Using Art To Stop Time

“Make it new,” commanded poet Ezra Pound. But that’s harder than it seems—because of the brain’s biology, says Michael Clune of Case Western Reserve University.

The brain is always adjusting our sense of what’s new, dulling the initial thrill produced by artistic sounds, images and words by making them familiar over time. So the artist, musician or author’s challenge is to create a work that retains its freshness, writes Clune in his new book, Writing Against Time:

“Clune explains that neurobiological forces designed for our survival naturally make interest in art fade. ‘We are evolutionarily designed so that we focus on new objects and ignore familiar ones,’ Clune says. ‘When the mind confronts a new object, our perception is intense and vivid, but it soon dies with familiarity. Every minute, this feeling fades as the mind grasps the object.’

As writers fight to ward off the reader’s boredom with striking new forms, metaphors, and images, the brain works just as fast to extinguish it. For the artist, writer or musician, creating a sense of  newness with each work is a race against ‘brain time.’” (Read more here.)

Fascinating! I think we’ve all had that experience of having our breath taken away by a painting or song or poem—and then finding, after a while, that the same piece of art seems familiar and humdrum. On the other hand, great art seems to be able to hold our attention and interest over the long haul. Really interesting to think of this process from a neurological perspective.

6 Responses to “Using Art To Stop Time”

  1. Sam McNerney says:

    This reminds me of the psychologist Colin Martindale. In his 1990 book “The Clockwork Muse” he argues that habituation and novelty are central to change in art.

    “Need for novelty is built into the definition of being an artist… because of habituation, the gradual loss of interest in repeated stimuli.”

  2. Rebecca Forbes says:

    I’d be curious to understand what mechanisms prevent musicians from growing bored rehearsing new tracks or compositions. How do they simultaneously perfect their work while also remaining fresh and inspired?

    (Personally, I’ve found that I can quickly tire of a song I’ve played over and over, but I never grow bored revisiting “Starry Night” or a painting by Jackson Pollack.)

    • Mike Thayer says:

      There’s something about the song that engages you. If you composed it yourself, you’ll want to shoot for that “perfect performance” so that your audience will hear it exactly the way you intended. If you are practicing a song you love, then you’ll again keep going until it sounds (to you) what it “should”. Which is never :)

      It’s all about the engagement that the piece has with you.

    • Stuart Buck says:

      It’s all about deliberate practice — you have to find something to work on perfecting. It could be making the tempo more even, it could be the fingering in a particular passage, it could be dynamics and phrasing, it could be playing through the piece with something altered (e.g., at a very slow pace, or at a very fast pace, or with the rhythms altered) so as to expose problem areas that you hadn’t really noticed before. As long as you can generate an intellectual challenge somewhere, you can work on a piece of music forever.

  3. In many things there are nuanced patterns that a beginner does not understand or even perceive. The more we play a single piece of music the more we explore how each note interacts with the ones around it, how emphasis placed at certain points changes the song, how tempo and volume affect the mood of the piece.

    The same thing applies to so many other activities such as a basketball player shooting baskets, or someone playing Tetris, or a chef cooking a meal over and over. To an outsider it may look like they are doing the same thing over and over but really they’re developing a more nuanced understanding of the patterns and performing subtle yet impactful experiments to try and affect the overall experience or success of the activity.

  4. Alice King says:

    The essence of high art (to me, at least) is its hallucinatory quality. For example, standing before a painting and letting it emerge and soak into your mind, or at a concert, letting the music really fill and transport you. This seems to require letting go of intellect and relying more on “mere” sensation.

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