Cerebral Conflict in Abstract Art Perception

 

                                                                                                                 
                                                                                 Rodney Pygoya Chang, M.A., MS.Ed., Ph.D.*

                                                                                                          April 15, 2008
 

     

     I previously identified a difference in reaction time between realistic landscape and abstract art.  I hypothesized
 that this Pygoyan Gap is the result of comparing naturalistic scenery in which we have adapted to over the ages, 
with abstract imagery, not overtly obvious in our naturalistic environment.  I now believe there is another factor that 
retards the reaction time of appreciating (or disliking) an abstract work of art when we confront it, as in a gallery setting.

     We react to the realistic landscape painting on a visceral level.  This mental response comes from the part of the 
brain that evokes the sense of pleasure.  A rendered idyllic landscape does not demand that the viewer solve anything.
The artist in fact enhances the real world scene to beautify it, making it more glorious than it appears in the physical world.
For example, the painter can increase lushness by adding richer greens to the trees and ground and by using more 
brilliant reds and yellows for the fields of flowers.  All landscape paintings also position elements in the work, such as 
trees, mountain, ocean, and clouds, to be spatially arranged for perfect visual balance.  A less artistic but related visual act
is for a tourist to walk about to find the best viewpoint for taking a souvenir photograph of a picturesque place.  Likewise,
a painter on location will position his easel and self from a vantage point in his or her judgment best suited to capture its beauty.
In these ways, the artist makes the natural scene his or her own.  The embellishments make the scene now the artist’s subjective 
statement about the real world location.  In other words, the physical scene in now modified with the artist’s emotions
and cosmetic augmentations and thereby elevated to a categorical “work of art.”

     Unlike the completely visceral reaction to an pastoral painted scene, looking at abstract art is more complex.  Although
the mind reacts to the beautifying elements of the work, such as balance of composition and color harmony of the overall 
piece, it is confused by the lack of obvious subject matter (such as depicted/provided by realistic landscape artwork). 
Another part of the brain must be brought into action in order to judge the affective quality of the work.  The left 
hemisphere comes into play to handle the required problem solving.  The person unconsciously asks, “What is it?” 
besides “Do I like it?” when viewing the exhibited artwork.  The first question must be answered before the second can be
addressed.  Adding this analytical component to the enjoyment response of looking at abstract art lengthens the reaction
time in the judgment of whether or not one likes/appreciates a specific work of art. 

      There is also the precondition of expecting to experience pleasure when looking at art.  We go to gallery openings 
with a hedonistic frame of mind, anticipating "warm fuzzies" (good feelings) when engaging the displayed art.  A show of 
Romantic landscapes doesn’t disappoint.  An exhibit of abstruse shapes and exotic forms might challenge the intellect, but 
confound or even disrupt the more primal response of pleasure. 

     Artists can take into consideration these two different cerebral activities in spectators of art.  For an almost reflexive
pleasurable reaction to a landscape painting, they should not include any object that might raise questions about the content.
For example in a glorious sunset desert scene, do not add a cattle skull in the foreground.  This might suggest to the viewer 
that the work includes a symbolic metaphor of death; that the artist might be making a statement other than just glorifying the
attractiveness of a place.  

     For the abstractionist, naturalistic setting or background for featured geometric forms can strengthen the pleasure reaction,
especially if strong colors and compositional layout lead the viewer to perceive the naturalistic setting first, then only secondarily
notice the abstract components of the piece, leading to subsequent contemplation.  To create such works, computer graphic
software is a better tool than the brush.  Digital 3-dimensional forms use minute and indiscernible geometric shapes as building
blocks for the overall complex forms that the we perceive.  The artist, like myself, can select to permit the underlying geometric
construction of the work to manifest itself as part of the character and style of the visualized work. For example, review the 
sample artwork, below and on the right.

     Interestingly, elementary children's art is based upon geometric forms to represent real world things.  For example, the circle
is used as the Sun or human face, the triangle represents a house's roof, and the square becomes the house's living space and 
windows.  You might say that the child's mind is the first simplistic pictorial generator, similar to the graphic capability of  
1970s PCs (like the IBM XT and 64K Atari).  Although the child seems to instinctively understand the connection between basic
geometric shapes and objects of their environment, when they become adults that awareness is lost by most.  Many seniors in
retirement go to art classes and learn to draw by becoming familiar with the geometric nature of complex forms.  Most don't
think or remember far back enough to realize that they naturally possessed this understanding before.  Picasso was astute in 
studying children's art to inspire primal basic forms to power his bizarre yet radically innovative portrayal of the human figure. 
Making art that made the invisible visible helped form the Cubism movement.

 

                    
             
     landscape                                            abstract                                abstract forms in landscape setting


All art copyrighted by Rodney Pygoya Chang
Truly Virtual Web Art Museum    

* M.A. (Studio Art-Painting & Drawing, Northern Illinois University, Dekalb, IL), 
  M.S.Ed. (Art Education, thesis in developmental art, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA),
  Ph.D. (Art Psychology, thesis in perception in art appreciation, Union Institute University, Cincinnati, OH)

Comments by distinguished Prof. Herbert Franke, University of Munich

Dr. Rodney Chang's theory of aesthetic perception, 1980

Comments by arts writer and artist Robert Genn on the landscape as subject matter

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