Oh No, Art For Thought (?) – The 54th Venice Biennale

How far we’ve come!

In 1965, Susan Sontag wrote a ground breaking essay,  Against  Interpretation which she dedicated to the artist Paul Thek,  a sometime lover and  whose  retrospective, Paul Thek – Diver  is now at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles (to 8/28/2011).

Sontag’s essay is in essence about engaging the experiential, the bodily senses in the appreciation of art in general.  She was talking about something we might today call a sort of bottom-up reception, avoiding the top-down input from the thinking brain which implies preconceived (or received) ideas from the past, which she calls  “the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

That was then, the ‘touchy feely’ 1960s.

This is now –  Bice Curiger, * director and curator of the current Venice Biennale has this to say about her mission for ILLUMInations the title of the show:

“ILLUMInations emphasizes the intuitive insight and the illumination of thought that is fostered by an encounter with art and its ability to sharpen the tools of perception… While the last Biennale ‘Making Worlds’ highlighted constructive creativity, ILLUMInations will focus on the ‘light’ of the illuminating experience, on the epiphanies that come with intercommunicative, intellectual comprehension. The Age of Enlightenment also resonates in ILLUMInations, testifying to the enduring vibrancy of its legacy.”

Curiger talks about intuitive and intellectual in the same paragraph! And furthermore, she’s embracing history and memory, not rejecting them. For example, she’ll be displaying three of Tintoretto’s paintings from the 16th  Century  prominently at the entrance to the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, including the Last Supper (from San Giorgio Maggiore Basilica).

Curiger also states art’s ability to ‘sharpen the tools of  perception’ to which I would add the word ‘visual’  because the Biennale is largely about visual art, even with its usual forays into sound, words or movement.  She is able to make these claims because we now know so much more about our brain and our eyes!

It is now widely accepted that our cerebral cortex, the most advanced part of the primate brain, devotes more than 30% of its functions to processing visual signals from the eyes. The cerebral cortex is the integrator of all our senses, bottom-up or top-down. And what we think of as ‘intuitive’ could also have been learned individually, or collectively through shared history, or evolution (in the genes), and thus could be conscious and unconscious. (Things consciously learned could also become unconscious if repeated enough times).

Thus,  the intuitive and the intellectual are at best a continuum – with no clear demarcation as to where one particular thought is one or the other. For example,  a thought could be intuitive for one person, if he has studied it a lot but a serious thinking exercise for another, if it’s new to him.

Are we complicating things or making them clearer?

(But I am excited to be going to see the Biennale in October, hoping displays will not look too ‘shop-worn’ by then.)

*  Bice Curiger is a curator and co-founder of Parkett magazine and currently also editor of Tate etc. magazine.

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