Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Art In The Brain: The Peekaboo Principle

Jeff Koons, Puppy

In the current issue of Psychology Today, there’s an article on the “artistic mind” that deals with how painting (sculpture as well, but the examples are from painting) works with the eye and brain. It’s interesting.

Early on, the author (Jonah Lehrer) writes, using the example of Picasso (and specifically his portrait of Gertrude Stein) to say, “Distortions often make it easier for us to decipher what we’re looking at, which is why we can identify Richard Nixon in a cartoon portrait faster than in an actual photograph.”

This interests me for so many reasons. Perhaps I’m stretching (apologies if I am), as the arts all work in different ways, but the possible cognates for writing fascinate me.

First, the selections a writer makes, of what to include and what to deny, become versions of hyperbole, distortions of what is seen or heard. That’s easy enough to imagine, but what it means is (once again) that there is no “realism” possible in language art. But hyperbole—like a caricature—helps people realize the essential nature of moments. This seems self-evident to me. So what do we mean when we talk of the “realism” of a language act? What is “realism” in poetry (which of all the language arts, seems to me the most “selected”)?

I would think that collage would have as much claim on realism as something manipulated to conform to a notion of what the real looks like. The Boyer Rickel poems I posted yesterday, or the fragmentary way that a poet like Rae Armantrout composes would seem to me to have as much a claim—or perhaps a stronger claim—to realism than, say, a poet like Ted Kooser does. And look, I’m right back to my usual examples. But still, that’s just description, not evaluation. I’ll leave evaluation to hover in the white space.

But, ignoring that, as it just shows me back in my vortex anyway, I’m interested in the way fragments work—and might continue to work, as collage, as disjunction, or as realism.

Ron Silliman currently has a little about the disjunction (or maybe it’s displacement) aspect of this over on his blog:

There is never nothing there. When a painter leaves blanks (Cézanne) or collages (Picasso, et al), there is always going to be a tension in that space, or more literally, canvas. Back to Psychology Today:

“Cézanne’s blank spots force the brain to engage in perceptual problem-solving, as it struggles to find meaning in the brushstrokes. ‘A puzzle picture (one in which meaning is implied rather than explicit) may paradoxically be more alluring than one in which the message is obvious,’ observe Ramachandran and Hirstein. ‘There appears to be an element of ‘peekaboo’ in some types of art—thereby ensuring that the visual system ‘struggles’ for a solution and does not give up too easily.’ In other words, the search for meaning is itself rewarding: the brain likes to solve problems. We actually enjoy looking for Cézanne’s missing mountain.

“The ‘peekaboo’ principle explains why subtle erotica (a supermodel shrouded in lingerie) is not only more alluring than hardcore pornography but also has much in common with the fractured forms of cubism. Both compel the mind to assemble reality out of its shards. In both cases, the effectiveness of the pictures depends on their ability to inspire our imagination, to create a sensory problem that our brain wants to solve.”

So in FLARF one might have Peekaboo Rainbow Unicorns wearing masks and doing hardcore, and then suddenly I’m distracted from my point. Wait, what was I looking for again? It’s another form of peekaboo in a post-Koons economy. But back to things a little closer to my home, this idea of the peekaboo principle is interesting and helpful when dealing not only with FLARF, and obviously fragmentary writing (like the Boyer Rickel poems I posted yesterday), but also in dealing with Rae Armantrout and John Ashbery, and a whole host of others. Armantrout’s highlighted realism of language and Ashbery’s fragments without spaces both call on the reader to approach with an open perceptual problem-solving consciousness. As I've said before, and as others have said for a long time, the action of "assembl[ing] reality out of its shards" is how the brain works on a daily basis with the world. Art that causes one to model overtly this behavior is not nearly so weird as some would have us think.

Or not, if one doesn't want to join. There’s plenty of poetry, etc., out there that doesn't function in this way, if one prefers a different engagement with art, one where the reader can be more "sure" of things. (Even if surety is a fantasy.)


At 7/08/2009 9:46 AM, Blogger jeannine said...

I have always thought surrealism in visual art portrays something more "real" than realism. Perhaps this is true in poetry too!

At 7/08/2009 9:57 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I agree.

I have a framed photograph on my wall that people always think is abstract expressionism, but it's actually a photograph of a lighted slice of rock.

One can't get more "realistic" than that.


What we call "realism" is a highly staged version of the expectations of daily life.

At 7/08/2009 10:58 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

And that doesn't even get us into the oxymoronic "magic realism" tag. Mainstream fiction named itself "realism" to distinguish itself from all the interesting things that were being done in, say, fantasy and science fiction. When it finally realized that a lot of that stuff was good, and that foreign literatures didn't have the same snobbiness regarding the unreal, it had to make up a silly label to distinguish respectable literary speculative fiction. I think "realism" (and then things like "Deep Image") in poetry comes down to us through a similar evolution. Something like "surface descriptive/representational" would be a better way to describe the poetry of Kooser et al.

At 7/08/2009 10:59 AM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Or perhaps "linear."

At 7/08/2009 11:03 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

"Linear" or the "surface" thing, yeah, somethign like that would be better. I like a lot of things that are called "realism," mostly in visual art (usually though, they're further defined as hyper-realism or some such), so I'm not against everything under that label, just the way these things are talked about. But that's always where I end up, isn't it?

And, OK, well, many of the things under that label. Kooser! Grrr, Kooser!

At 7/08/2009 1:53 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I'm not at all against "linear" poetry--there's plenty of it to like, and plenty of non-linear to dislike. I actually prefer Kooser quite a bit to Billy Collins, while we're on the subject of your bogeymen...

At 7/08/2009 2:10 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

Speaking of whom, did you see this (very odd for him) Kooser poem on Verse Daily:

I can't remember who alerted me to its existence...

At 7/08/2009 2:50 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I DID see it, and I thought about putting it on my blog. It reminded me of the Levine poem I posted from a few months back. I think he's trying to loosen up a bit?

At 7/10/2009 3:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, and I agree w/ much of what you say. But, let's not forget that collage in literature did not begin with FLARF. You say Picasso, Cezanne and then compare them w/ the Flarfists--better to compare P & C w/ (Hans) Arp or Tzarra.
By the way--I can't wait for your take on the new APR article by Hoagland on his "brother" Dean Young. I mean, I like them both but--jeez, get a hotel room.

At 7/10/2009 4:34 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Now there's a visual I wouldn't trade a unicorn for. I often like Dean Young's work and mostly dislike Hoagland's . . . and the way Hoagland writes about poetry, please save me.

Collage . . . yeah, there are much better transitional arguments to make than the one I made. Maybe Vermeer . . .


wv: arpotte

N. Art one makes on the potty.

At 7/11/2009 1:39 PM, Blogger brian (baj) salchert said...

If as you say "the brain likes to solve problems" then what kinds of problems depend on the constitution of an individual's brain, and one individual's brain can be vastly different from another individual's brain. At the end of this post you recognize that. Staying with the English language, all its letters and many of its words are ecamples of the "peekaboo principle" although this may be going too far here.

At 7/11/2009 4:06 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yeah, I'm really trying not to place my taste over the top of this, but I'm aware I wobble toward advocating for Armantrout and Ashbery . . .

In the Psychology Today piece, they also had to step back and say that the artists (Picasso mostly) they talk about aren't the only ones they COULD talk about, they're just the ones who make the most overt example.

At 7/12/2009 7:38 AM, Blogger brian (baj) salchert said...


was it Stevens who said poems should almost successfully defeat the intelligence?

As different as they are from each other, Armantrout and Ashbery often enough do defeat my intelligence, and yet both of them make fine poems which are pleasing in other ways. It's okay if my intelligence is stymied. Far more than certain poems stymie it. Actually, the impossibility of logically coming to terms with the ongoing is exactly what such authors are exploring. In response to an interviewer's question, Ashbery once said: "But we don't know anything."

At 7/12/2009 8:54 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Good way of saying it, which reminds me of all of that research a few years ago that broke intelligence down into several "intelligences."

We don't know anything . . . but we can feel around in the dark a bit.


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