A few minutes ago I was watching a young couple staring at a huge abstract painting in a commercial art gallery. The painting was mysterious, dark, tentative — with perhaps, only perhaps, the whisper of a female figure. Previously, when I’d daringly checked out its very high price, a gallerista swept by and assured me, “We sell a lot of this man’s work.”
Now I’m sitting on a bench eating coconut ice cream while keeping abreast of brain science on my iPad. V.S. Ramachandran is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Looking into various brains, including the brains of people who look at art, he’s come to the conclusion that things are better when they are less visible. He calls it “The Peekaboo Principle.” In his research, it seems that girls in scanty clothing are more appealing to the average straight male than girls in the buff. To be fair, these findings have been challenged by every frat house west of the Pecos.
According to Ramachandran, concealment works because we are hardwired to solve puzzles. People get turned on by problem solving. Further, curiosity is more arousing than the part where you get the message. This is how Ramachandran explains the popularity of abstract art. It seems our tiny perfect brains are forever on the lookout for wizardry. He thinks we are hardwired for what he calls “ultranormal stimuli.”
Yep, it’s a bit like religion — many people crave the possibilities of the transcendent, the divine, the paranormal. We have all thought about the mystery of why people desire such and such and not such and such. Some in the neuroscience business would have us all marching as zombies to the primordial echoes of our lizard or other cranial departments. Perhaps that’s why it feels good once in a while to hear someone say they liked a painting of a barn because it’s their barn. The young couple in the gallery moved over to the desk. They happened to be maxed out on their card, but the gallery was just willing to take a cheque. “I don’t know why we both love it,” the young woman said. “But we’re definitely taking it.”
Best regards, Robert
PS: “Perception is more like puzzle-solving than most people realize.” (V. S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human)
Esoterica: Many artists tell me they are totally not interested in what makes people buy their art. Some are even not interested in why they make art in the first place. These people are known as “link challenged.” I’m not one of them. Why did I choose the coconut over the Hawaiian Mud Pie? A lot of people were buying the HMP. For me, it was those little bits of coconut. They’re hidden in there. Those little bits are not fully disclosed at the beginning. You have to find them as you go along. Oops, a drip.
This letter was originally published as “The peekaboo principle” on February 11, 2011.
The group exhibition “The Intercepting Nature of Colour + Form” is one view at Gallery Jones, 1-258 East 1st Avenue, Vancouver, BC until February 22, 2020.
“The universe is real but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.” (Alexander Calder)
Join Canadian artist Sheree Jones as she shares her passion for painting “from life” at this idyllic coastal retreat.
This workshop is designed for experienced beginner & intermediate oil (and acrylic) painters.
The small group size guarantees plenty of one on one instruction.
While you’re busy creating art, your friendly hosts at Casa Buena will be working hard, ensuring that your stay is a memorable one.
Outstanding food, accommodations, and field trips will satisfy your desire for both comfort and adventure. Non painting partners welcome.
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Capturing the beauty of nature and expressing those impressions in oil paint is a joy. Every hour of the day presents new possibilities and keeps even the same landscape location, same composition, an ongoing and beckoning challenge. For this reason, I love painting series: it is exploration made visual.