“Art is science made clear”
This great quote by late American playwright Wilson Mizner almost perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the article herein. I say almost because the quote is unclear about the nature of science that art tries to elucidate. “Art is science as a cultural artifact made clear” is a more suitable statement for this article because artists are inspired by all sorts of cultural artifacts and that includes scientific ideas. When a culture brings about new social realities artists unsurprisingly bootstrap on new ways of thinking made available to drive their creative works. Similarly, when new scientific theories replace older ones they transform not just contents of scientific journals but artistic creations as well.
Over the last few decades the brain sciences has brought about radical new views of what human mind is. In the beginning of 20th century understanding mind meant performing some sort of psychoanalysis on one’s dreams since dreams were home to one’s unconscious self. Now-a-days understanding mind equates to understanding functions of our brain since there is nothing more to mind than the brain itself. Curiously enough, this shift in scientific conception of mind is detectable even in arts by looking at what artistic notions of mind were in the beginning of 20th century versus how they are now.
Early in the 20th century Dadaism and subsequently, Surrealism, were the dominant artistic movements whose goals were to challenge orthodoxy and reject traditional notions of rationality. The absurdist nature of Dada movement is nicely visible in artist Marcel Duchamp’s works like ‘Bicycle Wheel’ (1913, Figure 1), ‘Fountain’ (1917, Figure 2), and ‘Fresh Window’ (1920, Figure 3). The artwork ‘Bicycle Wheel’ is a bicycle wheel affixed onto a stool. ‘Fountain’ is a very well-known and hilarious piece of artwork by virtue of being an upside down urinal. ‘Fresh Window’ is a miniature French window. Why are any of them considered works of art? Well, why not? Duchamp’s aim in labeling these objects as works of art was to challenge traditional notions of aesthetics and trigger a dialogue about what separates art from non-art.
After World War I ended many artists from the Dada movement started transitioning over to surrealism that featured the same anti-establishment sentiment of Dadaism but took a more focused and calculated approach in challenging traditional conventions. The surrealists subscribed to Freud’s psychoanalytic approach where in order to grasp the true meaning behind anything one needs to look at the dream world, home to unconscious, irrational, and instinctual self (Nadeau, 1967).
Max Ernst’s artworks are a great example of how surrealists were inspired by Freud’s notion of human mind as Ernst tended to depict reality in a distorted manner, or rather tended to depict dreams accurately where all sorts of absurd configurations of things and creatures exist that represent one’s true desires in a censored form. ‘The Song of the Flesh’ (1920, Figure 4), ‘The Master’s Bedroom, It’s Worth Spending a Night There’ (1920, Figure 5), and ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1922, Figure 6) are great examples of Surrealist artwork as they feature composite of animals and human figures in varying scales that compel viewers to engage in interpretation, similar to when we remember strange dreams.
Now jumping straight to 21st century, although devoid of any label a number of contemporary artists do exist whose artworks about consciousness is heavily inspired by ideas from modern neuroscience. A number of these artists were recently surveyed by Koetsch (2011), a fine arts professor at Lesley University, who helped mount an exhibition showcasing artwork influenced by ideas from modern neuroscience and subsequently published a paper that featured basic content analysis of some of the artwork showcased therein. All of the art pieces discussed below come from May-June 2008 ‘MIND matters’ exhibition at Laconia Gallery in Boston that was curated by Koetsch.
Modern neuroscience tells us that understanding connections between neurons is extremely important in figuring out how the brain works. This focus towards the network structure of brain is explored in a beautiful artwork from ‘Tome Series’ (Figure 7) by Constance Jacobson where the focus of her brain drawing is not to illustrate brain as a physical object but to showcase brain as a forest of networked neurons.
Artist Audrey Goldstein took a more abstract approach in her art piece titled ‘Point to Point’ (Figure 8) where she used sculptor and video to visualize patterns of brain activity arisen from social activity. Goldstein accomplished this by first creating a three dimensional model of her social network in which individuals were points and relationships among them were lines. This metaphorical neural network was then placed in a backpack and Goldstein videotaped herself engaging in daily activities while carrying this backpack. It is this video that was showcased as an art piece in the ‘MIND matters’ exhibition.
Last but not the least, painter Heidi Whitman endeavored to visualize mind in her ‘Brain Terrain’ (Figure 9) series by painting abstract brain maps. These brain maps are obviously inspired by neuro-imaging technology but Whitman prefers to call her paintings “wrong maps” because her goal in in her artworks is to not just display areas of brain activity but also the contents of the brain areas being activated.
In summary, this brief journey into the art world shows how as modern science has moved from studying unconscious psyche to studying neural networks the idea of relationships being causally important has slowly seeped into works of artists interested in visualizing human mind.
Koetsch, G. (2011). Artists and the mind in the 21st century. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 5, 1-8.
Nadeau, M. (1967). The history of surrealism (tr. Richard Howard). New York: Colliers Books.