Abstract & Constructivist-definitions

The word “abstract”

The word “abstract” is commonly used to refer to a wide variety of paintings. Therefore, there is clearly some confusion as to precisely what it means. This is partly because its usage by artists and critics has evolved over the years and partly because its subtleties have been degraded by an uninformed public. One unresolved issue is where to draw the line between “figurative” and “non-figurative”. Few nowadays would describe Paul Cézanne as an abstract artist (see image below), yet his working philosophy exemplifies the original meaning given to the word.

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This Post, like many others, is an illustrated excerpt from “Having fun with creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. What is meant by “having fun”, is enjoying a process by which thoughts, however trivial or wrongheaded, lead to a mushrooming of other thoughts and, thereby, to an exploration of issues that otherwise might be passed over. What follows, not only touches on the subjects of abstraction and construction in painting, but also how these relate to the processes by which the eye/brain systems synthesise meaning from visual input. The four sections are headed: 1ABSTRACTION, 2-CONSTRUCTION, 3-CHANGES IN MEANING and 4-IMAGES OF PAINTINGS (illustrating, “Abstracting the essence” and “Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception”).

 

1-ABSTRACTION

 

What is an abstract painting?

So what qualifies as being an abstract painting? An explanation as to why the word “abstract” was chosen in preference to other words offers a start to the answer. Why not “extract” or “subtract”? It is worth asking such questions because doing so can help a process of refining understanding. It enables the use of same/difference judgments within the domain of words as a means of creating and/or nuancing our sense of their meaning. Thus:

  • The word “extract” means take something out of something.
  • The word “subtract” means take something away from something.

In either case the original something is diminished. In contrast:

  • The word “abstract” means distilling the essence of something, with the implication that this can be done without loosing essential meaning.

Accordingly, the word “abstract” seems best of the three because it implies the possibility of finding what is valuable with the least collateral damage. This is why it was chosen.

Eye/brain issues

However, there is still much ambiguity that requires clarification. If we take the example of the “abstract” of a scientific paper, it is easy to see that however well written, something must have been lost, since otherwise there would be no need for the paper itself. In the case of artists’ abstractions from natural scenes, the situation is less clear,  particularly since the image of every scene that comes to our consciousness is produced in the first place through the mediation of eye/brain processing systems that arrive at their conclusions by means of a complex blend of selective and constructive processes. We look at a coffee mug differently according to whether our intention is to drink from it or to make a drawing of its outline. When we want to drink from it, we will normally bypass all information about it except that which is necessary for picking it up and putting its brim to our our mouth. When we draw its outline, we need to make judgements of relativities of position, length, orientation, curvature, etc., and we can safely ignore the information needed to drink from it.

Nor, in this context,  should we ever forget that what we experience as “seeing” depends heavily on information coming from non-visual sources accessed (a) by other sensory systems and (b) by memory-stores that have been built up and refined during a lifetime. Thus, both the knowledge that it is coffee time and the smell of coffee, provide context that helps our visual systems to home in on the coffee mug. When we are confronted by a landscape, the way we look at it and the information we derive from it are determined by a mixture of current contingencies and our life’s experience. No two people would find the same essence in it. Indeed, it is now clear that in creating conscious visual experience, our eye/brain systems ignore a great deal more of the information coming into our eyes than they make use of. A mathematician might suggest that they ignore an infinite amount of it.

So how do these facts help us to think about looking at paintings? What differences are there between looking at a real world object and an image of it found in a painting? Generally speaking, when we look at a painted image, situated in illusory pictorial space, the information available will be much less than can be accessed from the real world object. For example, no matter how photographically realistic it may be, an image painting onto a flat surface will not provide the eye/brain systems with the kind of spatial-depth information that is created by means of either stereopsis or motion parallax. Likewise, a sketchily produced portrait will contain much less information than an actual face.

But what is the effect of this impoverishment of available sources of information on the efficiency of the eye/brain visual systems? Does it make their task more difficult? Not necessarily so. As indicated above, all correct classifications are achieved without taking a great deal of potentially relevant information into account. It is worth remembering that efficiency can be defined as achieving an objective with the least possible effort.  In the case of the impressive efficiency of eye/brain systems, this means overlooking as much visually available information as is feasible. If we take full advantage of contextual information coming both from other sensory systems and from memory, it can mean overlooking practically all of it. Elsewhere, I give the example of a blur of redness being a sufficient cue to identify a familiar dress in a familiar wardrobe in which it is known that no other red dresses have been placed.

This impressive degree of parsimony has interesting implications for artists. For example, does it mean that a blur of red could adequately represent the dress in a painting? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by the phrase “adequately represent”. In the obvious sense, the answer must be “no”. Nobody would expect the woman in question to reach out for the painted image of a red dress in the wardrobe in the expectation of being able to wear it. On the other hand, the red in the painting might trigger either “feelings” or “memories” associated with the history of the dress that the real dress would not. If it does, how could this influence the experience of people looking at paintings? Two questions, bring us nearer to an answer:

  • Could feelings be stimulated by a particular red as itself. For example, it is perfectly possible for the colour of an individual stick of chalk pastel to access deeply embedded associations that trigger powerful emotions. If so, could these be added to the experience generated by a pastel painting of the red dress? Of course they could: I thought of the example because I know of an artist for whom love of her pastel sticks was integral to her way of making paintings.
  • If the the act of seeing the patch of red paint triggers “memories”, how much information could be added from memory stores? And, would these additions be more or less authentic than the information that would be accessed by the woman, if confronted by the actual dress? Since, the real object presents a maximum of information about its characteristic, there is no doubt about the theoretical answer to this question: the real dress has every advantage.  But the question for the artist is not whether the red dress would provide more information, but how much of it would be used in practice and for what purposes?

Remember that efficiency can be defined as getting the best results by means of the least amount of effort. In the case of locating the real dress in the real wardrobe, this means identifying it with the least amount of looking. As explained above, the eye/brain systems regularly achieve wonders of parsimonious looking by making maximum use of “context” and “memory stores”. It follows that, the very familiarity of both the dress and its location would make it possible to achieve the goal of finding the dress while overlooking the totality of information other than the blur of redness. 

However, the question arises as to whether this massive overlooking mean that the pictured dress might have the advantage over the real one when it comes, either to the amount of information about the dress actually acquired or to the potential for providing stimuli for the creative imagination? In both cases, the answer must be in the affirmative, since it could be argued that a pictured dress:

  • Would provoke the eye/brain systems into extra analysis, on account of its being less familiar than actual dress.
  • Would leave extra room for flights of the imagination, on account of its lack of interpretation-constraining details.

In other words, there are good reasons for concluding that, in practice, if not in necessarily in theory, an image of a depicted object perceived as being in illusory pictorial space will regularly, if not always:

  • Provide the eye/brain with more information than the real world object it represents.
  • Act as a better catalyst for the creativity of the imagination.

Needless to say, this is one of the many advantages that paintings have over nature.

The influence of others

Another possibility is that the dress-owning woman may fail to make a connection between the patch of red in the painting and the dress it was intended to represent, but that a friend does make a connection. If the friend shares her experience with the woman, by doing so she will be adding another level of context and, thereby, in all probability, causing a change in the meaning of the patch of colour for the dress-owning woman. Significantly, the revised significance could be achieved without making any changes to the actual colour.

But this is not all. One thing of which we can be quite certain of is that the representation of the dress in the head of the friend will be very different to that in the head of its owner. There is no possibility that both will have the same associations between the dress and happenings in their very different life stories. The interesting implication for artists is that what applies in the case of the two friends, also applies to them.  When they apply a colour to a painting, they can have no way of knowing all the associations it might trigger in any one other person. Speaking generally, all human beings can say or do things that act as catalysts to the experience of others that are inaccessible to themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how communication between individuals could take any other but in this essentially catalytic and creative form.

2-CONSTRUCTION

But all this talk about “abstraction” in paintings and by the eye/brain systems has a soft underbelly for, as we all know, for some time now, the word “abstract” has been routinely applied to paintings that have absolutely no reference to nature, let alone to some essence extracted from it.

In the early 20th century, a number of painters and sculptors acknowledged the significance of this flight from representation by calling themselves “Constructivists” . These pioneers of non-figurative art adopted a radically new approach to their work that had much in common with the physicists of the day, who were on the trail of the building blocks of matter and the principles by which they are combined. Thus, the artists sought to identify the “primitives” of visual perception and to find objective principles for assembling them into art works.

By the fact of approaching paintings in this way, these artists saw themselves as challenging the long held assumption that painting should start from nature. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to describe their work as distillations of it essence. For a growing number of them, including Kupka, Malevitch, Kandinsky and Mondrian, an alternative was needed that would be founded on a combination of the most basic elements they could think of and simple principles of construction. Over the years, this change of emphasis was reflected in the emergence of a host of different words or phrases to describe how different artists approached building on these foundations –  “Constructivist”, “Non-objective”, “Concrete”, “Op”, “Systems”, etc., but all could be places under the umbrella of  “Constructivism”.

3-CHANGES IN MEANING

As time passed the situation became more and more complicated. On the one hand there were critics trying to provide more precise classification and on the other there were artists exploring an ever expanding range of possibilities. Distinctions got blurred and terms like “Abstract Expressionism” confused the issue. The artists who were known by this name, were no longer abstracting from nature but rather attempting to make manifest their innermost feelings or allow universal forces to become manifest through them. In this situation, while artists were likely to choose and cling to one or other of the cavalcade of different meanings, the generality of people adopted the catch-all, common usage of today. For them the word “abstract”  means anything that is not too closely tied to representation.

Conclusions

Students sometimes ask me to explain “abstract art” to them. As this request is almost invariably made by people whose focus has been on representation, I tend to answer in terms of the origins of the word. I point out that artists living in the second half of the 19th century, influenced by recent developments in the science of visual perception, became aware that all paintings could be described as an “assemblage of regions of colour on a picture surface”,* as interpreted by eye/brain processing systems. Once this conceptual step had been taken, it was only to be expected that, for some artists at least, the idea of looking to nature as the fount of all inspiration was bound to be questioned. From then on, it was only a matter of time before many artists either loosened their ties with representation or completely cut themselves off from it.

As for deciding which word we should choose when talking about any particular painting or group of paintings, including ones we have painted ourselves, my answer would be to take your choice in the light of the considerations discussed above. Perhaps, the main objective should be that you yourself understand the issues, at least well enough to be able to explain them to anyone who asks questions about your work. Meanwhile, the general public will continue to think of “abstract” as more or less anything non-figurative and pretty well everyone will have personal opinions about what counts as figurative. The difficulty lies in deciding on which point on the figurative/non-figurative continuum.

 

4-IMAGES

Abstracting the essence

 

Abstract
Paul Cézanne sought to represent the permanent, underpinning constancies of natural appearances. He had little interest in depicting the ephemeral surfaces of nature, which, according to him, the Impressionists were doing their best to capture in their paintings. His aim was to tap into what he saw as the essence of nature.

 

Abstract
Like Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard had no desire to paint fleeting effects of natural appearances. Rather, his objective was to capture the experience of coming across a scene for the first time. This explains why his method was to catch the moment by roughing out what he was seeing by means of a quick feelings-based pencil study and then “get away from nature as quickly as possible”.**After that it was a matter of holding onto the memory of the feelings and the colour nuances long enough to guide him through a first stab at a painting. The rest was a matter of allowing the memories and the feelings to mature and guide the progress of the painting. In this way he hoped to recreate something that reflected the essence of his experience.

 

absteact
Pablo Picasso‘s idea was to get closer to the essence of our everyday  experience of visual appearances, which regularly involves integrating information coming from different viewpoints into one perceptual construct.

abstract
Piet Mondrian moved through figuration to abstraction, before turning to construction. In the painting illustrated here, he was seeking to abstract the essence of a tree in terms of the pictorial rhythms it suggested to him.

 

Abstract
Jackson Pollock sought to go beyond personal taste and make manifest aspects of the common ground in human experience. This he believed could be accessed by getting in touch with the collective unconscious posited by Carl Jung. To bypass his personal prejudices, he entered a trance like state that, according to him, allowed an essence of humanity to “come through” into his painting.

 

Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception

Abstract
Piet Mondrian abandoned abstraction as a result of his efforts at constructing what he described as a “spiritual space”. According to his philosophy this prioritised the elimination of illusory pictorial space. This is why he determined that his paintings would provide neither object reference nor perceptions of in-front/behind relationships.

 

 

Abstract
Georges Vantongerloo used mathematical procedures as a method of determining the structure of his compositions. In this respect he was a precursor of  the many later artists who were to adopt systematic approaches to the composition of their paintings.

 

Abstract
Bridget Riley sought to create optical excitements using systematic transformations based on the rules of linear perspective.

 

Abstract
Michael Kidner’s project was to use simple systems to take him beyond the control of personal taste into unimaginable worlds. In constructing this massive painting he used a code, based on variations in the vertical dimension of otherwise standardised vertical, rectangular, black elements, to represent regular transformation of the curvatures of a four sided column (see below), as revealed by systematic changes in viewpoint.  Key to the variations produced in the painting was the fact that each of the contours of the the four surfaces of the column were based on different mathematically determined wave forms.  In a very real sense, Michael’s procedure could be described as a much more recent variation on cubism.

Abstract
The above painting with the column in front

 

* Quotation from the Nabis artist Maurice Denis.

** Quotation from Bonnard.

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Free-will and determinism

Determinism

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “free-will” as “the power of acting without necessity or constraints”. A much debated question is whether human beings have this capability. Most answers are based on an easy-going introspection. “Surely, it is evident that we can make up our own mind on any question and in any situation we find ourselves?” However, over past centuries and decades various thinkers, for various reasons, have come to the conclusion that believers in free-will deceive themselves. According to their way of thinking, it can only be an illusion: All is determined by forces outside their control.

free-will
St Augustine and John Calvin believed in predestination, another word for determinism.

 

In essence, there have been two main arguments in support of this determinism. They are:

  • The theoretical impossibility of mental liberty coexisting with an all-powerful deity (see the the doctrine of predestination).
  • A belief that the neural systems that underpin human action and thought operate in a machine-like manner.

For those whose premise is the supremacy of God, free-will could only occur if the Deity were to give up power voluntarily. The argument continues that this is a step it could not take because doing so would mean cancelling out the most basic fact of its existence, namely its all-powerful nature.

For those who see brains as machines, all must be explained in terms of mechanical processes. They ask what they assume to be a rhetorical question: “How could a mere machine be endowed with free-will?” Both of these arguments can be treated as cases of special pleading, leaving fundamental questions unanswered. As might be expected, there have been many attempts to confront these, including the suggestion that follows, which depends on the notion of free-will as a functional reality.

Free-will as a functional reality

This possibility, as outlined below, is attractive not only because it has the advantage of overcoming the objections of those who insist on a mechanistic explanation, but also because it fits with what introspection tells us. Let me explain.

Earlier in this chapter, under the heading “modes of description”, I described my first viewing of the powers of an electron microscope and being amazed to see how unrecognisable the image of the same minute portion of a leaf could be when viewed at the different levels of magnification. There seemed to be absolutely nothing in common between them. However, the specialist doing the demonstration seemed to have no difficulty in describing both their functions and links between them.

But that was many years ago and no matter how seemingly complete the explanations he gave at the time, by now, they would have had to be revised in all sorts of ways. It could hardly be otherwise, for the relatively new and rapidly blooming science of molecular biology, aided by ever more sophisticated technology, has been revealing ever-increasing levels of complexity and creating a mushrooming of questions to ask. Accordingly, it would be surprising to find any serious scientist who currently believes that it will be possible, in anything like a near future, to arrive at a definitive description of the multiplicity of neural processes and interconnections that enable our brains, not only to to classify and recognise but also to learn and use motor and intellectual skills so effectively.

Computers competing with the human brain

free-will
A hugely enlarged photographic glimpse of a small number of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain.

 

For analogous reasons, a similar situation obtains in the field of computer-based brain-modelling. Despite all the astonishing progress that has been made in this field, computer scientists have still far to go before realising the goal of constructing a machine capable of mimicking the full extent of the intellectual and functional capacities of a human brain. Simply put, the problem is the daunting degree of interconnectivity within the brain’s neural networks. To model this, amongst other things, it would be necessary to take account of:

  • The estimated 86 billion neurons in the brain, each with an average 1,750 connections to other neurons, including those belonging to systems that are fed by both sensory and somatosensory inputs.
  • The requirements of neurophysiological plausibility.

No wonder I keep hearing computer scientists saying that the task of competing with the human brain on its own terms will remain well beyond their resources for the foreseeable future.**

A hugely enlarged glimpse of the relative simplicity of  computer circuitry.

Characteristics of hypothetical brain modelling machines

Even if there are some computer scientists who are more optimistic, this would not be of any consequence for my explanation of functional free will, for it does not depend on the existence of actual brain-modelling machines. Rather it involves thought-experiments relating to hypothetical creations whose operational principles are based on known characteristics of the brain. Accordingly the machines will have to use a considerable number of different sensor-types, each responding to a different modality of information (light, sound, scent, taste, various kinds of pressure, etc.), feeding a vast number of extensively interlinked, mini processors (taking on the role of neurons). These would have to be capable of:

  • Separating out and usefully recombine relevant aspects of the sensory information extracted from the environment by means of the multiplicity of sensors with task-specific characteristics, appropriately situated in a wide range of locations (multimodal processing).
  • Providing contextual information derived, not only from relevant parts of long-term memory, as built up through the agency of numbers of interacting subsystems, over a lifetime of experience, but also from the totality of the current environment, as captured and interpreted by sensory-systems, taking information from all parts of the body (temporal and spatial context).
  • Monitoring their own behaviour, using the feedback (provided by relevant sensory systems, memory stores or, much more likely, a combination of the two) that is required by analytic processes for both consciousness and learning.
  • Organising and implement actions (involving the coordination of complex muscle systems) and thought-processes (motor and mind control).
  • Generating feeling-based criteria upon which to make choices (decision making).

Equipped in various ways with these five capacities, the brain-mimicking computers would have to be able:

  • To make useful syntheses of the mass of data that has been extracted from the multiple sources of sensory input, with a view to both making sense and, subsequently, enabling recognition.
  • To do the above in any context, no matter what the domain of description, or how many variables have to be taken into consideration.
  • To learn from both positive and negative feedback (particularly from mistakes, using previously acquired, task specific error-correction skills).

The machine must also be capable of making sense of:

  • Information derived from within the relatively easy (but nevertheless potentially fiendishly complex) domains researched by practitioners of the so-called “hard sciences”, such as mathematicians, physicists and molecular biologists.
  • Much less easily classified material relating to the disciplines traditionally placed under the umbrellas of the social sciences and the arts.

In short, the brain-machine envisaged in the thought expermient would have to be at ease with making use of input pertaining to any realm of ideas whatsoever, however fanciful, simple-minded or far-fetched. It would also need to be capable of self-deception and crises of confidence in its own findings.

But this is far from all. To be like the human brain, every brain machine would have to have an ever-evolving memory-store, based on a ceaseless stream of ongoing inputs and capable of creating a unique internal world (analogous to “personal experience”). Accordingly, each machine would have a ‘personalised’ reaction to each and every contingency. In addition, like Antoni Tàpies and myself, it would have to be capable of having fun with the idea of creativity, however absurd its premise.

In the light of all these requirements (and no doubt many more), it is clear that neither computer hardware designers nor the computer programmers who were responsible for creating them would be able to predict the behaviour of the brain modeling machines envisaged in our thought-experiment. Only beings or groups of beings equipped with capacities comparable with the second of the hypothesised Gods** (the one capable of preplanning everything, from the evolution of species to down to the trajectory of every floating dust particle, for all eternity) would be able to unscramble an omelette of such complexity.

Moreover, even assuming that:

  • The self-monitoring aspect of the brain-modeling machines could be equated with consciousness.
  • The implied awareness of self could be programmed to incorporate both a sense of agency and a means of ranking the levels of both the credibility and the desirability of conclusions reached.

The outcome would be like human brains in the sense that they could only deal with an extremely limited part of the information being provided by the massively complex arrays and sequences of processes involved in determining their current behaviour.

All in all, it is safe to conclude that, even if machines could be made that meet these extremely exacting and, at the present, far from obtainable criteria, they would be unable to perceive the mechanically and contextually determined origins of their actions or thoughts. Accordingly, assuming the self-monitoring capacity of such machines could be equated with introspection, they would have no choice but to consider themselves as being in possession of free-will.

Moreover, if all traces of determinism remain obscure to the machines themselves, how would their output appear to other, similarly constructed and programmed machines? Clearly, from the perspective of any one machine seeing itself as having free-will, all other machines that have been created and evolved in accordance with the same principles would likewise be seen as in possession of their own free wills (or, possibly, dismissed as “just machines“).

Functional free-will and experiential reality

Since all the above arguments apply to any mechanistic way of thinking, whether it is focused on hypothetical computers or biological brains, they must also have relevance to speculations about the nature of free-will in our species. Just as no theory of the solar system or the universe, however indisputably correct, can stop us experiencing the sun as rising in the morning and setting in the evening (see Post on Why I am a flat Earther”), so no mechanistic theory of brain function can deprive us of our sense of possessing free-will. It may be an illusion, but it is with us to stay, along with any of the sense-of-self, personal feelings and motivation it can provide.

Finally, a word on the future of machines that mimic human brains. Since the functional free-will argued for above is predicated upon the idea that all machines, human or electronic, evolve in idiosyncratic ways, their diversity would be ensured. Accordingly, so would be their role in evolutionary processes that favour the survival of the fittest (whether as individuals, as contributing members of groups or as friends of the environment), with their all their possible implications and risks.

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* However, the European Union is currently committing €1,200,000,000 over 10 years toThe Human Brain Project” with the stated objective of finding ways of modeling the human brain.

** A reference to an earlier passage in the chapter from which this post is an extract, namely, “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” . It consists of a not too serious run through of the hypothetical choices that would have faced an all powerful deity when sitting at his/her desk planning of the Big Bang. It is scheduled to appear in a later Post.

 

False confidence

A personal experience

Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.

The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it.  My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”.  It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.

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Mini chaos as an engine of creativity

Mini chaos

mini chaos

Figure 1 : The “Big Bang” (NB. black is a colour sensation made by the eye/brain)

Usually the word “chaos” has the connotation of referring to something rather grand and all engulfing, as in the case of the chaos created by the Big Bang. However, in my books, great emphasis has been placed on a much less spectacular manifestation of it. Namely the mini chaos that occurs when anyone, including artists drawing from observation, makes a comparison. This is because the same/different judgments required can hardly avoid revealing unpredictable differences. Let me elaborate:

My dictionary defines chaos as “a state in which no order can be perceived”. Clearly, this phrase can be applied to any differences discovered by any same/difference judgments, since, at least for the time being, these have no property other than is that of being different. Logically this is equivalent of saying that they can have no order. The only way that they can be given a place in an ordered description is by relating them to something else. It follows that all comparisons, except the rare ones that finds no differences, will bring a mini-chaos in their train.

Figure 2 : You will experience a mini chaos if you catch your attention being drawn to a difference

Since, by definition, lack of order cannot constitute “sense”, the mini chaos produced by any comparison that reveals differences will confront the sense-seeking eye/brain systems with the problem of finding some form of coherence. In other words, something that can only be found by looking at it, either in a different way or in relation to something else. As explained in my book “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the solution requires either the use of analytic looking systems or a transition to other levels or modes of description, where the meaningless difference no longer exists. Speaking extremely generally, this change of levels, which might also be described as a “transformation of context”, can be achieved in two ways, either by going up the system or by going down it.

Going up

Going up accesses higher and cruder levels of description, where details are ignored. Doing so provides a filtering out process that, if allowed to run its course, will ultimately lead to the same seemingly banal outcome, namely that all objects will be perceived by the eye/brain as being identical, undifferentiated lumps, devoid of transformational context. At first sight this might seem a pretty useless outcome but, as explained below, this is far from the case.

Going down

Going down means focusing attention on progressively lower levels of description, a procedure which must eventually lead to the rediscovery of the basic building-blocks of appearances (the visual primitives or their equivalents in other domains of description). Again, the tendency can only be for the system to move in the direction of discovering that all objects are made from a small number of similar components. Looked at in this way, the process is analogous to the physicist discovering that all matter is made up of the same bunch of sub atomic particles.

What we learn from the search for of sameness

As suggested above, it would be easy to suppose that a processes which leads to the discovery that everything is the same as everything is a bit pointless. But for two reasons this is very far from the case:

  • Firstly, the fact of everything being the same, means that everything will be familiar and, accordingly, capable of setting in motion the eye/brain’s analytic-looking systems that are used for dealing with familiarity.
  • Secondly, the eye/brain only arrives at its uninteresting conclusion by means of a sequence of steps that provide a priceless outcome, namely a hierarchy of connections that link a number of formerly disparate “sames”. It can be described as “priceless” because, taken together, the resulting assemblage of links can constitute a powerful characterization of the object concerned. As explained in “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, it is such information-containing assemblages that underpin the brain’s capacity for description-building in all the domains of its activity. It is the basis of skill acquisition, including the skills required for thought.

An analogy with mathematics

The value of having a mechanism for searching for that which is the same has something in common with the value of the equation in mathematics. This becomes apparent when we realise that the value of this most basic of mathematical tools is predicated upon its capacity for producing the essentially uninteresting conclusion that two things (the two sides of the equation) that, at first sight look different, are in fact identical. However, the tautological nature of this outcome is only discovered by a series of procedures which, over and over again, have proved their power for generating extremely useful information and highly significant insights.

Conclusion

In sum, the very fact that the eye/brain automatically filters out differences in the search for samenesses, locks its processing systems into activity that is capable of harnessing chaos, and it is the manner in which does so that enables it to become the engine of creative description-building.

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Cézanne falls short

A tiny bit of unpainted canvas

The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.

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Tapies advocates looking games

A quotation from Antonio Tapies

In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:

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Playful fancies as a stimulus to creativity

Having fun with creativity

The last but one chapter in my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” illustrates how indulging in playful fancies can stimulate creativity. The chapter as a whole has been described by a friend as “very Postmodernist” and is by far the longest in the book. It demonstrates how even the silliest ideas can spark a ragbag of speculations and, thereby, lead along unimagined routes, to all sorts of thoughts, in all sorts of domains. In this chapter, some of the ideas turned out to be a bit frivolous, but all of them have an underpinning seriousness, and all lead on to another batch of speculations.

Right-minded or wrongheaded

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How reliable are my “truths”?

The nature of “truths”

When, as a young man, I went to university to study history, I was fortunate to have as one of my my tutors K.B McFarlane, who has been described as the most influential Medieval historian of the 20th century. Of the many things he taught me, perhaps the most enduring concerned the nature of “truths”.

In the course of a general conversation on essay writing, I confessed my horror at the idea of committing anything half-baked to paper and deplored the unenviable predicament in which this placed me. As a raw undergraduate under constant time pressure (two essays a week and an analysis of a constitutional document), I felt there to be no possibility of fitting in the research necessary for providing satisfactory answers to the essay questions that I was being given. My tutor seemed surprised. He said that this was a problem that had only caught up with him in later life (possibly explaining his growing reluctance to publish his own work). He then told me that when he was a student, a number of his contemporaries, being primarily interested in non-academic aspects of university life, left themselves too little time for their studies. To help these fun-loving friends with their logistic problem, the precocious undergraduate had offered to write their essays for them.

When he did so, he quite frequently found himself faced with having to produce more than one answer to the same question. To make life more interesting, he challenged himself to make the arguments used in the different essays as unlike one another as he reasonably could within the constraints provided by the “facts” at his disposal. I felt, “how marvelous to be free to generate different and, even, incompatible “truths” from the same material, how instructive, how creative and how salutary.”

truths from KB McFarlane
K.B. McFarlane

A liberation

It was a profound turning point in my intellectual life. This open-minded approach to the nature of “truths” enabled me to have a much more relaxed attitude to making sense of historical events. Ever since, I have ceased to regard the aim of the historian as presenting irrefutable conclusions, based on unambiguous evidence. Now, I take pleasure in looking for alternative ways of making sense out of the material at my disposal.

This game-playing attitude to the nature of “truths” has been of great value in the evolution of the ideas presented in my books on painting, drawing and creativity. Among other things, it has influenced the way I have told the story of Modernism in Painting, which plays an important role in all of them.

My understanding of this subject was hugely influenced by my two main art teachers, Marian Bohusz-Szyszko and Michael Kidner. It was they who gifted me the issues and ideas that set me on my personal journey of discovery. Hardly surprisingly, their selections of “facts”, and the interpretations they based on them, related to their personal history of concerns as artists. This is probably why, the stories they told were so different in their selection and interpretation of content, from those presented by art historians and critics.  Presumably, it is also why I have been unable to find some of the “truths” they communicated in the writings of others.

Was what my teachers taught me true?

Two of the now inaccessible sources upon which I built my life both as an artist and as a teacher were:

  • The dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, which, according to him, embodied, “all you need to know about painting”.
  • The account of the origins of American Abstract Expressionism given to me by Michael Kidner, which focused on the value of what he termed the “propositional approach”.*

Both were the products of attempts to abstract an essence from complex issues. Both have the virtue of presenting an easy-to-follow blend of simplicity and a clarity. However, it seems that these desirably qualities could only come at the expense of nuancing, or even of suppressing, potentially contradictory detail. Accordingly, the question arises as to whether what was lost in the synthesising process diminishes the value of what was gained.

truths from Maian Bohusz-Szyszko
Professor Bohusz-Szyszko
truths from Michael Kidner
Michael Kidner RA

Does it matter what their simplifications leave out?

In my case, there were two reasons why the answer to this question turned out to be “no”. The first was that the simplifications proved to be enormously helpful when I applied them in practice. Right or wrong, what they did for me was to provide clear route maps to follow. These not only opened up new ways of thinking about paintings but also, quite as significantly, new ways of feeling about them.

The second reason was more a matter of my personality. I have to admit that I am temperamentally unsuited to following route maps blindly: There was always a part of me that thought of my paintings as tests of my teacher’s beliefs. In other words, I could not help thinking of them as experiments.** My luck lay in the number of fruitful questions that these generated and the richness of the material that was revealed in the course of my attempts to find answers to them. As it turned out, the research that these triggered led me to delve into a wide range of sources of which the most important were:

  • Books on the practice of painting and drawing.
  • The history of the ideas of artists and art teachers.
  • The science of visual perception.

What I found led me to frequent questioning of widely accepted norms. I was shocked by number of accredited “facts” I came across that turned out to be either misleading or simply untrue, not least among them ones that claimed to have scientific backing.

Can my truths be trusted?

Faced with this predicament, I felt compelled to look for more reliable “truths” and over the years I am confident that I have done so. However, two questions arise:

  • Can my alternative “truths” can be trusted?
  • Are they are of practical use.

My attempts at comprehensive answers to these questions provide the main subject matter of my teaching and my writings. In my books, as well as explaining some of the numerous ways they can be of practical use, I give substantial evidence as to why they can be trusted. I have already begun the process of sharing some of this with readers of my Posts, such as the ones on The Venetian Colourists and Colour in Painting.  And, I intend to add many more in the coming weeks and months.

* I intend to elaborate on the “propositional approach” in a later Post that will discuss Michael’s work and ideas.

** Also in a later Post, I intend to submit a Post on the “Art/Science debate”. In this I quote John Constable as saying: “Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then should not painting be regarded as a branch of natural philosophy, of which the pictures are the experiments?”

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“At last I don’t know how to draw” : Toulouse-Lautrec the first Modern Painter”

In 1992 I was asked to write an article for “La Revue du Tarn” as a contribution to  the “Year of Toulouse-Lautrec”.  In particular I was asked to give a critique of the big exhibition of his paintings that took place that year in London and Paris. More recently I included an edited adaptation as Chapter 7 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity“. Click here for a .PDF copy of it.

Apologies for the poor quality of some of the illustrations. They will be better for the published version.

Toulouse-Lautrec drawing-5

Toulouse-Lautrec : Drawing of a woman from the “Artilleur et femme” series

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Why I am a Flat-Earther

“On being a Flat-Earther”, an edited excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

A flat-earther is someone who insists that the earth is flat and who is likely to be derided for holding such a factually ignorant view. In this post, at the risk of being laughed at, I claim to be a flat-earther myself. A theme of this chapter is that any starting point, however far-fetched, can lead to creative outcomes, as is proved my the many artists who have painted masterpieces on the basis of crack-brain ideas. My purpose in this post is to emphasise two points, made throughout this chapter, namely that investigating alternative descriptions can unblock stagnant thought-processes and liberate creativity and that they can do it whether the alternatives are sensible or absurd. It is a thought-provoking idea, which is worth expanding on. So here goes: Continue reading “Why I am a Flat-Earther”