Visual Crack

by F.

Almost twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate fine arts student, I was wandering in the university bookstore and came across a book by a faculty member entitled, What is Art For? The book was a sociobiological look at art—all kinds of art. I was immediately fascinated and bought it.

I found the book revolutionary at the time. In our art department, there seemed to be no sane people. There was no systematic thinking going on. There was very little thinking going on at all. Yet it seemed to me obvious that cognitive science and neuroscience should be able to shed some light on visual art—specifically, how to make art maximally thrilling for the audience. Because isn’t that, after all, the point?

I read through What is Art For?, but was disappointed, since it was concerned mostly with foundation building. At that time, sociobiology was less chic than now, so the author had to spend a lot of time justifying her approach, and this made for a dull book. There was a lot of stuff about cross-cultural artistic universals, but it was all quite vague.

Fast forward twenty years, and the landscape is changing. Or “has changed.” Now we have “neuroesthetics” and the work of Semir Zeki and others. And this stuff is highly, highly illuminating. Amazingly so. Check out the papers on Zeki’s website for more. Tons of goodies there.

Want a taste? OK. Here’s a study I did of a J.S. Sargent portrait:


Compare this to a typical “How to Draw” portrait, as on the cover of this manual:


There is obviously some difference between them—and the former is better. By far. It causes a little “Oooh!” in my brain when I see it. Maybe in yours, too. It’s visual crack, which is what good visual art should be. Eyegasm producing.

The latter stuff doesn’t give me an “Oooh!” More of a “Mmmmmmm” or “blech.” It is, most definitely, not visual crack. It’s a placebo. But why? And, by the way, I don’t take credit for the betterness of the former over the latter—it’s in the exemplar that I was studying:

Urn-3-Huam-Leg9560 Mddl-5

The “How To” drawings are lifeless… dull… overly “realistic”… I could go on struggling for various words to describe why they suck artistically. But I don’t think I would get any closer to really understanding what it was that makes the Sargent drawing more exciting—visually—than the dross on the cover of that book.

Fortunately, I think Vilayanur Ramachandran (from UC Irvine) has some of the answers. He has an amazing lecture posted/hosted on the BBC website. You can access it here. In it, he propounds a number of laws of visual art, all of which seem commonsensical and, if you have done much drawing or painting, familiar—because you have probably been exploiting them, unconsciously, for years.

One of the laws involves grouping. As Ramachandran says about a particular example, at first you merely see

a bunch of splotches… but then you sense your visual brain trying to solve a perceptual problem, trying to make sense of this chaos. And then after a few seconds, or maybe actually several seconds – 30 or 40 seconds – suddenly everything clicks in place

Now, in the case of the Sargent drawing, it is clear what the subject of the picture is—a face. But in the way Sargent has rendered it, he has left the marks alone such that they still appear to be marks. He lets the viewer complete the picture.

The picture sort of hovers between an abstraction—a bunch of smudges on paper—and a picture of something. And this, I think, accounts for the “Oooh!” I feel when viewing it. This is probably not the whole explanation, but I imagine it is a part of it. This is not sufficient for an artistic experience, but is one of a number of jointly sufficient properties, I think.