Sunday, March 10, 2013
Explaining art through perception
The Light Show at the Hayward Gallery, London, is a delight and, quite rightly, oversubscribed. The number entering at any one time is strictly controlled, allowing viewers the space to appreciate the exhibits – quite unlike the disgraceful “cram them in” policy at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery last year. Some of the exhibits, like the Chromosaturation of Carlos Cruz-Diez, or the Model for a Timeless Garden of Olafur Eliasson or Conrad Shawcross’ Show Arc Inside a Cube IV (a bit of an unnecessary mouthful this one) are ones to enjoy sensorially and to reflect about as much as one would about any work of art.
The weakness of the Hayward exhibition is that it pretends to combine science with art, or rather give a scientific explanation of the artistic exhibits, when it should really be seen as an art show and a delight to the senses, or should have appended to the exhibits something that is scientifically valid. As it is, the show was spoiled somewhat for me by the explanations appended. At the entrance, the viewer reads that “Vision is the least reliable of the senses”. What is the basis for this? Many, probably most, neurobiologists would argue exactly the opposite; it is the most reliable of the senses, perhaps reflected in the fact that so much of our brain is devoted to vision.
We are then told that “What we see, or think we see, is not always how things are”. This is a profound misunderstanding of the workings of the brain – for what we see and experience is dictated by the organization of our brains, and is precisely how things are in perceptual reality, however that reality may depart from the “objective” reality. That is why, at my own exhibition at the Pecci Museum of Contemporary Art in Milan (Bianco su bianco: oltre Malevich), the visitor was welcomed with the following statement: “The only reality we experience is brain reality”.
When one looks at the Hering Illusion, the two straight lines, which are parallel, appear perceptually to be somewhat curved. The perceptual reality dominates even when one knows that the two lines are straight and strictly parallel. Or consider the rapid motion in the rings in Isia Leviant’s Enigma; to those who see the movement, there is no doubting its reality, even if there is no actual movement in the rings.
It never ceases to surprise me that we downgrade our true perceptual reality in favour of the “objective reality”; the former is always what it does not seem, while the latter is always true. This gives to the reality we experience a subservient place when in fact the only truths that we are able to experience are brain truths.
I am not saying anything particularly new here. Immanuel Kant said it long ago – that our knowledge of this world is a compound of the objective reality and the operations of the mind; we can therefore never know the thing as it is (Das ding an sich) because our only knowledge of the world is through the operations of the mind (brain). In discussing the philosophical importance of colour vision, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote of its importance for understanding the “Kantian doctrine of the likewise subjective, intellectual forms of all knowledge” – in other words that all knowledge is mediated through the operations of the brain.
This exhibition pretends to explain the visual sensory process through art. Thus, the exciting Chromosaturation of Carlos Cruz-Diez has appended to it the following: “since the retina perceives a wide range of colours simultaneously, experiencing these monochromatic situations causes visual disturbances”.
Almost everything in that statement is incorrect. There are no monochromatic lights in the exhibit (all the lights are broadband although there may be some dominance of one waveband over the others in some), the retina does not “perceive” colours, and there is no “visual disturbance” but only visual sensory excitement, leaving one wondering where the “misty” environment induced comes from. The exhibit would have been better without these incorrect explanations. Why not call it an unusual visual experience instead?
Perhaps artists do not read about advances in science – why should they after all? Perhaps we do not explain our findings properly. Whatever the real reasons, here is a good example of artists and curators trying to explain perceptual processes through artistic achievements and doing so very badly and, worse, inaccurately. It is exactly the reverse of what neuroesthetics has been falsely accused of doing, namely explain works of art through neuroscience, even though that is not its aim (see this post and this post).
Hence, my advice is – go to this delightful exhibition and enjoy the exhibits as creative works of art. Many might want to do more than that; they might wonder what these exhibits tell us about the brain’s perceptual mechanism. But, please ignore the explanations appended to the exhibits – they say nothing about the visual process, or about the sensory brain or about perception, which is not to say that viewing these works does not raise questions about sensory processes.
Here, then, is an exhibition which inspires thinking about the operations of the brain. It is not what it pretends to be, namely an explanations of overall sensory processes. It is a good illustration of how works of art can inspire neuroesthetic studies.