Ashok B. Boghani

Jan 25, 2020

4 min read

Pleasure of abstract art

I have been using Adobe’s Photoshop products for quite some time. I have both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements that I use for enhancing and cropping the pictures I take.

A few years ago, the possibilities of manipulating picture using Photoshop Element’s layering and filtering capabilities started to intrigue me. Initially, it was to cut and paste elements of one picture into another. Then I learned how to create digital images using superimposed pictures. The next was creating abstracts, with no element of reality.

When I post these creations on Facebook, some of my friends are not too happy. They advise me to stick to conventional photography. However, a few praise them. Not only that, one member of my photo club bought one of my creations.

More important than receiving praises from others, or selling one, is the fact that creating these images gives me pleasure. A different type of pleasure than what I get in regular picture taking.

So, I ask myself why is it so. Why do we (at least some of us) enjoy looking at and creating abstract art? I found the answer in an excellent paper “What does the brain tell us about abstract art?” written by Vared Aviv, Faculty of Dance, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, which was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, 28 February 2014.

Vared says, “Abstract art frees our brain from the dominance of reality, enabling it to flow within its inner states, create new emotional and cognitive associations, and activate brain-states that are otherwise harder to access. This process is apparently rewarding as it enables the exploration of yet undiscovered inner territories of the viewer’s brain.”

“In contrast to the processing of daily objects, art is free from the functional restrictions imposed on the visual system during our daily life. This places abstract art in a unique position within visual processing — far from the natural (“survival”) role of that system.”

In describing what happened when the brains of subjects looking at artwork were analyzed, Vared says, “Different categories of painting — landscape, portrait and still life — evoked activity at localized and category-specific brain regions. In contrast, abstract art did not activate a unique localized brain region. Rather, brain activity related to abstract art appeared in brain regions activated by all other categories as well. To put it differently, it seems that we know that we view abstract art by realizing that what we view does not belong to any other specific category of art. Namely, we recognize abstract art by exclusion.”

“Increased brain activity in response to representational art was mostly attributed to the process of object recognition, and the activation of memory and associations systems. In other words, abstract art introduces us to unfamiliar (or less familiar) situation. While analyzing abstract art, the visual/perception system is less engaged with focal and converging gaze but rather to a more homogeneous gaze.”

“Of course, being man-made for no immediate practical use, art in general enables the viewer to exercise a certain detachment from “reality” which, so it seems, provides certain rewards to the art-lover. This frees us, to a large extent, from (automatically) activating object-related systems in the brain whose task is to “seek” for familiar (memory- based) compositions.”

“To conclude — abstract art is a very recent (100 years old or so) invention of the human brain. Its success in attracting the brains of so many of us suggests that it has an important cognitive/emotional role.”

So, now I get it. My hunch that I am exercising a different part of my brain while creating abstracts is valid, and my urge to create it is based on the important cognitive/emotional role it plays.

Sharad Gandhi, a writer and thinker in the field of Artificial Intelligence says, “Our mind is an amazing collaborative teamwork of our emotional and rational capabilities. Our intuition is a key outcome of the emotional mind. I believe that humans are fundamentally intuition machines and our rational (and conscious) self are just a simulation layered on top of intuition based machinery.” He reminds us of a quote by Albert Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Now that my basic question seems to have been answered, I am moving on. Just as in the representational art, some abstract art is more appealing than others. The rules of shapes, colors, textures still apply. So far my effort has been seat of the pants. I “feel” if the output is attractive or not. I hope to learn some basics and observe what the well-established abstract artists have created to further improve my sense of appreciation.