When I started teaching and faced the prospect of having a class discuss their work I wanted to find a way to offer something concrete while not imposing my aesthetic on them. Long an admirer of tennis I used a tennis coach as my model. Vic Braden said that the secret to coaching stars like Tracy Austin was to give them lots of encouragement, and “knowledge of the physical processes involved”. For athletes this means learning the anatomy and mechanics of their movements. For artists, it can mean learning the science of perception to apply to their work. This is something artists have always done, using whatever was discovered about vision to heighten their effectiveness. Instead of prescribing certain standards of what art is the focus shifts to what the individual artist is expressing. To be an athlete requires training, and the amount of training and practice, maximizing individual strengths, figures into how well the athlete does. Commitment and growth are what needs to be fostered for excellence. A coach can reflect back what the player is doing, making them more aware of their movements. When a group talks about the various ways that a work of art affects them without making judgments, it aids the artist’s awareness of the effects of their decisions, the expressive implications of their choices.
The research done by the gestalt psychologists of the forties and fifties studied how the mind organized visual sensation into the stable world we see. Rudolf Arnheim applied what they learned to composition in art and in parallel with philosopher Susanne Langer began to explain what was going on in visual expression, and how art sensitized perception of feeling. Gestalt refers to the sense of the whole, the mode of processing characteristic of the right hemisphere. The researchers used to term “isomorphism” (same shape) for that similarity of structure between brain states and what stimulated them, that the form made in the brain is the same as the form that triggered it. If you look up the word in wikipedia, the first five of the ten definitions have to do with math, then come the biological sociological and cybernetic uses of the word. What artists see as proportions, mathematicians see as ratios. As far as the brain’s concerned, it’s all about the relationship between shapes and how multiple shapes map. Structure creates response. This is why science is discovering the importance of art. Numerous studies are emerging that examine these correlations of form and response. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki sees art as illuminating essential abstractions in the brain. Looking at art triggers a pattern of inner structures that represent the personal experience of that pattern. This underlies what psychologists call “mood congruity”. The brain calls to mind memories that have the same mood as the painting, thus developing its meaning for the viewer.
Discussion serves as a launching point for creative thinking. The artist learns the expressive implications of their choices. The responder learns about their own psychology by how the formal structures trigger bits of their own story. It’s an opportunity to generate new ideas and use the prefrontal cortex, one area of the brain far more developed in humans than other primates. Our brain evolved by rewarding what was good for survival and growth. Humans are meant to use their creative and imaginative powers. At its best, critique is an improvisational collaboration between all involved. Over and over I see students come to class tired or stressed and leave energized and exhilarated. I can’t remember where I first heard the maxim, “Communication is healing” but it’s a phrase that’s popped to mind many times. Talking about art may well be the best way to make use of what brain science is showing us.
(This is an abridged version of my remarks on critique at the NASAD conference in St. Louis and relate to my essay in the upcoming book “Beyond Critique”)