14 Nov

I’ve been reading neurologist V.S. Ramachandran’s interesting (and occasionally, slyly funny) book The Tell-Tale Brain. There are some unexpected and cogent explorations of art in it, including a great anecdote about the Nobel Prize-winning Dutch ornithologist/ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and his experiments in the 1950s with seagulls. Some of Tinbergen’s most groundbreaking work was on what he called supernormal stimuli. In short, living creatures have inherent, instinctive preferences for certain things that play an important part in their lives, especially their reproductive lives. Birds like eggs in their nests and birds like sitting on eggs because if they didn’t then there wouldn’t any more birds. But these instincts can also be thwarted because a bird also usually prefers a giant, artificial, gaudy egg with exaggerated markings to anything nature can create. Male butterflies want to mate with female butterflies, but they will often choose an unreal, perfect model of a female butterfly instead of its– by comparison, anyway– boring and imperfect real-life counterpart.

Tinbergen also found that female herring gulls have a red spot underneath their beaks, which is a target for gull chicks to peck at when they want to be fed. The chick pecks the red circle, opens its mouth, the mother regurgitates some food, and they repeat as necessary or until the supply of seagull vomit is exhausted. It turns out, though, that chicks are not terribly bothered if it’s their actual mother who feeds them. A head on a pole, or a disembodied beak, or a red dot on a stick will all provoke a chick to peck for food. Evolution and daily life both tend to favour quick reactions and ad hoc solutions; as Ramachandran mischievously puts it, in nature a chick is unlikely to ever encounter “a malicious ethologist waving around a fake beak” so it makes sense for the hardwired seagull rule to take a relative short cut like “if I’m a baby, then red dot=mother=food”.

My diagram of the herring gull experiment is better than Ramachandran’s. OBJECTIVE SCIENTIFIC FACT.

What’s really fascinating is Tinbergen’s discovery that if you put three red stripes on the end of a stick, the chick goes into a frenzy of pecking; this abstract supermother promises far more than any real biological mother can. It seems there’s an addendum to “red dot=mother=food”, some as yet inexpressible rule that’s being exploited by this amplification of what nature offers. Ramachandran:

“Imagine that seagulls had an art gallery. They would hang this long thin stick with three stripes on the wall. They would call it a Picasso, worship it, fetishize it, and pay millions of dollars for it, while all the time wondering why they are turned on by it so much, even though (and this is the key point) it doesn’t resemble anything in their world. I suggest this is exactly what human art connoisseurs are doing when they look at or purchase abstract works of art; they are behaving exactly like gull chicks. By trial and error, intuition or genius, human artists like Picasso or Henry Moore have discovered the equivalent of the seagull brain’s stick with three stripes.”

It should be noted that Ramachandran is just throwing this idea out as a plausible hypothesis, and he isn’t dissing or dismissing abstract art here. Neither am I. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen a theory of abstract art’s appeal that makes some kind of objective sense and isn’t smothered in academic artspeak claptrap to mask all the things we don’t know, and in many cases can’t know.

PS: Abstract Supermother is the name of my new band.


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