Art & Aesthetics Art Blog
Art is aesthetic like humor is funny. It's the precarious balance of details that we appreciate. Both art and humor are illusions that often require a suspension of one__™s beliefs, but sometimes our expectations don__™t jive with reality. Art happens when things go right and humor happens when things go wrong.
There two types of humor: poetic and practical. Practical humor is when there__™s a glitch in the medium, as in the semantics of a joke like the one about the skunk that went to church and sat in his own "pew.___ (Think ___pee-yew!___)
Linguist Noam Chomsky devised the following sentence:
___Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.___
It shows that good grammar and syntax do not necessarily make good sense. In abstract art, such empty symbols are called ___significant forms.___ The human brain has feature detector cells that get fired-up only when stimulated by the sight of certain shapes and angles in a specific context or orientation. Hans Hoffman__™s painting ___Rising Moon___ (above) for example is lyrical in composition but has no tacit meaning beyond the shapes. Abstract art is to representational art, as nitrous oxide is to a good joke. Reality is a chemical reaction.
Poetic (justice) humor, on the other hand, has its glitch in its content. It__™s often something ironic that could happen in the real world like an art critic slipping on a banana peel, or a clown dies and all of his friends go to the funeral in one car. The art of Richard Prince, such as his appropriated photos of the Marlboro man, is ironic.
Consider this Steven Wright anecdote: ___I put a blank CD in the player and turned it up full blast. The mime next door went nuts.___
The pleasure here is in figuring out the breach of logic. In this case, a whole lot of nothing still amounts to nothing. There are parallels in the visual arts with Dada or Surrealism. Plug in your favorite Magritte, Dali, or Duchamp piece here. But what is it that makes the discombobulated works of Picasso aesthetically pleasing instead of flat-out funny? Perhaps there is more that is right about his pictures than is wrong.
Then there is the metaphor, a workhorse of humor. It is like the second half of an "if/then" statement. For example, IF the meta-object "face" combines with the referent "moon," THEN the result is, "Her face lights up a room." A visual version of that glowing metaphor might include Amedeo Modigliani__™s Portrait of Madame Hayden. She is radiant.
An aesthetic judgment is based on the experience of pleasure without ascribing objective properties to the thing judged __" art. The aesthetic value doesn't reside in the subject or the medium but in the agent that binds them together: you. It is a quiescent, self-transcending emotion. What the intelligence discovers, the emotions enjoy. Art strikes a chord that resonates on a wavelength to which your mind is attuned; call it resonance. It speaks to you in a good moral tone. One exalts, even rapturously. We view the artwork with empathy towards the artist, in a kind of ___I know how you feel___ moment (not a ___been there, done that___ moment).
Ancient Egyptian art seems cartoon-like to our modern Western eyes. Unlike the Greeks who sculpted the physical perfection of human forms, Egyptian art was all about depicting social rank. Likewise, the schematic flatness of pre-renaissance Byzantines art seems rustic, almost laughable to the less-than-astute. It is no wonder why some cultures don__™t like their deities depicted in any manner, because even the worthiest of artistic renditions has comic potential. But humor is a disposition: a mood. In the Dark Ages (the days before linear perspective) the human disposition was thought to be determined by the balance of four bodily fluids called humors, namely: blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile. Remember, this was an age where "doctors" (glorified barbers) would drain a quart of blood from a man just to make him feel better. There was also a lull in art production during that period.
Laughter is caused by the sudden and favorable resolution of an anxiety. The endorphin-rush of laughter is a physiological reaction to humor. We yawn, we sneeze, and we laugh. Laughter is always triggered by an incongruity, whether it is real or just in one's mind. Granted, some laughter is social, mere posturing. Ditto with art-snobs. Others laugh just to convince themselves that they are having fun. Fake laughter leaves a bad taste in my ears. Genuine laughter has a musical quality.
If laughter is the symptom of humor, what do we call the basic vocal displacement activity - the ___oohs___ and ___aahs___ - of the aesthetic buzz? What affectation, what physical paroxysm during a period of empathy or ecstasy signifies the dismantling of the emotive underpinnings of cognitions associated with the artwork? I say ___rapt!___ " a new intransitive verb, short for enrapture. It™s a reaction to the sublime: a prelude to tears of joy as opposed to tragedy which is comedy without the happy ending. Rapting! (Not to be confused with ___the___ rapture of evangelical art.)
Intelligence and emotion are combined in both art and humor - but the sequence is crucial! Just like acid and water, adding one to the other can be inert or explosive. In humor, one is taken by surprise and must temper the emotions with intellect. It__™s called psychic inertia and the volatile reaction is laughter. But when appreciating art, the viewer is first intellectually stimulated " he or she elects to engage the piece - and then pours in one™s own depth of emotions before rapting.
Hook me up to an EEG and show me a dramatic landscape, lovely portrait, or Bill Viola__™s ___Isolde__™s Ascension.___ If my alpha waves spike, then I__™m probably rapting. The pleasurable feeling induced by art isn__™t exactly the euphoria directly achievable with drugs, but close enough. Art is pleasurable, but not pure pleasure. There are too many psychological biases involved in the perception of art. The anterior cingulate cortex is one area of the brain where opiates typically reduce stress and induce euphoria. Recent theories suggest that this same nucleus of gray matter factors into the appreciation of art by means of this pain relief mechanism. I__™m reminded of a Gordon Lightfoot song that says
___Sometimes I think it__™s a shame when I get feeling better when I__™m feeling no pain.___
I suspect that the neural substrates of laughing and crying are conjoined in the brain by the highly emotional amygdala in the limbic region near the hypothalamus that I call the humorsphere. Before our cognitive faculties kick in, the amygdala interprets any novel scenario to determine an appropriate emotional response. In case of humor, it calls to the septal area of the nucleus accmbens for some of the hormone dopamine to plug the gaps where fear of the unknown (novelty) has filtered in. But when confronted with art, the dorsolateral cortex in the prefrontal lobes inhibits the amygdala in favor of the hypothalamus. The promise of self-transcendence thereby stimulates the anterior cingulated cortex for the aforementioned serenity in the afterglow of an aesthetic judgment: rapture. It__™s that junction of the brain through which memory circuits converge with the traces of one__™s life experiences that are pertinent to the pretty picture.
Well, that__™s it in a nutshell without all the axonal dendrites and ponderous arithmetic. For those who are still unclear on the concept, here are a couple of reliable indications that you are looking at great art: You are transported to a different time and place simply by gazing at it, and/or you hear yourself smiling.
Meanwhile Picasso, Einstein, and Elvis walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What is this, some kind of a joke?"
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