Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

Steven Pinker on Art

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M.C. Escher – Three worlds (lithography 1955)

Excerpt from How the Mind Works by Pinker, Steven (Book – 1999)


First, we seem to get pleasure out of looking at purified concentrated versions of the geometric patterns that in dilute form give us pips of microsatisfaction as we orient ourselves toward informative environments and fine-tune our vision to give us a clear picture of them. Think of the annoyance you feel when a movie is out of focus and your relief when the projectionist wakes up and twiddles the lens. The fuzzy picture resembles your own retinal image when you are not properly accommodating the lens of your eye. The dissatisfaction is the impetus to accommodate; the satisfaction tells you when you have succeeded. Bright crisp, saturated, contrasty images whether from an expensive television set or from a colorful painting, may exaggerate the lick of pleasure when we have adjusted our eyes properly.

And it is frustrating, even frightening, to gaze at a scene in poor viewing conditions—far away, at night, or through haze water, or foliage, and be unable to make head or tail of it, not knowing for example whether something is a hole, or a bump or where one surface leaves off and another begins. A canvas that is cleanly divided into solid shapes and continuous backgrounds may exaggerate the reduction of anxiety we experience when we find viewing condition that resolve the visual field into unambiguous surfaces and objects.

Finally, we find some parts of the world snazzy and other parts dreary to the extent that they convey information about improbably, information-rich, consequential objects and forces. Imagine scooping out the entire scene in front of you, putting it into a giant blender set on LIQUEFY, and pouring the detritus back in front of you. The scene no longer contains any object of interest. Any food, predators, shelter, hiding places, vantage points, tools, and raw materials have been ground into sludge. And what does it look like? It has no lines, no shames, no symmetry, and no repetition. It is brown, just like the color you got when you mixed all your paints together as a child. It has nothing to look at because it has nothing in it. The thought experiment shows that the drabness comes from an environment with nothing to offer, and its opposite, visual pizazz comes from an environment that contains objects worth paying attention to. Thus we are designed to be dissatisfied by bleak, featureless scenes and attracted to colorful, patterned ones. We push that pleasure button with vivid artificial colors and patterns.

Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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