Unformatted text preview: lso because of just plain ignorance. They complained that the breasts were far too big, the hips were too
wide, and the waist was too narrow. It didn’t look anything like
a real woman—it wasn’t realistic—it was primitive art. And
they said the same thing about the voluptuous nymphs of
Kajuraho—even about Rajastani and Mogul miniature paintings. They said the paintings lacked perspective, that they were
The Victorians were unconsciously judging Indian art using
the standards of Western art—especially classical Greek and
Renaissance art, where realism is strongly emphasized. But obviously this is a fallacy. Anyone will tell you that art has nothing to do with realism. It is not about creating a replica of
what’s out there in the world. I can take a realistic photograph
of my pet cat and no one would give me a penny for it. In fact,
art is not about realism at all—it’s the exact opposite. It involves deliberate hyperbole, exaggeration, even distortion, in
order to create pleasing effects in the brain.
Obviously that can’t be the whole story. You can’t just take
an image and randomly distort it and call it art. (Although in
California, where I come from, many do!) The distortion has to
171 the internet and the university be “lawful.” The question then becomes, what kinds of distortion are effective? What are the laws?
I was sitting in a temple in India and in a whimsical frame of
mind when I just jotted down what I think of as the universal
laws of art, the 10 laws of art that cut across cultural boundaries (see the sidebar).1 The choice of 10 is arbitrary . . . but
it’s a place to start.
The first law I call peak shift. To illustrate this, I’ll use a hypothetical example from animal behavior, from rat psychology.
Imagine you’re training a rat to discriminate a square from a
rectangle by giving it a piece of cheese every time it sees a particular rectangle. When it sees a square, it receives nothing.
Very soon it learns that the rectangle means food; it starts liking the rectangle—although a behaviorist wouldn’t put it that
way. Let’s just say it starts going toward the rectangle because
it prefers the rectangle to the square.
But if you take a longer, thinner rectangle and show it to the
rat, it actually prefers the second rectangle to the first. This is
because the rat is learning a rule—rectangularity. Longer and
thinner equals more rectangular and, so far as the rat is concerned, the more rectangular, the better.
And what has that to do with art?
Think about caricature. To produce a caricature of, say,
Richard Nixon, an artist must first ask, What’s special about
his face? What makes him different from other people? The
artist will take the mathematical average, so to speak, of all
male faces and subtract it from Nixon’s face, leaving a bulbous
nose and shaggy eyebrows. These are then amplified to pro172 the artful brain Universal Laws of Art
1. Peak shift
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- Summer '09
- artful brain