Dr. Jerry Cullum contemplates two quotations regarding the upcoming exhibition “From Cosmology to Neurology and Back Again” at whitespace

Dr. Jerry Cullum says of these two quotations, “These quotations may shed light on aspects of the exhibition. Does one quotation seem to correct the opinions of other, or do the two agree in substance? If you read them in reverse order, does one of them seem less convincing than it did before, or are they still the same?”

Two Highly Edifying Quotations. Maybe.

“You will remember that I brought onstage in the first lecture Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, an intellectual landmark of the mid-1950s that made a powerful case for illusionist realism as the great triumph of Western culture. I wondered out loud whether there might be an argument for abstraction that was as good as Gombrich’s for illusionism—that is, an argument for abstraction as a legitimate part of both our cognitive process and our nature as a modern liberal society. …Gombrich’s belief that representation is a matter of solving dilemmas—that you have to posit a question or a schema in order to get an answer, that making comes before recognition—is neatly summarized in [his example, the famous drawing that’s either a duck or a rabbit, depending on how the viewer interprets it]. …Finding something that temporarily defies meaning—in a society in which even blots, squares, cubes, and grids have been colonized by culture and history—is not in fact easy…because we are meaning-makers, not just image-makers. It is not just that we recognize images, that we find ducks or rabbits; it is that we are constructed to make meaning out of things, and that we learn from others how to do it.

“…What matters in abstract art is not involuntary firing of neurons, not our ability to recognize the duck or the rabbit. Making is more powerful than that. Our humanity and our culture are not to be based on what is involuntary but on our will to make things that form a second nature by invention and imagination. Making in art is not just a corollary of problem solving, of producing schemas that will tell you whether it is a duck or a rabbit, of producing things that are corollaries for the discovery of existing truths. Instead, making is the capacity of constructing autonomous symbol systems that have a huge variety of so-called natural grammars and rules of order that are in mutation throughout history.”

–Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art Since Pollock

“The mind is the most mysterious of human faculties—so mysterious, in fact, that we’re not even sure if it exists. At least we know the brain exists…. But what exactly is going on in there? …Neuroaesthetics is the attempt to combine observations of brain activity with conclusions about what the mind is judging about the art that it sees. It is a very radical, tentative discipline. …[Neuroaesthetician] Semir Zaki has specifically stated how much he has learned from the experimental tendencies of twentieth-century art. Artists, he believes, ‘are neurologists who actually study the brain’ when they push the possibilities of expression to their limits. It is when art is most abstract that artists do what scientists do: find a pure and extreme stimulus and investigate how the brains of viewers respond to it….

“Zeki likes modern art for his experiments because these artists want to reduce the complex of forms to their essentials, or to try to find out what the essence of form as represented in the brain may be. The straight lines of cubism, for example, are the basis of all human visual perception; they will be found, in effect, in all plastic works of art once the preoccupation with imitation has disappeared.’ So abstract art helps us actually see how the brain is simplifying the visual field to make sense of things.”

–David Rothenberg, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution


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