Driven to abstraction: Sense, sensitivities and senselessness


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By Eli S. Chesen

Nature’s wrong turns and mutations form the very foundation of evolutionary change. As biological cells divide, billions of times, DNA copies are replicated and copies of copies continue within cellular perpetual motion machines fueled by what is known as the Kreb’s Cycle.

Just as copy-machine copies of copies drift in quality from the original master, cumulative mistakes in cell division blur successive cell facsimiles and so it is that biological replication is destined, eventually, to be faulty.

Intracellular copy machines make mistakes, which, in the short run, can cause cancer and, over the eons, change eye color, blood types, immune-system responsiveness and an infinitude of other modifications, such as our ancestor’s fins becoming primitive legs, changes which make biological beings more or less adaptable, over time, to specific environments and situations.

A classical example of this happenstance adaptation is that of the white moth, which, during Europe’s industrial revolution, stood out like a sore thumb amongst the smoke-blackened cityscapes. Those white on black specks were easy prey for their avian predators. And, as luck would have it, a few of the more fortunate moths mutated to black and survived the nemesis of environmental sleight of hand.

So it is likewise that the metamorphosis of art, over time, and our understanding of the sciences have mutated as a consequence of defects in human sensory or cognitive functioning suffered by the artist or scientific scholar.

One artist might be blind at birth, while another develops late-in-life cataracts and yet another suffers deafness or the throes of a cognitive disorder: schizophrenia.

Their work might be viewed as diseased art, sometimes produced by miserable people who have been fatefully and inadvertently recruited as agents of change. Humanity has often times capitalized on these faux pas of biochemistry. Given this, it may well be that such phenomenon as impressionistic art, musical dissonance and counterintuitive scientific discovery are the children of the artists’, the scientists’, DNA mutations.

Unless we repeal Darwin, we generally accept the fact that our advanced state (I suppose some more than others) is a cumulative consequence of genetic replication errors by the trillions over time. And thus, I see a commonality shared by Ludwig von Beethoven, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, George Shearing, Claude Monet, Jackson Pollack, John Nash and Albert Einstein.

Sensory deprivation and/or uniquely dysfunctional cognitive processing in these paradoxically gifted people place them into a heterogeneous grouping of metaphoric ugly ducklings.

Anyone who saw Ray Charles perform observed, as part of his stage presence, exaggerated head, neck and torso movements, a function of his lack of sight, which desensitized him from the dizziness and vertigo, which the rest of us would have experienced as a consequence of such head and body kinetics. Charles, who was blind by the age of seven, performed resembling a kind of human metronome. A genuine genius, he, at one time or another, played the piano, clarinet, trumpet and saxophone, and read and composed music in Braille.

Stevie Wonder has an almost identical stage kinetic.

These artists grew up with an altered sense of perception and proprioception, which obviously filtered into their music. Ray Charles rocked, back and forth, laterally, with the establishment of a rhythm and musical line correlating with the periodicity of his movement pattern.

George Shearing, a gifted jazz pianist, also blind, played with his trademarked “locked hands,” playing with the tactile reassurance of his hands typically paralleled and, perhaps, inadvertently, creating his own unique style. (Technically speaking, Shearing did not invent locked handed playing, but he certainly depended upon it and capitalized on it.)

Beethoven was for the most part deaf throughout his crucially productive years, and we can thank this brutal irony for the composer’s daring, even jarring use of melodic dissonance punctuated, at times, by his cumbersome, thematic, countercurrent development. There was more variation than theme with this one-man watershed of musical evolution.

Claude Monet, a founder of the French Impressionist movement, suffered from cataracts late in life, during which time he produced some of his signature works. It could be said that his cataracts clearly drove him to abstraction.

His misty, but beautiful, water lilies, circa 1899, were certainly misguided by sensory deprivation, which gave rise to the artist’s celebrated accidental genius nonetheless.

Jackson Pollack, in a state of bipolar mania, became too impatient to use a brush, climbed a ladder and dripped his way into the art history books.

John Nash, encumbered by schizophrenia, viewed the laws of chance in novel ways for which he received the 1994 Nobel Prize in mathematics. He was the subject of the book and movie A Beautiful Mind. Schizophrenia, a genetically transmitted condition, eventuates in a kind of brain miswiring and misfiring, which forever changes the mind’s perceptive benchmarks; something Nash likely manipulated in his favor as he tossed theories to and fro through his uniquely altered perceptive pathways.

And so it was, like with the black moth, Nash turned lemons into mathematical insight.

Albert Einstein, as a child, demonstrated echolalia and other traits consistent with autism spectrum disorder, perhaps manifesting Asperger’s Syndrome. While it is a given that Albert Einstein was the penultimate genius, it is almost a certainty that his odd perspective and even odder methodology (the use of thought experiments) were for him a Rosetta stone of discovery, which ultimately led to his having figured out the relationship between energy and mass. His ability to shift between abstraction and concrete mathematics allowed him to correlate the everyday experienced Doppler effect with a speed limit for light.

One way to imagine the magnitude of the changes that have resulted from the above-mentioned maladies would be to contemplate how the world might be different if:

*Monet had undergone cataract surgery and thusly ended his career as a surrealist rather than an impressionist.

*Jackson Pollack had taken lithium and evolved into Norman Rockwell territory. *Beethoven, fitted with a cochlear implant, lived out his life composing waltzes and other uninspired fluff.

*Einstein, treated for Asperger’s, continued working in a patent office, while perfecting his problematic prototypical refrigerator.

Psychobiological-genetic-phenomena-gone-awry will at times leave society with the legacy of an abrupt segue and see change in the arts and sciences. I find it interesting to ponder: What is the art critic, who must evaluate and interpret this aberrant stuff, to do?

Unfortunately, the critic is typically tethered to his or her own thought connections through which he or she must attempt to make some sense, or perhaps nonsense, out of what he or she sees or hears.

I have observed that critics frequently descend into a persiflage of rationalization, forgetting (quoting Freud) that “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

This leads to an ultimate question as to whether or not art is constrained by any principle or law at all. Is there, when all is said and done, any such thing as an aesthetic?

Can unbridled open-mindedness trump mental criticality?

I must say that, when in Santa Fe, Boulder or Soho, I sometimes get the heebie-jeebies listening to gallery conversations with folks opining that Los Mojitos’s magnum opus dung-on-canvas-triptych might well usher in a new era for the fecal minimalism movement.

It is not so much that I have a problem with dealers marketing their artist’s work, but, rather, I am bothered by New Age confabulations, descriptions and interpretations of particular works reflecting a complete absence of discernable morphology. And, I do not believe it is a sin to comment in this regard.

I believe that art and music critics are phobic of being left behind and, as with Marcel Duchamp’s highly lauded urinal, want to be ahead of the game with respect to any new movement. It is somewhat like not understanding the punch line of a joke. One nervously laughs to avoid acknowledging to bystanders that “I just didn’t get it.”

If a painter, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, applies his three-beat-per-second tremor to the canvas, does the result really represent Neo-Parkinsonian-Modernism, or are we just looking at a tremor-originated wavy line?

Serendipity is certain to lead to the discovery of the next Velcro or Picasso. On the other hand, sometimes cubes may turn out to be just cubes and a building wrapped in fabric might just be someone exterminating for termites.

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