Psychology of Art Lecture 3 Face of Representation 2008 Rayfield
This lecture explores some ideas about what art represents. Represents in the sense of re-presents, or presents again. Art presents to the viewer something of the artist’s experience. The art re-presents to the viewer what the artist has observed, sensed, analyzed, or concluded about the world.
Written language is a representational system. Letters are used as symbols for sounds we make when we speak. Words are symbols for objects, activities, or features in our environment. Philosophers who study representational systems, and especially linguists who study language all agree, any representational system does not communicate everything about what is represented. The representation, the word, the symbol, the map is never complete. Only the object of the representation is a complete self-description. Even a picture- painted or photographed- which may be worth ten thousand words- is the whole object or experience. Internal structure is not usually described, for example, just a view of the surface. Sometimes the representation is symbolic ,and even private, as in Hampton's garage turned into the Throne of the Third Millenium..
The simplest thing we might wish to represent psychological is a simple sensation. We might describe the firing pattern of the sensory nerves before they even enter the spinal column. The frequency of firing, the rhythm or pattern of firing, including a decrease, are essential features of sensory systems. But even simple sensations are complex. Warming or cooling the skin modulates touch. Hearing is easily disrupted by recent events than numb the cochlea.
Vision is a separate story. The retina itself has layers of nerve cells which process visual information. The visual field in front of the eye is projected on the retina at the back of the eye, upside-down and reversed by the cornea and lens. You might think the nerve cells of the retina are like the CCD in a video camera, parallel to the dots on a TV screen. Sort of. But not so simple. The nerve cells in the retain process the pattern of light received in terms of light areas surrounded by dark, and dark area surround by light. The dots have contrast. Further, if you project an image on the retina, it is seen briefly and then disappears. The retina operates to detect changes, not fixed images. Read Chapter Five in Gregory to learn the details of this. By the time the retina gets done with its preprocessing of visual sensation, sending is axons as the optic nerve into the brain, we do not have a dot pattern of the visual field. Instead we are sending to the brain information of light/dark surrounds, turning on or off.
In terms of color, we have three basic color receptors in the retina, three different chemicals in the cones. Rods are for dim light, cones are for color vision. Cones are jam-packed in the middle of the retina, corresponding to our ability to see detail right in front of the eye. Rods are spread like a doughnut around the patch of cones, called the fovea. So we call foveal vision the color vision we can see in the middle of the visual field in front of us, and it is daylight vision, or photopic vision. Parafoveal vision, around the fovea, and peripheral vision is mostly done with rods which are more sensitive at lower light levels. But with only one kind of rods, we do not see colors in dim light. An interesting visual happening occurs due to the around-the-center position of the rods. In the dark, looking at the stars, a dim star often disappears when you look right at it, not visible by the less sensitive cones. But looking to the side of the star causes it to come into view. By habit, you shift your gaze a fraction to center it, and it disappears again. Astronomers learn not to center their vision. You can do this yourself. So in scotopic (night vision), you are more sensitive, can see dimmer objects. In photopic vision, the objects are brighter, you can see them, and you can detect color. See Gregory Chapter 8. A good intellectual question to keep in your bag of tricks is to always ask if there are two kinds of something, what about in between. What about gender that is in-between male and female, or orientation that is between hetero and homosexual? What about light conditions in between light and dark? What happens? We call this mesopic- middle vision. You might call it dusk vision. Dusk is when a huge amount of traffic accidents occur. Mesopic vision does not get much practice, so we are not good at it, and we a stretching the limits- making the cones work when their sensitivity is low, and also the rods- it sounds weird but they are not as sensitive in low light as they become in the dark. Besides generally poor vision, in mesopic vision, we get a wonderful color shift called the Purkinje shift. While a garden in the daylight clearly be highlighted by reds and greens, the same garden in the dusk will appear to have brighter purple than the other colors. We may not know exactly how the rod and cone vision combine to provide this color sensitivity change, but it is clearly happening.
Two more biopsychology points that I think help us understand seeing as sensation. The optic nerve from the eye to the brain is sending information of light and dark surrounds that turn on and off, as I said above, and also is carrying color information. Helmholtz argued that we separate colors into the groups, hence the trichromatic theory of color vision. He had evidence from experiments that we have receptors for three color bands, red, green, and blue roughly, and he was found to be correct about a hundred years later when we were able to demonstrate three kinds of cones. They look alike, but contain slightly different chemicals. (Color blind people are missing some of the chemicals, and color anomalies- slight color blindness- are caused by mutations of those chemicals/proteins.) Our TVs and computer monitor gives us millions of colors by combining the right amounts of light from three colors of dots on the screen. Helmholst had evidence like that for the trichromatic theory. However, the optic nerve does not carry that trichromatic information. Instead the retina processes the color information for each little dot in the center of the visual field into yellow versus blue, or red versus green. This had been support for over a hundred years by Helmholst’s opponents who had evidence that visual systems works with two opponent processing channels, yellow/blue, and red/green. Evidence like starring at a red dot for a minute, and then at a white wall- and seeing a green contrast. The best one is starring at a flag with black and green stripes, and black stars on a yellow background.. It has to be bright. Then look at the white wall and see old red white and blue. This is called serial contrast, and after-effect of an opposite color. Some illusions show this kind of contrast while you are looking instead of afterwards. This is called simultaneous contrast. In fact looking at any black area next to a white area, we see lines of grey on either side of the boundary, called Mach bands (yes- same scientist they named the speed of sound Mach 1 after.).
SO Helmholst was right at the retina, but opponent process was right at the optic nerve, and in fact they are both right in the brain. We can see evidence for both in our responses to lights.
Now when we go to paint a picture to represent what we see, you may say it does not matter how the eye and brain work. You will just represent what is in the visual field on the canvas. And that is such an over-simplification to be clearly wrong. Seeing is much too active to be able to easily represent what we see in the real world on a flat plane.
Sure it works in the movies, but that is mostly because they keep the pictures moving. Look at the old movies with painted sets, and you quickly detect that the buildings and mountains in the background a fake, painted onto a big backdrop.
The first problem is parallax. In the real world your eyes see different things because they are looking from different angles. This binocular vision is part of depth/distance perception, but it is also just plain common experience. Add eye, head, and body movements, which quickly add to information on how far away something is, and its relation to other objects, and you realize that painting cannot look like the real thing. Perspective requires that you define a point of view. If you move from side to side, or closer or farther from a picture, the perspective no longer looks real. Just like stereo buffs who insist you sit in a chair an exact distance from the speakers.
A second problem for a picture to look like reality is the color. Real world colors are reproduced easily as long as you don’t compare them. The better photo printers for your computer use six color cartridges, not just three, trying to look more real.
Also, the painting or photograph has far less detail available than the real thing in most cases, if we look closely. In like manner, we often peruse a copy of a painting wondering if it is the original or a copy.
Objects in the real world do not have color. They reflect a range of colors depending on the colors in the light which illuminates. The color we see is the color reflected from the object or from the painting. We see the color of the reflected light, usually a mixture of different wavelengths (colors). In a different light the real object and the painting will look different. A pink rose on a white background seen in normal daylight, becomes a disappeared flower if bathed in pink light. The paint of the painting does not reflect light the same way as the real object, except under the kind of light that the artist had when painting.
The real world almost always has movement- shimmer waves, hair dangling, grass waving. Paintings may try. Paintings also lack sounds and smell, and a host of other features that define an object or place. There is no mistaking a person from a portrait.- no blinking eyes, licked lips, nostrils flaring with breathing.
You will see polyester and mixed media sculptures of people at museums that are very realistic. I do not know of anyone who is famous for doing this, despite the amazing skill. The reason is that art is not about simply a realistic representation of visual experience. That is not possible or desirable. Art is about representing features or characteristics about the subject that increase our awareness of them not my mimicking their outward appearance in a natural manner, but rather by expressing our awareness of some less obvious features by use of an artificial manner. In Philip Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, made by Ridley Scott in Bladerunner with Harrison Ford, the inventor of the androids/robots and president of the company that makes them announces that their slogan is “More human than human.”
So when we see a painting that almost looks like a photograph, we should be thinking the artist is trying to same something about our tendency to believe that looks are not deceiving. And when we see a painting of nothing recognizable as real visual experience, we can ask whether we are seeing dream, or an imagination at work, or just someone who sees a different world. Perhaps they are slightly color blind, or have a cataract. Van Gogh’s brilliant colors have been attributed to mental illness affecting his faculties. BUT, if Van Gogh’s bed looked very yellow to him, then painting it with regular soft yellow paint would have looked vivid to his eyes/brain. No- those are the colors of an artist creating a representation of his experience. Van Gogh’s Starry Sky is as twisted as Munchs red sky in the scream.
Vasarely, Stella, Riley, Warhol, Noland, Michaelangelo, Matissse, Van Doesburg, Dine, Calder sometimes seems more interested in how we see simple forms and colors than what we are looking at.
So, now a painting is not a matter of technique for representing a seen image with paint. Instead an artist must invent a language to represent something less formal than language. That language needs to be a balance of unique and common, or mysterious and obvious, or fantastic and ordinary. It must be accessible and yet fascinating. The artist invents the language and makes a statement, an essay, an image. This is the creative side of art.
Even abstract art, which claims no representation of realist subject matter, is somehow expressing something intelligible, is representing some subset of human experience,. Even if it is only the experience of sensation.
But let us go beyond sensation, to the realm of perception. We say that sensation is the raw input from the afferent nerves to the brain, even those may already be modulated, blocked, or enhanced. Perception is a higher level of processing, converting simple patches of light and dark into the perception of a face, and then into the perception of a particular faces, in fact a particular person. So the senses are the five or six well-known suspects, and they have variety, heat-cold-pain-pressure-texture, loud-soft-pitch-tone etc. We can define perception as the combination of these simpler concepts into high level, more complex concepts. Examples might be, the feel of a rough haired water dog, the sounds of a gamelan, the smell of apple pie (baking, one of my favorite arts!). This is a cognitive approach.
A different approach to perception is to say that perception is how we respond to the sensations of a stimulus. That is sensation is the input, and perception is the output. There is not agreement on these definitions, though the words are used frequently. When Arnheim says “percept” he is talking about a cognitive representation of the result of perception. I suppose that means how you respond inwardly without external behavior to an art object.
We can be trained to perceive different representations in a picture, the same as we can be taught to look for levels of meaning in poetry, or analyze chord structure in a sonata.. As we grow older we learn to detect when the sound of someone’s voice tells us they are angry, or kidding, of pretending to be angry, or hurt, or honest, or in a hurry. As we look at pictures, and study them with patience, with someone who knows what the artists was saying, comparing them with other pictures, and sharing experiences of the pictures (plays, poems, symphony, sculpture).
Aside from simple sensation, one of the first configurations of simple objects that a child sees is the human face. We have mentioned before that Darwin described similarities in all mammals in facial expression. Here we are talking about the ability of babies to quickly learn to distinguish a face from a non-face, and then a caregiver’s face from a stranger. Lots of psychological experiments have been done showing infants very early in life can perceive a face with the eyes nose and mouth scrambled. There are sound and smell and touch too. But a baby comes out of the womb looking for his/her mother. Lorenz won a Nobel Prize showing that ducklings and other species follow the first things they see that is anything close in size and shape of their mother, called imprinting. Recognizing parents, siblings, and clan members is a critical skill. Reading faces for emotion, approval/disapproval, meaning in a story, and so on are higher level percepts than simply recognizing that a configuration is a face. One great advance on the Renaissance was to add expression to the faces, which had previously only been there to symbolize through iconic cues what Biblical scene or other church scene was being represented.
This was paralleled in ancient Greece with statues of young men, called Kouros. Initially it was adequate to sculpt a figure facing forward, feet planted solidly side by side. Then one foot gradually comes forward. It is not a matter of style, it is a matter of moving toward a more lifelike representation. Gradually the arm is separated from the hips, and eventually we have the Golden Age of Greek sculpture, and work like the Venus De Milo, where the whole figure is beautifully in motion with an S figure for the whole torso.
With two discoveries of human form, Greek and Renaissance, Picasso and the Cubists decide to keep the main elements, and throw away the realistic features which are not critical to their expression. Look at all of Picasso’s faces for the last forty years of his career. His main theme.
As we develop as humans we learn to represent or hide our inner activities with our facial expression. We learn how to read the facial expressions of others. I cannot resist wondering how similarities in this kind of nonverbal communication can make or break a relationship. And what do we do with all the mistaken representations- like our recent tangling with Munch’s Scream. Is everyone right? Is everyone wrong?
So whether we are looking at the face of our tennis partner or our child or our client, or at an acrylic portrait, we are trying to perceive the representation. The artist is probably representing many things at once. It is sort of like a tuner on a TV set or radio. The air is full of signals, like a picture is full of meanings, and we have to tune in the ones that interest us, or the ones crucial to understanding the picture. Some people have a few channels they scan for. “ I don’t know good from bad art, but I know what I like.” No genius in that. Someone has some features they like in a picture, and maybe some they dislike. Just a few easy steps to saying whether you like he picture or not. We, on the other hand, have a much broader array of “channels” to look for. How many pictures did we skip looking for rhythm in a picture? How many of those picture do you think had a visual rhythm if someone just showed it to you? Sure there are works of art with a simple message- Picasso’s Dove, an Arp sculpture. The beauty is being able to say confidently that this is a simple work, without scanning all you channels to see if it is something else. Stay tuned.