The crux of Conrad Keely's argument against abstract art lies
in this vague point:
"This led me to wonder, were we taught how to appreciate abstract art?
If so, it would appear that its appeal is intellectual rather than intuitive."
By the word intuitive, I am not sure whether Keely refers to
subconscious brain function or to the innate genetic mannerisms of the human
brain. Regardless, I will show how abstract art appeals to both realms of
quality-detection, and can do so with equal or greater success as classical art.
Keely is correct in noting that poor abstract art, or that is not generally well
received by human observers, exists. I'm sure Keely has
also seen plenty of classical pieces that are shit. Abstract art, done
well, appeals to the so-called intuitive functions of the brain as well
as the learned intellectual sense. That Keely doubts this fact
says more of his own personal interest in art, not of the way of the world.
Consider the art of Jackson Pollock. Ignore, for Keely's sake and for the
sake of the scientific method, his experiment with the four year old girl.
Although I would never use the results of such an experiment as research data, I have a
proposition for Keely. Show the same four year old girl two pieces of abstract
splatter paint art: one of Pollock's and one of an unknown artist. I do not wish
to subjectively predict that the girl will choose Pollock's piece every time,
but I do not have to... because she will. The little girl is intuitively
inclined to choose Pollock's piece as the more appealing piece each time she
is confronted with a choice. The reason is purely neuropsychological. Human
brains have an innate set of shape detection programs. Special clumps of
shape detection neurons specializing in picking out circles, dots, lines,
various simple curves and angles, fractal tree patterns, generic human faces,
and a secret little ratio called "the golden ratio." Thousands of
years swinging in the trees probably explains the fractal tree pattern
recognition ability of the human brain, just as trans-generation evolutionary
experience in a lush organic world influenced the mind's draw towards anything
with a size ratio of about 1 : 1.6. Since
non-man-made objects on the earth, such as leaves, seashells, and minerals, tend
to grow in a size ratio averaging at about the ratio of one to one point six, the human
mind has taken on the ability to detect such a distinction without being taught to do so.
Pollock followed the golden ratio in his work. Even though he may not have
known about shape detecting sets of neurons, or even the golden ratio
itself, while creating his art, he had a built-in golden ratio detector similar
to anyone in his audience. If the art didn't appeal to him, he would destroy
the art. This trial and error positive feedback loop left the world with
artistic gems honed in on an ancient subconscious pleasure center.
A similar neurological effect has tantalized onlookers for centuries in
Japan's Ryoanji Garden. Instead of appealing to the golden ratio detecting
feature of the human brain, the four hundred year old rock garden taps into the
tree detecting neurons of the mind. The Ryoanji Garden is in fact highly abstract art, yet it appeals to the mind's intuitive senses, making it a success.
Researchers have traced the intuitive appeal of classical music performed by
a human piano player versus a computer simulated piece to simple mathematical
reasons. While romanticists and other uninformed listeners believe the
superiority of human performed music is due to the unique beauty and creativity
of the human mind, one can alter robotic pieces of music with simple equations
to mimic the "human touch." It turns out a human performer will
simply filter the piece of music through a handful of simple mathematical
functions. Working with multiple pattern filters simultaneously, the musician,
be it a computer or a human, can create a piece of art more appealing to the
Just as classical music utilizes the intuitive easter
eggs, if you will, of the human mind, so do abstract artists. The abstract
artist’s vehicle for achieving the result may seem a bit unconventional to
classical enthusiasts such as Keely, but few can deny the similar mathematical
power of all “good art,” be it a canvas splattered with seemingly random
bursts of paint or a curiously fascinating portrait.
Thanks to ac_hyper for the first reference