This month Barack Obama "unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious initiative to map the human brain" so we can more deeply understand the human mind, and what lives beneath the surface of everyday experience. This article tracks the origins of our modern cultural quest to reveal "the unconscious, instinctual strivings of people", which focused on the great works of Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele - the major artists of the modernist period known as "Vienna 1900". These revolutionary painters were the first to depict the idea that "insight into another begins with understanding oneself."
I was transported back 20 years when I first discovered these master painters. Klimt especially moved me and still does. It was 1994 and I was living in New York City. Multiple times a week I would go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to be with these paintings and write in my journal. I would walk or take the bus across the park from my Upper West Side apartment that I shared with five other young women, living with tapestries as boundaries between our private spaces, and walk, purposefully, up the stairs into the alcove. I would then sit on the floor and greet these paintings, like a close neighborhood friend. Tingles would shiver up my spine and through my hand as I wrote about the compositions and colors and what they would spark in my being. These paintings moved me so deeply each time, like electric waves inspired to focus and calm my senses. Today's article helped me further understand my initial instinct to love this style of painting and subject matter, which is connected to why I write songs about the human experience, and capture the essence of people through photography.
Nuances of internal life are an unseen, beautiful mess of contradictions and dynamic humanity. It is this state of being - to lift the veil on humanness - that drives me to capture and create. I am fascinated by the human capacity to empathize and be vulnerable. I'll take it a step further, that in doing so, in being empathic and vulnerable, we are poised to transform the places within that keep us from opening deeper to life. When we are safe to let go of the ways in which we strategize to protect ourselves, there lives within each of us, a treasure trove of extraordinary, moving, and utterly real aliveness. I am experiencing this first hand in my singing and songwriting, which has been, in the past and still to some extent, but less so, enormously terrifying to even broach, let alone pursue. Yet, as I do it more, I open and relax and allow.
The article states that "as we look at a portrait (or hear a song), our brain calls on several interacting systems to analyze contours, form a representation of the face and the body's motion, experience emotion, and perhaps, empathy. Along with these instantaneous responses, we form a theory of the subject's state of mind." And, it is this that the viewer or listener becomes connected to the work. It moves us, personally, relating to our own human experience. When art emerges from something true, something honest, something hidden from view, yet universal, we, as a witness, can come home to ourselves.
My paternal grandfather's family immigrated from Vienna during Klimt's influence in 1900, which makes me ponder my initial and sustained draw to the ways in which art, psychology and science come together. Perhaps the cells of my synapses are wired to connect back to these radical, original Austrian ideas, brought through into now, like a torch of evolution curiously unfolding.