Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Visual Idea

When I talk about art as idea what I’m thinking about is different than verbal idea. Just like the beauty and order of the universe, it can be apprehended without breaking it down into parts. Different people connect to different qualities. The visual idea is the seed from which many ideas can unfold. Revealing particular relationships, it stimulates new ideas, allows loose fragments of thought to organize from that example. The feelings we get from the form in the spectrum between being drawn to or repelled by it signify the kind of relationship we have with it, the inner dynamic it expresses. What you can say about it has many levels. Art is more about the question, the exploration of implications. A visual idea is open-ended, stirs what connects to the structure emphasizing what matters about it.

The bigger role for art in the future has to do with its attention to essences. This is the overlap with the brain sciences. Neurobiologist Semir Zeki writes of how the focus on constants in art helps scientists distinguish the priorities in different regions of the brain’s processing. The focus of a particular artist can stimulate regions of brain cells specialized to particular forms. The goals of the artist aren’t stated in those terms but what they are exploring is what is most important to them in the organization of form, the conscious perception of which is paralleled by the visual brain.

In David Foster Wallace’s first book, “The Broom of the System”, one of the underlying messages was to look for meaning in how something functions. Definitions and ideas can actually confuse and mislead us since words mean different things to different people and context affects relationships. The phrase, “broom of the system” might seem like nonsense at first, but everyone knows what a broom does, so sweeping out the system would suggest clearing away the dust and garbage. The image initiates the idea. Seeing what something does is a clear fact influencing other facts. Actions and results demonstrate meaning in the moment. Reality is not meaningless. Traditional modes for finding meaning have become outdated. We have to let go of the need to pin it down. Meaning points forward.

The meaning we see increases the scope of our understanding. Looking at the whole is the only way to see significant relationships and not definitions of things. Biases related to inner categories skew thinking toward maintaining them. With self-awareness we can see what’s being protected and how that blocks a clearer picture of what’s happening at a particular time. The more we include in our picture the better our understanding will be. Intelligence grows as perspective increases and art increases the range and sensitivity of our perspective.

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