A Left-side Bias in Art

Normally I post images of contemporary pieces that I find beautiful or intriguing. However, this article describing research that has found a prominent left-side bias in art is fascinating. I will start paying attention to this much more now. Article link HERE.

Draw My Left! No, No, My Other Left! A Hidden Bias In Art History Revealed

Look at this guy. He is half-smiley, half-frowny. I drew the mouth carefully to make it equal parts sad and happy. But when you look at him — take him in whole — would you say he’s having a good day or a bad day?
Man with smiley/frowny face.

Most people would say: good day. He seems a little more smiley than not.

That’s because, says science writer , when we look at somebody, the left side of that person’s face is more emotionally powerful and “determines the overall emotional tenor.”

So if his left side is happy and his right side is sad, left wins — the whole face feels happy-ish. What is equal is made unequal. It’s as if when I look at you, instead of taking you in with one visual gulp, I’m scanning your face from left to right and the left side feels more dominant.

Why would that be?

Man looking at another man with his right brain dominant.

Well, when you look at someone, your right brain is doing most of the work. That’s the side of your brain that specializes in faces and is extra good at reading emotions.

But — as you probably know — your right brain operates mainly through the left side of your body. So when you look at someone’s face, your right brain pulls in information from the left of your visual field. Which means you will notice more, read more and remember more about the left side of that person’s face. His right side matters less.

When you look at someone's face, your right brain pulls in information from the left of your visual field. Which means you will notice more about the left side of that person's face.

If you were to see a photo of that person later, and cut it in half, you’d think, “Oh, this guy looks more like his left side.” That’s because your brain tricked you to think that way.

In his , The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, Sam Kean says this habit of “looking left” has profoundly affected the world of art — especially portrait painting.

People who sit for artists, he says, seem to have a sense that the left side of their face is going to pack more emotive power and make a bigger impression than the right side. This is almost certainly not a conscious thought, but if you look systematically at enough paintings, you’ll see a clear, telltale pattern.

In portrait after portrait, you find that subjects, instead of looking dead on at the viewer …

Portrait of a man facing forward, looking dead on at the viewer.

… they will face slightly sideways to give their left side more exposure.

Man turning slightly sideways to give his left side more exposure.

Mona Lisa is a famous example. She (or was it Leonardo?) decided to turn her face ever so slightly, exposing more left cheek.

The Mona Lisa by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci, at the Louvre museum in Paris.

Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

How big is the “show-us-your-left” bias? Well, if sitters behaved totally randomly, you’d expect to see the three basic options equally often: 33 percent would face the audience, 33 percent would turn left, 33 percent would turn right.

But when scholars looked, that’s not what they found. of 1,474 portraits painted in Europe from the 16thto the 20th centuries found that roughly 60 percent showed the sitter favoring the left side of the face — men 56 percent of the time, women 68 percent. looked at 50,000 objects from the stone age to the present and found that after the early Greeks, there was a consistent left-profile bias. When it comes to Jesus suffering on the cross, the tilt is dramatic: Jesus’ head is shown facing left of the time.

The “show-us-your-left” bias, Sam writes, “held, no matter whether the artists themselves were left- or right-handed.”

We don’t know if the artists told their models, “I want you to look to the left,” or if the sitters chose this posture to display their more expressive side. “But the bias seems universal,” Sam writes. He points out that when the sitter turns, the left eye moves toward the center of the canvas, like this …

Two faces, one looking dead on and the other looking left.

… which then puts most of the sitter’s face on the left side, where, says Sam, “the face-hungry right hemisphere can study it.”

When Doesn’t This Happen?

There are exceptions, of course. Leonardo da Vinci, who painted Mona Lisa, often went the other way and produced lots of right-facing portraits.

Self-portraits, it seems, often face right. But, Sam says, “Artists tend to paint self-portraits in the mirror, which makes the left half of the face appear on the right side of the canvas. So this ‘exception’ might actually confirm the bias.”

Curiously, Sam found that prominent scientists, at least in their official portraits for the Royal Society in England, usually face right. “Perhaps they simply preferred to seem cooler and less emotional — more the stereotypical rationalist.”

Prominent scientists usually face right.

A skeptic might say this is learned behavior. You go to art school or become an apprentice — the boss turns his subjects to show more left cheek, so you pick up the habit. So that’s what this is: a habit. And maybe a Western habit. Western languages, after all, read left to right. In Arabic, the language (and the faces?) might go the other way.

Sam considered this, but he found “surveys of portraits in Egypt (where texts read right to left) turned up a healthy majority of left-facing portraits as well.”

What about children’s drawings? Kids haven’t been exposed to adult paintings, museum art, cultural cues — they just grab crayons and draw. Do they draw faces looking left?

Do kids draw faces looking left?

They do, says Sam. Most kids — especially the righties — draw people facing left. “Overall culture probably influences the direction of portraits somewhat,” he wrote, “but most artists naturally highlight the left side.”

America the Beautiful

O beautiful polluted skies
Genetically modified grain
For purple mountains mined for ore
Above the pesticide plains!
America! America!
We dump our waste on thee
And tear down the woods to grow our food
From sea to oil drenched sea!

I wrote this on a whim while putting together a presentation on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill (2010) for work.

15 Writers’ Bedrooms

I love glimpsing into other peoples’ lives, especially those to whom I already feel I have a connection. I absolutely love the simple elegance of Dickinson’s room. It is reminiscent of her poems. My room is much closer to William S. Burroughs’ but mine has a softer feel due to the dark wooden floors and lack of wires and pipes.

Literary Style: 15 Writers’ Bedrooms

Simple Elegance of Emily Dickinson

An Intellectually Romantic Exchange

Between authors Simon Van Booy and Siri Hustvedt for an article in BOMB Magazine (Summer 2011)

I read the exchange between Siri Hustvedt and Simon Van Booy from BOMB Magazine. It touched me deeply and reminds me of a philosophical discussion I had (by written letters) between myself and an old beau who lived in New Zealand many years ago. He asked me if I would rather be happy or content. I still debate the idea frequently. My thought on it is that happiness is a fleeting emotion. One cannot be happy all the time without psychosis. Siri touches on this in her letters when she said “My goal in life is not to walk around in a permanent state of euphoria. This would be as pathological as falling into a lasting depression.” Contentment, however, is an ideal attainment in which one is satisfied (whether happy or sad) with his or her life. However, I think people can fall into the trap of settling and mistake it for contentment. I think that is one of my greatest fears because when you settle, you give up. You are no longer trying to improve, learn or discover. You accept things as they are without question or believe that you cannot change. I think I fell into that trap at this time in my life. A recent trip to Europe (Czech Republic and Austria) made me aware of this like a sharp, stinging slap to the face.

But this brings up stoicism. I have not been able to find stoicism yet. It is out of my reach, as many things seem to be these days. In her letter, Siri says, “Stoic philosophers make a fundamental distinction between what human beings can and cannot control in their lives. There is much we don’t have any power over, and the stoic response to what can’t be helped is to say: Away with it. I will not concern myself with it.” However, she says in a later letter that she is “convinced that what we think of the self is grounded in emotion”. That one is “guided by emotions”. To be guided by emotions, I think, makes stoicism impossible, or difficult at best. I relate to Simon when he says that he lives with ongoing and incessant confusion and that happiness is a way of seeing. I am almost always confused and my struggle has been to maintain a methodology of seeing such that happiness is consistently attainable. But, this implies that happiness is within everyone’s reach. Siri thinks this is a “corrosive delusion”, but I think happiness can be attained… To be maintained, however, is problematic. The definition of happiness also escapes me. Sometimes I see something, such as a very old couple showing a tender moment of love, and I am both happy and moved to tears. It is a mix of happiness and profound sadness. I have these moments a lot and they are strengthened by art, music, nature and contemplation. Stoicism is something I have yet to grasp, but desperately want to achieve. My emotions run too deep and can be overbearing. It would be nice to be able to rein them in. Writing helps.

On a different note, Simon mentioned something in his letter that I found very interesting. He believes that “the idea that loving one person is impossible, unless one is prepared to love everyone. Otherwise love is circumstantial. . .” I completely agree. How is it possible to only love one person in a lifetime? I’m not arguing against faithfulness or commitment. But, it seems to me that not everyone is made for an idealized, life-long true love. Some are. My sister is one. But I am not. This is not coming from a place of bitterness, but from my own personal ability to love many. I have had several loves in my life; including my current. I still love all of them and I’m sure that I always will. Upon reflection, however, I’m not sure that I actually understand love. I am fascinated by many people and have a propensity to an infatuation of intellect and talent. But, few encounters stir my soul. When that happens, I feel mad with emotion and desires. It reminds me of the line from On the Road. “The only people for me are the mad ones . . .” I love that line because I feel mad most of the time and I’m attracted to people who do not fit society’s mold.  So then, what is madness? What is love? What is happiness? These are too subjective and I do not think can be trapped into a definition.

I heartily thank Simon and Siri for reflecting on such intimate and interesting topics in their exchange. It certainly opened my heart and mind to new thoughts, and for that I am grateful. It also introduced me to Simon’s book The Secret Lives of People in Love… an absolutely beautiful book. I will talk more about that later.