Unfaced Youth: Art, Mind, Brain

June 6, 2021 at 7:08 AM
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Unfaced Youth: Art, Mind, Brain

by Erin Conner UA’24, Antonella Mason, Jim Stellar


This blog began when EC worked on an independent study under JS and AM that was centered on a neuroscience paper about how the brain reacts to art, as well as other factors that play a role in both society and in art. We had just written about the default mode network in a recent blog post. We also looked at how brain circuits that underlie conscious and unconscious decision-making might also influence those reactions, even going back to a blog AM wrote in 2012. We had been discussing such topics when the idea was brought up by AM, of what does it mean to be young? She quoted Picasso who once said, “It takes a long time to become young.”

The definition of the word ‘youth’ is formally the period between childhood and adult age, but ‘youth’ can be an ambiguous term. What Picasso said goes against the modern idea of brain development, which studies show finishing its connections in the frontal cortex around the age of 20, when many students are still in college. But it may have another more important meaning in the development of aesthetic appreciation and artistic insight that requires much experience and study to develop.  The idea of relating youth and adulthood to art rests on the premises that age can only be seen in art if you know the history of the artist. Otherwise art is timeless. We all agreed upon writing a blog post to explore this idea further, from the perspective of a neuroscientist (JS), an art/psychology student (EC), and an established artist (AM).

Following these conversations EC scoured the internet for a source that could support our thinking which is when she happened to stumble upon a 2017 article by Ilaria Pitti,  “What does being an Adult mean? …”. This article was aimed at exploring the different representations that young and adult people attribute to the meaning of adulthood. In other words, studies were conducted where a number of people were asked questions pertaining to the topics of citizenship and participation, transition to adulthood, intergenerational relationships, and adulthood. These questions were formulated to focus mainly on the socially constructed meanings of adulthood and to intergenerational relationships between the youth and adults. They explored the overlaps and discrepancies between the normative and ideal representations.

The study found that both the youth and adult participants followed rather traditional thinking concerning what an adult is meant to be, mainly the social construction that being an adult comes with responsibility and independence, which in turn relate to classic adult roles of marrying, stable work, parenting, etc. However, the study also found that on a descriptive level both the youth and adult participants acknowledged a transformation of adulthood that is less traditional due to different social circumstances and scenarios. The article also further states “… the changes the mutated contemporary social context has implied and allowed on the practices level, have not yet gone hand in hand with an evolution of the ‘common sense’ in relation to what adults are meant to be or should ideally be for both the groups of interviewees” (Pitti, 11).  We took this to mean that, although the social circumstances of the world are and have been changing, the idea of what it means to be an adult has not yet adjusted to fit those changes. For instance, the job market has changed immensely since these traditional adult roles have been set and one of the characteristics of being an adult has always been having a stable job. Yet in this day and age a stable job has become increasingly harder to achieve making the status of being an adult even harder to obtain as well. This in turn causes extremely stressful difficulties on the youth and adults as it is very hard to recognize each other as ‘real adults’.

This notion leads us back to the point of what does it mean to be young? Is it having no responsibilities? Is it based on looks? Is it based on your job?  After gathering the findings from the article mentioned above the answer was clear. Every single person has their own idea of what it means to be young due to different life events, social circumstances, personal beliefs, desires, etc. This means to us that both the meaning of ‘youth’ and ‘adult’ are ambiguous, nonuniversal terms. This also led to the quote from Picasso becoming the recurring theme, “it takes a life to become young”. The theme “it takes a life to become young” simply means that any person of any age can be considered young, no matter what stage in life you are at. This undying youth may be seen in all aspects but especially in artwork.

While exploring the meaning of youth, I (EC) decided to create a piece for this study. Pictured below is a 36” x 36” acrylic painting featuring the silhouette of a person and a lot of colors inside that silhouette.

The idea behind this piece that I named “Unfaced Youth” is the idea that youth is not a universal term nor is it a universal ‘look’. This is why the painting features a singular silhouette. The title has the plural term of ‘face’, as discussed earlier youth is unique to each individual and has many different faces. The bright and bold colors featured inside the silhouette are meant to represent the different stages of life one can be at and still be considered youthful no matter the age or representation of a person.

When viewing a piece of art it is extremely likely that the artist is trying to convey a message, whether that be emotion, life lessons, or an idea. But depending on who the audience is, that can change the message of the artwork. For instance if that person is older and not considered very ‘youthful’ they may have more life experience than a typical ‘young’ person and the perception may be more profound. But that is also not to say that typical ‘youthful’ people should be doubted as because of their ‘youth’ they are just as likely to have a different perspective and profound viewing. Which once again shows the ambiguity of ‘youth’, depending on one’s perception of the word itself that perception follows the person and the way that they view the world, especially art. This is also what makes art a universal language. You do not have to be a certain age, ethnicity, race, etc. in order to make a connection to the art world. Sure the message the artist is trying to convey may be perceived in different ways depending on the person but that does not make that perception any less valued. Overall, the idea and terminology of the word youth is ambiguous and has a different meaning to each individual person. These different meanings of youth are often translated into art and can be interpreted differently depending on the eye of the perceiver.

How does this post relate to the general theme of this blog on experiential education?  We think that the same unconscious/conscious brain decision processes that are used to try to understand the Picasso quote are used in a student’s effort to see themselves in a major field of study in college, especially where direct experience complements the learning in the classroom. Both are creative acts.

Broken heart syndrome – an example of cognitive-emotional integration and vagus nerve function
1 Comment

One Response to “Unfaced Youth: Art, Mind, Brain”

  1. Marcia Weinstein Steinbrook, PhD says:

    Agreed that the term “adult” does not have a universal definition. Having said that, it does not follow that it isn’t shared, more or less, by people who belong to the same culture at the same time. In addition to a straightforward chronological clock and your biological clock, the social clocks that tick in your geographical environment and your place in history, will impact your lifestyle.
    As for Picasso’s remark about youth and aging, it is tempting to relate it to the research by Dr. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford U., on socioemotional selectivity theory and the positivity effect.

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