Sunday, April 20, 2008

Narrative vs Non-narrative

The part of our brain that makes us most human, the frontal cortex, is the part of the brain in charge of narrative. There's such a need to create a narrative cause-and-effect that we sling together the random images from memory consolidation into dream narratives. ("I was standing at the edge of a lake, then suddenly the lake became a glass path and I walked across it and into a grocery store, but the shelves were full of plastic animals...")

I'm curious about how different parts of the brain respond to narrative and non-narrative art. Is there an innate human response to representational art that makes us create a narrative around the work? ("Who put the bowl of fruit on the table? Why is the girl in the dress on her hands and knees so far from the house on the hill? Why are the old people with the pitchfork frowning?") Why is explicitly narrative art seemingly more accessible? Renaissance painters like Titian or Botticelli still spark discussion about the narratives of their paintings, but so-called "starter art" such as Norman Rockwell is accessible precisely because of the narrative content of the images.

How does the response to non-representational art differ? Why is it harder for adults to adjust to? ("Gee, Marge, anybody could throw and drip paint around like that. I can't believe it's hanging in a museum!") I say adults because children don't seem to have difficulty accessing Pollack or Rothko or de Kooning. Is that because the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which has been shown to inhibit spontaneity (see this article), is less developed in children? Does the extent to which the brain "edits" affect the response to art, as well as the creation of art?

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