The impact of failing vision on artists - and other altered perceptions.

i-a57475bbe61ad8874f6bac2362cacc5f-AC11256_Beethoven-Action.jpgMany famous artists and musicians have had the perception of their own art altered by abnormal physical or mental changes. Critics and historians have often credited these changes as major sources of creativity. Insanity and Drugs seem to usually be the most cited and obvious candidates but very often something a lot more vanilla, like hearing or vision loss, can have the greatest impact on an artists art.

Probably the most famous case of an artist (in this case a musician) losing the one sense that was the most important to their work is Ludwig Van Beethoven. Over the course of the last 20 years of Beethoven's life he became progressively more deaf and with this more socially isolated, being forced to carry on conversations with a little notebook. We know from his letters to family and friends that his loss of hearing was personally devastating and isolating. In one letter to Carl Amenda, in Latvia, he writes "My most prized possession, my hearing, has greatly deteriorated. When you were still with me, I already felt the symptoms but kept silent." His loss clearly had a great impact on his life:

He then writes a testament in Heiligenstadt stating that his condition has driven him to despair and suicidal thoughts. Only morality and music keep him from killing himself. He complains that his hearing condition is hopeless, and although naturally sociable, that he has had to withdraw from society. "How could I possibly admit to an infirmity in that one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than in others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession have or ever have had.... [The humiliation] drove me to despair...I would have ended my life. It was only my art that held me back."[source]

A great debate has arisen on how Beethoven's deteriorating hearing and mental health impacted his compositions, even in Beethoven's own time people were asking him about this directly but it seems that Beethoven didn't really buy that his deafness was a great source of creativity.

In the Konversationshefte, vol.9, p.290/291 we can read the following remarks by nephew Karl: "Precisely because of that [your deafness] you are famous. Everyone is astonished, not just that you can compose so well, but particularly that you can do it in spite of this affliction. If you ask me, I believe that it even contributes to the originality of your compositions."

Beethoven's answer, as so often in the Konversationshefte, is not recorded, but Karl continues: "Nevertheless, I believe that even the greatest genius, when hearing someone else's compositions, subconsciously copies ideas. In your case that doesn't happen, because you have to create everything from within yourself."

Karl's "nevertheless" suggests that Beethoven did not agree with his previous remark, "that it even contributes to the originality of your compositions." Because we don't know Beethoven's exact answer, one can of course create different interpretations for this passage. But it seems important to keep in mind that Beethoven himself may have thought differently on this subject, and I think that his opinion should count for more than anyone else's. [source]

Whatever the 'cause' of Beethoven's great creativity his deafness surely had an impact as have various physical and mental disabilities on other artists and musicians. Some have had Synaesthesia (although this is clearly not a disability or disorder) where various aspects of one sense give rise to perceptions in another sense. For example, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is said to have had synaesthetically colored musical keys which were assigned as follows:

B major gloomy, dark blue with steel shine
Bb major darkish
A major clear, pink
Ab major greysh-vioket
G major brownish-gold, light
F# major green, clear (color of greenery)
F major green, clear (color of greenery)
E major blue, sapphire, bright
Eb major dark, gloomy, grey-bluish
D major daylight, yellowish, royal
Db major darkish, warm
C major white

A visual artist with a wonderful record of the impact of schizophrenia on his art is Louis Wain who is most well known for his pictures of cats. You can see in the pictures below that his painting style changed drastically from before the onset of schizophrenia to after.


The most recent contribution that someone has made to understanding the impact altered states of perception have had on visual artists has been Michael Marmor of Stanford University. A number of the great painters (clearly in the days before cataract surgery, laser surgery and contact lenses) have had visual degenerations of various sorts. These artists include Monet and Degas to name two.

Here's a bit of a ScienceBlog story:

In Marmor's simulated versions of how the painters would most likely have seen their work, Degas' later paintings of nude bathers become so blurry it's difficult to see any of the artist's brush strokes. Monet's later paintings of the lily pond and the Japanese bridge at Giverny, when adjusted to reflect the typical symptoms of cataracts, appear dark and muddied. The artist's signature vibrant colors are muted, replaced by browns and yellows.

"These simulations may lead one to question whether the artists intended these late works to look exactly as they do," said Marmor who has long had interest in both the mechanics of vision and the vision of artists. "The fact is that these artists weren't painting in this manner totally for artistic reasons."

Here is one of the images:


Here are the rest in a nice little slide show.

If you are interested in this topic and happen to live in Central Illinois there is going to be a fantastic two day symposium on art and psychology with a number of fabulous speakers. Here's the details:

"Art and the Brain" Symposium
April 17 - 18, 2007

A two-day interdisciplinary conference bringing together philosophers of art and mind, and scientists, to further explore what neuroscience and aesthetics may offer one another in an approach to these fields.

Some of the questions we wish to raise are: What can we say about the neurophysiology of the processes of producing, viewing and interpreting art? Can neuroscience help us evaluate the many theories of interpretation and pictorial depiction that have been proposed? Can such understanding improve pedagogical practice in art history and criticism? Can it help us improve practices of art education for children? At the same time, can viewing works of art and theories of pictorial depiction and recognition help neuroscientists prompt or refine their research questions and methods?

Organized by "Illinois at the Phillips," a collaborative program between UIUC and The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C.

No advanced registration required.

Schedule of events and abstracts available at:

NCSA Building Auditorium (1205 W. Clark Street, Urbana. Between Goodwin and Matthews, one block south of University Avenue.)

Speakers include:
*Semir Zeki (University College, London) "The Brain's Concept of Form and its Expression in Art"

*Nancy Kanwisher (MIT) "Special Categories of Visual Experience: Faces, Places, and Bodies"

*Gregory Currie (Nottingham) "Empathy and the Simulation of Bodily Movement"

*Nicolas Bullot (Toronto) "Altering the Mind/Brain's Base Routines Through Aesthetic Attention"

*Jenefer Robinson (Cincinnati) "What Emotions are and How they Respond to Music"

*Narendra Ahuja (UIUC) "A Vocabulary for Visual Understanding of Scenes"


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The Marmor stuff is really cool.

And can you heckle Currie for me? Friggin' simulation theory and aesthetics.

I'll gladly heckle just about anyone for a SciBling! haha..