Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Scariest Painting in the World

Well damn, it's been a while. I'm sorry I left all two or three of you in the lurch like that (hello Cleveland!). Traveling left less blogging time than I expected. I've just gotten back to New York...

Here's a little update for you: I thought the most frightening painting I had ever seen was a particular Magritte. In fact, it was two particular Magrittes that I had conflated in my memory. This is the first one. The image is small, but that's because it's the only image of it I could find on the Internet - not a particularly good image:

And here's the second painting:

How are these scary paintings? Well, when I was very small, I had a distinct terror of scale distortions. Even now, when I am dead tired, the relative sizes of things seem to fluctuate before the eye of my imagination, in a very frightening way. So Magritte's room filled by a rock was naturally terrifying to me.

But in my memory, it wasn't the rock filling the room, it was one of those odd spheres. Why? Because before I saw either painting, I had a nightmare of a room filled by a stone sphere, sliced horizontally. The top hemisphere rotated in one direction, and the bottom hemisphere rotated in the opposite direction, so that they made a terrible stony grinding noise against one another. This nightmare included the scale distortion and the, for some reason, elementally horrifying bisected sphere.

Naturally, when I saw Magritte's spheres and Magritte's filled room, I reacted strongly to them, and eventually fused them in my recollection.

Now, you may never have seen those spheres before, but I can guarantee you've seen something similar, which is also terrifying to children:

Lucas and his designers were pretty careful to push your buttons in the most reliable way possible. They put a lot of thought into how to make the first glimpse of Darth Vader terrifying, and they cooked up his black shape coming down that white hall as an optimal solution to the problem. So I'm guessing the design of the Death Star was no accident either.

Here's the question: is there something to this form that we are wired to find frightening?

Maybe. I don't know. It sure scares me, though. I'm still scared of that room with the stone sphere in it, grinding.

Let me add a word about something I will call scientism. You may have noticed that I've put a lot of scientific explanations of various optical and cognitive phenomena into this blog so far. Well, that's all very well and good. But I am also skeptical of my own urge to find a "scientific" explanation for every little thing. Not that I won't go right on doing it - I've got some more stuff planned along these lines, and it's very interesting.

On the other hand, it's worth remembering that to try to explain away every artistic phenomenon by reference to science, is a very weak approach. This approach, this scientism, is weak in terms of science, and weak in terms of art. How?

In terms of science, it's weak because it fails to acknowledge that science is constantly advancing and changing. I gave you a whole lot of stuff about the current understanding of the neurology of facial recognition a while back. Guess what? These surmises are guaranteed to change, eventually. That's how science works. So let's not get carried away with the idea of some deeply conditioned "facial templates," and let's not stop thinking about Rembrandt just because we think we understand some things about foreheads.

In terms of art, this scientism is weak because it misses the point. When we talk about art, we talk about soul. The chemistry of anger is not the experience of anger; the scientific description of the physical substrate of any subjective state should not be confused with the subjective state itself. Art pertains to the subjective state; science is irrelevant to it. Science is relevant only to the making of art - and only inasmuch as it helps us to understand the tools and vocabulary we have available for interacting with the subjective state within which the soul exists. Apart from that, science has nothing to say about the significance, and the magnificence, of art.

Which is to say - science may help us to understand how it is that a painting strikes us just so, but it cannot help us to understand why this is important to us, as human beings in a transit between what we have been and what we will be. Therefore, when we are dealing with the seductive charms of scientific explanation, it is worth remembering the limits of what science offers us, and not shirk our responsibility as artists to see science, like all of our painting techniques, as a tool and not an end in itself.

That is how we can obtain what science offers, without becoming entangled in scientism.

I'll try to watch for that myself - because there is plenty more stuff from the fields of cognitive psychology and neurology which I am going to draw on as this blog progresses. I think the mechanism of our ability to gain visual knowledge is fascinating, and useful for us as artists. But I'm trying not to make a totem out of it.


  1. Scientism is weak, yes, but not useless. And I expect that scientism will grow stronger as science does.

    As for the shapes that give terror, I would imagine that floating spheres are terrifying because they resemble eyes? Always watching. Then again, there are bubbles, which kids love. To quote Paul Rudd in Knocked Up: "I wish I liked anything as much as my kids like bubbles."

  2. Hello, Daniel. I missed you.

    Speaking of Cleveland, this is the painting which most upsets me:

    Bleak, dreary, a horrible, wasted landscape - and actually looks painful to the touch. I would hate to lie down on it.

    My wife is terrified of Miro.

    I have been ruminating on your last assignment - what art changed you? Some day soon I hope to provide a satisfying answer (to me.)

  3. Greetings Chris and Pengo!

    Chris - I'm not so sure about the increasing utility of science. I think the problem is categorical, not a matter of degree of knowledge. Let's agree that the more we know about gravity and so on, the less we need God to push the planets around. Fine. But art is different - it has a physical substance and epistemological interaction with the brain, which science is well equipped to dissect, and improves at dissecting all the time. It also has a component of soul-speaks-to-soul. This is categorically different from the subject matter that science is suited to exploring. It's like Dawkins, say, arguing along the lines of there being a survival benefit to religion. The argument has nothing to say about the validity of religion itself, only the means by which it may have arisen in human beings. Art, similarly, is outside the bounds of the verifiable, at least by scientific means.

    Pengo, that is one hell of a scary painting. The scariest Kiefers I had seen were of interior, gas-chamber-like spaces, but that blasted sky is almost unendurable. Thanks for showing it to me. I can sympathize with Miro-fear. Does she know Yves Tanguy? I'm going to have more to say about him soon, and she might find his brand of fear tacky and cheap compared with Miro, but to me, he's scary along similar lines.

    I'd love to hear what you come up with about what art changed you! "Assignment"? Phew! I didn't realize I was so demanding. Feel free to skip all quizzes and papers - I'm just writing things I think are interesting and that I hope will be interesting for you and anyone else kind enough to read.

    All the best,