Art reconnects with beauty
Guillaume Bottazzi – December 10th 2021
The philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in 1757 that beauty “is most often some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the sense”. Burke thus distinguished art from beauty; but beauty and art were later brutally separated by Marcel Duchamp, with his urinal (see Fontaine). Thus, not all artistic work, however interesting, is necessarily linked to the experience of beauty.
Neurobiologist Semir Zeki explained in his lecture “The Neurobiology of Beauty” that there are no specific characteristics to define beauty, so in his experiments on beauty he targeted individuals representing different ethnicities, cultures and upbringings. Semir Zeki excluded ‘insiders’, such as painters or musicians, so that knowledge of the subject would not influence the answer. His idea was to show paintings and play music so that everyone could assess the beauty they sensed. Then he scanned the subjects and showed them the same works again, this time monitoring brain activity. The flow of blood detected by the scanner allows us to see the activity and the areas stimulated. He conducted these experiments using a painting by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres that most people (but not all) like – La Grande Odalisque – and another painting that many (but not all) people consider ‘ugly’, painted by Lucian Freud – Benefits Supervisor Sleeping. The latter work does not provoke an experience of beauty for most subjects. In music, a majority found Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony ‘beautiful’, and many subjects described a work by György Ligeti as ‘ugly’.
By observing the stimulation of brain activity, and especially the areas that are active when subjects experience beauty through the eyes, we notice that in addition to the visual areas, the medial orbitofrontal cortex – the emotional area – is also active.
In musical aesthetic experiences, the orbitofrontal area is very active. There is also an isolated area that is mobilised, which is always corollary to the experience of beauty. There are characteristics that define beauty, but the response comes from the brain and not from the artworks. By observing the area of active visual beauty, there is a strong activity in the relationship to the work: the intensity of the experience is great for the observer. In his book entitled Du vrai, du beau, du bien, Jean-Pierre Changeux states that our brain associates beauty with truth and goodness. Recognising the beautiful thus initiates a process of reconstruction, and the observer will strengthen his or her desire to live.
But what about ugliness? Faced with ugliness, the observer also activates stimuli, but differently. The amygdala is active, and the cortex mobilises the motor that protects us against ugliness. The essential function of the amygdala is to ‘decode stimuli that could be threatening to the organism’. Joseph LeDoux, director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety in New York, illustrates the action of this circuit very well: “A hiker in the wilderness sees what he thinks is a snake. The short circuit activates an instantaneous jolt and recoil response of fear.”
We have a filter that selects between the ugly and the beautiful, and then sends the information to different parts of the brain.
Semir Zeki affirms that beauty is desire and love, and that there is a mirror link with beauty. When people look at a person or an object they desire, they use the same pathway as for the beautiful. So there is a common area of activity located in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, and these areas are activated when we experience beauty; but they can also sometimes be activated when a person looks at individuals they really like.
If, for the observer, the beautiful reinforces his or her desire to live and stimulates more activity than the ugly, this implies that a work of art must stimulate our desires, love and beauty. The significance of a work of art is therefore not measured by itself, but by the effects it produces in the viewer.
Priorities in art, neuro-aesthetics and its orientations
Guillaume Bottazzi – September 30th 2021
Since many people in the art world seem to lose themselves in a compartmentalised world and in preconceived ideas, and since scientists do not always understand what is at stake in art, it is important for me to give my point of view as an artist.
Look around you: we are heirs to various issues that make our world seem chaotic. Paradoxically, we are also becoming aware that we are in an ecosystem, and that this ecosystem is itself part of another ecosystem. Consequently, there is no ‘I’. This is not chaos: everything is connected and the work of art is a bridge between the microcosm and the macrocosm.
The history of art seems to reveal a shared interest by artists to draw closer to the public. In the Renaissance, we discovered Donatello’s sculpture in the Piazzale degli Uffizi in Florence freeing itself from its pedestal. Later, Baroque artists introduced movement into the work of art, to solicit the viewer’s fascination. Thus, as the German author Karl Philipp Moritz wrote, the work of art presupposes the experience of the viewer.
Neuroscience allows us to bring the work of art even closer to its audience; and this search for proximity is important because what makes a work come alive is the observer’s elaboration of it. Nevertheless, the priority lies elsewhere.
Donatello or Rubens, for example, drew closer to the audience, as we explained earlier; however, they also sought to elevate the viewer, unlike the recent work of Jeff Koons (to name but one) who seeks to draw the audience in, but not to elevate it.
Vassily Kandinsky considered with good sense,that the work of art elevates us spiritually; this elevation is measured by the tools we have today. However, over the last 20 years, our cognitive capacities have been regressing and we must therefore place our cursor on the optimization of human potential.
The work that prevents the viewer from thinking for himself atrophies the fields of possibility in art, insofar as it is the observer’s elaboration that allows him to facilitate the modulation of his neurons1. Thus, narrative art forces the viewer into a passive role and limits his own elaboration, and figurative art limits our cognitive activity, etc.
Therefore, the work of art has the vocation to stimulate our imagination and to encourage our initiatives.
It must encourage the onlooker to elaborate.
This implies that the work is opposed to capture or control, as Marc-Alain Ouaknin describes it in Éloge de la caresse (2016); on the contrary, it encourages us to travel, to build, to recreate, to evolve, to strengthen ourselves, constantly linked to the inside and the outside.
While we are embarking on this new era – called the ‘Anthropocene’ – with so many problems, we nevertheless have information that could allow us to readjust our orientations.
1 Eric Kandel, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures, Columbia University Press, 2016.
The Neuroaesthetics of Guillaume Bottazzi
Guillaume Bottazzi – March 15th 2021
The Neuroaesthetics of Guillaume Bottazzi
Neuroaesthetics is an empirical aesthetic. The discipline aims to study the aesthetic perceptions of art from the point of view of science. François Dagognet wrote: “Drawing on the outer rather than on the inner”1, and this approach must be applied to art which, by feeding on the neurosciences, changes its paradigm. Neuroaesthetics is a renaissance of art; it marks a great turning point: the shift from one world to another.
Neuroaesthetics uses knowledge from the neurosciences, which allows us to understand better the effects of a work of art on humans and to optimise these. This approach involves a study of the phenomena with the aim of optimising the virtues of a work of art. Thus, in contrast to modern art, the work escapes any doctrine of speculative, hazardous and closed belief, since it is based on observed facts or effects. Neuro-aesthetics makes it possible to optimise the benefits of a work of art, and thus to widen its scope.
Today we can recognise, or not, the relevance of artists. For example, Vassily Kandinsky wrote that art allowed us to rise spiritually;2he was right, because we can – thanks to neuroscience – see that art creates cognitive activity and modulates our neurones.
In Art and Reductionism, neuroscientist Eric Kandel explains why abstract art stimulates our brain activity. He states that an abstract work, and what is more one with diffuse contours, will produce greater brain activity in the observer. The painter Henri Matisse was also right when he wrote that “the role of painting is to give what photography does not”.3
In A Psychological Look at the Art of Guillaume Bottazzi,4 the neuroscientist Helmut Leder shows why my works tend to promote well-being. The latter has a connotation that is misperceived by a category of people, but this is because they are unaware that if a work does not arouse empathy, it simply creates little or no cognitive activity.
The size of the works draws the viewer into an immersive sensory experience, allowing him to record it in the register of his personal experiences. This explains why my creations tend to be larger than a person. Moreover, the installation is not a peculiarity of our time, since we benefit from a heritage of immersive works, such as cave art or Italian frescoes for example.
Neurosciences allow us to anticipate the future
For example, since we know that our perception is global, the consequence is that works of art will integrate into our daily life with devices that will no longer be made from bits of string, contrary to what we can sometimes observe in contemporary museums and art centres.
The German writer Karl Philipp Moritz was right when he wrote that the work of art assumes the experience of the spectator. The work of art is not science, but it uses science to move forward. The work of art is a plastic and malleable material.
1François Dagognet – Changement de perspective : le dedans et le dehors (A change of perspective: the inside and the outside).
2Vassily Kandinsky, Concerning the spiritual in art.
3 Henri Matisse in conversation with Georges Charbonnier in a television programme called “Couleurs du temps” broadcast in 1951.
4 Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal – Curved art in the real world: A psychological look at the art of Guillaume Bottazzi.
Guillaume Bottazzi and the joy of inhabiting
The in situ works of Guillaume Bottazzi reveal new environmental paradigms
Guillaume Bottazzi – November 15th 2020
Why having dreamlike spaces in our everyday spaces?
The in situ works of Guillaume Bottazzi modify our environment and cause new architectural paradigms to emerge.
For Gaston Bachelard, imagination constitutes the foundation of reason and perception: this is the reason why imagination takes precedence in the creation of the spaces we occupy, since – above all – we inhabit dreamlike spaces. Our imagination conditions our perceptions and our thoughts.
These poetic spaces are not places that exist in themselves. They are not an envelope in which we come to be buried and nor an objective container of elements. These poetic spaces nourish our creativity and stimulate our construction.
These in situ works create dynamic spaces, spaces inhabited by the living, always connected with the outside and the inside. These creations create spaces that transcend lines and utilitarian space.
It is the concrete and matter that will reveal our dreams and the spirit of places. It is they that will stimulate a personal imagination; and in order to be able to dream, we must not rationalise.
For example, if we look at the building plans for a construction, we do not dream, but if we reinvent what we are looking at, we appropriate the site. To do this, we need to seek out anything unexpected in it so as to be able to inscribe the spaces we frequent into the register of our imagination.
Every landscape is an experience that connects with our imagination, and this imagination is not a passive daydream but takes shape in action, in the way a child walking along a line on his way to school pretends he is tiptoeing on the edge of a high precipice.
The spaces frequented nourish the passer-by with a form of unreality and make him dream.
Creating evolving spaces
The three-dimensionality of static spaces is an illusion.
New physics and quantum physics induce the idea that all space is evolutionary.
New physics calls into question the three-dimensionality of static spaces; this is the case of the “theory of relativity” whereby static space does not exist, but it is also the case of quantum physics for which things are no longer locatable.
New physics has revealed a new dynamic of space, where dream space is the construction of a dynamic space bringing the joy of inhabiting a given place.
It is a space that is constantly changing, an open space that is never closed, a space that evolves and surprises.
Senses and art
Guillaume Bottazzi – March 20th 2020
The analytical approach in the art world is established in the naming systems; it has become a form of classification that has gained weight and which serves as a reference in the context of the artistic judgement of initiates. This current of thinking was initiated by Wittgenstein, and others have since taken it up.
To introduce the subject and summarise the situation, the analytical approach seeks to destroy the sensory dimension of a work of art, maintaining that our senses offer only a reading at a first level. It considers that art has no essence. This leads those who implement this approach to consider that the meaning of a work of art can only be understood by intermediaries, that is to say, themselves. Thus, these players set themselves up as the only link between the public and the work: this explains how these intermediaries perpetuate their jobs.
The problem with this social elaboration in the art world is that it operates at the expense of public interest, but also of art since it freezes it. The analytical approach in art reduces the scope of artworks, even though the work of art is a malleable, flexible medium: we reinvent the artwork we look at over time.
What Marc-Alain Ouaknin says in Lire aux éclats, éloge de la caresse should be applied to art too, which opposes taking possession or controlling, and allows us to evolve. That is why, from Antiquity to the present day, art has been the subject of never-ending reflections. As Vassily Kandinsky1 put it, “art enables you to rise”.
For Nobel Prize laureate Eric Kandel,2 in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science – Bridging the Two Cultures, art modulates our neurones and it is the cognitive activity of the observer that enables this to happen.
Cognitive activity is the measure of the production of grey matter and of our spiritual elevation. The study by Oliver Sacks, the British doctor, neurologist and writer, “The effects of music on the brain”, presents an MRI which measures the effects of music on the public.3 It shows that if the listener is not sensitive to the music he is listening to, music creates hardly any cognitive activity. However, if the listener likes the music he is listening to, there are many areas that activate. If the viewer is not receptive to the observed work of art, it will have no effect on him. The scientific data seem to agree, because they imply that an approach that denies the sensitive in art also negates the activity of the brain, insofar as it will then develop only in a very reduced way. On the other hand, artworks that appeal to our senses have the power to immerse us and create an aesthetic and cognitive activity.
In his ten-year research on the brain and art,4 Helmut Leder explains that the viewer may find criticism of a work pertinent, but that this will not affect his aesthetic judgment.
On the other hand, in his article entitled “L’esprit est modelé par le corps”,5 the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrates to what extent the body is inseparable from the brain, and how the latter is able to determine our aesthetic judgment, sometimes without filters.
In other words, to deny the sensory dimension of a work – and even its essence – is like amputating one’s limbs before playing a game of basketball.
1 Vassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, 1911
2 Eric Kandel was the 2000 Nobel prizewinner of physiology or medicine
3 Oliver Sacks, The Effects of Music on the Brain – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUT9UTVrwp8&list=PL8FKI9WbQ5tR6S00K4n5Lwn7IgbFLapst
4 Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal, Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments : The aesthetic episode – Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics, 2014
5 Antonio Damasio, La Recherche, n° 368
Guillaume Bottazzi – January 10th 2020
The art historian Hans Belting1 suggests calling today’s arts “supermodern” art. Identifying with his classification, Supermodern abstraction is the term I have chosen to categorise my own creations.
In order to broaden the impact of art, a poetic commitment is a constant in all my works.
The subject is the work of art itself, it is polysemic and surrenders itself to the observer’s elaboration. The work is not limited to a cause that is external to it, that would reduce and fix it, but optimises the effects generated in the observer.
According to the philosopher Martin Heidegger2, a work of art is a power that opens and “installs a world”. It is not a simple depiction, but the manifestation of the deep truth of a thing. Art is itself origin and creation of the world. Art reinvents the world, exalts it, and participates in its transformation. And in fact, art takes part in our development in all things. Numerous writings have illustrated how art is a subject of reflection that has never stopped changing and causing controversy through the centuries, because art is malleable, because it is an intangible and soft matter. The painter Vassily Kandinsky considered that art allows one to raise oneself3. For him, spiritual life is a movement that corresponds to the movement of awareness. In his “essay on the imagination”, Joseph Addison, a seventeenth-century English writer demonstrated that the works we see become part of us and express themselves in the world of the observer4. The convictions of this author are today scientifically proven, notably by the research by the Nobel Prizewinner in physiology, Eric Kandel, who shows how our brain develops in recreating the work of art we observe and why abstract art modulates more neurons than figurative art5. For the painter Paul Klee, “art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible6”. To paint is to hide, to induce the non-visible in order to optimise the observer’s own elaboration. This leads me to share my liking for the painter Henri Matisse with you because he understood that “the painter’s duty is to give that which photography does not give7”.
The philosopher François Dagognet wanted to “go outside to plumb the depths rather than inside8” while the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio demonstrates that “the mind is shaped by the body”, that it is not only the brain that is mobilised when we look a work of art but also the body9.
Moreover, in his ten-year research on the brain and art10, neuroscientist Helmut Leder of the University of Vienna in Austria has shown that the notion of art is closely linked to each person’s personal experience. This partly expresses my interest in large formats, in environmental creations and installations, since they immerse the spectator, inviting him to move around and add what he sees to the register of his personal experiences.
Through the study you will find in this work, two neuroscientists, Helmut Leder and Narcos Nadal, prove that my creations contribute to the well-being of the viewer11. They promote dopaminergic activity and reduce anxiety. The fact of loving a work, of feeling good before it is the factor that will enable it to play its role, as research by Antonio Damasio has shown.
When I visited the Ryōan-ji temple in north-west Kyoto, I sought a global approach, one that incorporates different parameters and gives the impression of infinity. I have abandoned the form and expression of the artist who focuses on himself. I have painted in such a way as to find my own breath, a balance that centres on the energies deployed.
Art must leave the well-trodden path, renew itself, bring the unexpected, surprise us. It must lurk where we do not necessarily expect it, accompany us on a daily basis, transform and reincarnate itself.
1 Hans Belting – The End of the History of Art?
2 Martin Heidegger – The Origin of the Work of Art
3 Vassily Kandinsky – Concerning the spiritual in art
4 Joseph Addison – The pleasures of the Imagination, le Spectator
5 Eric Kandel – Reductionism in Art and Brain Science
6 Paul Klee – On Modern Art
7 Henri Matisse – Interview with Georges Charbonnier in 1951 in a programme called “Couleurs du temps”
8 François Dagognet – Changement de perspective : le dedans et le dehors (A change of perspective: the inside and the outside)
9 Antonio Damasio – La Recherche, n° 368
10 Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal – Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgements: The aesthetic episode – Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics
11 Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal – Curved art in the real world: A psychological look at the art of Guillaume Bottazzi.
Brain and art
Guillaume Bottazzi – January 11th 2016
Sensory perception is created by arousal or stimulation which itself produces a reaction.
We are able to see an object only if the information passes through the cortex.
That explains why our vision is not simply a mechanical phenomenon but is also connected to mental elaboration.
The perception of a form induces the perception of meaning (a symbolic process); according to Gestalt theory, in an abstract image the whole perceptive system prevails over the sum of its parts.
Excerpt from the “Abrégé de psychologie” (“A compendium of psychology”), by J. Delay and P. Pichot, 4th edition, Editions Masson – Chapter IV / La perception.
Aspects psychologiques et psychopathologiques (Perception. Psychological and Psychopathological Aspects) / page 55 (translated here).
c) The Tau and Gelb Effect. – It combines the two preceding series.
When three equally spaced bright spots A, B and C are presented one after another and the temporal interval between A and B is inferior to that between B and C, points A and B are seen as closer together than B and C.
A few optical-geometrical illusions. On the upper left side, the Müller Lyer illusion.
The dot divides the arrow’s shaft into two equal halves.
The portion on the right appears longer than the portion on the left.
On the upper right side, the oblique line is comprised of two segments which are a continuation of each other. The upper segment appears shifted to the right.
On the lower left side, the bases of the three trapeziums are equal.
On the lower right side, the six lines are parallel.
Brain and art
The diagrams above show that we do not see the individual parts but the whole; our overall view creates an optical illusion, our perception may be distorted but, above all, all our perception reinvents the world.
Perception is not an objective reproduction of the world
– If a picture represents an apple (we can define it as round, red, judge its size, etc.), cognition begins and the subject is identified. The apple refers to a notion of apple which exists for the observer. It can be connected to an affective process, for example by recalling a memory such as the smell of the pies the observer’s grandmother used to bake. The observer is active in front of the image.
The constancy of colour :
If we ask an observer what is the colour of coal in direct sunlight, the observer will see it as black. Similarly, a pile of snow at dusk will appear white. And yet a photoelectric cell shows that coal in sunlight is lighter than snow at dusk.
There is a constancy of colour in our brain and meaning belongs to the person looking at it : snow is invariably perceived as white.
The abstract image constructs us
In front of an abstract image, the observer’s symbolic process must construct the image differently. Indeed, the observer cannot rely on his or her experience in this case. Abstract artwork commands mental effort and this cerebral activity is part of our development.
Understanding becomes disconcerting because there are no references; it requires us to think harder.
Thus, the observer must make an effort to identify the image, to understand it.
Moreover, we see what we want to see or what we need to see.
Our motivation determines the field of hypothesis and as such modifies the field of our perception.
Perception is action, the perceptive act with which we structure the world. It is tied to what is acquired, which implies that it evolves and that there is no absolute nature.
cf.: The empiricist theories – Piaget / the child’s developmental stages – perception is learned.
– A room is crooked, the walls are not straight.
Inside, a man touches the space, a degree of transfer occurs, he understands the space with his hands and as such finds his bearings; this implies that perception evolves.
– We put glasses which invert left and right on an individual. The brain then reinvents the correct direction. Innate, acquired, compulsive and affective perception can change with experience.
Art must be brought to everyone
We can distinguish acquired from innate in perception.
Abstract artwork does not impose a subject; it frees us from our references.
What is acquired becomes a determinant; in other words, looking at artwork will help mental elaboration. Hence the importance of making art accessible to a large audience: the presence of artwork improves our knowledge and the development of our capabilities. The more artwork we see, the more we are prepared to receive it and accept that there is no single, unique vision of the world.
Official website of Guillaume Bottazzi, visual artist.
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