Ambiguity in Art

By: David Bradley

Where science meets art there are those who see unsubtle reductionism as somehow detracting from aesthetics and there are those who suggest that art seeks objective reality only in a subjective way. The divide between art and science has seemingly never been greater, although some of our most revered historical intellects, perhaps most notably Leonardo da Vinci, would not have understood this arbitrary bifurcation of human endeavour. Indeed, the flip side of the cultural divide posits that art and science are simply two faces of the same coin, endlessly turning and laying the condition of reality bare through the machinations of the human mind.


In this paper, Yevin seeks to provide science with the tools necessary to understand the nature of artistic perception and so quantify our aesthetic sense. He reviews the notion of ambiguity in art and shows how a mathematical model of ambiguous patterns seen in artistic works can help us understand how the human brain functions. Moreover, ambiguity, whether an optical illusion or trompe d'oeil in painting, a pun or joke, or the ambiguity we enjoy in both literature, drama, and even sculpture, he claims, could be intrinsic to the incredible adaptability of the brain. The human brain, after all, is considered to be the most complex system in the universe, its ability to process ambiguous patterns and sensory inputs may have evolved to allow it to function on the cusp of stability and so be amenable to adapting to any given environmental pressure with what we commonly refer to as creative thought.


One of the most famous, or infamous, of ambiguous artistic statements is the smile of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, which is at once blissful and melancholic. The viewer's interpretation hinges on mood and preconceptions about the painting. Leonardo was entirely deliberate in painting the model so that cues to her true mood in the mouth and eyes are hidden by the sfumato technique he employed. Consequently, her enigmatic smile has inspired countless arguments in the half millennium since it was created.


Ambiguity, and in particular multi-stable perception of ambiguous figures, is text-book material for psychology undergraduates. Most people have seen the sketches described by Yevin in this paper and others: the old lady that reveals herself to be a young woman or the two opposing faces that are nothing more than a vase. And, of course, the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, it is not entirely clear how visual and semantic ambiguity, which are so often connected to availability, or lack thereof, of information, preclude the brain from visualising a unique interpretation. Recent research hints at the essential function of consciousness as to resolve ambiguities. When it fails in its task we are left with a feeling of discordance that can manifest itself as pleasure or pain, whether the ambiguity is in visual art, a dramatic line, or a joke.


When one looks at images such as the "old-lady, young woman" sketch, one feels an incredible sense of dissonance in that the revelation of old or young never occurs. Indeed, the mind seems to flip endlessly between bistable states, never settling on a single interpretation, and of course, wholly unable to see both states simultaneously. Such bistability is common throughout science and is the cognitive analogue of critical states in the physical sciences. For instance, ice-water has a dual nature. It exists at a critical temperature and pressure and a disturbance in either can push the fluid to freeze solid or melt completely into liquid water. The ambiguous image similarly sits on such a catastrophic cusp, collapsing into one interpretation or the other depending on our mood and preconceptions at any given point in time. Yevin suggests that it should be possible to quantify the non-linear nature of our brain's response to such stimuli.


Indeed, he describes a formula which superficially resembles a potential function borrowed from physical science, but in terms of psychology is merely hypothesized and represents the brain "flipping" between two states when confronted with ambiguity. The parameters of Yevin's formula provide a measure of the apparent physical differences between the two states in the ambiguous pattern. The formula can thus be employed in a computer pattern recognition system to define the old lady and the young girl, for instance, and so by analogy suggest ways in which the brain responds.


More sophisticated ambiguity in art is represented by the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo who specialised in creating representations of human faces from inanimate objects. "The Librarian" for instance, at first glance, is obviously a person with a powdered wig and a heavy cloak. But, another look reveals "him" to be nothing more than a pile of books, albeit arranged in an unconventional way so as to deceive. Fruit, leaves, twigs and other objects from the natural world are also Arcimboldo's building blocks for creating other ambiguous characters - "gardener or vegetables in a bowl?" he asks us. Surrealist Salvador Dali too offered the world incredible ambiguities in his paintings and sculptures. The Mona Lisa and Jan Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, explains Yevin, represent the subtle palette of ambiguity, tugging at deep emotions and precluding "closure".


Novels and movie plots exploit ambiguities too. Commonplace examples of instability in a story for instance might be the spy operating undercover or a two-timing lover's secret wooing. At any moment, the agent may be unmasked, which provides for captivating suspense as our brains attempt to handle the ambiguity. Such ambiguity is represented widely in folk tales too, in which a cuckold secretes themselves into another's life - the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood - or a person is removed from his own domain into the unfamiliar world of another - the Prince and Pauper, for instance. Even the Ugly Duckling and Beauty and the Beast type stories often contain plots in which ambiguity plays a critical role and is sustained until the story's climax.


Much of poetry too relies on hidden meaning, puns, homonyms and phononyms - all ambiguity. Ambiguity is also present in other art forms from sculpture to music in Cole Porter's "strange change from major to minor", which alludes to the ambivalence of certain harmonies, which may resolve with either a happy or a sad tone depending on the composer's muse.


Yevin suggests one response of a brain confronted with ambiguity is laughter. The universal ha-ha-ha of people laughing is, he claims, a manifestation of the brain switching between two contrary states and recognising the humour in ambiguity. Yevin does not say whether or not chimpanzees who use similar repeating staccato sounds in their communication are also experiencing a feeling of ambiguity, although a chimpanzee's "laughter" is usually associated with physical contact such as tickling. However, tickling is in itself a highly ambiguous experience - both pleasurable and painful concomitantly.


Consider the ambiguity in this joke and imagine it is funny enough to make you laugh. Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson have gone camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night Holmes wakes Watson up. "Watson," he orders, "look at the stars and give me your deduction." Watson replies, "I see millions of stars around any one of which might orbit a planet similar to Earth and therefore deduce we are not alone in the universe." Holmes retorts: "No, you idiot! Someone has stolen the tent!"


This "joke" contains two different semantic interpretations of being able to see the night sky during a wakeful camping trip. Now, imagine it were a truly funny joke that made the shoulders judder and the ribs ache as the brain flips between the two possible interpretations. It's easy to see how Yevin's ha-ha-ha theory might well be valid.


Yevin also explains that ambiguity need not rely on semantics to be funny. Comic impressionists mimic the voice and mannerisms of their victims and the comedy arises partly because we "know" that we are watching the actor and yet we "see" the person they impersonate. Again, the ha-ha-ha effect emerges as our brains flip from seeing the caricature to seeing the impressionist.


If much of humour resides in the bistable nature of a comic impressionist or two incongruous interpretations of a given situation as in Holmes and Watson sharing their (lack of) tent, then why don't we laugh at the Mona Lisa smile? Yevin suggests that the answer lies in the frequency at which our brains can oscillate between the two states. Recognising the semantics that give rise to the humour of a punchline takes very little brain mass compared with the process of visualising the Mona Lisa smile as blissful or melancholic. The visual cortex is an evolutionarily ancient brain structure and so is relatively slow compared with the much more recent language centres and their lightning responses. In these faster regions, bistable oscillation surely occurs at a higher frequency, which funnily enough coincides with the guttural response we know as laughter.


Is this perpetually elusive resolution might be the key to the human condition:  the pleasure and pain of romantic love, the parent torn between clinging to a child or letting go, the humour in ambiguity, and ultimately the final bistable state that is life and death? Whatever the answer such a reductionist view does not remove the pleasure of seeing the Mona Lisa smile nor stop us laughing at Holmes and Watson. Rather, it adds to our knowledge, provides new insights into human nature, and helps us appreciate the wonderfully complex system that is the human brain.