The Nobel prize-winning chemist Harold Kroto, in a lecture he gave in the British Library in 2006 asserted that all science started with art, with forms and shapes, and seeking balance and symmetry.
A recent research report from Simon Fraser University professor Travis Proulx claimed that abstract art is less threatening than absurd (surrealist) art, as in Wilem de Kooning vs René Magritte, respectively. He asserts that this is because de Kooning’s abstract work with no discernable figure is so confusing that one does not expect to make sense of it so it could be dismissed as senseless, a joke. (Or tossed into the recycle bin of our brain?) On the other hand, Magritte’s The Son of Man (1964) for example, in which a suited man in a bowler hat stands impassively against the sea and sky, with his face largely obscured by an apple is enigmatic. With something so familiar, a human form like our own in such a strange situation, it invites thinking: Is it to do with Adam and Eve or what? In Proulx’s experiment, subjects who had just seen this image reverted to re-asserting more strongly their faith in the familiar and the traditional ( presumably their nerves had been rattled, and they behaved like a baby clinging closer to his mother at the sight of a stranger?). They do it more so than after they had seen the abstract de Kooning, which presumably could be easily dismissed.
Or not. Now, I think the recycle bin of our brain may actually be where all the actions are and the de Kooning joke is not necessarily dismissed. We all have had the experience of imagining seeing things in an abstract painting, like a Rorschach ink blot. And it can sometimes become contemplative, a kind of ‘lost in thought,’ non-conscious state. This in itself is calming and pleasant, a brief escape from the world, or the memory of the world in our thinking brain.
Cognitive neuroscientists have long observed that in amnesic patients, their memory and skill involving forms and shapes remain intact, even though they could not recall what they have done. Ambiguous forms and shapes that are taken in through our eyes can reach a part of the brain that is not accessible to conscious recall, or to naming and judging. So in looking at an abstract de Kooning, we have probably for a moment ‘turned off our brain,’ and relaxed into our deep well of visual freedom.
So it is kind of sad that our conscious ( and logical ) brain often jumps ahead and makes a judgement of a form and dismisses it as a joke, as with the de Kooning, ignoring the richer and deeper non-conscious memory. The artist Ellsworth Kelly is fond of saying: If you look with your brain turned off, everything becomes abstract.
Oh, about that Magritte man with a bowler hat that invites thinking (or confusion). Kroto again: If you make people think, they hate you; if you make people think they think, they love you.