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Vision evolved mainly to discover objects and to defeat camouflage. You don’t realize this when you look around you and
you see clearly defined objects, but imagine your primate an178 the artful brain cestors scurrying up in the treetops trying to detect a lion seen
behind fluttering green foliage. What you get inside the eyeball
on the retina is just a mass of yellow lion fragments obscured
by all the leaves. But the visual system of the brain “knows”
that the likelihood that all these different yellow fragments being exactly the same yellow simply by chance is zero. They
must all belong to one object. It links then together, decides
it’s a lion (based on the overall shape), and sends a big “a-ha”
signal to the limbic system telling you to run.
Arousal and attention culminate in titillating the limbic system. Such “a-has” are created, I maintain, at every stage in the
visual hierarchy as partial object-like entities are discovered
that draw our interest and attention. What an artist tries to do
is to generate as many of these “a-ha” signals in as many visual
areas as possible by more optimally exciting these areas with
painting or sculpture than could be achieved with natural visual scenes or realistic images. Not a bad definition of art, if
you think about it.
That brings me to my third law—the law of perceptual problem solving or visual peek-a-boo.
As anyone knows, a nude seen behind a diaphanous veil is
much more alluring and tantalizing than a full-color Playboy
photo or a Chippendale pin-up. Why? (This question was first
raised by the Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta in the tenth
century.) After all, the pin-up is much richer in information
and should excite many more neurons.
As I have said, our brains evolved in highly camouflaged environments. Imagine you’re chasing your mate through dense
179 the internet and the university fog. Then you want every stage in the process—every partial
glimpse of her—to be pleasing enough to prompt further visual
search—so you don’t give up the search prematurely in frustration. In other words, the wiring of your visual centers ensures
that the very act of searching for the solution is pleasing, just
as struggling with a jigsaw puzzle is pleasing long before the final “a-ha.” Once again it’s about generating as many “a-has” in
your brain as possible.6 Art may be thought of as a form of visual foreplay before the climax.
We have discussed three laws so far: peak shift, grouping,
and perceptual problem solving. Before I go any further I’d like
to emphasize that looking for universal laws of aesthetics does
not negate the enormous role of culture, nor the genius and
originality of an individual artist. Even if the laws are universal, which particular law (or combination of them) an artist
chooses to deploy depends entirely on his or her genius and intuition. Thus while Rodin and Henry Moore were mainly tapping into “form,” Van Gogh and Monet were mainly intro...
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- Summer '09