consciousness has not been unraveled. One influential philosopher who seems to be a materialist, but not a reductionist, makes the argument that consciousness itself is irreducible. Until the problem of consciousness is solved, and possibly even then, God remains as valid a possibility to the question of Meaning and Being as any other.
Still, we do not need all of the answers to these deep mysteries in order to acquire an updated understanding of the nature of visual perception and a possible 'Point of Art' best described to date. Many of the recent discoveries of brain science can already contribute to our considering an answer for our starting question "Why do you paint?".
Introducing the worlds first Professor of Neuroesthetics...
Statement on Neuroesthetics
The first step in this enquiry is to define the function of the brain and that of art. Many functions can be ascribed to both. One overall function, common to both, makes the function of art an extension of the function of the brain: the acquisition of knowledge, an activity in which the brain is ceaselessly engaged. Such a definition naturally steeps us in a deeply philosophical world, of wanting to learn how we acquire knowledge, what formal contribution the brain makes to it, what limitations it imposes and what neural rules govern the acquisition of all knowledge. This catalogue is not much different from that outlined by Immanuel Kant in his monumental Critique of pure Reason, save that Kant spoke exclusively in terms of the mind. And since the problem of knowledge is a principal problem of philosophy, it should also not surprise us that the great philosophers, from Plato onwards, have devoted significant parts of their work to discussions of art, through which knowledge is gained and imparted.
Because knowledge has to be acquired in the face of constantly changing conditions, mutability is the cornerstone of the great philosophies of the West and East. But it is also the key problem for the brain in its quest for knowledge and for art, whose object, Tennessee Williams once said, was "to make eternal the desperately fleeting moment." Neural studies are increasingly addressing the question of how the brain achieves this remarkable feat. The characteristic of an efficient knowledge-acquiring system, faced with permanent change, is its capacity to abstract, to emphasize the general at the expense of the particular. Abstraction, which arguably is a characteristic of every one of the many different visual areas of the brain, frees the brain from enslavement to the particular and from the imperfections of the memory system. This remarkable capacity is reflected in art, for all art is abstraction. John Constable wrote that "the whole beauty and grandeur of Art consists... in being able to get above all singular forms, particularities of every kind [by making out] an abstract idea... more perfect than any one original." He could have been describing the functions of the brain, for the consequence of the abstractive process is the creation of concepts and ideals. The translation of these brain-formed ideals onto canvas constitutes art.
Art of course, belongs in the subjective world. Yet subjective differences in the creation and appreciation of art must be superimposed on a common neural organization that allows us to communicate about art and through art without the use of the spoken or written word. In his great requiem in marble at St. Peter's in Rome, Michelangelo invested the lifeless body of Christ with infinite feeling - of pathos, tenderness, and resignation. the feelings aroused by his Pietã are no doubt experienced in different ways, and in varying intensity, by different brains. But the inestimable value of variable subjective experiences should not distract from the fact that, in executing his work, Michelangelo instinctively understood the common visual and emotional organization and workings of the brain. That understanding allowed him to exploit our common visual organization and arouse shared experiences beyond the reach of words.
It is for this reason that the artist is in a sense, a neuroscientist, exploring the potentials and capacities of the brain, though with different tools. How such creations can arouse aesthetic experiences can only be fully understood in neural terms. Such an understanding is now well within our reach. The first step is to understand better the common organization of our visual and emotional brains, before we can even proceed to enquire into the determinants of neural variability. But there is little reason to doubt that a study of variability, of how a common visual activation can arouse disparate emotional states, will constitute the next giant step in experimental studies of the visual brain.
In such a study neuroscientists would do well to exploit what artists, who have explored the potentials and capacities of the visual brain with their own methods, have to tell us in their works. Because all art obeys the laws of the visual brain, it is not uncommon for art to reveal these laws to us, often surprising us with the visually unexpected. Paul Klee was right when he said, "Art does not represent the visual world, it makes things visible." We hope that the enormous international enthusiasm that a study of the neural basis of aesthetic experience has generated will prove an effective catalyst in encouraging the neural study of other human activities that may seem remote from the general discipline of neurobiology. It is only by understanding the neural laws that dictate human activity in all spheres - in law, morality, religion and even economics and politics, no less than in art - that we can ever hope to achieve a more proper understanding of the nature of man.