The first question should be: Are there any? There are rules of perception (see Richard Gregory, David Hubel, Margaret Livingstone, Donald Hoffman) and there are shapes to which infants favor their attention such as circles and concentric circles vs. squares and rectangles (I used the circle aesthetic in my painting example which is ironically contained in a square frame). There is no universal preference for the golden mean (it’s a shifting ratio anyway); I have done my own double blind test with the golden mean on many students. There is our demonstrated predisposition to see faces and bodies in ambiguous fields. Just look at a knotty pine board and you will find faces and bodies galore. There are universal signs such as the radial burst – sometimes referred to as the hub-and-spoke as a representative for the sun and a design template for painting and architecture. You can find this symbol in European history and in Native American petroglyphs and carvings across the Americas. But, does that also mean there are universal time transcendent, aesthetically stimulating principles? V. S. Ramachandran of the University of California thinks so. He outlined 10 universal laws of art in his book “A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness.” And, I could try to correlate his laws with the six laws of the ancient Chinese artist Hsieh Ho (1st Millennium C.E.), or I could try to match his laws with da Vinci’s five sets of principles or John Ruskin’s principles as laid out in his “Elements of Drawing” or compare his laws to Aristotle’s.
In some areas I have found coincidental agreement. That could be due to my looking for coincidence. I have made comparisons between Ramachandran’s laws with Hogarth’s and Hseih Ho’s and Ruskin’s and Aristotle’s and Pliny the Elder’s and others, and I conclude that there are both areas of dispute and areas of coincidental agreement. Rather than compile this grand list for you I suggest that these principles of various historic notables are more valuable as tools to understand particular cultural aesthetics. Where one culture values the legibility of precise lines, edges and repeating patterns, another values blurred ambiguities. Where one says absolute symmetry is the goal (Ramachandran and Aristotle), another demands flawed symmetry as a device to sustain and invite viewer participation (Santayana and da Vinci). I believe I have found universals in signs such as the radial burst and the icon for snakes and rivers, but am I just seeing forced coincidence? Claude Levi Strauss suggests that an abundance of coincidence should not be ignored. Ramachandran’s laws that appear to hold the most pan cultural and pan historic coincidental support are: 1. Peak Shifting (or theatrical exaggeration); and 2. Contrast (from ancient China to Renaissance Italy to 19th century industrial England to contemporary neuroscience research, this principle is the most frequently cited and most frequently used by artists to direct and sustain the viewer’s attention. The others: 3. Grouping (how we cluster the similar from the dissimilar); 4. Repetition, rhythm and order (pattern recognition and pattern shifting – especially important in all arts from music to painting to architecture); 5. Balance (related to but not the same as symmetry); 6. Metaphor; 7. Abhorrence of (suspicious) coincidence (an abhorrence which evolves into boredom and disinterest). In the future I plan to give you other artists and periods principles with examples.