Thursday, February 28, 2013

Heavy Ideas

Looking At Art To Learn About Yourself

“Seeing is the essence of consciousness.” Roger Penrose

Every visual choice is a self-expressive action. Walk into a room and five different people might notice five different things. Perception is always searching for what we need to see. Just like we pick different things from a menu, vision is always scanning and selecting, looking for what it wants, avoiding what it doesn’t. Perception is never passive. It’s always on the hunt for what will satisfy our various needs from the level of organism to the level of thoughts and feelings. And since each brain is constructed by individual experience, the brain is our first creation.

One of the most surprising new discoveries in neuroscience is the way we sort memories.  The assumption that everything can be broken into categories results from the dominance of the brain’s left hemisphere, where words, symbols and classification are the primary tools for understanding. This creates the impression that everything can be labeled and that what something means depends on the definition of the label.  The right hemisphere responds to the gestalt, the entire scene, and represents its significance through feeling. As an instant assessment of overall meaning, the inner adjustment of our response reflects how it feels to be where we are, part of a pattern in a particular type of situation.  So it makes sense that rather than sort memories by category as previously believed, our memories are sorted by what scientists call “mood congruity”. Scenarios and events with the same felt qualities will be called to mind to clarify the meaning of the event. The feeling is indicative of our relationship to that pattern. Memories that match the mood of a circumstance will rise to support the feeling state and underscore its meaning. A work of art is an armature upon which one’s own similarly felt experiences attach. This is why art can be such a great tool for self-awareness. By paying attention to the thoughts that follow a strong reaction to a work whether positive or negative, we can reflect on the underlying feelings and learn about emotional themes in our own psyche. Since feeling is an instant judgment of importance and an urge to act, these correspondences reinforce our sense of the significance of the situation, a quality that grows from our sense of balance and proportion.

Finding the art that moves you offers rich new territory for introspection. Art has always been about feeling. Though there may have been other things at work it’s the feeling that connects. Recognition gives a sense of understanding. A wonderful passage in the “I Ching” says, “Music has the power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of the obscure emotions.“ Likewise, visual art helps us identify and recognize complex emotional truth.

Since recent brain science has shown that feelings lead thinking, we needs tools to help recognize them. Time spent looking through an art book, in galleries or museums offer opportunities to experience responses that point to personal themes that open the way for greater self-awareness and strengthen the guidance provided by the aesthetic sense.

(This Saturday I’m giving a miniclass on this topic at a SkillShare for Baltimore Mesh.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Feeling at the Sight

So much of how we respond to art is automatic and neurologically based. Art distills essential patterns of emotional response, revealing them for reflection. This educates the sensibility that responds to future experience. Our inner state of readiness must match our outer circumstances and is always adapting to change. Though the physical shifts may not be perceptible we are always in a dance with the changes in the scene around us. Since feeling and emotions are the first awareness of some kind of inner movement, the felt impression of what we see is the instant unconscious assessment of what it means to us, how we might need to act. When we have a strong response to art the inner adjustment reflects a resonance with meaningful inner patterns.

Though scientific method can analyze and observe the parts in detail, it can miss important qualities in larger systems, and relationships that can’t easily be named or symbolized. Art integrates and synthesizes. Throughout time art has helped viewers recognize their personal currents of feeling and what it’s like to be human at a given time in history. Today it can also show scientists the underlying structure of the whole. The importance of art for developing everyday human insight is a theme in the books of philosopher Susanne Langer. Her fascinating in-depth discussions of visual art as an extension of expressive gesture, underscores the importance of “qualia” and “relations”, how much information is in visual nuances. Her simple statement,  “Art looks like feelings feel” articulates this fundamental truth. In her book, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling, she writes, “Feeling is a dynamic pattern of tremendous complexity. Its whole relation to life, the fact that all sorts of processes may culminate in feeling with or without direct regard for each other, and that vital activity goes on at all levels continuously, make mental phenomenon the most protean subject matter in the world. Our best identification of such phenomena is through images that hold and present them for contemplation; and their images are works of art.”

The relationship between the complex dynamics of feelings and the structure of art makes art the best way to learn about human emotion and to understand universal patterns of response. This complexity cannot be reduced to one variable at a time, since the meaning is in the whole and the dynamic relationships involved. There are correlations between the balance of our surroundings and the feelings we experience being there, and we seek out the visual structures that show us what we need to see. Art serves others by translating feeling into expressive imagery that can help with recognizing obscure felt states.

When any group gathers to talk about art, amazing discussions evolve if the image hits a common chord. Our differences in background enrich the variety of responses evoked by the structure and emphasize the commonality beneath surface variations.
Intellectual writing that makes judgments about art can obscure the personal relationship anyone can have with the art that moves them. Every choice of where to look reflects the personal psyche. Where we linger in an art book or museum shows us feelings within that want our conscious attention. It’s a portal to the depths of our common humanity.