The Attic sits at the very top of Nottingham’s towering gallery/studio complex One Thorseby St, which has always played host to an ambitious range of events. Lately the Attic has been used for talks, screenings, performances and parties alongside the regular exhibitions. Last month it was host to ‘The Eight Artistic Principles’, a show inspired by a convergence of painting, sculpture, neuro-aesthetics and evolutionary science, guest-curated by Thorseby St resident Joshua Lockwood.
Although Joshua has been aware of evolutionary theory since his A-levels, he has only recently begun researching more thoroughly, having been introduced to a paper called ‘The Science of Art – A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’. In this paper V.S Ramachandran and William Hirsteinset out on a “quest for artistic universals”. Their hypothesis is that even if beauty is largely subjective “there might be some universal rule, or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience”. To test this they put forward The 8 Artistic Principles, which they claim that artists consciously or unconsciously employ when making work in order to stimulate brains of their audience. The Principles are as follows:
“1. The peak shift principle
2. Isolation of a single cue
3. Perceptual grouping
4. Extraction of contrast
5. Perceptual problem solving (visual puzzles)
6. Unique advantage point
7. Visual Metaphors
Used together or separately, they “act as a framework for understanding visual art, aesthetics and design”. In the paper that the show draws from, Ramanchandran and Hirstein explore how each of these operates in forensic detail.
This is by no means the first time evolutionary biologists have offered explanations for what we find visually attractive, some of the above are quite well known – such as symmetry. To take another example, the appeal of visual puzzles in art can be explained when compared to camouflage. Think of a caveman, keeping watch for predators: if you can figure out the ‘visual puzzle’ in the layers of undergrowth, then your chances of escaping and surviving are higher. Viewed in this way, solving perceptual puzzles can be considered an adaptive quality. It benefits the caveman to be able to do this, and so we have evolved to enjoy solving visual puzzles. In the Science of Art, Ramachandran and Hirstein take these ideas and extend them to man-made objects.
Having been drawn in by the press release, I found it hard to resist playing a game of snap when I was in the gallery. There you see symmetry in the arrangement of lines (principle 8), there you see the contrast between rusted metal and the impossibly smooth surface on the inside of a shell (principle 4), etc. In the largest of the paintings (by Benjamin Brett) I can make out half figures, corners of a room, the outline of jugs and distinctive round shape of bowler hats, some shadows, but the initial overall impression is an abstract tangle, and in the back of my mind I know I am playing out Principle 6 – perceptual puzzle solving.
It could be seen as reductionist to propose formulas like this, however Ramachandran and Hirstein emphasise wherever possible that these principles can be played out “consciously or unconsciously”. I asked Joshua how the research he was reading had affected his work: Joshua stated, “Something that has become apparent recently is that I am more interested, more times than not, is the stuff that surrounds the objects – what the work triggers”.
Perhaps this is why the press release doesn’t go into detail about the practices of the individual artists (Benjamin Brett, Jack Brindley, Alice Browne, and Jess Flood-Paddock) leaving much of the viewer’s interpretation down to the aesthetics. It’s also notable that within the press release itself, the references to ‘The Science of Art’ are kept ‘light’. The writing describes very complex ideas, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with jargon or try to convince you, it just states what you need to know. The rest is between you and the work.
Images Courtesy Of David McAleavey.
A “quest for artistic universals” might sound grandiose, not to mention implausible, given that art might encompass everything from cave paintings to Jeff Koons, but the more I understand about the potential relationship between art and evolution, the more fascinated I am. The idea that making art is a fundamental part of human nature hardly needs proving – the species would have not have gotten this far without it, but I still find it exciting that something I feel instinctively can be backed up by dialogue between these different disciplines: artists, visual psychologists and evolutionary biologists alike.
Applying an evolutionary logic to art and aesthetics might make total sense in a cave-man era, but the issue of cultural differences, as well as individual taste, complicates the picture massively. To think that looking at art from an evolutionary perspective might level the playing field as far as interpretation goes would be a huge over simplification. Ramachandran and Hirstein themselves acknowledge that what is considered generally attractive will vary from culture to culture, and that the “aggressive marketing hype” of the art world have a huge impact on how we experience visual culture. They admit that their work is in the early stages and untested for the most part, but they stand by their point and make a compelling argument regardless of this.
Currently, Joshua is in the middle of a research and curatorial project, called ‘Ritual Significance: Contemporary Art Through the Evolutionary Lens’, in which he is working with
his ex-tutor David Mcaleavey. Mcaleavey was Josh’s A-level art tutor, whose “interests and research surrounds the question of why we do the things we do, trying to understand behaviours through evolutionary psychology”. Both David and Joshua adopt a holistic approach to their practice and seem to take a strong interest in the experience of artwork. Happily the two have kept in touch since their studies, and their on-going project will be presented as an exhibition at The Collection and Usher Gallery in Lincoln Feb-April 2015.
Written By Hannah Roast