Art In The Brain: The Peekaboo Principle
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.)