Sunday, September 27, 2009

More on Art Without Art…and something new about Money Without Art.

I have found out more about the non-event at the Venice Biennale (see my post of September 12), the poster for which is now selling at 1000 Euros. Apparently, even though it never took place, people spoke about it with wonder and said how much they had enjoyed it.

Well, at least they had done so in their mind. Why not?

As well, a correspondent sent me a link to another non-event, from which there remain some photos. Maybe they also cost a fortune now.

rt is of course inextricably linked to money. And art, or at least good art, is difficult to produce. Art is really the realization of a brain concept. But, as I have argued in my book, Splendors and Miseries of the Brain, artists more often than not find it difficult to translate the rich concepts in their brains, derived from many experiences, into a single work of art or even a series of works. This leads to dis-satisfaction, and in the fiction of Balzac (The Unknown Masterpiece) and Zola (The Masterpiece), even to suicide (there are also examples of suicide from real life).

One solution to this depressing state is not to produce a work of art at all, but only to think about it.

So, I would like now to extend the “art without an artist” of Marcel Duchamp and what I have called “art without art” of Richard Prince and Pasquale Laccese and introduce what I believe to be a new concept, though of course steeped in examples taken from the past.

I call it Money without Art.

Given that people are prepared to pay astronomical sums for works of art by great artists, or fashionable ones, and given the difficulty of producing works of art, I have this suggestion.

Just let the artist sign an empty canvas or a frame, with the inscription: “I had such and such a concept in mind” for this work.

The artist then need not bother with producing the work, and therefore need not be worried about being dis-satisfied. All he or she needs to do is to sell it to a collector. The collector will have the guarantee that the artist thought about the work, even if momentarily, and therefore be satisfied. His acquisition should increase in value with time. Viewers can conjure up all sorts of scenarios for what the artist could have produced.

Of course, the artist must be an eminent one, or at least considered to be eminent. No one would want to pay a penny for an empty canvas by me. But it would be quite another if the empty canvas were signed by a great artist.

I would be surprised if an empty canvas by Picasso or Matisse signed and inscribed with the words “I wanted to paint such and such on this canvas, but did not do so” would not fetch thousands. Just as I would be surprised if the empty page not illustrating the last Canto of the Paradiso, from Boticelli’s series of illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy, did not fetch thousands if it were ever to come on the market.

The application of this concept of Money without Art (or Monsart, for MONey Sans ART) would also be an addition to contemporary art which, I am told, questions more profoundly the relationship of the viewer to the work of art and to the concept in the artist’s mind.

After all, with an empty canvas, the possibilities are limitless, and so perhaps is the cash.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A very wise billionaire

A great deal of knowledge is gained by studying the faces we encounter. We may feel safe or threatened, we may empathize or distrust. All this is of course done immediately, in seconds and perhaps even in fractions of a second. So important is the knowledge gained from a face that the brain has a whole area devoted to facial recognition and to the recognition of facial expressions. But we still do not know how the brain evaluates a person from the many very rapid calculations that it must perform on the many details in a face. Indeed, we don’t even know precisely what these calculations are. But facial perception is being studied intensively by neurobiologists and we shall no doubt gain a great deal of interesting information about this perfected system.

When the brain detects a pleasant or nasty face – one to be avoided – it is of course doing so with respect to its own past experience. I often think that when we feel a certain danger in a face, of whatever source, we should trust our instincts and perceptions and ignore all other advice. For what may appear as a nasty face to one may appear as exceptionally pleasant to another. Each one according to his or her own experience.

We have all read stories about gigantic swindles being perpetrated recently, in schemes commonly known as Ponzo schemes. Some of those running these schemes must have had an extraordinary ability to look their customers (who in some instances were trusted “friends”) in the eye and know that they were going to swindle them out of all their money, without arousing any suspicion in the ill-fated customer. But not all were quite so naïve.

A friend recently related to me the true story of a billionaire who wanted to invest a huge sum of money in one of these schemes, which promised huge returns – of 10% or more. Apparently unlike many others who invested their millions with this man, our billionaire asked to meet the top man face to face before signing over his millions. His request was refused. He immediately cancelled the deal.

This was a wise man, one who trusted his instincts more than the judgment of those who recommended him to invest in such a scheme. But there is another side to the coin. Presumably, the many others who invested their millions – and lost – did so without studying the top man face to face. Or of course, they might have perceived danger signs, but other faculties – the reputation of those running the schemes, their past history, and so one – may have led them to over-rule their mistrust. Or, quite simply, some of us may have a less perfected facial recognition apparatus in our brains than others.

Whichever is the correct answer, perhaps we should all take the wise man’s action to heart and act accordingly in our dealings. After all, unlike many others, he is still swimming in his millions.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Art without art

Marcel Duchamp played one of the biggest jokes on the art world, when he used the ready mades to propagate his doctrine of art without an artist, the signed urinal which he exhibited (and which today no doubt costs a fortune) being one of the best known examples. It of course raised a whole set of questions about art, which are still being debated.

Now a gallerist friend of mine in Milan, Pasquale Leccese of Le Case d’arte, and the artist Richard Prince have gone a step further. They prepared a poster advertising an exhibition in the Panama Pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale. But there was no exhibition; it never took place.

The result?

Well, the poster, which sold for 10 Euros then, is now selling for 1000 Euros. It has become a collector’s item.

What a hoot!

But there is of course a serious side to this one, too.

After all, Sandro Botticelli, who illustrated all of the Cantos of Dante’s Divine Comedy, left some un-illustrated. Especially notable is that the Canto in which Dante speaks of how the highest fantasy fails him and the last one, in which he simply abandons his will and desire to the love that moves the sun and the other stars are left un-illustrated by Botticelli, thus leaving it to the imagination of the viewer or the reader to create their own (mental) images.

I imagine that the pages left blank by Botticelli are worth millions today.

Reductionism...the hate word

Now that neurobiology has started to explore the neural correlates of subjective mental states such empathy, love, desire, beauty, reward and much else besides, the hate word “reductionism” is being used to stigmatize and call into question the efforts of neurobiologists in this direction. Our detractors insist on the “holism” of subjective experiences, and some at least seem desperate to find a source other than the brain for these experiences.

Clearly, this kind of research touches a raw nerve among them. Their motives are probably varied, but these motives do not interest me much. What is interesting to consider is the extent to which an unquestioning adherence to holism can impede research and a better understanding of how the brain functions. The visual brain provides an excellent example.

Salomon Henschen (Sweden) was the first to chart the location and extent of the primary visual receiving centre in the brain, followed by Tatsuji Inouye (Japan) and Gordon Holmes (England) who charted it in greater detail, the former in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War and the latter in the aftermath of the First World War. Both Henschen and Holmes believed that the primary visual centre (now commonly referred to as V1) in the brain was the only brain area for vision and that vision, being experienced in a wholesome way, was a unitary, wholesome, process. In the service of this doctrine, they and many others dismissed, often contemptuously, evidence that may suggest that, however wholesome our experience may be, the brain processes that lead to these experiences are in fact fractionated. Indeed, Gordon Holmes was even blind to his own evidence, which showed (in one patient) that the faculty to perceive visual motion may be selectively spared (I have reviewed this evidence in detail in my book, now sadly out of print, A Vision of the Brain). Indeed, so forceful was their dismissal that the clinical evidence which may have supported another view simply vanished from the literature. One would find it very hard to find any reference to it in the papers on the visual brain published between 1918 and 1970.

But one of the striking discoveries about vision since 1970 has been that there are many visual areas, each with its own distinctive connections and specialization, of which the areas specialized for visual motion and colour are perhaps the best studied to date. Even perceptually, in very brief time frames, vision is not the wholesome process that many thought it to be. For it turns out that we see colour before we see motion by about 100 ms, an enormously long time in neural terms.

This does not mean that vision is a not a wholesome experience but only that the process leading to that experience are widely distributed in separate areas of the brain. The challenge for neurobiology now is to understand how, in the longer term, that is to say for periods exceeding 100 ms, the brain integrates the results of activities in its separate parts to give us our wholesome experience.

Had we insisted on a holistic approach (as indeed was done for a long time), we would never have undertaken the research that revealed the brain processes that are instrumental in giving us our wholesome visual experience. To stigmatize this research as “reductionist” is silly. The research is simply a step in understanding better the brain process that lead to holistic experiences.