Abstract Art Perception and the Brain

By Etienne Verbist - Thursday, October 19, 2017
Abstract Art Perception and the Brain

"Much of the art experience comes down to pattern recognition. Humans are so good at it, that we often see patterns where there are none; such as animal figures in clouds or mountains. The beholder himself becomes an actor of what he sees in art; even more when the painting is abstract. Billions of incoming cues of all our senses continuously overwhelm us. Without the selection imposed on them by emotion and memory, we cannot build knowledge and meaning." - Ioan Sbârciu.

Abstract Art perception and the brain

Etienne Verbist: Who are you and what do you do?

Ioan Sbîrciu: Former rector of the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca, Ioan Sbârciu.

EVB: What can you say about your work?

IS: Nature, ecology and social awareness are more important than ever in art. I am a painter, not a man of many words. I am emotionally involved in my work. Appearance and disappearance of form, colour and line are my ways of expression. Since a few years, I discuss often with my friend neuroscientist Jan DE MAERE, about art as an experience. But, I live my personal subjectivity in a painterly world, without too many words. His approach is also interesting for my students. I rarely speak about myself. Therefore, the following text, written for my exhibition in the Hugo Voeten Art Center is a good introduction to my work.

EVB: What’s your goal?

IS: Art can make us see, what a photographer would miss. Before the appearance of language and history as we know them, art was already a vital tool of human visual communication created by the brain, imagined on the walls of caves. Artists unknowingly exploiting the laws of the organization of the brain, unaware of the underlying neural physiology of the effect of their painting strategy on the beholder. 

Exhibition Ioan Sbârciu in the Hugo Voeten Art Center (Belgium)

EVB What is your dream project?

IS: A great monographic exhibition in an important museum, big enough to show my big canvasses. Our relation to nature is essential. I am extremely emotional about this major concern for humanity. Art gives us a special feeling, intertwined with our personality, taste, culture and specific domain knowledge. The "artness" of the work of art is coined by Jan DE MAERE as “the ‘quiddity’, its ontological condition as art, expressed in degrees of intensity”. What each of us experiences as “beauty” is a brain activity, fostering pleasure, trust and cooperation. Neuroscience explains some of the mysteries that the art experience exerts on the beholder.

Understanding brain activity reveals some of the hidden parameters with which we judge what we subjectively believe, like and dislike in art. The basic processes of our ancient instincts define our experiences heavily. The intuitive experience of art provokes curiosity, excitement and enjoyment in our non-conscious mind, stabilized by the autonomy, the discipline and the need for security of our homeostasis.


This is seen in the diagram, the result of an enquiry (2005-2011) with famous connoisseurs in art made by Jan DE MAERE.
J. DE MAERE, Neurosciences et Connoisseurship
Ghent Univ. Press 2011.

All paintings, even abstract ones, tell a story unconsciously created by the beholder. In his The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche demonstrated our subjective Dionysian need for drama, tragedies, myths and mysteries, essential to all culture. The problem-solving brain of the beholder investigates them, but deep in us resides the un-conscious desire for that they keep the secret, because they are beyond words.


C.   Nietzshe, The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, 1872

We hate deception, which provokes shame, guilt and sorrow. 

Wired by human evolution to be a confident “believer”, the beholder makes new synaptic connections and permutations in his brain. This physiology sparks a wave of:   *interactions    *analogies      *metaphors *associations *expectations *questions. We like to believe in what we assume we see, even if we don’t have a real grip on reality, which we know only through our senses.


I can formulate some ideas, written by DE MAERE with which I agree. He teaches as a guest professor at our University for Art & Design since 2015.

Without personally experiencing a special cognitive-esthetic and meaningful emotion, there is no art experience. But, what is art today?

Andy Warhol said: “Everything can be art and everybody can be an artist”;

Joseph Beuys confirmed it.

Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter declare the opposite: great art needs lasting excellence.

David Hockney said: “Art hasn’t ended and neither has the history of pictures”.

Both opposing opinions are biased by their own “doxa” defining “Art”. Preferences linked to our proprioception, dogmas and experiences. Personally, we do not perceive every product of an artist as “Art”, whatever art critics say; but history formed a largely shared consensus.


EVB: What is art for you?

IS: Objectively and in neuroscience, “Art”, a specific emotion, is what we believe it is, when experiencing it. When we judge something as “not Art”, we express only our subjective “Truth” about it. Since we are all convinced we have good taste, we hope to convince others. Therefore, we communicate what we like and dislike.

Kawabata & S. Zeki, Neural correlates of Beauty. Journal of Neurophys. 2004, 91, pp 1699-1705.

D. Hockney & M. Gayford, A History of Pictures, Thames & Hudson, London 2016.

Culture shapes thought, beauty and meaning, only limited by the laws of our brain

EVB: What is a masterpiece?

IS: Masterpieces are believed to be exceptional works of art. Their meaningfulness survives the challenge of time. I refer to DE MAERE: “Masterpieces deceive the eye but do not support lies about their ontological condition. They need originality, hope for another world and “Truth”. As such, they are memorable. All paintings are not masterpieces; nor are all art historians, neither"connoisseurs". Natural selection implies that human culture needs a qualitative hierarchy, based on a timeless dimension.  Masterpieces build a timeless master curve for human artful emotions, validated by peer-review of the best connoisseurs over centuries”. Through their uniqueness, they are the anchor-points of our visual desire for Utopia, creating redemption from worldly suffering. Great art surpasses the boundaries of formal stylistic laws; superseding expectations of past generations and those to come.

I agree with DE MAERE’s idea: “Visual art experience of paintings is a non-verbal fundamental expression of the human embodied spirit, a hypothetical strategy, creatively reflecting on our experiences of nature and art. Art is a form of communication and perceptive incidental learning that provokes emotion, deep attention, pleasure and empathy, without any additional desire when admiring a masterpiece. The understanding of the neural physiology of the art experience and of the art-instinct, gives us insight in the function of the mind and in the experience of beauty”. 

Art is what is perceived as such in the chain of the history of the genre and in the context of a culture. All art, even the lowest expression of it, has a social function. But, it is also a challenge in need of hierarchy and competition, open to all.

This creative illusion, responding to our need for condolence, is the mirror in which the beholder’s ‘self’ reflects. I confirm De MAERE’s definition: ”Body, mind, consciousness, cognitive perception and the art-instinct, collaborate to form an "ephemeral stabilized ambiguity" in the brain, conditioned by the delicate balance between human evolution (genetic & epigenetic) and culture”.

All art is based on desire. Therefore, the mind is an erogenous zone. Some non-genital zones are erogenous because the insula (cortex) control our saucy spots.

The environment, particularly the splendid nature we want to preserve, in which we grew up and live here in Romania conditions our inclinations. They are nevertheless largely limited by the potential of our genetic component. The latter defines the success-potential of one’s art instinct, thus of the artist’s creativity and of the beholder’s connoisseurship. I teach here in Cluj-Napoca to stimulate my student’s curiosity and to enhance their domain knowledge. But first of all, I am interested in their social awareness.

Convictions, cognitive bias but also flaws of visual memory and personality traits determine the way we describe our observations.

Much of the art experience comes down to pattern recognition. Humans are so good at it, that we often see patterns where there are none; such as animal figures in clouds or mountains. The beholder himself becomes an actor of what he sees in art; even more when the painting is abstract. Billions of incoming cues of all our senses continuously overwhelm us. Without the selection imposed on them by emotion and memory, we cannot build knowledge and meaning.

The physical reality of the world is in itself unknowable. It is not what it seems to be and we have no objective link to it.

Following Jan DE MAERE, the critical art experience is a   process with three distinct phases:

First, we do a gist (global first impression), initiated by the first raw input of the senses.

Immediately after, focal eye movements explore the painting until satisfaction. Interaction with our peripheral view upgraded by ongoing perception, continuously completes the mental image, through flux and backlash, moderated by memory.

Finally, we intuitively make a critical assessment of our visual cognitive perception as a whole. Experience and art historical references help to categorize the information rationally and to submit later our opinion to peer-review.

Neuroscience explains this in steps. But, I myself am the first critical observer of my work. I do not think, I see immediately If I am happy with the outcome or not. Creativity is an ongoing unconscious process in my mind.

 Constancy and Abstraction

The brain has the unique ability to retain knowledge of constant and essential properties of an object, by discarding other ones. Great art selects essentials that the eyes do not necessarily see. The response and joy of the beholder are enhanced by the reduction of redundant information (Peak-Shift energy saving).  This Peak Shift principle infers on different parameters influencing the degree of arousal provoked by the art experience, most of them known to artist since a thousand years.

Abstraction is a hierarchical coordination in which a general form is applied adequately to many particular forms. Great art is the externalization by the brain of the essential abstraction about the object seen.

S. Zeki, Inner Vision,

Without being obvious, there is a relation between abstract art, an extreme reduction of formal reality, and the spiritual experience. Both can be seen as two ‘interlinked  abstract concepts of a high order’ in the brain.

Kazimir Malevitch’s Suprematism (1913) focuses on basic geometric forms such as circles, squares, lines and rectangles, painted in a limited range of colors. He wanted to free art from the dead weight of the real world.

Led by his high intuition, Piet Mondrian wished to approach “Truth”, harmony and rhythm in a spiritual pursuit. Lines squares and rectangles became interlinked as a testimony of “Sublime” universal order.

Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy influenced Mark Rothko in his exploration of spiritual aspects of art.

The exhibition The Spiritual in Abstract Painting 1890-1985 in the Los Angeles County Museum (1985), illustrated that non-sense liberated the imagination. Differences due to subject matter become un-important in the light of a better and bigger cosmic order.

Three hundred years before, Jean de la Croix (Carmel) wrote (1630) in Le Cantique Spirituel: ”La trance mystique est un coup de tonerre flamboyant dans l’âme. L’extase provoque la disparition de soi devant cette rencontre avec le Sublime et l’Infini, un périple presque indescriptible”.

The brain focuses first non-consciously and later consciously (cognitive inference) on “the concept of Art” itself, without the necessity of recognizable form, being seduced by the emotional value of color and the linear rhythm.


EVB: Is there a difference between painting in Rubens’ times and today?

IS: Barok paintings translated emptiness between forms. in his baroque compositions. The elimination of a great deal of bottom-up sensory processes in abstract art allows the beholder to create new synaptic associations. They do not rely on figurative memory, but on top-down specific domain knowledge: abstraction as art.

This top-down emotional response to the reduction of information-clues uplifts the sense of spirituality (an abstraction) and permits the treatment of the cue at a higher degree of abstraction in the brain.

The eye movements explore texture, color and light over the whole of the canvas, a sublime moment of unity with the transcendental values of art as art.

Abstract art communicates in a privileged way with the human soul through pure elements of art such as color and form, transcending the apparent reality.


Jackson Pollock, Blue Poles, 1952, Canberra Museum.

Art does not need to carry a message, propaganda does. Abstract art speaks directly to the non-conscious mind and to the innate art instinct.


Only the highest quality of abstraction is a pragmatic experience of the brain. Inscribed in his genre, combining information from several senses, it recruits the emotion of the self, feeling included harmoniously in the inner structure of the universe.

Paintings reduced to spatial details of line, orientation, form and color perspective elicit a strong emotional response at a glance by their cognitive top-down processing as art; leaving more freedom to the beholder than images after nature.

Abstraction does not belong to a category of perceptions ruled by the brain. It is an ontological reference to how we conceptualize objects in the absence of figurative clues.

Pollock’s composition resembles a moving Milky Way constellation, swept by a tidal wave of barbed wire poles

The near-fractal aspect of this composition is more intriguing and less expected than a clear fractal one.


Jackson Pollock acknowledges the need for hierarchy and order of the brain, by taking in account the difference in speed of color recognition by the brain. This induces 3-D perspective, unity and a rhythmic harmony surging from left to right.

Pollock discovered the self-similarity of fractal design intuitively. Nevertheless, the Apollonian principle of harmony imposes a "stabilized ambiguity" ona Dionysian chaos of dribbles, crashes and dots, full of energy. 

Pollock is famous for shouting: “No chaos, damn it!But, from Plato to Kant to modern times it is clear that artistic beauty is not to be associated with perfect symmetry, there is a need for some deviation of it.

This unexpected strangeness is defined by the artistic personality of Pollock. He discovered also the beauty of some small changes in certain types of complexity in overall natural patterns, as in minerals and snow crystals.


A view in Ioan Sbârciu’s studio

EVB: Why do you do what you do?

IS: It’s my only way to communicate my concerns in a visual convincing manner. I am not a man of words, even if I am a university professor. I love to give the best of myself to my students, but finally I am a visual person, expressing my emotion through color and transparency. 

EVB: What role does the artist have in society?

IS: Artists open the way. They are explorers of lost continents of hope.

EVB: What themes do you pursue?

IS: I investigate the language of nature from a human perspective. The world is a mirror with surprising effects.

EVB: What’s your favourite art work?

IS: The one which is not born yet.

EVB: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

IS: The most humble people’s emotion is the greatest tribute. I do not look specially for fame. I give the best of my efforts to teaching and to creation, happy when my students are more successful then myself.

EVB: What do you dislike about the art world?

IS: Manipulation and marketing challenge emotion. I want to have harmony and clear honesty in my mind. My art is ontologically what it is. My deepest self, projected on the expectations of others.  

EVB: What role does art funding have?

IS: It allows art to be seen by a great number of people. Since art consoles, it has a social function. Art funding is important also to allow artists to create and to live.

EVB: What research do you do?

IS: My paintings are my lab

EVB: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

IS: To believe in yourself whatever happens, if you are a honest man.

EVB: What would you have done differently?

IS: Nothing. I learned only by my mistakes, so it’s boring to be perfect. Art is only an accident of ratio, revealing more then expected to the eyes, able to feel emotion.

EVB: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?

IS: They are the essence of all. Nobody makes art on a deserted island.

EVB: How can they participate in your project?

IS: By being sensitive. The essence of Art becomes only what it is in the eye of someone knowing how to look. 

EVB: How are you connected with the people or the crowd?

IS: Barely myself. One of my assistants takes care of this.

EVB: The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared value, how do you see it for your work?

SI: If this can bring more people to my projects, I am open to it.

EVB: CO-Creation and participation are emphasized in the crowd economy and communities take an active stake in crafting positive futures

IS: Keeping the dream alive.

EVB: How do you use the crowd?

IS: My assistants do.

EVB: How do you handle feedback?

IS: I only learned from critical minds. As long as someone expresses what he thinks, I am happy. Nobody has to like what I paint.I am happy when I meet an eye knowing how to harvest emotion.

Etienne Verbist is an authority in the field of crowd sourcing, disruptive business modelling and disruptive art. After a well filled career with companies such as GE, Etienne was an early adopter of crowd sourcing. Etienne is manager Europe and Africa for Crowd Sourcing Week, a board advisor to a broad range of companies on innovation and new technology, curator of the Disruptive Art Museum – the smallest museum in the world – and columnist for ArtDependence Magazine.

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