Wandering and wondering through the manicured forest of works at the Art Institute of Chicago this past fall, my partner and I couldn’t help but notice the peculiar herd-like behavior exhibited by swarms of museum-goers. In the presence of George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, on display at the center of the museum’s Impressionism collection, individuals slowed their step just enough to snap a picture of the magnificent masterpiece while on their way to photograph the nearest and most famous Monet… which was on their way to document the perpetual existence of the nearest and most famous Degas.
In our modern world dominated by technology and productivity, it seems the quintessential museum experience has devolved into a lost art. We hear people say that an artwork moved them with ever-decreasing frequency. Could it be that that depth of experience demands too much of the modern observer? To be moved, one has to first offer their time, attention, and engagement to the artist and their work.
But how does this experiential phenomenon occur and why is it worth our time and attention? How can art—something stagnant without sensations and emotions of its own—alter a human’s emotional state to such an extent that it imparts new knowledge and discovery, affecting his or her daily life from that moment forward? How are mere art observers transformed into art experiencers? In order to understand this, we must build a solid, scientific foundation for our latter ideas to grow upon.
Light enters the eye in the form of microscopic particles known as photons which, incredibly, are actually absorbed by specialized cells in the retina. This event modulates the cells’ activities: stopping or promoting the movement of various molecules and proteins within and between cells. This transfer of microscopic matter is the means by which all cells communicate. Through a network of these retinal sensory cells and neurons within both the retina and brain, we are able to visually perceive the world outside our bodies, creating a representative image of our surroundings. Depending on the sensory information our bodies receive from the environment, as well as our individual context—mental, emotional, and physical states and the interaction of these states with one another—various brain structures are active and engaged in communication. Through this sensation-induced and context-influenced perception, we can appreciate the complexity of biology which ensures the novelty of each experience we live.
Consider the following scenario: a world without movement. A moment coming to a close like the final pirouette of a mechanical music box’s miniature ballerina, the clicking and chirping of her metallic orchestra slowing to an infinite silence. No change in the time of day or sound of a familiar voice calling your name. If you need assistance, calling to mind René Magritte’s The Banquet usually does the trick. The eerily suspended flat orange orb laid precisely in the middle of the seemingly palatial view of a forested pasture at dusk as if it were stuck on the painting by a child, helps to converge one’s foci onto the stillness the moment captures. The 2D “sticker” makes us aware of the flatness and illusion of this otherwise realistic scene. This exercise in imagination conjures a jarring and somewhat post-apocalyptic image which, be it your own on Magritte’s, calls our attention to the flat sensation of a reality without movement.
You can breathe deeply once again knowing that experiencing this environment as one’s reality is indeed impossible. In order to even have an experience, moreover an imagined one that is created and lives in the mind’s eye, our bodies must be in motion: lungs expanding and contracting, blood pumping through our vessels, and activation of networks of thousands of communicating neurons. Movement is a critical element of life: so how do artists capture it on canvas? How is a moment in time, be it an image of our visually perceiving eyes or one created and held within the mind, or even a thought or emotion, pinned to paper? In this conceptualization, we would expect to be able to pinpoint to the split-second when that event occurred on a timeline. But is this actually the case? It seems unlikely considering that even pictorial artworks are the amalgamation of many moments, some elements of which are veracious, others fictitious, summed to depict a moment that never truly existed but whose context did.
Artists throughout history, regardless of style, have grappled with this challenge. According to Walter Isaacson in Leonardo Da Vinci, as both an artist and scientist, Da Vinci “wrestled with the concept of depicting an arrested instant that contains both the past and the future of that moment.” In the Renaissance man’s own words, “The instant does not have time; and time is made from the movement of the instant.” The Futurists and other artists of the early twentieth century sought to break this conundrum by depicting a series of micromovements that collectively composed a categorized and complete action like coming down the stairs, as depicted in Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2). This mechanistic approach depicted a simple act in all its complexity, as if glimpsing through the hundreds of lenses of an arthropod’s ommatidia. While some might argue that works in this manner inch closer to solving the movement problem, the clear image of the subject is sacrificed in addition to other stylistic elements, the variations of which characterize the diversity of artworks. If all art were created in this style, artists would only introduce an even greater movement problem: loss of art diversity leads to loss of the myriad ways art moves us.
But if we evaluate the process that brings an artwork into being, we realize that the artist is able to translate the movement of a moment through time and space onto the canvas through the creative process: from conceiving of the idea and further developing it to the act of moving one’s body to birth the idea into physical being. Even when artists do try to depict a frozen snapshot of something—an event or a feeling—our perceptions and sentiments are continuously evolving in the process of documenting the subject with paint and brush because our biology is in constant flux. It is therefore impossible to create static art.
Not only does art evolve during the time of its creation, but it ceases to exist as art without someone experiencing it after completion; an artwork’s dynamism propagates throughout its lifetime. As the individual observer and the context in which the work is experienced changes, so does the individual’s interpretation of art. These internal and external alterations can be affected by the likes of changing culture, local and worldly events, evolving education, or even elements less profound such as viewing the work at different times of day or under various lighting conditions. All of these potential effectors are translated into an individual’s changing perception and interpretation of an artwork via the previously addressed dynamics in neuronal communication: different brain regions interacting at varying degrees.
The question then is how do these images reflect evolution in individuals’ and society’s perceptions throughout lifetimes and history? Art’s creation and its appreciation are a movement-dependent process wherein movement in an artist begets movement in the experiencer: the shuffling of neurotransmitters within the artist’s brain generates an idea which becomes movement of their bodies onto a canvas, musical instrument, or any other medium. This bodily movement of creation then induces movement in the experiencer’s brain as they perceive the completed work. Art then is not the physical creation, but the dialogue between the artist and the experiencer by means of the artwork. Art is the intangible: that formless entity that lacks solidarity and any consistent, defining identity or composition. Art is the unique and unrepeatable pattern of neural activity in an individual caused by an artist’s work activating the experiencer’s senses and influenced by their internal and external contexts. This is why we never experience an artwork the same way twice and are able to return to it again and again, each time garnering new insights.
Not only that, but with time and focused attention, art-catalyzed neuronal activity results in synaptic plasticity, or re-scaffolding of connections between brain cells. This brain rewiring changes our minds, and therefore changes us. Art helps us to grow and understand more than we know. Without the movement of an observer’s eye over a canvas, the molecules shuffling in our brains, and branches of neurons growing to grapple with the information, art ceases to deliver a message and engage us in conversation: losing its definition as art all together. But as you may have already realized, the more pertinent question occurs even before this process ensues—whether or not we choose to transform from observers into experiencers, surrendering ourselves to this mind re-modeling, and how this then impacts and alters our daily lives.
We often misconstrue art as the physical work which prevents us from experiencing the true art: the dialogue with artists, past or present, through a process that requires the passage of time. Experiencing art requires focused attention to that which is ephemeral and intangible, and which will deliver deeper meaning and understanding about ourselves and the world. It is not something that can be quickly captured and caged by the shutter of a camera’s lens. Rather, it is like looking down the lens of a microscope with curiosity and patience, asking ourselves: What am I seeing? How does it interact with what I know and don’t know? How can I challenge myself to evolve and synthesize this information into “the bigger picture” of my understanding?
In one of my favorite paintings, Portrait after a Costume Ball, Edgar Degas sought to depict the daily life equivalent of the oft-missed art experience. Amidst the vibrant blur of bustling skirts and plumed hats, the party’s hostess waves farewell to her departing guests. Looking rather like a wilted bouquet, shoulders hunched, makeup faded to a swampy green, and bleary eyes straining to stay open, she is content to have filled the bellies of her friends with sweet tartines and their minds with stirring conversation and libation. The portrait reveals the seemingly magical movement of time between frames when people ordinarily blink or shoo away a buzzing pest that’s obscuring their view. When observed attentively however, these moments “in-between” actually depict the truest human experiences and therefore give us more information about the world than the false fantasies we construct in our minds. The moments when you think no one is watching are the most revealing. This is demonstrated as well in A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, exposing what lies within that space of park-goers’ glimpses and glares. Similarly, in Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge we can discern the guilt, pride, lust, anxiety, and even hopes of all those faces masquerading before us.
The title of Degas’ portrait then is no less than perfectly suited for this concept of forcing us to perceive the moments in front of us that we let slip by daily. If we do, then perhaps we can recognize when our hosts are weary and offer them much-needed reprieve by taking our leave appropriately and with gratitude. It is human nature to create narratives for the world we inhabit, dressing up everyone before us in costumes and archetypes as we try to understand one another in simplified forms that, consequently, are false. Though it might be easier to delude ourselves like this—curating bits and pieces of others to create a fragmented understanding of that person—it inhibits genuine connection with one another and fractures our understanding of the world and our purpose within it. If we could offer our full attention and adequate time to one another, we could better understand who those around us truly are and therefore have more honest and meaningful relationships. Art gives us the opportunity to reject surface-level living and practice digging deeper into life by giving something or someone outside ourselves our sincere consideration.
Degas’ portrait details the hidden moments we unconsciously choose not to see for fear that it might make us too vulnerable or too human: crumbling the world we depict for ourselves dressed in robes of fantastical gauze that keeps our heads above water. Similarly, this is why so many scoff at and are repulsed by modern and abstract art. That which is labelled as strange, weird, or foreign, is avoided because engaging with it brings the experiencer too close to looking into the mirror of understanding ourselves and reality. But what if we were to radically change our minds and plunge deeply into that gaping abyss of the unknown? The force of heavy water resists you and you must effortfully and intentionally hold your breath and swim down to discover what only others like you, who have dared to doubt and question, have discovered. Art provides us this opportunity: the moment to intentionally turn away from the flow and instead chase risk that can only enlighten and lead us to transcendence—transcendence from the misconceptions we have of ourselves, others, and our world. This is how art moves us.
About the Creators:
Author: Lola Lozano is a first year MSTP student at the Carver College of Medicine who graduated from the University of Arizona in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science and a minor in Spanish. She hopes to hone her skill of creative writing and return to classical singing during her time at the University of Iowa.
Artist: Claire Carmichael is an M2 at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. She previously studied genetics and Spanish at the University of Iowa. She has taken up painting during quarantine and enjoys creating with acrylic and watercolor paints.