Jan Vermeer has been one of my favourite painters ever since I saw his famous “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” painting that was on display in Toronto in the 1980’s. I’ve been on a quest to see all of his paintings although its been on hiatus for the past ten years. Here is the list of what I’ve seen so far (I have five left). You only need to stand in front of a Vermeer for a few seconds to be mesmerized. I stood in front of “The Music Lesson” in Buckingham Palace for at least an hour. The guard started joking with me because I was so transfixed. This is why I’ve been intrigued by recent suggestions by artist David Hockney and others that some great old masters like Vermeer and van Eyck may have used optical aids like camera obscura. Well, inventor Tim Jenison has taken this theory to another level by attempting to completely recreate Vermeer’s Music Lesson using a set up of mirrors and lenses that he (re)invented. The endeavor is documented in the film Tim’s Vermeer directed by Teller of Penn and Teller fame. Whether you believe the theory or not (I actually do and it doesn’t detract at all for my love of Vermeer), what this film does do so well is to show what dedication, thought, patience, and careful execution can accomplish. I got tired just watching him paint the threads in a Persian rug using his optical tool.
Archive for the ‘Art’ Category
What is called classical music mostly refers to the Western symphony orchestra tradition that starts in the seventeenth century with Vivaldi and peaks in the early twentieth with Mahler. While classical music remains popular, my unscientific sampling of concert hall audiences indicates that the demographic skews to retirement age and above. I don’t know if this means that a generation of music lovers is about to depart or that people only have the patience to sit through a long concert when they are older. In an attempt to introduce a new generation to classical music, I thought I would present a selection each week. And what’s a better way to kick it off then with the pseudo-Baroque precursor to heavy metal, the Praeludium and Allegro by Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler performed in the first half of the twentieth century. He was one of the greatest violin virtuosos of all time and also wrote some great violin ditties. Here is a performance by the then 13 year old Canadian/American violinist Leila Josefowicz in 1991.
In classical music, there is a mystique surrounding Seventeenth Century violins made in Cremona, Italy and especially the Stradivarius. These violins can cost millions of dollars and are supposed to be unmatched in sound quality by any violin made since. People have speculated that it is the wood, the glue, the varnish or some mysterious unknown quantity that makes them so much better although nothing has ever been pinpointed. Now, a study recently published in PNAS (see here) finds that the superiority of the Stradivarius may be more myth than substance. The study found that top-level violinists preferred modern violins to the classic Cremonese ones. It was the first every study that was double blinded so that neither the violinist nor tester knew which violin was being played. It is well-known in psychology that people’s preferences are strongly influenced by context. An example, is that wines perform better in taste tests when they are believed to be more expensive. The study has been criticized in that it was done in a hotel room and not on a concert stage. I’m sure a followup is in the works.
The New York Times has some interesting articles online right now. There is a series of interesting essays on the Future of Computing in the Science section and the philosophy blog The Stone has a very nice post by Alva Noe on Art and Neuroscience. I think Noe’s piece eloquently phrases several ideas that I have tried to get across recently, which is that while mind may arise exclusively from brain this doesn’t mean that looking at the brain alone will explain everything that the mind does. Neuroscience will not make psychology or art history obsolete. The reason is simply a matter of computational complexity or even more simply combinatorics. It goes back to Phillip Anderson’s famous article More is Different (e.g. see here), where he argued that each field has its own set of fundamental laws and rules and thinking at a lower level isn’t always useful.
For example, suppose that what makes me enjoy or like a piece of art is set by a hundred or so on-off neural switches. Then there are different ways I could appreciate art. Now, I have no idea if a hundred is correct but suffice it to say that anything above 50 or so makes the number of combinations so large that it will take Moore’s law a long time to catch up and anything above 300 makes it virtually impossible to handle computationally in our universe with a classical computer. Thus, if art appreciation is sufficiently complex, meaning that it involves a few hundred or more neural parameters, then Big Data on the brain alone will not be sufficient to obtain insight into what makes a piece of art special. Some sort of reduced description would be necessary and that already exists in the form of art history. That is not to say that data mining how people respond to art may not provide some statistical information on what would constitute a masterpiece. After all, Netflix is pretty successful in predicting what movies you will like based on what you have liked before and what other people like. However, there will always be room for the art critic.
About five years ago, there was a big story in the news about a child artist named Marla Olmstead. She started painting at two and by the time she was four she was selling large abstract oil paintings for tens of thousands of dollars. The paintings were bold and colourful and were quite impressive. They wouldn’t look out of place in any modern art exhibit.
Her story was documented in the 2007 film My Kid Could Paint That. Her parents had always maintained that she painted the works herself but a 60 Minutes special in 2005 suggested that her father either helped her or painted the works himself. Immediately after the episode aired there was a huge uproar. Many of the patrons that bought her art became quite angry and the gallery where her art was shown stopped showing her work for awhile. The documentary was mostly neutral on whether or not she actually painted the paintings. She was filmed painting two of the paintings but the results seemed different from the other paintings.
One of the messages of the film was that perhaps modern art was somewhat of a hoax. The gallery owner that first put on her shows, painted detailed realistic pictures that took months to complete and he had quite a bit of bitterness towards abstract artists who throw a bucket of paint against a canvas and sell the work for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Promoting Marla was partly his way of making a statement to the art establishment.
I took away two messages from the film. The first is that abstract random patterns are often pleasing to our eyes. I thought many of Marla’s paintings were quite beautiful but I also think some of the art my four year old daughter brings home from school also looks quite nice. We basically see what we want when we look at a mass of colours and patterns. It is why a dried river bed, a forest scene or swirling clouds can be so awe inspiring. We find beauty in randomness.
The second was that I found it odd that no one questioned why it would matter who the artist was. Why would a painting be less beautiful if it was painted by the father instead of a four year old? It made me think that perhaps art should be presented anonymously. It is interesting that the value of a painting by a famous artist vanishes the moment it is discovered to be a forgery. What exactly changed in the painting to cause it suddenly to be worth so much less? Why is it so important that a Vermeer or a Cezanne be painted by Vermeer or Cezanne? If someone had the skill to forge a piece of art so perfectly that it could fool anyone, how is that different from the original? The fact that we put value on things because of their history says a lot about how our brains work and how our priors strongly determine value.
There is an opinion piece by Denis Dutton in the New York Times today on Conceptual Art, which presents some views that I am very sympathetic to. All creative endeavours involve some inspiration and perspiration – There is the idea and then there is the execution of that idea. Conceptual art essentially removes the execution aspect of art and makes it a pure exercise in cleverness. In some sense it does crystallize the essence of art but I’ve always found it lacking. I just can’t get that inspired by a medicine cabinet. I’ve always found that the craft of a work of art to be as compelling (if not more) as the idea itself. In many cases the two are inseparable. Dutton argues that the craft aspect of art will never disappear because people intrinsically enjoy witnessing virtuosity. I’m inclined to agree. So while Vermeer or Caravaggio will remain timeless Damien Hirst may just fade away in time.
Corrected the spelling of Damien Hirst’s name on May 15,2012
When Stravinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring” debuted in 1913 in Paris it caused a riot. The music was so complex and novel that the audience didn’t know how to react. They became agitated, jeered, argued amongst themselves and eventually became violent. However, by the 1920’s the Rite of Spring was well accepted and now it is considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century. When Impressionism was introduced in the late 19th century it was not well received. The term was actually meant to be a derisive of the movement. These days, the Impressionist rooms are often the most popular and crowded at Art Museums. There was strong opposition to Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam Memorial in 1981. She actually had to defend it before the US Congress and fought to keep it from being changed. Now it is considered one of the most beautiful monuments in Washington D.C. There are countless other examples of icons of beauty that were initially considered offensive or ugly. I think this is perfectly consistent with what we know about neuroscience. (more…)