Thursday, 30 August 2012

repetition and novelty

I've been thinking about the idea of repetition and novelty since very early on in this recent painting stretch (now perhaps nearly three years....). I felt that I had come up with the idea myself, noticing what was somehow visually interesting in natural forms. For example, in this picture of lichen there's a sense of things repeating - a roughly circular kind of shape, and a limited range of variations to the colours. At the same time, compared to, say, a textile design, the circle shape and the colours are all very slightly different from each other; no two bits are alike, even though overall there's a kind of rhythm to the shapes and colours. Like an Indian raga playing only certain notes of a scale, or a piece of music that stays in the same key.

Since then, I've found that various other people have talked about this idea in different contexts. Recently there was an article in the New Scientist which focussed on neurological findings in relation to the appreciation of art. Discussing his own response to abstract painting, the author asks, 'why are we so attracted to paintings and sculptures that seem to bear no relation to the physical world?'

One experiment subjected volunteers to 'works of art created by famous abstract artists', and 'the doodles of amateurs, infants, chimps and elephants', and they had to judge which ones they liked best. They found that  'volunteers generally preferred the work of the well-accepted human artists, even when they believed it was by animals or a child':

Somehow, it seems that the viewer can sense the artist's vision in these paintings, even if they can't explain why.

Another study presented volunteers with abstract paintings that were upside down and the right way up, and found that the upside down ones were deemed to be less pleasurable. I find the tone of all this slightly weird, in that the underpinning assumption seems to be that abstract paintings, because they don't represent recognisable objects from the physical world, are in some way random and unskilled. When you think of the level of (representational) skill that many abstract artists achieved before turning to abstraction, it doesn't seem surprising to me that their abstract work is equally visually skilled, in terms of creating something that the mind responds favourably to.

Another study related to the brain's ability to process complex scenes and found that 'a certain level of detail is required to please the brain. Too little and the work is boring, but 'too much complexity results in a kind of perceptual overload''. Furthermore, the detail of many pieces:

...showed signs of fractal patterns - repeating motifs that reoccur at different scales, whether you zoom in or out of a canvas. Fractals are common throughout nature - you can see them in the jagged peaks of a mountain or the unfurling fronds of a fern. It is possible that our visual system, which evolved in the great outdoors, finds it easier to process these kinds of scenes.

A couple of weeks later, there was a letter in response to this article:

In your look at neuroaesthetics, the correlation of a data compression 'sweet spot' with appreciation of modern art raises the issue of the link between pattern and novelty. A repetitively patterned input is highly compressible. A totally random input is incompressible. We find the repetitive pattern boring as we detect no novelty. Total randomness disturbs because we can detect no pattern. It would be interesting to correlate eye-tracking of modern art with image compressibility. Perhaps the eye continuously  moves over an incompressible, random image, searching for a pattern, and likewise over a repetitively patterned image, seeking novelty. Optimum compressiblity, or the sweet spot, may be when the eye detects relative novelty in a sea of pattern, or pattern in a sea of novelty.

From this point of view, the kind of non-representational work that I'm interested in is perhaps every bit as 'natural' as a recognisable landscape....


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