My wife and I went to the Edward Hopper exhibit at the Walker Arts Museum last Saturday. Hopper is one of my favorite artists because I consider him to be the artist of chronic insomniacs. I am a chronic insomniac. By that I mean, many of his most favorite paintings depicted scenes that were seen either directly through a window at night or the perspective of seeing a room illuminated by two or three lighting sources at night. Reading the informational displays next to the art, I learned that may have been from riding the "L" train in New York City late at night and peering into offices where people were still working. Some of his paintings are very natural night time occurrences like his famous painting of a diner at night called Nighthawks. In some of his paintings displayed in this exhibit there were annotated drawings with clear attention to the light and sources of light in his paintings. In Office At Night for example is a notation about light coming in (at night) from the window, from an overhead office light, and from a lighted adjacent room.
Nighthawks has always interested me just in terms of its form and attention to lighting details. It interests me even more after reading Kandel's book on art and what the viewer brings to the viewing situation. I suppose there are a lot of people just seeing a diner at night. But if you are an insomniac, night is an entirely different proposition for you. Many insomniacs dread the night because they equate it with no sleep. But many of us see it as the most exciting part of the day. It is like a different world where your perceptions are much clearer. I have actually cataloged some of my nighttime experiences, and they remain as vivid today as they did decades ago. For example, I remember one night, I was wide awake at 10 PM and decided I was probably not going to sleep that night. What better time than to go to the chemistry lab where I was working at the time and continue some experiments I was working on? It was about -5 degrees and a three mile walk. About two inches of snow had fallen and it crunched and squeaked every time I took a step. I was past an old decrepit sandstone block hotel at the half way point and more snow started to come down. Across the street was a large white marble bank building flashing the time and temperature. There were at least four lighting sources, the flashing time and temperature, the street lights, light coming out of the shops and rooms in the hotel, and light reflecting up off the fresh snow. I walked for three miles in these unusual lighting circumstances hearing and feeling that crunching and squeaking under my boots the entire way. It was thoroughly invigorating. I reached the lab, did a few experiments. As the sun came up, I found a couch in the building and fell asleep. That may not sound like much to someone who is used to sleeping at night, but it is what I bring to viewing a Hopper painting of a diner at night. I find myself very excited about it, when it probably does not have that effect on others. I could easily walk into that diner at night and talk with my fellow insomniacs. We would all be in a fairly good mood.
All of this also reminded me of Kandel's recent book The Age of Insight and his focus on beholder's experience. The main idea is that viewer experience is critical to the completion of the work of art. This idea originated with Alois Reigl, an art historian who developed a formal method for analyzing works of art. The corollary is that each new generation of artists has the implicit task of educating the public about new ways to view art. Some of Kandel's focus was on Viennese modernist painters - Klimt, Kokoschba, and Schiele and their role in educating the public about unconscious instinctual urges through their paintings during the time that psychoanalysis was being developed. The theory of the viewer's experience also looked at the issues of inner and external coherence. In the case of inner coherence, the painting has a clear narrative that does not require the viewer to complete the story. In the case of less clear narratives the viewer may respond to the physical or emotional space of the painting, social equality with the people in the painting, and emotional and empathic equality with the people in the painting. According to Kandel: "The ambiguity in the image elicits both a conscious and an unconscious process of recognition in the viewer, who responds emotionally and empathically to the image in terms of his own life experiences and struggles." This is a critical but rarely recognized aspect of art. I have been out of college for some time at this point, but recall no classes that were either specifically art classes or liberal arts courses on the interpretation of art that discussed the response of the viewer as necessary to complete the art, even though that idea had been out there for over 50 years.
These considerations also highlight the artistic aspects of other media - like photography. There are many common criticisms of photography as art. Many consider the creative process to be too truncated: "It's just a picture after all anybody can do it." Some consider it to be a predictable way to elicit an emotional response, such as the Humane Society and Save the Children commercials that are broadcast on late night television. But photography is a lot more than that. As an example, I posted this sequence of pictures of 4 sisters over a span of 37 years years to my Facebook feed. I found these pictures especially in sequence to be emotionally stunning and I wanted to see what some of my friends who were photographers thought. To my surprise, I got two responses: "wow" and "very cool" from friends who do not seem particularly interested in photography - at least based on what they post on Facebook. In this case the only narrative is implicit and partial and that is sisters as they age. The body language and facial expressions seem to change over time. I think it would be very difficult for the average viewer to not respond emotionally, empathically and construct their own theory of the mind interpretation for what is going on. Photography can clearly be as compelling as painting or other forms of visual art.
Being a neuroscientist, Kandel is a wealth of information on the neurobiology of the beholder's experience. On the chapter focused on that issue, he talks about unconscious determinants of beauty and attractiveness. He discusses activation of the reward system both at the level of the ventral tegmental area and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in response to attractive faces, especially smiling faces and beautiful images. He points out that one experiment showed that beautiful pictures activate the OFC more than the motor cortex and with ugly pictures it is the opposite suggesting that seeing ugly or fearful faces sets up the brain to prepare for a fleeing response.
Kandel's approach to the discussion of the artist and the beholder and their necessary relationship to complete the art and now the underlying neuroscience makes a lot of sense to me. The most compelling aspect of this story (apart from loving the art) is the idea that you can look at this problem from the perspective of neuroscience and not get carried away. Kandel is as comfortable discussing the neuroscience as his is the qualitative and subjective aspects of the creation and perception of art. One does not necessarily explain the other. At some point in psychiatry subjective became a dirty word and the illusion was created that in the extreme our unique brains can be measured and characterized by a simple collection of symptoms. Any student of consciousness knows that it is absurd to think that 7 billion unique people with unique brains can be broken down to a relatively few disorders or personalities or executive functions or IQs or however else we might want to approximate their neurobiology. Art and the beholders experience is a great example of that. I have a good idea of why I like Hopper's work. My theory of the mind is that he was a fellow insomniac who did not mind being an insomniac. I have other speculation about his work, especially the people he included that I will hold for now. Another thing I have learned over the years is that people are not necessarily interested in one anothers interpretations of art.
My favorite art and the art that I collect is pure abstract art and I hope to develop a detailed post about that in the not too distant future.
George Dawson, MD
Eric R. Kandel. The Age of Insight: A Quest To Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, From Vienna 1900 To The Present. Random House, New York City, 2012.