Speech given at the III. Baku Humanitarian Forum, october 2013


How can Art unframe your mind ? or The Quest for an Original Global Art

At the mention of multiculturalism, two things come to mind : first, multiculturalism impact on Art and second, Baku, historical capital of multiculturalism.

I shall stress in this paper the beneficial impact of Art on multiculturalism and will talk about the emergence of Global Art in the last 30 years.  Then explain Why Art ? since the dawn of humanity. How brains scans, neuro imagery explain Art.  How different cultures’s art histories,  their merger  and our multiculturalism create new pathways in the brain leading to the creation of original Art.

 The Art world was historically divided between Western Art and Ethnic Arts. But, in 1984, Arthur Danto the famous American art critic and philosopher condemned Western Art in his article “The End of Art “, Art was killed by its self-referentialism: That is Art just talking about Art. 

Yet, a few years later, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China, an explosion of Art emerged from all the cultures worldwide, insufflating new winds in the Art World globally, revoking the possibilty that Art was dead…  Arthur Danto wrote a new book “What Art is “.  He proclaims the existence of “Universal Art”:  Art that has meaning, Art that embodies an idea. Global Art was born.

 But in an Newsweek article on the 2013 Venice Biennale entitled “Modern Art’s Last Gasp“ , its author, Blake Gopnik, melancholically states “that there is no real way forward for Art, because Art in all its permutation seems to have exhausted itself.  Whatever ambitions a work of Art may have it ends up being more of the same.“ He asks us, “Has all the Art in the world been made?“

 In this essay, I answer …no! and ask : How can we be original again? How can humanity today, with its vast multi-cultural influences, create a new paradigm in Art?

So WHY ART? Why humans are lifted when perceiving original art?There is a similarity between the immediate effects of art on humans in every evolutional state. Our Pleistocene forebears evolved in a universal manner, independently of ethnographic location. We can understand our common ancestors relationship with art with the philosopher Dennis Dutton who declares in his book entitled “The Art Instinct”: “There is a universality of artistic tastes, which is cross cultural: the so called Darwinian aesthetics. While natural selection results from the struggle to survive, sexual selection emerges from the struggle to reproduce and thus the need to seduce with enticing qualities such as particular skills or beauty (the most famous example are a  peacock’s feathers). Skills and beauty are adaptive effects which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of Art.“ It is for this reason that we are lifted when perceiving Art.

 Later on, were the Greeks… the Greek ! Plato divided the world in two spheres of ideas which he called forms . He saw Art as a minor form :a modest imitation of nature, nevertheless… Plato also conventionalised the desire for beauty as one of the highest forms, I make a parrallel between his desire of beauty and Darwin’s attraction to beauty.

 During the Renaissance, the Western World adopted its Greek forefathers’ ideals : the perception of art as a mere imitation of nature. And it was not until 1790, with Kant ‘s “The Critique of Judgement“ that a new idea of Art evolved: the idea that Art contributes to beauty.  The modern notion of aesthetics was thus formed as well the idea of its capacity to be uplifting for the mind. This idea of aesthetic prevailed until 1917, when a paradigm in the Art world happened with Duchamp‘s famous “Fountain“. Duchamp accompanied it by the declaration: "Aesthetic delectation is the danger to be avoided.” So no more aesthetics, just thoughts… Conceptual Art was born.  Yet… if one equates an original, an intelligent thought with a “skill” , one can make  of it, along with beauty, one of the praised qualities of the Darwinian sexual selection theory.

 We can prove this uplifting effect of skills…of original Art, on the  brain by the studies in neurobiology and neuro-aesthetics.  These studies illustrate the conscious and unconscious processing of the brain when presented with different visual stimulants.

Professor Zeki of UCL published a ground-breaking paper on beauty and the brain5 ,his research graphically illustrates the variations in viewer brain activity when exposed to diverse works of art. Basically : two things happen conjointly in the brain when confronted to a particular visual stimuli. The first one is this impact of æsthetics: the objective appreciation of beauty. This æsthetic judgement is processed in the outer cortex and the insula.

 The second one is the subjective impact of a work of art on the brain.. It is visceral, splanchnic, activating the amygdale and the deep emotional circuitry made by personal emotional experiences.  The idea of what religious belief might activate in the brain is a good example. Art history starts with the first universal animist religions who believed that spirits inhabited their sculptures.  Viewers of their art perceive the sacred and magical context in the intricacies of the visual symbols


With respective ethno-graphic evolution on different areas of the globe, this Mystic Art gave way to different forms of Religious Art, all related to deep inward feelings rather than intellect.

 The West saw the advent of Christianity with Medieval Art, where humans believed in “the redemptive capacity of images to help us live and die,“.  Christian paintings obviously and ostentatiously depicted sorrow with “Crying Madonnas”and delight with… “Madonnas“.

In Islamic Art, display of emotion is somewhat more dignified.   Arabesque motifs are “often used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of God.  

Crying Madonnas and Arabesque motifs have something in common.  Both Christian and Islam religious traditions share Art as a means to an end.

In the Far East though, with Confucianists, “Art is to be treated as an end, never as a means“.

This artistic perception is the biggest dichotomy between East and West.
To explain it more clearly, I can employ the example that Danto used in his book “Disenfranchisement of Art”.  In the representation of a Buddhist spiritual itinerary the eighth picture is an empty circle:  in the neoplatonic tradition it could represent a moon in the sky, in Zen art, it represents the impending enlightenment.

Insofar as there is an analogy between cultures and works of art, I shall address the question: what is the impact of all this in a Global Art World?

Thomas McEvilly says today that“Art has more to do with clarifying cultural identity than with aesthetic feeling“.  

In an article published in May 2013 in Social Psychological and Personality Science, psychologists evoke “today’s diverse society which includes culturally rich environments that contain cues pertaining more than one culture. The bicultural experience shapes and enhances cognitive processes, such as creativity. This effect is particularly evident among bi-cultures who blend their two identities. “7.

But even if “Art production today is turning into culture production“8. we also and paradoxically partake in a unity of worldwide multiculturalism. For example, due to the broad influence of the urban way of life, Australia’s aborigine artists as supported by The New Museum of Contemporary Art are required to be city-based…

I witness the metamodernist bridge between Western and Eastern Art in my artist practice with artworks that transcend and refute the traditional Western duality morphing it soothingly into the yin-yang of the East.  

But what is the real impact of multiculturalism on the originality of our thoughts?

According to Dr. Michael Merzenich there is growing evidence which point to brain plasticity.  “Our individual skills and abilities are very much shaped by our environments. That environment extends into the contemporary culture our brain is constantly challenged with. What we've done in our personal evolutions has built up a large repertoire of specific skills and abilities that are specific to our own individual histories. The brain refines its machinery under behavioural control, that is what you pay attention to, what is rewarding to you, It's all about cortical processing and forebrain specialization. And that underlies your specialization which is the basis of our real differentiation, one individual from another.“ 9

If you take into account the brain plasticity and the ideational fluency – that is, the new pathways, inspired by biculturalism - there are grounds for increased originality in the production of Artworks.

Nevertheless, due to urbanisation, one also cannot escape what sociologists call the “McDonaldization” of society. I’d rather coin the term “Vuittonization” of society today, in reference to the Vuitton shops worldwide who deploy their vitrines with Art installations.  In the spirit of embodied cognition, and in an anthropological remembrance of the caveman who wore the furs of the animals they painted, some wear the  artist KUSUMA white on red dots that Vuitton launched in its 2012 spring- summer collection. Art & fashion just like in the old cavemen days.

The global fashion and entertainment powerhouses choose to globally distinguish themselves from one other with Art. Art is going out of the Museums and in the streets worldwide. This increasingly universal exposure to Art will influence us all epigenetically and thus enhance our creativity.  

Considering the question how can Global Art lift the mind, I shall answer that the “Why” and the “How” are not absolutely important. To quote Korean author Young-Ha-Kim,  “Art is the ultimate goal“. 10

So where will Art go from now? We do not know.  Art responds to the Now.  It is the ultimate expression of merger between emotional and historical existentialism. That is the beauty of it.

That said, if something must point to a new direction,  I would talk about one the most current paradigmal Artist…Jonathan Harris. His Artwork “we feel fine” scans the world's newly posted blog entries searching for the phrase "I feel". The feelings from the last few hours of the English-speaking world's are presented as blinking dots.   Worldwide feelings as Global Art. 11

I wanted to conclude this paper with the forays of neuropsychology who brought out the discovery – by Professor Vittorio Gallese from University of Parma –  of the mirror neurons between two individuals. This heightens the role of empathy and of communication rooted in humanity.  Art is communication. This opens a bigger window to the future of Art’s role in the ongoing evolution of a multicutural Humanity and Original Civilisation. 

But I was given  the chef d’œuvre “Ali and Nino“ by Kurban Said alias Lev Nussibaum.  Citizen of Baku, a man known as “the Orientalist“ who extended the boundaries of multiculturalism so far that he could not content himself  with even one identity. Evoking Lev’s Baku before the 1st Wold War : “this fantastic world of the highest cultural and human aspirations –the hope of the total merger of East and West into something new and modern-which existed but for a moment in time. Can you imagine it ? “12

And this my friends is what we aspire to.


Letizia Reuss



1 Newsweek June 17 2013“MODERN ART’S LAST GASP “ by Blake Gopnik

2  DENNIS DUTTON, The Art Instinct

3 The Blind Man # 2, May 1917.

4.  & 11ARTHUR C . DANTO : Philosophical disenfranchisement of art

5 Human World Feb 03, 2012 Semir Zeki: Beauty is in the brain of the beholder

6.ARTHUR C . DANTO : Philosophical disenfranchisement of art ref : Munataka

7. Social Psychological and Personality Science May 2013 vol. 4 no. 3 369-375:  Multiculturalism and Creativity, Effects of Cultural Context, Bicultural Identity, and Ideational Fluency

8.  HANS BELTING , The Global Art World

9.  Dr. Michael MERZENICH « Growing evidence of brain plasticity » TED CONFERENCE

10. YOUNG-HA-KIM Be an artist, right now!  TED CONFERENCE

11.   Jonathan HARRIS “The web as art“  TED CONFERENCE

12.  Tom Reiss “The Orientalist”