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Unformatted text preview: 2 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial the second a cubist abstract painting done by Marcel Duchamp in the earlier part of the twentieth century; and the third an example of minimal art by Ellsworth Kelly in the middle of the twentieth century. Each example illustrates specific types of psychological principles. but they all depict basic principles of vision, percep~ tion, and the way the human brain processes and understands art. By considering these three diflierent examples it may be possible to develop a general schema that will be applicable to all viewing ofart. Nativistic Perception and Directed Perception Over the years that l have taught a course called “Cognition and the Visual Arts” 1 have found two aspects of viewing art that were most instructive. The first, rm- tivisfic perception (also known as “bottom—up” processing to cognitive scientists be— cause it begins with basic physical stimuli), deals with the way the eye and brain work in matched synchrony. Each transforms electromagnetic energy into neuro— chemical codes. As pedantic as that phrase might seem, technically speaking it is exactly what happens. Nativistic perception ofvisual events is based on the fact that people have certain inborn ways ofseeing in which visual stimuli, including art, are initially organized and perceived. Causally speaking, nativistic perception is “hard— wired” in the sensoryicognitive system. Look at the painting in figure 1.1. What you sense—what you “see”—is ac— tivated only by reflected photonic energy that bounces off this painting and is detected by sensory neurons in the retina. Yet this initial native stage of visual perception sets ofi‘an intricate series ot‘nenrological and psychological actions that are, in my opinion1 the most fascinating chain of events known to man. This first stage of the perception of art is largely independent of conscious control, and we are, in criect, enslaved by pliorons and physiology. Here. we all “see” essentially the same thing. The shapes, colors, patterns, and organization of forms are sensed and processed by your eye and brain in the same way as they are processed by everyone else’s. It’s simply a matter ofnativistic perception, as determined by our common genetic makeup. and physical chemistry as governed by the laws of the physical world. To me, it is somewhere between surprising and astonishing that so few art scholars have taken heed ofthis fundamentally important aspect of“seeing.” There are a plethora of exciting things going on in stage one ofperception, but the really personal part happens in the second stage, the stage we call directed perception. Sometimes called “topkdown” processing by cognitive scientists because it is directed by an overall idea as to what one might see, directed perceptiOn refers to perception based on one’s personal history and knowledge. The way you “see” Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial 3 [.1 Théoclore Géricault, The Raft ofthe Medusa (1819). Musée du Louvre, Paris. this painting is like the way no other person sees it. We focus (or direct our per— ception) on parts ofa painting that are interesting, worthwhile, or about which we have past knowledge. You, for example, may ponder the meaning of the piece be— cause of your personal curiosity. Another person may be interested in the types of paint used, while another may attend to the naked bodies. One’s past knowledge and interest direct one’s attention, Each ofus brings to the viewing ofart an entire set ofpast experiences and expectations that largely influences what we perceive and how we interpret what we see. Both nativistic perception and directed perception contribute to, and are necessary for, art appreciation. and to some degree their Characteristics overlap. Both forms of perception also depend on a conscious brain in order for art to be “seen,” in the nativistic sense, and “understood,” in the directed sense. As we shall see, both forms of perception are the consequences of a sensory system and brain that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years for quite difierent purposes: di5~ tinguishing objects from their background, discerning colors, finding and killing game, picking yummy berries and nuts, and seeing faces, all of which revolve around mating and bearing children and surviving long enough to do it. 4 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial Nativistic Perception Applied to the Raft Return to The Raft Qf the Mitch/Isa. Here we see a realist depiction of a raft filled with people in trouble. What you see is what you get in this picture painted with near photographic realism. Which perceptual fundamentals (nativistic) are opere ating? Initially, at least four types of visual elements are perceived (although there is overlap with some learned perception): sensation, form, color, and Gestalt organization. SENSATION The first condition ofperception is that the perceived object must emit sufiicient physical energy to be above the sensory threshold (or superliminal} to be detected. \Ve Cannot see the Rth in :1 totally dark room. The primary sense organ in per— ceiving visual art is the eye, but, somewhat surprisingly, other modalities are also engaged. With our eye we “see” the raft, the people. the sail, the ocean, and so on. \Vith our brain we also “see” these things, and more. The part of the brain that processes visual signals, the primary visual cortex (PVC), is teeming with neurological activity (an intriguing topic that we are only beginning to under— stand). Perhaps even more fascinating is that other senses are engaged at the corti— cal level. While we do not “hear” the wind as it flaps the sail, or the waves as they splash around the raft, or even the cries for help as acoustic stimuli we do certainly “hear” these things in our mind. The formal name for such a phenomenon is syncsfht’s‘ia, Which is defined as a condition in which sensory information from one mode {such as a Visual sensation) psychologically activates another modality (such as an audi— tory sensation). As we look. at the Raft, sight is primary but all other senses are psychologically active. We not only “hear” sounds but can also smell the sea and the putrefaction of decaying bodies, taste the salt air, and feel the cool sea water as it sprays over the raft. These primary visual sensations provoke psychological ref actions. including emotional reactions, that reflect dynamic tension and harmony inherent in the painting. When we “see” this painting, as is true of many of life’s experiences, the sensation is not confined to a single perceptual system but sweeps across many sensory modalities and psychological reactions to enrich the cognitive landscape. We all see deeper, and therein lies a great intellectual distinction ofhu— man thought and consciousness. U1 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial FORM Our eye and brain intuitively see the raft and the people on it as being distinct from the background of the painting. Such division is called figurenground perception, as the principal figure is separated from the background. This natural tendency is based on a crucial way in which the human eye is designed to see the contours or lines that separate one object from another. Being able to separate a branch from the sky or a sabre—toothed tiger from a bush was important in the evolutionary his tory of humankind, and that ability serves us well as we look at art. COLOR The human visual system is acutely calibrated to see a multitude of difinerent col— ors. The colors in the painting by Géricault are muted browns that give the image an overall somber, even dramatic, feeling. Color perception is an important qual— ity that also helps with figure—ground distinction. GESTALT ORGANIZATION According to Gestalt psychologists. we naturally organize a visual scene into stable patterns of perception. Our “mind’s eye” seeks patterns in the world that are visu— ally familiar and organized. In the case of‘thc Rafi, Theodore Gericault used tri- angles as a structure to direct the viewer’s perception. In figure 1.2 we have drawn two triangles that follow the natural Gestalt organizational schema suggested. To emphasize these basic forms, Géricault defined the left triangle by two ropes at tached to the mast. The apex of the right triangle is made explicit by the central figure atop the pile of humanity on the right side of the painting. This natural or ganizational pattern is not necessarily “conscious” in the sense that you would say to yourself, “I see, this is a painting that is organized around two triangles, which gives it compositional symmetry and stability," but it evokes understanding of the deeper meaning of the painting, a theme we will discuss next. Directed Perception Applied to the Raft All viewers have extensive world knowledge that they apply when viewing an event. This background contributes to their deeper understanding of art; but while many viewers bring some knowledge ofthe sea and a few of the terrible 6 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial 1.2 Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa: the triangles show how one might visually organize the scene; this has psychological implications. conditions that may have been suffered by the poor. people on this illefated vese sel, very few bring specific knowledge of the historical context of the event def picted here. FRENCH ROMANTICISM The artist, Theodore Géricault, lived from 1791 until 1824 when his young life was cut short by a fall from a horse. He is considered a central figure in the art of the French romantic movement—in style that einpham sized depicting emotions in realistic renderings. In A work (font is part ofthe Imi- many works of this period we find paintings that verse as seen through a tempera- dramatize and personalize social actions. Géricault meat. was so dedicated to realism that. he visited the Paris morgue to sketch and paint corpses and heads of mEmt'le Zola guillotined Victims in Order to accurately represent IntroductionzArt . . . a Tutorial 7' dead bodies. He reconstructed a raft in his studio on which to pose his models for increased realism. SOCIAL CONSCIENCE Géricanlt also championed the oppressed. and his Medusa was based on a terrible real event. that occurred in 1816. The French government was responsible for launching the Medusa, an unsafe ship, and it wrecked ofi‘the coast of Africa. While the ship’s captain and crew escaped in lifeboats, the hapless passengers scrambled to make a raft fiom salvaged planks. The survivors on the raft experienced horrible suffering that included death and cannibalism. Géricault captures a particularly poignant moment when the survivors sight a passing ship and wave futilely to catch the attention of those on board. The powerful statement made in this painting was directed toward an uncaring government, which eventually prosecuted those re— sponsible for this dastardly act. ORGANIZATION OF SENriMENrs Returning to the two triangles that define the Gestalt organization of this piece, note that, under the right triangle Whose apex is the African man with the fabric banderole, those still living are filled with hope and anticipation that the passing ship will rescue them. Under the triangle on the left, defined by the support lines, all hope has been drained away. Here are corpses and dying people filled with de— spair. Not only has the painter produced a realistic image of a scene laden with hum man pathos, but, equally important, he has symbolized two fundamental qualities of the human spirit: one of hope, the other ofdespair, We “feel” the psychological tension between life forces and death forces delineated for us by the organizational triangles. PERSONAL SCHEMAS AND FEELINGS Each ofus views art (and all of life’s experiences) through a personal prism or per— sonal srlnsma, by which we mean a dominant personality trait that interprets expe— riences. Thus, you may have a personal schema that “looks for” compassion and understanding, while another may look for justice and revenge, and still another may look for courage. This painting tells a story to each of us, yet your story may differ from mine. Each of us has a point ofview that is part of our individual history 8 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial and temperament. Personal schemas color out View ot‘rcality. And here, as you View the Rift, your interpretation of reality is greatly influenced by your personal schema. Finally, when all of the above physical and psychological features converge, we comprehend art at a level that is difficult to describe in words. At this level our appreciation of art becomes more of a sentience than an intellectual explanation; more of an engrossment than an analysis OFa piece; more ofa feeling than an ap— praisal. It becomes an experience that seems to transcend ordinary experiences. We call this “Level 3'" comprehension. (See chapter 8 for further discussion of this.) With this additional contextual information, the way you now ViCVV The Raft ofthe ill/[Edam may be enhanced. The new information gives deeper insight into the painting and the human psyche. The Raft is a slightly romanticized but nonethee less realistic image ofan actual scene with strong visual and symbolic organization. Most art is less formally structured, physically and psychologically. Let's consider one ofthese examples. Nude Descending 4 Staircase No. 2 In figure 1.3 you will see Nude Descending a Smirmsr No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp, done in 1912. This painting differs from The Raft [girlie fl/Iedusa as it does not have clearly identifiable people and things. As suggested, the viewing ofatt depends on two types ofperception: nativis— tic perception and directed perception. First, consider Dnchamp’s Nude in terms of natiyistic perception. NATIVISTIC PERCEPTION The same four components mentioned above, sensation, form, color, and Gestalt organization, also operate in this painting. but with much different emphases. Here we will concentrate only on the sensation and organizational aspects of the piece. In order to be seen, the painting is above the sensory threshold and sets ofia myriad of cortical actions initially centered in the primary visual cortex. We also get the impression that the piece has other sensory qualities, but in this case they are not so much connected to our sensory system, as with the Raft, but to our sense ofmovement. The nude, descending the staircase. seems to be in motion. We sense some structural tension. The overall diagonal organization of the painting creates a sense ofunresolvetl psychological strain. Our natural reaction to scenes with struc~ tural tension suggests a type ofongoing dynamic process such as we might experie Introduction:Art . . . a Tutorial 9 [.3 Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 (1912). Philadelphia Museum of Art. The artist commented that he gave up the naturalistic appearance of the nude while retaining the abstract lines of some 20 difierent positions associated with a descending movement. While it is possible to see some representational aspects in this abstract painting, it calls on the viewer to interpret the meaning. 10 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial once while looking at a person descending a staircase. One might even go so far as to speculate that diagonal forms cause people to react with a primitive fear—the fear offalling—which increases the feeling of uneasiness. DIRECTED PERCEPTION As with all other forms ofnonrcpresentational art, this piece by Duchamp relies on the viewer’s past knowledge to direct his or her perception and form an under— standing of what the painting is all about. Because understanding is based on knowledge, this kind of art is sometimes called “cerebral art,” or more pejoratively “highebi‘ow art." ’Whatever you choose to call it, it requires a little background to process this piece from the top down. In the decades before Duchamp was rendering his work in Paris, the world became engrossed with new marvels of emerging technology including motion pic— tures and multiple-exposure photographs taken by the English—American photog— rapher Eadweard Muybtidge. Muybridge’s photographs made it possible to study the position ofbody parts while a person was in motion. Motion became an im— portant theme for a number ofavant—garde artists who were labeled the futurists. The young Duchamp settled in Paris in 1904, where Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were changing the way art was practiced. Duchan'ip came under the influence of abstract art, which interpreted the human body and other objects in terms of geometric forms; cubism was one version of this approach. Duchamp combined the technical insights ofmultiple-exposure photography with cubism to produce his best—known work, Nude Dorms?ng a Stairmsr No. 2. The figures in this painting are reduced to a type of geometric machine. However, Duchamp has ingeniously preserved the essential aspects of a figure: the legs, the unmistakably feminine. hips, the torso, and so on. The piece is intellectual, with only a hint of emotionality, which requires the viewer to supply much of the meaning from his or her own background and knowledge. With even this brief discussion of the painting’s context, I hope that you can now see things not seen before. Knowledge is the best canvas for visual perception. Rebound For the last art piece in this tutorial I have selected a very abstract painting by Ellsworth Kelly called Rebound, shown in figure 1.4. The only colors in the painting are white and black, there are no human figures, and no social theme is detectable. Still, it is possible to analyze this piece along the dimensions mentioned above. 12 Introduction: Art . . . a Tutorial On another level, the mere shapes cause some viewers to react with pleasure. There is something intrinsically beautiful about these simple forms that we cannot put into words but that exudes a type oftranquillity. One explanation for this may be that universal codes lurk deep in our neurological architecture. These codes, which some theorists have attempted to describe mathematically, reflect qualities in the perceived world and inform us of the cerebral congruity of “internal events” and “external events.” Some external events, such as a Fragrant odor, a melodious song, a delicious taste. or a pleasing shape, seem to strike. ‘just the right internal chords. We enjoy these things and call them “beautiful.” We pursue these external things because they ring our internal bell. (And we avoid those things that do not.) These neural mechanisms are constantly being called upon to evaluate sensory events, such as art and music, from which we lnakejudgn'ients ofbeaury, aesthetie cism, pleasure, and the like. -ln Rebound, two great curves describe a parabolic orbit which may approxi— mate an archetypal internal geometric: form. According to this notion, the internal form is the quintessential form upon which all approximations are measured. This grand idea suggests that ultimate standards of beauty are to be found in tinder— standing our fundamental internal structures. When you reconsider Rebound, you might apply these more ethereal standards. Does the piece “touch” yen at some profound level of sublime aestheticism? Did Kelly find the formula? These are im— portant questions raised by minimal art. DIRECTED PERCEPTION Minimal abstract art, more than any other type of art, is what we make of it. At least, that is the conventional wisdom. Let’s consider the way one might interpret this minimal art through a religious schema. The two White curved objects may be searching for a connection or continuity. In lVlichelangelo‘s great fresco painted on the ceiling ofthe Sistine chapel in the Vatican in Rome, at the most auspicious moi merit in creation God extends his finger to the lifeleSS Adam giving him life. Can you see that in Rebound? [t is a bit ofa stretch for my imagination, but ifthat‘s your thing, so be it. A more. earthy interpretation is that it is a man’s chest touching a woman’s bosom on the right...
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