Art enhances the viewer’s cognitive acuity: “A system designed to adapt to its environment”
Guillaume Bottazzi – June 8th 2022
Zhu Da, Lotus flower and ducks, circa 1696, vertical scroll, ink on paper, 95.8 × 185 cm, Freer Gallery of Art. Washington
Man is an integrated mechanism
We used to think that sleep was a neurobiological phenomenon and that its purpose and structure were located in the brain.
“Everyone thought that sleep is of the brain, by the brain and for the brain. We overlook the fact that we are not brains: we are mechanisms, we are integrated. Everything we do is integrated with everything else,” explains neuroscientist Paul Shaw of Washington University in St. Louis.
The first cracks in this brain-centric view began to appear when Swiss scientist Irene Tobler noticed that cockroaches sleep unconsciously. Recently, a new discovery has completely changed the narrative. We have learned that even the simplest creatures, organisms with very little brain, also sleep. For example, a study was conducted using a hydra, one of the simplest forms of animal life. Instead of a brain, the hydra has nerve networks, the most basic nervous systems in nature. In 2021, a group of Japanese scientists demonstrated that hydras sleep. These tiny freshwater organisms are living proof that sleep evolved before the brain. More and more scientists are really looking at peripheral tissues and asking how the body can impact the brain, and how the brain can impact the body, specifically with regard to sleep regulation.
In his research, neuroscientist Paul Shaw hypothesises that there are situations that the brain cannot regulate alone; in association with the damage that has occurred, sleep can reduce the activation energy for the brain’s circuits to begin to find a solution. The idea is that when we sleep, we consume less energy. The energy we use then is used in a different way. We support functions that we could not support if we were awake. Research into the hydra offers the first of a growing body of evidence that sleep first evolved to regulate metabolism and improve a repairing function, and only later took on brain-related functions. Sleep and metabolism are closely related.
To contextualise with art: if human mechanisms build themselves in relation to their surroundings, this implies that the intrinsic nature of a thing or being is not limited to an individual. The human being is an integrated organism constituted by its environment, its microbiota and peripheral elements. The artist reveals not only his identity, but also his relationship to the elements, which are themselves constitutive of his own construction. He reveals energies that allow us to be more in tune with the world around us. The artist enables the observer to have a more harmonious relationship with things, in a global manner. This infers that the subject is not the artist, but the effects of the work on the observer*, which can facilitate his or her ability to adapt to the environment. The work of art is linked to the inside and the outside, and the mind is inseparable from the body.
* Physicist Jean-Claude Picard explains that when we look at a work of art, we separate the lines, depth, shape, colour and movement… All these factors are processed in different locations in our brain. The brain will reconstitute them in phases, in a synchronised synthesis. For hearing, there is the pitch, the rhythm of the sounds, the timbre. The many factors are analysed in different areas of the brain, are then reconstituted and so bring us pleasure or sometimes displeasure.
The human brain is unique because our system is designed to adapt to its environment
Albert Einstein’s brain weighed only 1.2 kg and that of Nobel Prize winner Anatole France 1.1 kg. That’s not a great deal but it is not the size of the brain that makes it creative. Scientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel has developed a new technology to count the number of nerves in the brain. What she measures is the number of processors, of which there are many: around 100 billion.
Recently, she measured the number of nerves in the brain of an African elephant as the elephant’s brain is huge, bigger than a human brain. Indeed, the elephant has a brain three times the size of that of a human, but most of the networks are at the back of the brain. The number of nerves in the cortex of the human brain is larger and wider than in any other being. The difference is that the human brain is very connected. This means that it has the ability to move information from one area to another very easily, which is essential for creativity.
Neuroscientist Idan Segev of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem gives an example*: “a glass involves the concept of the glass, its shape which is associated with vision, taste, touch; so when we integrate the concept of a glass, we have to elaborate and call into action many modules or modalities, which interfere with different regions located in this context in the back of the brain, in the front and in the side, and these regions have to be connected to handle different types of information, to generate language, for example.” We have 3 to 4 km of connections which represents 100 million connections, and locally we have many circuits. We develop our brain more slowly than other animals. Thirty thousand networks are activated locally. The number of synapses and connections decide the dynamics of our system: not only the connections between the different regions, but also the connections within each region.
This system is designed to adapt to its environment, and this implies that artistic expression does not limit itself merely to revealing the ‘essence’ of its creator or his life, but enables the observer to be more in tune with things in a global manner.
* In the context of the conference “The brain and artistic creation”.
Yokoyama Taikan, Gunjo Fuji, circa 1917, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art
The effects of colour on humans
Guillaume Bottazzi – January 9th 2022
Colour phenomena in humans
Colour has always fascinated mankind, but new knowledge in neuroscience and cognitive psychology is now providing more insight into its effects. Further studies are nevertheless needed to understand fully our visual system and our relationship to colour. Colours are electromagnetic waves with light being captured by the eyes using waves of different lengths produced by particles that are reflected off the objects we see. The visible spectrum for humans, which is only a small part of the whole electromagnetic range, extends only from 380 to 780 nanometres, which correspond to dark purple and dark red respectively. When the photons of light from an image are emitted, they reach the lens of the eye and focus on the retina. The retina contains four classes of photoreceptors: three classes of cones and one class of rods. The cones allow us to see details during the day and are responsible for sensitivity to contrast, colour and fine detail, but do not effectively perceive the more general components. Each of the three classes is sensitive to a specific component of the dark violet, green or dark red colour spectrum. Rods are more numerous than cones and are not very effective in daylight or in normal indoor light. Furthermore, rods do not contain any colour information and therefore do not contribute, for example, to our perception of art. Humans perceive colours with specific emotional characteristics and our subsequent reaction to them can vary with our mood. Studies are under way on this subject.
When we look at a colour, we experience emotions and sensations. Our perception is the result of reconstruction and allows us to read the space and shapes around us. This ambiguity may explain why a single colour can elicit different reactions in different people or even in the same person at different times. Specifically, the visual sensory stimulus received is immediately processed by the amygdala, located deep in the temporal lobe of the brain, which moderates emotional states, and this in turn produces an unconscious response. The brain areas of vision and other senses are connected to the amygdala, which encodes and coordinates the response of neural circuits to these emotional stimuli, integrating them also with previous individual experiences. If these stimuli are new, it learns them. In this way, the individual emotional meaning generated by this visual sense influences our emotions and consequently other aspects of consciousness, such as perception, thinking and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex is fundamental to the inhibition of the amygdala and the integration of emotional, cognitive and social information, and has some capacity to limit impulsive choices. The hippocampus is important for explicit or conscious memory of emotional events. It is also involved in retrieving newly formed information, as opposed to the amygdala which is useful for unconscious emotional memory. In particular, Eric Kandel defines the sensation; in this case, this may be understood as analogous to the concept of emotions. Antonio Damasio defines it as actions triggered by an external and largely automatic stimulus acquired in the course of evolution and involving actions performed by the body – such as facial expressions – as a consequence of the sensory stimulus. In the case of vision, it is the photoreceptors in our eyes that are stimulated. They can directly influence our behaviour. Perception is instead the next step that integrates the information our brain receives from the outside world with knowledge based on learning from previous experiences and hypothesis testing, and this becomes coherent when the brain attributes value, meaning and usefulness to it.
For Antonio Damasio the feeling is conscious: it is a neural state that occurs in the wake of an emotion. Even primordial feelings, considered as images of a person’s internal state, are based in the brain stem and play an integral part in regulating our lives. They are common to both emotions and what we call bodily feelings, consisting of images of other aspects of the organism combined with those of the internal state, and to feelings of emotion, considered as complex variations of bodily feelings caused by a specific object. Concerning this aspect, the main area seems to be the insula, which evaluates and integrates the emotional and motivational significance of these stimuli and also acts as a coordinator between external sensory information and internal motivational states. While there are many parameters that greatly relativise the objective effects of colour on an individual, studies do nevertheless show conclusive statistical results.
Our perception is the result of a reconstruction allowing us to read the space and shapes around us. If colour is related to wavelengths, this implies that light comes before colour. Luminosity is the origin of our vision of colour and therefore the same object, depending on the time of day or the season in which we see it, may present different colours. However, if we see the same object, we can still recognise it and our brain associates it with the colour we are used to seeing. This ability of colour to persist is essential for an object: it is a mental reconstruction called colour permanence. If this property did not exist, we would not distinguish the different elements; colour does not belong to a reality of the world but is a reconstruction. Our ‘precariousness’ in seeing elements produces elaborations that change from one individual to another. We must also bear in mind the fundamental principle of our brain’s functioning, which takes in information from the outside world and then has this completed by the person seeing. This incompleteness produces different interpretations that change from one individual to another. Thus light is effective on an individual and produces powerful chemical effects. The light is immersive as the observer reduces his or her iris to adapt to the light flow. In front of a luminous work of art, the observer is an actor of what he sees, facilitating its projection. We can imagine that glass, for example, facilitates the warming up of the viewer’s senses and his appropriation, insofar as it creates light reflections and a mirror effect.
Colour produces effects that influence our energies. Colour has a powerful effect on humans, producing effects that influence our wellbeing. Decades of research have led to a better understanding of its effects. Studies are being developed which aim to encourage consumers to buy by influencing their choice of colours. It is known that the choice of specific colours for the walls of a shop has a specific purpose. Red is a strong, optimistic and invigorating colour. Statistics show how much this colour influences our behaviour. A sportsman wearing a red jersey is more likely to win than another. Red is associated with winning and power. Red is the colour of decision-makers and induces a feeling of good energy. This colour contributes to feeling in a good mood. Red is recommended for meeting rooms, festive places, reception rooms, cinemas, theatres and concert halls. The show will be better appreciated if the environment is red. Also, when a man sees a woman dressed in red, his heart rate increases and she will be more successful than another woman. For example, red generates warmth and attracts, so it is often used in shop windows. Pink is an optimistic and soft colour. This colour will make you feel good. The softness of the colour is calming; it brings peace. Successful experiments have been implemented as a result of painting prisons pink: the experience is proving positive in calming inmates. Pink is also recommended for schools. Green helps re-order the mind: it allows us to concentrate and to find ourselves. This colour brings us back to nature, to our natural environment. It promotes calmness and organisation. This colour is suitable for libraries.
In the interior walls of shops, blue may be preferred, as this is a colour that relaxes and encourages customers to choose calmly. Blue clears the airways and purifies. It encourages our imagination. It is the colour of creativity. Experiments with children show that blue promotes creativity. It is used for brainstorming sessions in companies. Yellow, on the other hand, stimulates the digestive system. It is a sunny, positive and optimistic colour that tends also to make us feel good.
Memory and the recollection process in visual perception
It is important to bear in mind the ways in which the memory process develops, taking into consideration first of all the notion of memory, which is no longer seen as a static store of information over time from which it is possible to retrieve information in an unchanged way, but which, on the contrary, is now seen as a dynamic and reconstructive object on which depends our capacity to recall and transmit to others the content of memories. The memory device uses two processes: that of learning and that of memorising. Both procedures have phases of encoding, consolidation, storage and retrieval. Specifically, when an external stimulus selected by our attention arrives, it passes through our short-term memory, or, as Alan Baddeley calls it, our working memory, or ML, which temporarily stores information while simultaneously processing it to perform mental tasks. The working memory is articulated through a phonological circuit or articulatory loop which is used for the processing and maintenance of verbal and acoustic information, a visual-spatial notebook which is more responsible for the processing and maintenance of visual and spatial information, and a central executive system which coordinates the activity of the previous two systems, interacting also with the rest of the working memory. At this stage, the information is compared with the long-term memory before providing a definitive response. Long-term memory, depending on the knowledge to which it must refer, can be explicit or declarative when accessing information consciously; this in turn breaks down into episodic memory (personal experiences) and semantic memory (a repertoire of general knowledge stored on the basis of its meaning and the input of knowledge that the individual enters as a result of his or her experiences). On the other hand, non-declarative or implicit memory (where access to knowledge is not conscious) is in turn divided into procedural memory (unconscious ability to do something), conditioning memory and priming memory. It is possible to say that higher brain regions can influence lower ones and this allows us to explain easily how something new we have just seen in an image can remind us of something else seen previously, in an effect of so-called family memory. Memory is essential for perceptual and emotional response, especially in the case of short-term memory, and visual information is perceived by the inferior temporal cortex which is analysed and then transmitted to the prefrontal cortex which codes the behavioural response. Long-term memory, on the other hand, requires the involvement of the temporal lobe, the hippocampus in explicit memory, and the amygdala and striatum (which is involved in reward and expectation) in implicit memory.
Colour and smell
Colours can also create smells that are reconstructed by humans. An experiment to this end was carried out using washing powder. Red, then blue and then yellow were added to a white detergent. The many housewives who tested the products all came to the same conclusion: the red detergent worked very well, but it was too strong because it attacked the laundry. The yellow detergent did not clean so well and the blue detergent was perfect but above all it smelled good, unlike the others. Of course, it was the same detergent in every case.
Colour and sound
Studies have been undertaken in synaesthetic areas where, for example, colour is combined with music to help persuade the consumer to buy. There is also research that shows how our perception of a food or the smell of a food is partly influenced by the way it is illuminated and therefore by the colour it reveals when presented at table. Even the colour of the dish in which the food is served and the ambient lighting can create different impressions, with the food appearing more or less attractive or abundant as a result. For humans the colour of objects is essential in terms of marketing and advertising strategies. Indeed, using other terms to express this notion, according to Jean-Marie Floch, when we stand before an object, we perform semantic operations and in particular valorisation, which is to say we construct values that we individually attribute to this object. The term valorisation identifies the operation of that part of the world we want to analyse and which is obtained through appropriate semantic mediations that combine a certain object with our experience of the world.
Research conducted by the Institute for Color Research in collaboration with the University of Winnipeg has shown that consumers require only 90 seconds to make a judgment about a product with reference to its value and reliability. This colour accounts for 62-90% of this result. Therefore, various theories and research show that colour is able significantly to influence attitudes and perceptions of a brand.
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. This 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. In recognizing the beauty, there is a strong activity in the relationship to the work: the intensity of the experience is great for the observer.
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
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 neuroscientists Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal show why my works tend to promote well-being. Well-being 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 in-situ 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.
My 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 a ten-year research on the brain and art,4 Helmut Leder and Marcos Nadal explain 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.
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.
In a study, 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.
Presentation of works of art, exhibitions, news, environmental art. Guillaume Bottazzi has signed more than 100 artworks for public spaces.
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