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The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has long intrigued onlookers. It’s no secret that Da Vinci had features conform to geometry. The attraction therefore probably has something to do with the automatic response within our brain that can’t help but to recognize familiar shapes like letters and basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Psychologists like Daniel Kahneman have long recognized this type of behavior in the ‘fast thinking system’ of our mind. There’s also a more control-oriented slow thinking system.

We all know how much the Renaissance artists like to put the human body within circles, squares and special rectangles like ones based on the golden mean. This applied to features of the face as much as it did to the entire human figure, as illustrated by Da Vinci’ Vitruvian man. The work of art becomes more intriguing because our minds can read it on two levels at once: geometric shapes that our minds just recognize involuntarily, and the human features which are also of special interest to other humans. The Mona Lisa is enigmatic because she’s both geometry and a human likeness, and these play into each other seamlessly. The flawless execution does also appeal to our slow mind’s appreciation of technique. Thus our fascination is due in part to our brain’s involuntary recognition of geometry. This recognition is effortless because those patterns do not have to be ‘checked’ by the slow thinking system that serves as a control function on our impulses.

Snapping your artistic compositions to well-liked geometry is a gimmick that will help your work become more intriguing. I call it a gimmick because it plays on the involuntary recognition system in our fast brain. Today, master Atelier programs and their literature go on extensively about geometry in master works. Several of the masters I’ve observed painting do in fact create the underlying geometry as a structure for their art. Our minds like order and recognizable shapes of manageable sizes (why else do we artificially break the surface of large window panes into a smaller grid in homes?). Music likewise has cadence and rhythm that adds a natural structure to the work. Like a person with wooden heels walking near you on a hard floor – you can’t help but listen to the ‘tac tac tac tac’ rhythm of the person walking. Like it or not you have to listen. Isn’t that annoying sometimes?

This is of course stagecraft designed to spell bind us. There’s a sense of power achieved when our involuntary attention is commanded. At this level, however, it is all very superficial and of no lasting consequence. It’s just a gimmick to get our attention. Part of the allusive power of art, I think, is the reference to the instantly recognizable. At this level, however, it is a ‘brainless’ allusion because we don’t really have to think to recognize it. A passage of music will remind us of a bird song, or running herd, or impending tempest, or a deep sentiment or sweet emotion. The appeal of art in part is this unavoidable reference to something that is both familiar and also presented in a new cultured, civilized form. Like wild cat strutting in a circus ring, we can safely observe without being at risk. Art takes references – whether it is a benign circle conforming a face, or the deep pathos in the eyes – and presents them in a cultured, safe and civilized form.

The great artist is a ringmaster who has taken forms ‘out in the wild’ that we can’t help but respond to and ‘tamed’ them for us to view. Disconnected from their natural context, the works are an affirmation of our ability to control, to civilize and subordinate. As such they appeal to the ego because our intent as individuals and a society is to rule and subdue, to culture and civilize. Art, like technology, is an affirmation of our ability to tame the wild, to re-order it to our liking. Powerful art preys on our fast thinking brain’s commitment to recognition. It is also an affirmation of our ability to subordinate both the subject matter in the painting, and the captive viewers. We celebrate great art. How do we direct this compulsive behavior into channels that are sustainable? Since we’ve mis-ordered out world with economies that are not sustainable for the long term, new art can help us change the content of our liking and hopefully influence our civilizing choices going forward. Can art, which is arguably sustainable, play a role channeling humanity’s unquenchable passion for subordination?

In any case, our fast and slow thinking minds are in a constant dance in daily life. The fast system responds intuitively, and the slow system checks judgments against statistics and evidence. The slow mind serves as a correcting and control function, and if it has to work too hard, depletes our ego, our energy. Incidentally, because our mind requires more calories when it’s working hard, eating glucose can restore some of the energy. Alternatively, getting drunk will shut down the corrective function for those who want to forget about reality for a while.

My hunch is that art also shuts down the corrective function in our mind and thus gives us an escape, albeit healthier one than alcohol. Slow thinking usually checks our behavior for reasons of survival. If we are in a safe environment, like a theater, a museum or a church, we know our existence is not at risk. If the content before us is art, be it dance, opera, a play, an orchestra or works of art, our slow thinking system can ‘kick off its shoes’ and relax without being shut down completely. That’s the wonder of great art: we can be fully engaged cognitively, but not depleting our egos through a conflict with an over-active control function. The self-preservation imperative is suspended.

With art, as with religion, you step into a fantasy world where the thunder never has lightning that can strike you, wild animals can’t eat you and the villains won’t kill you. Observing art, both fast and slow systems are active. The slow system is examining the technique, the media, the color scheme, and the flawless execution without having to worry about interrupting the fast thinking mind with existence threatening alerts. The fast mind is reading familiar shapes and coming to quick conclusions about what the art work is really saying. The allusive nature of art means that the ego can project its own interpretation of the meaning of the subject matter, or reject it outright. In either case, we are in control in a way that affirms the ego. Part of the delight of art, it seems, is both the celebration of those who civilized forms and presented them to us within a silver frame, and at the same time the choice to interpret and even outright reject it. Art snobbery indicates a healthy ego.

The notion of vicarious enjoyment of timeless memories is the subject of a mini-mythology I wrote called ‘The Land of Serene.’ There, people’s packaged troubles plunge on rafts over the waterfall of Utter Darkens, where deprived of time in the light-less depths, their memories have risen again weightlessly in the mist to the forests and fields above to intoxicate the wandering Feathermen. These people have lost touch with their current reality, inhaling the timeless memories, vicariously participating without any personal risk or involvement. They are immersed and fascinated by actual memories, but not afflicted by any context or consequence.  The behavior of the Feathermen is a metaphor for our obsessive need to escape. One way we do this is by participating in the conflicts of others without getting hurt, through so many soap operas and dramatic programming.

Museums and churches are both safe places to just ‘be’ and contemplate. Art has a place in both as a catalyst for vicarious enjoyment. In the case of the Catholic Church it is the troubles of the saints, the innocence of the Virgin and the resurrection of the Savior. Like the Feathermen, overly religious worshippers never step out of the intoxicating effect of those stories, and they completely take over their judgments. Somehow the control function is overridden or re-programmed, and every spontaneous reaction has a religious filter. The same can be said for anyone who has been ‘brainwashed’ into an alternative worldview. In some the manifestation is good works; for others the manifestation is destructive violence. Art taken to this level should be a controlled substance.

Every religious person is a Featherman to some extent, as is anyone who cannot step out of a mythology. Joy in Eternal Life is the realization that the disconnect from current reality afforded by the religious experience will persist forever! In that sense, a mythic experience is a taste of eternity. The mythic mind is incredibly powerful, able to override slow thinking’s control functions.

The Serene narrative is a story used to explain the experience of the mythic mind. It is a recursive art-about-art allusion intended to help the overly religious recognize their state. It has little chance of success if those with a mythic mind can’t step into a new myth. It is almost as if we have a limited capability for overriding the control functions, although some of us have managed to rewire that programming through self-conversion (as discussed in my previous article). The Feathermen story should be a mirror for us to recognize that we can leave reality with all its existence threatening situations in favor of an alternative one. The proper behavior, however, is not to leave permanently, but rather use the mechanism of myth to program new controls into our slow thinking. Our will has to let in new facts and statistics that support the right behaviors. These data points are woven together with a narrative that abides ready at hand whenever our fast mind requires them to support a judgment. The narrative serves as an indexing function to identify the instance in the story arch we find ourselves, and pull up the appropriate response based on the prior mythic programming.

It takes an extraordinary act of the will to replace a deeply engrained narrative with a new one. This is especially true the more life decisions we have tied to the old narrative. The techniques of community mythology are designed to facilitate change as a group, where it’s safer and there’s a support structure. Art plays the crucial role because it isolates us from the survival pattern that can forbid consideration of alternate control functions. Through art we can safely explore the new narrative and its emotions and behaviors until we accept and internalize it. Then later we can sort out the implications for survival decisions. There’s more than one way to make a living.

The artistic process is an incubation space for newborn mythologies that will provide a new backbone from which we can hang reality facing facts later. Yet, instead of having an ideologue indoctrinate us with a new narrative and supporting facts, however, with community mythology we do it to ourselves. Artists are particularly adept at this because they frequently start with a blank canvass and create a world. We should all learn to have the will of an artist and create a safe normative narrative. Hollywood does this all the time, however, their output is usually not suitable for programming behaviors that lead to a sustainable existence for all.

Transformation can happen on an individual level based on shared values. In other words, the conscientious individual who knows what the sustainable life is can create great art that supports those values. However, without a shared narrative that is adopted as a community myth, the impact is good but limited. Star status of an individual can help spread the message further, and ironically several Hollywood celebrities who starred in mindless movies have taken on good causes outside of their art. It should be the other way around – the ‘mindless’ movies should support the good causes.

How do you create art that has a sustainment agenda without making it didactic? All art has an agenda, and good art is allusive, leaving room for interpretation. The trick is to steer the user’s consciousness in a general direction, baking in some assumptions as part of the framework of the work of art.  For example, making holy people appear skinny and in rags or fat and well-dressed betrays an assumption about the nature of holy work. The first one presupposes a vow to poverty; the other hints at divine responsibility of the powerful to do good works. In other words, the scope of interpretation is in fact bounded.

If we subordinate our will to one world view or the other, we will enjoy the work and go along with it. If we reject it, we reject the work. In either case, viewing art is a safe experience, and we have time to consider both without any existential threat, and make our decision. The community mythology process is about picking and affirming the underlying world view assumptions explicit for artists. They can and must still be allusive and create aesthetically rich works, complete with geometric gimmicks if needed. But they do it within bounds, and the saturation afforded by all these works when presented in a safe environment will help viewers consider the message and internalize a new normative narrative, which ultimately results in new control points that impact our daily choices for a sustainable future.


— Roy Zuniga
    Kirkland, WA
    April 2013

Copyright 2013 Roy Zuniga