Greetings, Gentle Readers
I’m new at this blogging thing, but for the past 60 years I’ve written almost every day in my journal—so how hard can it be to computerize my ramblings? It also occurs to me that since no one has ever read my journal, I’ve never gotten any feedback about my observations. That must change!
So, I’m inviting your commentary, your suggestions, your insights. Let’s have a conversation!
Once upon a time—many years ago—I met an artist and came to admire him tremendously. He and his partner lived in a belautiful house in Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I once ask this admired artist what career path I should follow and he replied, “Live the artist’s life.” For years I puzzled over this advice. What did it mean to “live the artist’s life?” I came to realize that there were no written codes, no hard and fast rules. You didn’t have to starve in a garret or drink yourself to death or cut off your ear. You didn’t even have to literally “make art” physically. The art was your life—your values, your outlook, your point of view. It was the things you cherished whether they were objects or ideas.
It had a lot to do with caring—caring about things that touched your soul and stirred your spirit—images, sensations, adventures. It meant looking for what was rare and extraordinary, what lasted and mattered, what nurtured and healed. It meant living for something beyond yourself, something grand and gracious and beautiful that transcended the petty problems and persuasions that distracted you from who you were and why you were here. Art was, as another artist friend later told me, what you could always come home to.
But from the beginning I’ve also been fascinated with science—any and all areas from botany and zoology to astronomy and theoretical physics. As a child, my favorite questions was always “why?” Incessant curiosity. Most recently, I’ve become intrigued with “neuroaesthetics,” a new scientific field that utilizes the tools of modern neuroscience to unravel the mysteries of art. As Picasso—that old magician—once said, “Art is the lie that reveals the truth.”
In the 1920s, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian attempted to parallel scientific attempts to find a “unified field theory,” a theory of everything that would reduce “truth” to a single elegant formula. Mondrian reduced his paintings to a few straight lines and three primary colors (plus black and white) illustrating his belief that every visual form can ultimately be reduced to “the plurality of straight lines in rectangular opposition.” Half a century later, Nobel-winning scientists David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel demonstrated that all of our visual perceptions begin as a “jigsaw puzzle of straight lines, edges and angles—what reality looks like before it has been perceived.” “In other words,” writes Jonah Lehrer in an article published in Psychology Today, “the strange beauty of a Mondrian is rooted in the strange habits of visual neurons, obsessed as they are with straight lines” (Psychology Today, August 2009, p. 75). “The job of the artist,” concludes Lehrer, is to “take mundane forms of reality . . . and make those forms irresistible to the human brain.” Artists, it turns out, have for a long time been doing just that. Using a few daubs of pigment, they have understood how to turn a flat surface into a wonder-world of hope, joy, mystery and inspiration that mirrors the way the neurons of the brain create “reality.” Quite a little trick, eh?
“I’ve always loved art, but now I’m in awe of it, ”writes V.S. Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego. “These guys [artists] understood the mind in a very deep way. All I’m trying to do is figure out what artists figured out a long time ago.”
Living the artist’s life, it turns out, is full of surprises. Yes, it is about being sensitive to beauty, about creating exquisite objects and developing a critical eye and drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of the surrounding world. But in some very intriguing and evocative way, it is also about delving into the very depths of human perception, into the wellspring of consciousness itself, and living to tell about it.