Why Action Painters are Mostly Male? Neurobiologists May Have Found an Answer

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Male and female brains are wired differently. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the Connectome, the road map of the brain, of 949 subjects, roughly half of each sex, age 8-22 and found that divergence of the brain map started at an early age and accelerated in adolescence, establishing a definitive pattern differences in male and female adult brains.

For example, in the cerebral cortex, our main seat of conscious thinking, males have more connections within each hemisphere, whereas females have greater inter-hemispheric connections. This means that males are better at attending to singular pursuits while females are better at group activities – hunter vs. gatherer. *  Males have greater motor and spatial perceptual skills, seeing and responding with well-coordinated actions whereas females excel at social and cognitive skills and memory, seeing things in a more global fashion. Females also have better right-left brain connections resulting in more communication between the intuitive and the analytic.

In the cerebellum, the ‘little brain’ which sits beneath in the back, just above the spinal cord, the story is different. The cerebellum is mainly charged with coordinating action (but does not initiate it). It is here where males excel – their left and right cerebellar hemispheres are better connected than in the female, the reverse of the thinking cerebrum. That explains why males are more action oriented.

Jackson Pollock’s (1912-1956) drip canvases kicked off what is now known as action painting, a term coined by the art critic Harold Rosenberg in 1952. The sense that a canvas is but an arena on which traces of a painter’s actions are recorded – while the actual creative process is long gone –  is of course not new. Michelangelo’s drawings  of muscular bodies not only remind us of the actual human form, but invoke in us the same neuro-motor pathways – neuron-synapse-neuron, neuron-synapse-muscle – which Michelangelo had used to make those drawings. This is what makes them so real to us. The neuro-motor pathways are a shared human trait – our common brain maps. Pollock’s abstract splashes with no apparent figures therefore show that such neural-motor pathways can be invoked directly with action alone, without a subject matter (e.g. the human form), thus bypassing the thinking brain’s recognition and categorization processes.

So this would also explain the predominance of male actors in physical comedy.

*   See my post on the art of Phyllida Barlow vs. Richard Serra. 

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