The Art Brain

Aug 16, 2019

“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar”, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.” – Viktor Shklovsky 

When I enter a museum, I tend to shift unconsciously to my art brain. I prepare myself to experience the exhibition on hand with a special lens, with my aesthetic sensibilities dilated. There are so many wonderful examples of visitors to museums who mistake a mop and bucket left out by a maintenance worker for an art installation. How perfect! How instructive. How useful. In a reverse instance, would a viewer respond the same way to a masterpiece normally enshrined in the Metropolitan Museum if they beheld the same work displaced, say, at a garage sale?

Last week I visited the Tate Modern in London with my wife Rena. Upon arriving in the vast Turbine Hall, we saw an old truck. “Is that a real truck, or is it art?” I asked. Because it was on the bridge of the Turbine Hall, I consciously switched on my art brain and decided to look at it through the lens of art. As I approached and examined it, I learned that it was a political piece by the artist Ernesto Salmeron who had transported a military truck from Nicaragua as an interrogation of the political functions of public spaces. But I was also aware of the conscious switch in brain function that I had made in how I was engaging with the truck.  

Engaging the art brain invigorates the act of perception as well as the act of creation. Oscar Wilde suggested that one approach a work of art with a “temperament of receptivity.”  I am well aware of the necessity of approaching the rehearsal hall with a temperament of receptivity. But I also know that preparation for rehearsal requires a very different brain function.  In preparation, I conjure my planning brain, which involves forecasting, analysis and logic. This is also true for the time after a rehearsal when an assessment and new plans must be hatched. But within the context of rehearsal I need a different attitude and a different way to interact with time and the space; I must be capable of allowing “things” to speak to me on their own. 

In order to switch on the art brain, I engage with the world in very particular way; stepping back and moving closer at the same time, heightening the senses and hence the perceptions, being open to surprise and the pulse and variations of patterns. The art brain requires heat and coolness simultaneously. 

I know that what I bring to a piece of art is as important as what the art gives to me. The question is, how does the brain respond to art from a biological and evolutionary standpoint? What is going on in the art brain? What are the neural mechanisms behind the creation and appreciation of art?

Neuroaesthetics is an innovative but controversial new field of study that uses neuroscience to explain and understand aesthetic experiences on a neurological level. According to neuroaesthetics, activating the art brain arouses an extremely complex whole-brain response to things that brings into play many usually disparate aspects of mind. With my art brain turned on, the blood flow increases in the brain and I consequently feel connected to something larger. This may explain why the feelings engendered by art are so difficult to articulate and yet are so profound.

Each distinct art form activates different combinations of areas in the brain. According to neuroaesthetics, for example, the delicate sadness evoked by masks worn in the Japanese Noh theater engages the right amygdala of the brain. But there are similarities in how the brain functions as well. When people feel “moved” by art, it seems that two systems in the brain that are normally separate are activated simultaneously. While the focus is actively directed at a specific external stimulus, the art, the default mode network, which is normally associated with “mind wandering” is also activated. Perhaps this is what creates the sense of distance and intimacy at the same time. 

The art brain is generated through coordinated activity in different brain regions organized in a flexible ensemble that finds an effective equilibrium. Although each distinct art form activates different combinations of areas in the brain, the overlap always occurs in the medial orbital frontal cortex. When you think that something is beautiful, that activity turns up in the medial prefrontal cortex. 

“Lose your mind in order to come your senses.” – Fritz Perls

At the age of 17, I lived for a few summer months in a commune in Newport, Rhode Island.  A beautiful blonde boy, one of the inhabitants of the house, started to act oddly at all times of the day and night. He had ingested prodigious amounts of LSD and mescaline over a relatively short period of time and had somehow lost all connection to “reality.” One morning I walked into the sunlit kitchen of the house to find him laughing hysterically while repeatedly slamming a shoulder-high cupboard door shut. He would push the door playfully closed and then it would bounce back open again. More laughter. He pushed it again and it bounced back again. The repetition of the door bouncing back and forth seemed to thoroughly delight him. I do not think that he had taken drugs that morning, rather he had simply tipped over into a zone in which the universe was animated in a way that pleased and entertained him endlessly. 

I have also been around a few people undergoing schizophrenic break-downs and can attest that it is not an amusing or entertaining situation. There is very little good in a psychotic breakdown and the journey to recovery can be long and arduous. Nevertheless, there can be moments, similar to a drug induced delirium, when the world feels alive and everything seems to emit special meanings. “That tree is pointing at me,” cried a dear friend in Northampton, Massachusetts as I tried to get her to cross the lawn to the safety of her own doorway. She also expressed fear that others could hear her thoughts and felt that messages were sent in the wind and radiated colors.

An artist works with the aesthetic sensibility of receptivity and somehow allows the world to speak to them in the artistic process without being overwhelmed by impressions in their daily life. The art brain experiences the music and the delight of cupboard doors bouncing back open. Trees point at you. A sock in the corner of the rehearsal studio creates impressions and emits meaning in relation to the other objects in the room. And yet you also need to be able to leave the rehearsal hall, go back out into the world and not be overwhelmed by its myriad meaningful details. 

A temperament of receptivity suggests interfacing with the environment without the added ingredient of desire. We live in a consumerist culture wherein our eyes are generally the dominant sense and we are encouraged to want what it is that we see. When I am hungry and walking down a street, I only see bakeries. But in art, as Joseph Campbell suggested, we do not desire to eat Cezanne’s apples, rather we are stopped by the apple-ness of the apples in the painting. To approach the world with receptivity, with the art brain turned on, requires an encounter without desire. 

I am interested in bringing the art brain into my daily life more often. How can I approach moments of being with a temperament of receptivity and openness? How can I allow myself be part of the world rather than separate from it and allow the environment to be alive? How can I let the artfulness of the objects around me speak to me? 

Composer/philosopher John Cage proposed that if you want to see theater, sit on a park bench and put a frame around what you see.  Ever since I was a young director, I have tried to practice looking-without-desire for at least ten minutes every day. In this way I am regularly exercising and developing an art brain and improving my abilities as a director. Sometimes I take the time to look through a restaurant window and watch what unfolds inside. Or I find a place to perch out of doors late at night to watch the passersby. I try to allow the world to be alive and to let it speak to me. In this way I am constantly studying God’s choreography.  And God’s choreography can be the inspiration for every moment on stage.