Art and patterns

This post was first published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog.

This is an extremely speculative post exploring multimodal perception in artists. It was primed by this fascinating paper written by " a multimedia conceptual artist (…) working on a series of projects that explore the nature of rainbows and the music of waterfalls in relation to the forgotten universal language of Solresol, invented by Jean François Sudre in the mid-nineteenth century" (surely the guy has organized his whole career to contend for the Hype Curriculum World Prize) and by Chris Chatham's no less interesting reflections on visual pattern recognition in musicians.

James Peel, Goldberg Variations Series, after Bach, Variations no. 4, 2005.



VS Ramachandran (whose neuroaesthetic programme recently came under attack on our blog)and Ed Hubbard proposed, in this paper, that by identifying cross-modal structures of perception, as synaesthetic subjects allow us to do, we might gain some insight into some features that characterize the visual arts. My point here is a little different: I think of synaesthesia as but a spectacular instance of some people's ability to perceive patterns directly, independently of sensory modalities.



For example, in the study Chris cites, the authors found that

The scores on the visual pattern recognition – a Raven's Progressive Matrices test, which involves presenting the kids with pictures that have a piece missing, and then having them choose the piece that will complete the picture from a group of 6-8 pieces – and the phonemic awareness test – the Auditory Analysis test, in which the kids are presented with words, and asked to repeat them in full, and then to repeat them with parts (e.g., the first letter or syllable, or the last letter or syllable) missing – were correlated with music audiation, or skill in perceiving music (this was measured by having children listen to a bunch of pairs of rhythms and tone sequences, and asking them to make same-different judgments).

Musical training did not improve auditory perception per se, it also impacted on the way children recompose other kinds of structures (linguistic or visual in this case). I hypothesize that artistic practice makes one aware of the patterns underlying complex stimuli. The capacity to see patterns, while naturally present to a small extent (through synaesthetic reminiscences of the early days when our sensory modalities were imperfectly segregated) in every individual, was the target of artistic training, and its mastery a criterion of great art.

Many psychologists of the "embodied cognition" trend have suggested that perception is much more active than our dominant philosophical tradition would have us think – an example of this view is this online exhibition which explores, among other things, eye/hand coordination in artists and surgeons. Perception, these searchers – like Kevin O'Regan– have it, is not about receiving images or sounds, it is about creating patterns of interaction with the world. A work of visual art would be a way of playing with the spectator's eye motions, by forcing him to create different patterns, or by proposing ideal objects perfectly suited to the usual pattterns, that would enforce and magnify them.

Now suppose that there are higher-order patterns, that are common to every modality (or at least, several): these perceptual ways of interacting with the world could be understood and combined cross-modally. One such example is repetition (and its sister, rythm). It is easy to see how repetition applies in vision and audition (it's a little less easy for the more proximal modalities such as taste or smell); I think some works of art have the function of making us perceive very simple patterns like rythm or repetition (some buildings or cities do seem to have their specific rythm in architecture).

A cross-modal pattern would consist, very roughly, in a general attentional requirement: for example, repetitions makes sounds or shapes easily perceivable, so that you do not have to devote your attention to the order in which the repetitive items occur (they're all the same anyway); hierarchical effects in sequence-perception can be neutralised that way. Rythm can be seen as imperfect repetition, with hierarchies and ruptures made vividly felt against an immutable background. Each of these structures imposes an overall repartition of attentional resources. Likewise, some structures (like face expressions) are holistic, which means that you have to remember every other part when you contemplate one aspect of them. Others are more modular, like the structure of a computer: each part is a coherent unit, and your understanding of the rest is of little importance to see how it works.

I think that one of art's function is to expose cross-modal patterns. This thesis is not original: several writers, painters and musician have embraced it; for example, the French Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle, that produced such writers as Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau, is a technique based on mathematical constraints which are being used in other fields like comic-books, paintings, and cuisine.

This view of art does not lack support from the aesthetic tradition either, in particular from the German Romantic current. I shall cite only the training received by the Magister Ludi in Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game. In Hesse's artistic utopia, art and science have ceased to exist separately, and their fusion is the game that gives the book its title. The Glass Beads Game creates nothing, it only combines already existing works of art, grouped by similarity of pattern. Musicology and mathematics form the basic framework of this pattern language.

"Two or three themes were agreed upon and executed; variations were performed upon them, as in the case of a fugue or a concert performance. One part could begin with a given astronomic configuration or a theme from Bach, a sentence of Leibniz, or taken from the Upanishads, and it could, depending on the Players' intentions and skill, follow on the main idea that it had awoken, or enrich itself by evoking neighbouring representations."

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