ART, THE FINAL BATTLEFIELD
Much I owe to the lands that grew -
More to the Lives that fed -
But most to the Allah Who gave me Two
Separate sides to my head.
Much I reflect on the Good and the True
In the faiths beneath the sun
But most upon Allah Who gave me Two
Sides to my head, not one.
I would go without shirt or shoe,
Friend, tobacco or bread,
Sooner than lose for a minute the two
Separate sides of my head!
"The Two-Sided Man"
"The main theme to emerge … is that there appear to be two modes of thinking, verbal and non-verbal, represented rather separately in left and right hemispheres, respectively, and that our educational system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the non-verbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere."
Roger W. Sperry,
"Lateral Specialization of Cerebral Function in the Surgically Separated Hemispheres"
Brains come in two hemispheres. In animals, the two hemispheres are symmetrical in function, whereas in humans the hemispheres develop asymmetrically. Thanks to one hundred and sixty-odd years of scientific research, we now know a lot about the functioning of the human brain. There is more to discover, unquestionably, but our current knowledge is considerable.
We know, for example, that the two hemispheres are cross-wired - left brain, right hand, right brain, left hand. We know that the left brain is responsible for language and language-related abilities.
We know that both hemispheres are involved in the higher cognitive functions, each specialized for different modes of thought. One thing is very clear and can be supported by masses of empirical evidence - left brain reason, right brain art.
"The data indicate that the mute, minor hemisphere is specialized for Gestalt perception, being primarily a synthesist in dealing with information input. The speaking, major hemisphere, in contrast, seems to operate in a more logical, analytic, computer-like fashion. Its language is inadequate for the rapid complex syntheses achieved by the minor hemisphere."
Roger W. Sperry
"The left hemisphere analyses over time, whereas the right hemisphere synthesizes over space."
"Psychobiological Implications of Bilateral Asymmetry"
"When I eat a tomato I look at it the way anyone else would. But when I paint a tomato, then I see it differently."
Parallel Ways of Knowing
J. E. Bergen
"Some Educational Aspects of Hemisphere Specialization"
The Duality of Yin and Yang
left side right side
right brain left brain
I Ching or Book of Changes
There is no question that in western societies the left brain is dominant. Our writing system, the Roman alphabet - itself descended from the Sumerian, through the Phoenician and the Greek - promotes and sustains left brain hegemony. The left brain is not opposed to maintaining its dominance either.
Within us, a war has been raging for probably thousands of years between the left and right brains. It is only recently that teachers have stopped forcing left-handed children to use their right hands. Our language provides some excellent examples of this "ancient bias". The Latin word for left is "sinister". The Latin word for right is "dexter" meaning skill or adroitness. The French word for left is "qauche" meaning awkward. The French for right is "droit" meaning good, just, or proper. In English, left comes from the Anglo-Saxon "lyft" meaning weak or worthless, right comes from "reht" meaning strait or just.
"In the terms of cultural customs, the place of honour at a formal dinner is on the host's right-hand side. The groom stands on the right in the marriage ceremony, the bride on the left - a non-verbal message of the relative status of the two participants. We shake hands with our right hands; it seems somehow wrong to shake hands with our left hands.
Under 'left handed,' the dictionary lists as synonyms 'clumsy,' 'awkward,' 'insincere,' 'malicious.' Synonyms for 'right handed,' however, are 'correct,' 'indispensable,' and 'reliable.' Now, it's important to remember that these terms were all made up, when languages began, by some persons' left hemispheres - the left brain calling the right bad names! And the right brain - labeled, pinpointed, and buttonholed - was without a language of its own to defend itself."
"Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"
I am not even going to touch left wing and right wing politics.
Art is the domain of the right brain. It is probably the only domain in western society still free from left brain domination. But even a cursory glance at art history will show that it has had to endure a sustained attack upon it.
" was given the task of painting a picture of St Mathew for the altar of a church in Rome. The saint was to be represented writing the gospel, and, to show that the gospels were the word of God, an angel was to be represented inspiring his writings. Caravaggio, who was a highly imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down and write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Mathew … with a bald head and bear, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer's hand as a teacher may do a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be a lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chances. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like <…>. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been."
E. H. Gombrich
The Story of Art
But something else is going on here. There is more to the second painting than just 'conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like.' Not only was the left brain responsible for the rejection of the first picture, but what is really interesting is that the left brain content in the second painting is appreciably higher than the first. Gombrich calls it 'less honest and sincere' and it is but it is also, irrespective of its content, less art.
Now, I am not saying that every work of art is exclusively a right brain product. The amount varies but there is some left brain content in every work of art. What I am saying is this, in every work of art it is that which makes it art that is exclusively a right brain product. There are consequences of course. It implies that a pure left brain product can not be art. It is precisely that implication that the left brain finds unacceptable and so it is has systematically set about the task of destroying right brain influence in the arts and replacing it with left brain influence. Its main tools are philosophy and art criticism, as we shall see.
Philosophy is the exercise supreme of the left brain. Art is the exercise supreme of the right brain. At the most fundamental level, philosophy and art are incompatible. Unfortunately, the left brain does not know when to 'butt out.'
"We may … begin at once by asserting that artistic beauty stands higher than nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born - born again, that is - of the mind; and by as much as the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances, by so much the beauty of art is higher than beauty of nature. Indeed, if we look at it formally - i.e. only considering in what way it exists, not what there is in it - even a silly fancy such as may pass through a man's head is higher than any product of nature; for such a fancy must at least be characterized by intellectual being and by freedom."
G. W. F. Hegel
"Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics"
Make no mistake. Whether or not he was consciously aware of it, Hegel's 'nature' is the right brain. This is nothing less than a thinly disguised attack upon it and a plea for the supremacy of the left brain.
"But if, on the one side, we assign this high position to art, we must no less bear in mind, on the other hand, that art is not, either in content or in form, the supreme and absolute mode of bringing the mind's genuine interest into consciousness."
G. W. F. Hegel
"Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics"
Hegel explains that position by delving into questions of "truth" and the "divine", concepts completely alien to the right brain. The two sides of our head connect via the corpus callosum but this is not a "communication" in any left brain meaning of the word. The right brain has no language - it is mute. The left brain dominates and abstracts. It seeks to dominate everything about the whole brain relationship and it is therefore natural for it to seek domination of art. It is the left brain insistence on hegemony that leads it into errors.
"<…> For symbolic art attains its most adequate reality and most complete application in architecture, in which it holds sway in the full import of its notion, and is not yet degraded to be, as it were, the inorganic nature dealt with by another art. The classical type of art, on the other hand, finds adequate realization in sculpture, while it treats architecture only as furnishing an enclosure in which it is to operate, and has not acquired the power of developing painting and music as absolute forms for its content. The romantic type of art, finally, takes possession of painting and music, and in like manner of poetic representation, as substantive and unconditionally adequate modes of utterance. Poetry, however, is conformable to all types of the beautiful, and extends over them all, because the artistic imagination is its proper medium, and imagination is essential to every product that belongs to the beautiful, whatever its type may be."
G. W. F. Hegel
"Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics"
Hegel is betrayed by his own left brain, but Hegel cannot think otherwise. He is trapped in the left brain's exultation of reason. In other words, the left brain cannot admit anything other than its own supremacy. I call this the "reason trap" and it is very common among philosophers, as you might now expect.
"But the difficulty lies not in understanding that the Greek arts and epic are bound up with certain forms of social development. The difficulty is that they still afford us artistic pleasure and that in a certain respect they count as a norm and as an unattainable model.
A man cannot become a child again, or he becomes childish. But does he not find joy in the child's naivete, and must he himself not strive to reproduce its truth at a higher stage? Does not the true character of each epoch come alive in the nature of its children? Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm? There are unruly children and precocious children. Many of the old peoples belong in this category. The Greeks were normal children. The charm of their art for us is not in contradiction to the undeveloped stage of society on which it grew. is its result, rather, and is inextricably bound up, rather, with the fact that the unripe social conditions under which it arose, and could alone arise, can never return."
"Grundrisse. Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft)"
As far as I am aware, nobody has ever believed this. Even committed Marxists cringe when reminded of it.
Hegel and Marx were both very smart men -smarter than me, to be sure. The point here is not that Hegel and Marx can make errors. They would not be human if they made no mistakes. It is the grossness of the error that reveals the "reason trap". But spotting the blooper is relatively easy. I have chosen Hegel and Marx to illustrate the point but you can pick any philosopher at random and find similar errors (when it comes to art). If the left brain's "reason trap" can lead such men into such gross errors, it should not be surprising to find the left brain's hegemonic fingerprints all over just about everything written on art.
"Criticism's function is to initiate that work which art history eventually accomplishes in the form of the 'biographic narrative' that is, as Griselda Pollock describes it 'the production of an artistic subject for works of art'."
"Re-Viewing Modernist Criticism"
In his book "Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology", Mitchell makes the point that behind every image is a text and behind every text is an image. He goes on,
"Among the most interesting and complex versions of this struggle is what might be called the relationship of subversion, in which language or imagery looks into its own heart and finds lurking there its opposite number. One version of this relation has haunted the philosophy of language since the rise of empiricism, the suspicion that beneath words, beneath ideas, the ultimate reference in the mind is the image, the impression of outward experience printed, painted, or reflected in the surface of consciousness. It was this subversive image that Wittgenstein sought to expel from language, which the behaviourists sought to purge from psychology, and which contemporary art-theorists have sought to cast out of pictorial representation itself. The modern pictorial image, like the ancient notion of 'likeness,' is at last revealed to be linguistic in its inner workings."
W. J. T. Mitchell
"Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology"
THE EVE OF BATTLE
So here we are. I intended this to be a short piece and it has grown in the telling. I had intended to supply a number of examples supporting my case from critical reviews and art-critics in general but I cannot without writing a whole book. Be assured that I can if I have to.
There is a struggle going on between the left and right brain for the domination of art. Right now, it seems, the left brain has the upper hand. It has staked much on the development of an exclusively left brain art. Painting, sculpture, music, and even poetry can not go there for these artforms depend on the right brain to be recognized as art. Instead, the arts council in Britain is sponsoring an artist twelve thousand pounds to kick an Indian Takeaway down the high street.
I really wish I could have supplied the photographs of the two Carravagio paintings. The first painting now only exists as a photograph, the painting having been destroyed. Unfortunately, I have no scanner.
I have presented the material here in such a way that may give the impression that I believe that this is the only issue in art.
It is not.
This is a tool to help us understand what is written about art and why it is written. It is a tool to help distinguish between the valid and the vapour.
There is a huge body of text on art and it has become increasingly left-brain complex and abstract over the years. I am not saying we should dismiss it. I am saying that we need to be aware of the often-subtle means the left brain uses to rubbish the right brain contribution to art and increase in value its own contribution.
Until very recently, artistic production was considered manual labour.
There were to be no writers in Plato's republic.
The last sentence, about Plato's republic, is deliberately misleading. I count five different ways of reading it and there might well be more. To fully understand its import you need to examine, very carefully, every meaning.
This piece was originally thirty-eight pages long. I have condensed it to eight in order to keep it manageable. Frankly, I am unsure if the web-site can handle text this long.