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Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to the Arts (December 2018): Cognitive Differences and Anomalies

By Travis Nygard and Lauren S. Weingarden

Cognitive Differences and Anomalies

Exploring art made by people with cognitive differences can be a useful way to analyze human cognitive abilities. Behavioral analyst Jill Mullin does this well in Drawing Autism, in which she focuses on noteworthy art made by people with autism spectrum disorder. Notably, the book includes a foreword by autistic public intellectual Temple Grandin. Rawley Silver takes insights about art making to the realm of therapy in Art as Language: Access to Thoughts and Feelings through Stimulus Drawings, in which he explains how children and people with disabilities and brain injuries can use the making of visual art as a form of structured, nonverbal communication. In The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig explores the question of whether creativity is linked to mental illness, concluding that creativity does indeed correlate with depression and mania. Although Henry Schaefer-Simmern’s treatment of psychological difference in The Unfolding of Artistic Activity: Its Basis, Processes, and Implications (published in the late 1940s) is clumsy and offensive by twenty-first century standards, Schaeger-Simmern was a pioneer in the field of research on people who think differently. The classic work on art made by those suffering from mental illness is psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn’s Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (1922), first made available in English translation in the 1970s as Artistry of the Mentally Ill: A Contribution to the Psychology and Psychopathology of Configuration (the most recent iteration is The Art of Insanity: An Analysis of Ten Schizophrenic Artists, edited by Candice Black). Prinzhorn identified schizophrenic “masters” from the collection of more than 5,000 works made by some 450 patients at the University of Heidelberg’s psychiatric hospital. Prinzhorn discusses scribbles as well as decorative, symbolic, and playful artwork. His book was celebrated by Jean Dubuffet and André Breton, leaders of the art brut and surrealist movements.

Another approach to examining cognition generally is to focus on sensory and perceptual anomalies—blindness, deafness, and other sensory disorders—as they make what is considered “normal” more apparent. Science and Art: The Red Book of “Einstein Meets Magritte,edited by Diederik Aerts, Ernest Mathijs, and Bert Mosselmans, includes a fascinating discussion by Steven Finke about his art, which functions on the “boundaries of consciousness”; an insightful analysis of the paintings of Magritte by Fred Halper, who focuses on how one perceives what is not technically visible; and an essay about perception of impossible figures by David Piggins. Patrick Trevor-Roper also focuses on the edges of consciousness in The World through Blunted Sight: An Inquiry into the Influence of Defective Vision on Art and Character, which examines visual art made and experienced by people with stigmatism, crossed eyes, and blurry vision. Particularly insightful is a series of photos of art taken with stigmatic lenses to simulate the visual perception of such people. Trevor-Roper also explores the relationship of art to schizophrenia and psychedelics. In Psychology and Visual Aesthetics psychologist R. W. Pickford examines issues related to color blindness, color perception, and the aesthetic preferences of children. Also worthy is Greta Berman and Carol Steen’s Synesthesia: Art and the Mind, the catalogue of an exhibition by the same title at McMaster Museum of Art (Hamilton, Ontario) curated by the authors. The exhibition and catalogue focus on art by people who experience blending of the senses.

Works Cited