Monday, August 30, 2010

Zig zagging into abstraction

1 The scope of romanticism

Edmund Burke's 'Inquiry into the Origins of the Sublime' published in 1757 marked the birth of the literary Romantic Movement as an expression of fear. It is based on Burke’s the proposition that:

'what soever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, is a source of the sublime',

from which he deduces

'the sublime effect of darkness, or destructive power, of solitude and silence and the roaring of animals'.

Seven years later Horace Walpole dreamed that he was in the hall of an ancient castle, and on the uppermost banister of the staircase saw a gigantic hand in armour. When he awoke he wrote the first horror story, 'The Castle of Otranto'.

Not long before, in painting, this sentiment of the sublime had been expressed in Giambattista Piranesi’s Carceri etchings of 1745. Piranesi was born in 1720, the son of a Venetian stonemason, and was trained to become an architect. For thirty years he was diverted to draw the ruins of Rome with relentless accuracy; but he never ceased to find them terrifying and oppressive.

The ‘Carceri’ or ‘Prisons’ folio exists in two different forms. The first was largely designed in 1745 and published in 1750. A new edition (in fact the third) appeared in 1760. To this edition Piranesi added a couple of plates, and reworked most of the others. In some he added only a few details, but others were transformed. In most cases there was considerable gain in power and intensity, and it is from the 1760 edition that the Prisons are generally known. The frontispiece of the second edition itself offers an example (Fig 1). A large toothed wheel occupies the foreground, a pointless and sinister bridge crosses the middle of the scene, and a vertiginous catwalk appears high above our heads. This zig-zag of crazy diagonals is added to all the plates in the second edition, and thereby increases our sense of frustration. Every time our eye undertakes a journey, it is sent back, sharply and painfully. There is never a smooth transition between the two points and the zig-zag appears almost as an abstract form in many drawings of the 1760s.

In the two plates, which he added to the Prisons in 1760, he has gone all out to make them effective by filling them with reliefs representing what were to become the standard Romantic symbols of fear such as lions and bound captives, and has even included a scene of torture. We recognise the fears and frustrations of Piranesi's prisons immediately. In this context, the factories and communications infrastructures of the nineteenth century, which so often achieved a Piranesian confusion and gloom, become the prisons of industrial society. They were the visible aspect of the economic bondage of men and women who passed their days in frustrating journeys, leading only to incomprehensible work. John Gay captured this in his photograph of the zig-zag superstructure of Liverpool Street Station (Fig 2).

Kenneth Clark's reaction to Piranesi's etchings was to imagine he was able to enter the picture and experience the problems of illogical navigation.

'You must go up the stairs to obtain a permit, then take it over to one of those little round towers to be stamped; unfortunately this office is closed, and you are instructed to go up to the top gallery, but in doing so you have taken a wrong turning and have infringed the regulations, so you must come down and visit the office of the security officer'.

In other words, to Clark the Carceri represented how we are imprisoned by the frustrations of bureaucracy in the modern world.

Fig 1 The Carceri (1760)

Fig 2 Liverpool Street Station (John Gay)

In his essay of 1911 entitled ‘The Ruin’, the German sociologist Georg Simmel writes:

"Architecture, is the only art in which the great struggle between the will of the spirit and the necessity of nature issues into real peace, in which the soul in its upward striving and nature in its gravity are held in balance." In the ruin, nature begins to have the upper hand: the "brute, downward-dragging, corroding, crumbling power" produces a new form, "entirely meaningful, comprehensible, differentiated."

This tells us that Piranesi in his depictions of ruins was really introducing us to the aesthetics of a random visual gain of entropy as the creativity of Ancient Rome’s architects crumbled away, whereas Gay was showing us, through the random meaningless cropping of the outcomes of a precise engineering logic, the fascination of the zigzag, an abstract motive common to both. The latter are actually responses to a picture’s spiritual richness and may be defined as its capacity to stimulate thoughtfulness on big questions of life, such as, What is art?. In both cases, the pointless ruin and the part-structure taken out of its functional context, both make the point that romanticism, in its literary, musical or graphic expressions, now means being a staunch individualist, believing in the rights of other individuals, and expressing deep, intense, and often uplifting emotions. Charles Baudelaire was able to articulate this important aspect of modernism in the mid-19th century when he wrote:

"To say the word Romanticism is to say modern art -- that is, intimacy, spirituality, colour, aspiration towards the infinite, expressed by every means available to the arts.”

2 Cortical abstraction

With the development of abstract art, Romanticism has now freed human imagination and skills from trying to capture reality, although all they were doing was to depict a particular type of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture. Nevertheless, the award-winning artists of our day no longer respond to materialistic objectives. They no longer have to hunt for earthly motives before painting. Art has developed to become spiritually creative but in a non-religious sense. To display the spiritual beauty of an intense yellow it is no longer necessary to paint a lemon, or search the sky to contrast it with a lovely blue. Forms and colours can be organised at will into the given space of a canvas. The aim is to enrich this space by following the inner workings of the mind beyond the pretence of make-believe. In this, the hand is guided to a form-ideal by random thoughts that bubble up in the mind, apparently from nowhere.

The systematic search for a new non-objective form-ideal as a mental process emanating directly from the cerebral cortex was set in motion by the painter/theorist Wassily Kandinsky. His described his cortical response to the world semi-scientifically, as follows:

“As soon as we open the door, step out of the seclusion and plunge into the outside reality, we become an active part of this reality and experience its pulsation with all our senses. The constantly changing grades of tonality and tempo of the sounds wind themselves about us, rise spirally and suddenly collapse. Likewise, the movements envelop us by a play of horizontal and vertical lines bending in different directions as colour-patches pile up and dissolve into high or low tonalities”.

Behind this statement lies the contemporary desire, promoted vigorously by the Dada group, to liberate art from academic stereotypes derived from the classical tradition.

The first production of a fully non-representational artwork was the assembly of objects entitled ‘Three Standard Stoppages’ by Marcel Duchamp in 1913. It illustrated Duchamp's fascination with the concept of chance and his interest in mathematics. This complex construction incorporates a number of complicated elements, all inside a wooden box:

1) Three pieces of thread, each one-meter long, glued on Prussian blue canvas cut into three strips These canvas strips are glued to three glass panels.
2) Three wood slats, shaped along one side to match the curved paths taken by the threads
3) A black leather label with "3 STOPPAGES ETALON/ 1913-14" printed on it in gold lettering is attached on one end of each canvas strip.

The following notations was printed on the back of each canvas strip, where you can see them through the glass that the canvas is mounted on:

"A straight horizontal thread one meter in length falls from a / height of one meter. (3 Standard Stoppages; belonging to Marcel Duchamp. / 1913-14)."

In other words, Duchamp included a detailed description of the making process within the artwork itself, which opened up discussions about the role of process and non-compositional chance operations in artistic creativity.

Kandinsky, in his probing of abstraction, was soon concerned with extending reality from familiar first appearances. In October 1907 he had met Rudolf Steiner, founder of anthroposophy, and Steiner’s highly personal ideas about spirituality and mysticism moved Kandinsky to investigate the non-objective artistic expression of his own mental state. For example, the ‘non-substance’ of Monet’s ‘Haystacks’ stunned him. It was also the time when he became involved with the new scientific concepts of reality. At the forefront of Kandinsky’s views about painterly universes was the discovery of how to split the atom. This brought about the collapse of all his certainty about the absolute and unequivocal solidity of what is real. Barriers to the senses were now to be breached through art. Here, his particular artistic lodestone was the synthesis of sound and colour he discovered whilst attending an operatic performance of Lohengrin by Wagner at the Bolshoi.

His provisional conclusions were presented in an essay ‘Point and Line to Plane’, which was published in 1926. This presented the mature flowering of ideas first written up in 1910 entitled ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’.

The use of line in nature is an exceedingly frequent one, and appears in countless phenomena of the mineral, plant and animal worlds. The schematic construction of the crystal is a purely linear formation. A plant in its entire development from seed to root (downwards), as far as the beginning of the bud (upwards), passes over from point to line and, as it progresses, leads to more complicated complexes of lines, to independent linear structures, like the network of the leaf or the eccentric construction of evergreen trees. The attachment of the leaves around the shoot takes place in the most exact manner, which can be expressed with a mathematic formula-numerical expression and science has represented this with a spiral-like diagram. The organic linear pattern of the branches always emanates from the same basic principle but exhibits the most varied placements (e.g., among trees alone: fir, fig, date palm, or the most bewildering complex configurations of the liana and various other snake-like plants). Some complexes are, moreover, of a clear, exact, geometric nature and vividly recall geometric constructions made by animals, as, for example, the surprising formation of the spider's web. On the other hand, some are of a” free" nature and made up of free lines; the loose structure reveals no exact geometric construction. Both types of construction are found in abstract painting.

Kandinsky’s pictures also consistently fulfil Gauguin’s call to abstraction by using colour enigmatically:

“not to draw, but to create musical sensations that issue from colour itself, from its own character, from its mysterious, enigmatic inner force”.

In the 1920s Mondrian, was developing an investigation of these universals of human reason applied to configuring the human body at the same time that Kandinsky was exploring the dynamics and laws of human instincts motivated by ‘inner necessity’. With the elimination of figurative associations and intelligible geometrical relations of line and colour, the viewer is robbed of all rational and literary aids to interpretation and is thrown back on purely emotive responses; on the psychological sensibilities, sensual responses and spiritual beliefs of the spectators own inner world.

According to Sandro Bocola, Kandinsky’s artistic cannon can only be grasped directly, sensually and intuitively because it is rooted in the biological principle of homeostatis. As expressed in psychoanalysis of Kandinsky’s time, pleasure is interpreted as the outcome of an instinctual process. Instincts, the body’s relationship with the unconscious, are regulated according to Freud by the pleasure/unpleasure principle. Central to this, Freud describes a concept he called the ‘id’ as a reservoir of psychic energy, the pool of biological drives that arise from our basic physiological needs for food, water, warmth, sexual gratification, avoidance of pain, and so forth. Freud’s drives are our instincts, and he believed that they power and direct all of human behaviour. The id in Freud’s scheme is an unconscious force. It has no link with objective reality. Consequently, the id responds to feedback from bodily needs to discharge tensions that comes by stimulating behaviours that satisfy bodily needs. Psychologically it can be said the id seeks only its own pleasure and cannot abide frustration or deprivation of any kind.

With regard to artistic creativity as a homeostatic mental activity, a material or mental vision activates a need for its physical expression as a work of art where all its elements are harmonised. This is the inner necessity, which defines the bodily needs for action. It gives rise to mental tensions that are only neutralised by the creation of a harmonising balance in the completed work of art. The creative force is an expression of an ability to think in plastic images. The German expression for this process is ‘gestaltungsfaehikeit’, which in English is covered by the phrase- ‘faculty of plastic configuration’.

There are four basic routes to the fulfilment of a painter’s artistic needs for expression according to whether the intention is to:

· Recreate the visible (realism);
· Reveal the relations of parts (structuralism);
· Express inner reality (romanticism);
· Evaluate the meaning of inner reality (symbolism).

Although each mindset is exclusive in any production process, a painter can move from one mode to another. Kandinsky was a realist before becoming a symbolist. Picasso, for example, was first a symbolist, then became concerned with structure, and eventually returned to symbolism.

3 Rules of placement

Kandinsky used the absence of external objectivity as the logical starting point to research the rules governing the correct placement of visual elements on the canvas in order to evoke predictable emotional responses in the viewer. To follow Kandinsky’s process, a painter has to cease looking for a meaning in his subject. To open a two-way channel of communication between painter and viewer, certain arrangements and positions of points, lines, angles, and particular colours are utilised to carry definite universal meanings. The scientific objective of Kandinsky’s mission was to unravel this code to reveal a theory of painting utilising only its basic graphic elements without which a work of art cannot come into existence.

Kandinsky’s basic elements were those that all previous theories of painting had to deal with, namely:

· Point
· Line
· Plane
· Colour
· Texture

He developed the idea of point as the ‘proto-element’ of painting. He believed that the systematic study of the role of point in nature, music and other art, and the combination of point and line, should reveal a unique visual language for communicating inner feelings. Painting and music, for example, would share a common language of the emotions. Starting with point, his innovation was to codify the contributions that each of the basic graphic elements of a painting has in isolation and then to examine their reciprocal effects in combination without attempting to reproduce reality. His method was to create a dictionary of graphic elements independently of the composition and then examine their additive effect in the plane of the canvas as the ‘grammar’ of an abstract composition. The mental impact of seeing involves the transmission of light waves between painter and observer, and he invented a new descriptive language based on the nouns and verbs used to describe the impact of sound waves and things in motion. Thus, a point has ‘a sound’, and a line exhibits ‘a tension for movement’. Regarding the effects of his pictures on viewers he said;

“The spectator is also too accustomed to look for the ‘meaning’, in other words an exterior relationship between the parts of the picture. Our era, materialistic in life and therefore in art, has produced a spectator who does not now how to simply put himself in front of a painting, and looks for everything possible in the painting but does not allow the picture to work an effect on him’

What counts he said, is “the effective contact with the soul”. However, it is significant that he cross-referenced this analysis with views of real objects, both man-made and natural. Some of his examples have been reproduced in the following figures (Fig 3 A-F).

Fig 3 Classification of real objects

A. Example of the visual impact of ‘discrete points): section through a root nodule made by nitrate-forming bacteria in a pea root (enlarged 1000 times)

B. Example of the visual impact of points created by the meeting of lines at an angle; pagoda of the ‘Dragon Beauty’ in Shanghai (built 1411)

C. Example of the visual impact of lines in combination; holograph of a radio tower seen from below (photo of Moholy-Nagy)

D. Example of the visual impact of curved lines; trichite crystals and a crystal skeleton

E. Example of the visual impact of complexes of lines in movement; swimming movements of algae created by flagellation

F. Visual impact of lines and points in combination; line drawing of a histological section of ‘loose’ ligament tissue of the rat

Nature was an important source of his basic graphic elements. He backed his arguments with examples of bone structure, branching of trees, the progressive circular pattern of development in plant shoots, and the galactic clusters of stars.

What are we to make of this in relation to his avowed approach of non-subjectivity and predictability in the spectator’s response? First, he was merely starting from nature to range freely beyond in the invention of forms suggested by its diversity. Second, they were elements chosen as parts of an imagined whole. Third, his basic elements would not normally be selected for graphic communication except by scientists or engineers wishing to make a narrow professional point. In this sense, there is randomness in Kandinsky’s choice as to what part of the picture ‘whole’ carried his mental message, which in any case does not require knowledge of the whole. An element is primarily a highly personal metaphor to help communicate the artist’s mental universe. In the history of art, the only parts of nature that had, up to then, been selected in this way were headless human torsos with partly severed limbs. Here the sculptor was trying to get a response to the curves produced by muscles and fatty connective tissue without the distractions of the essential linearity of the standing human body and its powerful interactivity with the viewer through facial expression and display of limbs.

4 Towards a language of planes

Kandinsky based his fundamental approach to the ‘language of painting’ by trying to define the visual messages emanating from different arrangements of lines on the basic plane of a canvas. This raised the important question of distinguishing between ‘top’ and ‘bottom’. There are associated unresolved questions about whether we respond differently to square, rectangular, circular and ovoid canvases. Also, is there a fundamental difference between the left and right halves of the basic plane, no matter what is placed there? (Figs 4-6).

Fig 4 Tensions and contrasts in the basic plane

Fig 5 Horizontal, vertical and diagonal positions produce contrasts in tension

Fig 6 Position of forms influences the ‘sound’ of the composition

The effects of some of Kandinsky’s compositions on the viewer are strongly influenced by rotating them through so that bottom becomes top (Fig 7).

Fig 7 Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane

A. Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane turned through 90 degrees.

B. Kandinsky: Illustrative composition in Point and Line to Plane turned through 180 degrees.

Finally, Kandinsky opened up the problem of including multiple planes within the basic plane. What is the influence of their shape, surface structure; colour and gradients of tonality? Artists were exploring photography at this time and it was being used to address the problems of creating depth by superimposing semi-transparent planes. This was a particular concern to the Futurists who were also merging compositional planes and superimposing multiple images to convey movement and noise. Kandinsky experimented with semi-transparent planes under the influence of contemporaries and friends, notably Feininger and Klee.

5 Selection of pictorial elements

An important characteristic of Kandinsky’s methodology of abstraction is that a process of selection from a universal dictionary of graphic elements provides the vocabulary for composition. Kandinsky did not incorporate naturalistic elements into his work with the logic of their reality. His pictures, the representational ones as well as his experimental abstractions, were built up like a jigsaw, each piece having a correct fit when it ‘looked right’, or ‘appeared interesting’ (Figs 8-12).

Fig 8 Kandinsky. Linear structure of the picture ‘Little Dream in Red’ (1925)

Fig 9 Kandinsky’s painting’ Little Dream in Red’

Fig 10 Kandinsky. Riegsee Village Church (1908)

Fig 11 Improvisation 28 (2nd version, 1912)

It is left to the observer to decipher his lines squares and circles, to crystallise a personal mental state. In his later paintings, homemade animalicules from the microscopic world of biologists appear, often cased as if they are specimens in a museum. If possible, scientists often make painterly decisions when choosing a particular field of a microscope to support a scientific model. However, the real world of aquatic biology, which spawned Kandinsky’s animal-like forms, is closed to most people, and it is not necessary to know anything about it for a spectator response to his pictures.

At this point in his life we are probably seeing a process of evolution from motifs of an East European medieval world of thick embroidery and jewels that dominated the fine structure of his first paintings (Fig 12).

Fig 12 Kandinsky. Russian Costumes (1902)

He also invited the adoption of real materials as aesthetic elements, and said that painters should paint with everything. Collage was invented by Picasso and Braque to provide elements of texture and graphics to enhance the messages of the paintbrush. According to Kandinsky, collage alone can make an image, and reality then becomes painting.

In his systematic approach to composition, Kandinsky was the first to paint for ‘art’s sake’, and try to create a language that incorporated scientific certainty into the production of paintings. His point of view was that his paintings owe their creation to a process of discovery without intentional design. He approached this task with sincerity but his words remain obscure. His texts are not easy reading; vagueness of terminology and a tendency toward mystification stemming from his absorption of Rudolph Steiner’s idiosyncratic ideas, are indications that he was not always sure of what he wanted to say. His own pictures have not produced a school of teaching but his precepts have been widely adopted. In particular, his influence can be seen in the contrasting works of Hans Arp and Georgia O’Keefe, who were Kandinsky’s contemporaries.

We are primates who have evolved great visual acuity, which is expressed in powerful pattern-finding abilities. As picture-makers, for better or worse, we have to remain satisfied when things ‘look right’. In this sense we recognise our own personal synthetic totality. What is involved in the process is rightness achieved pragmatically. A rightness of the possible with no justification from necessity of any material object of any kind. It remains questionable whether this innate potential for abstract picture making can be trained. With regards picture-viewers, this condition of ‘looking right’ requires research by investigating the responses of people to a range of compositions. Kandinsky was aware of this, although he only made one attempt to carry out attitudinal surveys. This was his idea for a questionnaire, which asked teachers and students to look at the combining of forms (triangle, square, circle) and primary colours (yellow, red, blue). This might have revolutionised art education, but his scientific curriculum was too personal to be widely adopted. Also, Kandinsky’s repertoire of basic forms essentially came from his interest in landscape graphics. In this respect, his compositions are mostly without depth and their reading depends upon following a map of interacting lines and spaces rather than the merging of closely positioned shapes to make a holistic impact. It may be that the gaps are too large for most people to make an interesting gestalt, which suggests many lines of investigation regarding Kandinsky’s belief that a painter could and should be aiming for a predictable response in his viewers.

6 The science of art

Times have moved on and the current focus of the investigation of art as the outcome of a hard-wired mental creative process is the abstract work of Gerhard Richter. In his wall-size abstract pictures, Richter builds up cumulative layers of nonrepresentational painting Paint is applied with expansive gestures so that the sweep of the artist's arm is deliberately emphasized. His gestural painting carries an implication that the artist's actions express his emotions and personality; just as in other walks of life gestures express a person's feelings. Richter tells us and demonstrates that his paintings evolve in stages based on his responses to the picture’s progress as incidental details and patterns emerge. To maintain this momentum Richter uses blurring and scraping to veil and expose prior layers. These were techniques used by English watercolourists of the 18th century to who saw their task as selecting from a landscape what nature had to offer. By chosing to use these techniques from a non-representational start to develop a dynamic structure resulting from changing texture and depth places his production process firmly between scientific and expressive conceptions of painting. It is clearly the personal working out of a sequence of mental responses in response to previous coloured and textured patchiness. To begin the process he puts down a simple colour form relation. Periodically he evaluates progress through discovery without intentional design:

“…. after a while I decide that I understand it or have seen enough of it and in the next stage of painting I partly desroy it partly add to it; and so it goes on at intervals, ‘til there is nothing more to do and the picture is finished”.

The elements and structures of colours that constitute the painting are applied with brushes, squeegees and putty knives layer by layer, with existing layers being superimposed or completely extinguished by new ones. Thus, his creativity steers a deliberate path between the application of paint as an accident and successive acts of composition, which follow as mere chance encounters between materials and structures. In this context, Richter’s finished works are suspended between utter meaninglessness and the chance constellations of marks and colour patches that he decides are acceptable because they look right. Richter’s straegy for discovering an image that terminates this unfolding is a rhythm of becoming and destroying.

Richter’s own descriptions of making a picture, which he sometimes records as a series of snapshots on the way to its completion, are important because they document the creative pathway for those interested in the scientific investigation of the sources and operations of artistic creativity.

From a scientific perspective, making marks on surfaces is the essence of being human. It's what we do with anything that can contrast with the surface we choose to mark. Rub a rock with a harder rock and you have the beginning of engraving. Pick up a burned stick and drag it across a cave wall and you are drawing. Stir some water into the black ashes of a fire lit for survival, drag a wad of dried grass through it, and you're painting. Surface outcomes of this marking activity from its primeval origins we describe as ‘graffiti’ and ‘works of art’.

Viewers are also impelled to read meaning into these marks according to their evolved primate cerebral behaviour patterns, which are conditioned by their education. Such was the documented response of one of the guards at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to Barnett Newman's abstract painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis (Heroic Sublime Man). This is a 17-foot-wide bright red canvas divided by five thin vertical stripes ranging in colour from white to maroon and black. The guard, Alec Sologob, could not discern how the Newman work provided, in the words of the official museum guidebook, 'direct, intimate contact' with the viewer’ as well as an 'affirmation of Newman's somewhat mystical sense of the human condition with all its tragedy and dignity.'

In the guard’s words:

"I don't see it. . . . With C├ęzanne or Bonnard, there's intimate contact because you can feel yourself walking into the painting, into that wooded area with the men chopping firewood. With [Andrew] Wyeth you always find something new. In Christina's World you see the details in her hands, you find cracks in the wooden boards of the house, you get a marvellous sense that this really is her world. . . . But this Newman has never looked to me like anything. This is a blank wall with stripes, and I don't like the colour red to begin with."

Here we have the responses of two viewers who are day by day in contact with modern art, a guard and a curator, about what ‘marks on a surface’ mean to them. Each sees and evaluates the outcome of the process of making of marks according to the expectations instilled by their education and both views are valid. From Newman’s point of view, his marks are presented as evidence of what was accepted by academia in the 1990s as a valid end point of the marking process classified as ‘abstract art’. The artist was confirmed by the minority gallery culture as being at the forefront of a millennium of behaviour change in both makers and viewers, a sequence defined academically by a relative minority of people in the curatorial profession as ‘the advance of European art’. This has inevitably left the bulk of ‘uneducated humanity’ bemused.

Regarding the existence of ‘un-educated majorities’, in an article titled "Is There a God?" commissioned, but never published, by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Bertrand Russell wrote:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

A minority is a sociological group that does not constitute a dominant voting majority of the total population of a given society. A sociological minority is not necessarily a numerical minority — it may include any group that is subnormal with respect to a dominant group in terms of social status, education, employment, wealth and political power. Therefore, in this cultural sense, the aim of every artist is not to conform to the history of art but to release himself from it, in order to replace it with his own history. A making of marks becomes art when its production, perception and reception are grounded on certain ‘truths’ that through education and group cohesion have become common to maker and viewer.

7 Evolution of mark making

There is no doubt that life is carried forward because molecules of DNA, which constitute the genes, embody a coded history of life’s genealogical past. In this respect we are part of nature in everything we do, from stepping on a bus to painting a house. Like all other living things our behaviour is governed by a chemical coding of our genes, which is a record of successful long-term interactions with the environments of our ancestors, near and in the distant past. It is a biochemical memory that remembers the body’s responses of growth, reproduction and behaviour that have been responsible for survival. In this respect, the body of a plant, animal or microbe represents a kind of prediction that its future environmental experiences will, to a general extent, resemble those of its ancestors. Animals, especially those with brains, are particularly good survivors because the nervous system also has a remarkable picturing ability for remembering what is the most useful way of responding to short-term variations in the environment. As a computer model, the brain (hardware) and its networks of memory cells (the software) have evolved to continuously scan the environment, and use memories of good and bad responses to keep short-term survival strategies up to date. The genes model the basic aspects of the environment that change very slowly over generations. The brain produces models of survival as day-to-day interactions between perception via the senses and a mental representation of environment that triggers the correct response. This interplay between changes in the environment and their representation as virtual images in the central nervous system allows us to move through a mental world of our brain’s making, and produce neuromuscular responses that aid survival. Since brains are also products of natural selection, ancestors, near and in the distant past, also carried virtual worlds of their contemporary environments in their heads. Brains are a particular expression of DNA tasked with the role of recording lifespan-events as pictures to help predict the immediate future.

We describe these virtual worlds as ‘patterns of thought’ and the process of perception that generates them as ‘reading the environment’. This faculty of ‘graphicity’ is a vital process of comprehension. We become interested in shapes and colours that do not fit into the known. In this we prefer intriguing suggestions to actual representation. For example, a trail of footprints occurring together with disturbed vegetation and dung deposits is read intently by a hunter as the pattern of his prey. It is comprehended as a detailed mental map of events over a wide area that points to the course of action necessary if the hunt is to be successful. According to Steven Dawkins it seems plausible that the ability to perceive the signs and generate such pictures might have arisen in our ancestors before the origin of speech in words. If the thought-picture could be represented as an arrangement of shapes and signs, constructing an environmental model in the head is a helpful way to communicate, and coordinate what has to be done in a social group. Such mental imagery could be an educational resource to help group cohesion and promote social evolution. This seems the likely origin of art, which depends on noticing that something can be made to stand for something else in order to assist comprehension and communication. Dawkins suggests that it could have been the drawing of mind-maps in the sand that drove the expansion of human evolution beyond the critical threshold of communication that other apes just failed to cross. It may be pertinent that ceremonial sand-pictures of native Australians function as maps. They are patterns created by an individual ‘dreamer’ through the two-dimensional spacing of symbols standing for people and local topographical detail. The fact that these patterns are closely associated with ‘dreaming’ is significant. Dreams are set up by our simulation software using the same modelling techniques used by the brain when it presents its updated editions of reality. These aboriginal maps of the dreamtime were community properties. Their role was to codify the neighbourhood and its use by the community in the form of a locally accepted non-representational pattern of relationships. The collection of pictographs reinforced the existence of a tribal territory and its natural resources by incorporating stories about its occupation by the group’s ancestors. The pictures, now being made permanent works of art on cloth and hardboard for the Australian urban consumer culture, had a social function to maintain a subculture of understanding by reinforcing comprehension of group identity and space. Rock art of North America, which consists of pictographs constructed from circles, spirals and lines, also seems to have its origins in dreams, and a significance in carrying messages about origins and group identity across generations. Reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego there is tremendous variety in all aspects of indigenous art from prehistory to the arrival of Europeans, differing region by region, era by era, and often tribe by tribe. There are representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drumheads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and may other forms.

All this tells us is that at the heart of being human, we enjoy nothing more than the demand made on us by a mark-maker a to use our own ‘imitative faculty’, our imagination, and thus share in the creative adventure of an artist. The greater the artist’s skill to induce ambiguity into a work, the greater the viewer’s pleasure in unravelling the puzzle. In other words, our pleasure rests on the mind’s effort in bridging the difference between surface marks and reality.