One person who knew the importance of scribbles was Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychologist who developed the Rorschach inkblot test1. This now famed exercise arrived at almost rock-star popularity and cultural meme status in the 1960’s as a way to (allegedly) assess a patient’s subconscious thoughts and feelings based on their interpretations of a series of 10 inkblot cards2. Although this is the most recognizable test of its kind there are numerous others (mostly derivative of the Rorschach). The Thematic Apperception Test was created by Harvard University psychiatrist Henry A. Murray and his student Christiana Morgan in the 1930s. The TAT (as it is now commonly known), gives patients a selection of 31 cards depicting ambiguous situations among people (such as a man and a woman looking at each other with stern faces in a kitchen) and asks the viewer to interpret the scene3. These interpretations require of the viewer predictions about the emotional states of the people depicted as well as their intentions and what happened leading up to that point.
There’s obviously no right answer to what you should see in an inkblot or a drawing of my mom and dad arguing about how to pay the bills, but what these images provoke is essentially the same: that individual’s projection(s). The intended outcome is some level of understanding of that individual’s unconscious needs, desires, feelings and insecurities based on how they interpret what they see4. Put more simply (and for the sake of this exhibition), if the psychologists are right, what people see in the scribbles is their own brains looking right back at them.
Examining the way people project their thoughts or ideas onto something goes back a long way. Even before Rorschach (and allegedly his inspiration), an artistry called Klecksography was hugely popularity. This art form is a way of producing an image by dripping ink onto paper and then using the resulting image as the base for which to draw or paint a picture. Even Klecksography comes from something else: Tasseography. More familiarly known as reading tea leaves, this ancient fortune-telling technique was likely one of the first iterations of capturing human’s proclivity for interpreting something from nothing5. The residue left from a cup of tea, coffee and even wine sediments have long been used for this purpose, a practice that developed throughout the middle east and Europe during the 17th century as a way answer inquiries and make tough decisions in earnest.
Abstract art: a product of the untalented sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered. – Al Capp
Say what you will about abstract artists (and many surely have explored the spectrum of opinions) but they have absolutely tapped into something with their provocation the brain’s amazing ability to project. The path to the abstract movement was a slow one though. Impressionism and expressionism fomented in the 19th century as the traditional church-artist patronage relationships began to dry-up and artists were left to their own devices. Without an ostensible boss telling the brightest artistic minds of the day what to paint, art during this period began to take a noticeable turn from the figurative to more formless shapes, colors and ideas that would eventually define the genre. The slow shift of trends would eventually become a its own movement, but it would require someone to make the leap into full abstraction.
Russian born painter Wassily Kandinsky is widely considered to be the first purely abstract artist (although many argue that the distinction belongs to Swedish mystic Hilma Af Klint, whose early abstract works actually do appear to predate those of Kandinsky) . These artists may have started the movement and inspired the modern concept of the ‘abstract artist’ but there would be no real movement to speak of until the post-war 1950’s. It’s a tall task to explain how it all happened any better than a recent exhibition Princeton University held which examined the golden age of abstraction: “While abstraction was invented in the first half of the 20th century, it was after World War II that the center of the modern art world shifted from Paris to New York – the rise of Naziism sent artists fleeing west, and the Avant-garde and Surrealists… all wound up in New York, introducing young American painters associated with regionalism, murals and the WPA to the concept of the unconscious.”7 This introduction proved enough to fan the flames of one of the most prolific new art movements in recent history. And probably, quite simply put, all because people don’t know what the hell they’re supposed to be looking at.
Can’t see the forest for the trees -Unknown
Why people sometimes have starkly contrasting perspectives isn’t just a stuffy psychologist topic or something that college kids like to ruminate on amid their first-year sojourns into an intro to philosophy coarse. This question keeps the brightest scientific minds in the world up at night. During the last century Physicists have been trying to somehow mesh Einstein’s theory of general relativity with quantum mechanics. The two theories, which both stake their respective claims in explaining the universe, have some serious and irreconcilable differences; none more so than a black hole paradox. No one knows exactly what would happen to a person going through a black hole. The problem is that relativity and quantum mechanics have wildly different things to say about it.
BBC recently released an article detailing the difference using two theoretical people as examples: You, who has gone through a black hole, and your friend Anne, who is far enough away to watch you go through without being sucked in as well. After you’re through, “from her point of view, you…have been burned to a crisp at the horizon. It's not an illusion. She could even collect your ashes and send them back to your loved ones.” However, from your perspective (and according to the laws of general relativity) you “…sail straight into nature's most ominous destination without so much as a bump or a jiggle – and certainly no stretching, slowing or scalding radiation.8” There’s no point to this tale except to make you feel better about the next time you disagree with a friend about whether or not a movie was worth the ticket price. Other smarter people are out there disagreeing about much bigger things…including bewilderingly odd hypothetical disagreements.
One of the big problems with abstract interpretation and analysis is that it is sometimes guilty of focusing too intently on the miniscule details. As that classic quote refers to- sometimes people look so acutely at the trees that they fail to notice the forest. Not only do different people often interpret the same event differently, even the same person will interpret the same thing differently when exposed to it more than once. A book read for the second time will always shed new insight on a character or part of the story. The same goes for movies, food and even the people that we spend our time with. The human experience is and always will be one inherently filled with doubt, indecision and a search for deeper meaning, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have one hell of a good time trying to figure it out... or blissfully unconcerned with what any of the answers might really be.