Stories in Pictures (and Non-Pictorial Objects)

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Cognitive psychologists, such as Eleanor Rosch mentioned earlier, have, to a considerable extent, given attention to the capacity of humans and other living creatures to categorize objects and events. It seems unquestionable that this capacity is essential for organisms in order to survive and to improve their living conditions. The formation of categories enables us to apply previous experiences to new ones, to make inferences, to make predictions about the future, and they provide efficiency in communication - just to mention a few examples. Important questions, however, are how categories arise at all (i.e. whether, or to what extent, they are the result of environmental features or constructive processes on the part of the categorizer), and how they are represented in consciousness. A significant characteristic of cognitive psychology, which clearly distinguishes it from traditional behaviourism, is the assumption that intelligent organisms are capable of constructing and manipulating mental representations.

A number of cognitive psychologists have argued that perception and cognitive activities are hierarchically structured. New information is compared with and assimilated into broader schemata or categories which are necessary for object recognition, explanations, predictions, and communicative activities. Put in another way, humans seem to be able to store mental representations which have something like a type-character. These representations are thus some kind of abstractions stored in long-term memory with which external objects are compared. Common taxonomic categories are acquired after encountering several particular instances of the category in question, after which relevant characteristics are extracted and integrated into category knowledge.

Numerous studies within cognitive psychology indicate that category formation in general, whether we think of categories such as furniture, fruit, birds, animals, and so on, may be explained as outlined here. It should also be emphasized that these studies are empirically based, making use of sophisticated and rigorous experimental and statistical methods, thus giving the hypotheses put forward, as I believe, additional strength compared to pure philosophical reflections.

Research within cognitive psychology suggests that not only objects, but also events may be regarded as belonging to more general categories, i.e. action schemas. For example, events such as buying a ticket or wearing a dark dress may belong to categories such as going to the cinema or going to a funeral (which may be further categorized as instances of an entertainment event, or an occasion for grief). Sequences of such stereotypical and categorizable actions are commonly called frames, scripts or event schemas in cognitive psychology.29 These schemas thus incorporate generalized knowledge about event sequences (e.g. the order in which specific events will take place; causal, enabling, or conventionalized relations between these events, and what kind of events occur at all in certain action sequences). Moreover, there are also scene schemas which are rather characterized by spatial than temporal relations. For example, we have certain expectations as to how the rooms, streets, and buildings look like where particular activities (such as going to a restaurant or going to a funeral) take place. Hence we have mentally stored inventory information, i.e. what kinds of objects normally appear in such situations, as well as spatial-relation information, i.e. concerning the usual spatial layout of a scene.30

A number of experimental studies have been carried out in order to investigate the formation and structure of such action schemas or scripts. It has been proposed, for example by Roger Schank and Robert Abelson, that our knowledge to a considerable extent is organized around a large amount of stereotypic situations consisting of (more or less) routine activities.31 Through previous (direct or indirect) experiences we acquire hundreds of such cultural stereotypes (along with idiosyncratic variations). In a series of experiments carried out by Gordon Bower, John Black, and Terrence Turner, for example, it was shown that people largely agreed on the nature of the characters, props, actions, and the order of actions concerning routine activities such as eating in a restaurant, visiting a dentist, and so on. Moreover, when asked to recall texts narrating actions from a script, the subjects tended to confuse in memory actions that were stated with unstated actions implied by the script. Subjects also tended to recall script actions in their familiar or canonical order; scrambled texts presenting script actions out of order were usually recalled according to the implicit underlying order.32

According to Roger Schank, who extended his relatively early work on action schemas, intelligence consists to a considerable extent of the storage and retrieval of scripts, that is, generalized sets of expectations about what will happen in well-understood situations.33 Moreover, such memory structures may occur on various levels of abstraction. In the lower levels there will be scenes - general structures that describe how and when a particular set of actions take place, such as a doctor's waiting room scene, reception scene or surgery scene. Each scene defines a setting, a goal, and actions in attempting to reach a specific goal. Scenes can point to scripts which provide the details concerning stereotyped actions that take place within a scene. They may then be organized into wider "memory organization packages" (MOPs) which are directed towards the achievement of a major goal.34 Several MOPs may be active at one time and may reflect the physical, social, and personal aspects of a certain activity. Thus, as Schank suggests, a visit to a dentist will activate at least three MOPs: (i) M-HEALTH PROTECTION (the personal aspects of keeping fit); (ii) M-PROFESSIONAL OFFICE VISIT (the physical activity of visiting the dentist; and (iii) M-CONTRACT (the social contractual obligations, such as paying the dentist). Furthermore, MOPs may themselves be organized into higher-level structures, so-called meta-MOPs. The meta-MOP "mM-TRIP" can deal, for instance, with the stages in such a visit by activating MOPs such as M-AIRPLANE, M-HOTEL, M-LEISURE, and so on. On a still higher level, there are "Thematic Organization Packages" (TOPs) which allow us to be reminded of abstract principles or context-independent information that create relationships between various contexts or MOPs.35

The knowledge of scripts, MOPs, meta-MOPs, or TOPs may be more or less idiosyncratic or historically-socially context-bound. It is hardly controversial to suspect, as also Schank claims, that the identity of cultures (and sub-cultures, of course) to a considerable extent is based upon the sharing of such low- and high-level narrative structures.36 Furthermore, such culturally shared stories occur frequently in highly abbreviated form or as ‘gists’. People often do not remember specific narrations of stories, but rather gists. When certain indexes remind us of a possible gist, it might then be extendable into a full-fledged narrative.

Now, with regard to pictorial art (as well as other kinds of pictorial material), it may be assumed that in numerous cases the rendered content more or less corresponds to, and may be assimilated by, narrative mental representations (and expectations) which are shared by a relatively large group of beholders. As, for example, the art historian Michael Baxandall convincingly has claimed, artists have usually adapted their work to the general cognitive demands and presuppositions of the intended beholders.37 Although Baxandall chiefly has focused on strategies for pictorial representation used in fifteenth-century Italian painting, it seems quite possible to take his account as suggesting a more general point. The production of visual works of art is influenced by the demands and needs of a certain public. The artist responds to these demands and offers opportunities for the beholder to apply his background experience of his 'way of life' (in this case including the knowledge of biblical stories) as well as artistic conventions. The beholder interprets a work of art according to acquired category systems and habits which the work has been adapted to. Put in another way, pictorial representations trigger the retrieval of mentally stored, more or less well-known stories, and narrative gaps in the pictorial material are ‘filled in’ with the necessary connecting details by the beholders.

Storytelling in and by pictures, I believe, is frequently based upon the existence and activation of such mentally stored action and scene schemas on part of the beholders. These mental schemas are usually constituted out of earlier experiences of action series and events, either due to the beholders' previously acquired, direct familiarity with them, or due to the beholders' acquaintance with written, oral, and of course pictorial descriptions of certain events (e.g. religious or mythological tales). Pictorial narration, we might assume, consists of representing (more or less significant) components of action sequences familiar to the beholders, sometimes only by rendering a specific, arrested moment which can activate a wider, mentally imagined event schema. Moreover, narrative and temporal aspects in pictorial representations may also occur in implicit renderings of nature's and the seasons' cyclic processes, of man's or other organisms’ ontogenetic and phylogenetic development, of cultural and historic situations as related to other contexts or even the present (i.e. the context in which the picture has been created), and so on. Narratively indeterminate pictures trigger usually efforts among beholders to give them a more definite narrative structure, or rather result in the creation of narrative hypotheses. Take, for example, Edward Hopper’s painting “Automat” (illus. 4), which shows a well-dressed woman sitting at a restaurant table. She is wearing makeup, thereby perhaps indicating that she is on her way to or from work or another social occasion where personal appearance is important. She has removed only one glove, which may indicate either that she is distracted, in a hurry, or simply that she has just come in from outside, and has not yet warmed up. Moreover, the woman is warmly dressed, thus it

Illustration 4: Edward Hopper, “Automat”, 1927
could be late-autumn or winter. Is it late at night, early in the morning, or early in the evening (at a time of the year when days are short)? Is she coming from or going to work, or has she arranged a rendezvous? And how should we interpret the general atmosphere of emptiness, loneliness, and her downcast eyes? Has anything severe happened in her life? Apart from these questions motivated by our efforts to give the painting a narrative fixation, general going-to-a-restaurant-MOP’s immediately become activated, which of course on a more basic level give this picture a narrative framing.
Even nonfigurative pictures and objects, I believe, may give rise to the emergence of narrative structuring processes. Take, for example, Piet Mondrian’s painting “Yellow Patch”. Is this

apparently completely static and atemporal picture suggesting any kind(s) of narrative(s)? Well, of course it does.

First, someone being acquainted with Mondrian’s work in general might easily see this painting as a part, and perhaps as some kind of end result, of his ‘ontogenetic’ artistic development, stretching from his early, relatively naturalistic landscape paintings to visual configurations extremely reduced to vertical and horizontal lines and primary colours (illus. 5a-d).

Illustration 5a: Piet Mondrian, “Red Tree”, 1908

Illustration 5b: Piet Mondrian, “Grey Tree”, 1911

Illustration 5c: Piet Mondrian, “Line and Color”, 1913

Illustration 5d: Piet Mondrian, “Yellow Patch”, 1930

Second, on a perhaps more basic level, although many beholders nowadays would agree to its classification as ‘art’, its status as such was far from given at the time of its production in 1930 (and his works were actually considered to be degenerate art – ‘Entartete Kunst’ – in the Third Reich). Attempts to define art, either in essentialist terms or as a family resemblance concept, have been a matter of standing dispute within philosophical aesthetics. Now, as Noël Carroll has suggested, art has indeed a necessary and thus essential condition for its existence, namely its historical dimension with regard to its production as well as to its reception and evaluation.38 The reception of art on part of the audience, for example, is guided by traditions of interpreting and appreciating art. Such traditions or the knowledge of historical antecedents provide means for orientation towards contemporary art. Historically preceding art activities and present ones have, as Carroll further claims, a narrative connection. When it comes to historical narratives, the incorporated events are usually situated within an explanatory pattern which gives them significance by delineating their causal roles and teleological contributions to certain goals or outcomes.39Art historical narratives show, according to Carroll, a similar pattern. Some of such historical narratives function as identifying narratives, that is, they are used to establish the art status of contested or disputed works. The beginning of these narratives includes a description of a set of historical circumstances, of previous art practices, which are generally undisputed with regard to their art status. This background thus introduces a context which is adequate or sufficient for making the further development plausible and narratively intelligible.. So, the very fact that Mondrian’s painting is classified and classifiable qua art could be regarded as implying narrative presuppositions.

But what about non-pictorial objects? Can they ‘tell us’ or imply stories? Well, as also Schank claims, physical objects can certainly remind us of event structures.40 Tools and household objects, for example, indicate their functional and goal-directed characteristics, and they trigger script-based memory structures. They can function as perceptual cues which remind us of possible and actual uses of them in various event structures, thus implying narratives. A hat, say the characteristic bicorne hat worn by Napoleon (which I recently saw at an exhibition), may give rise to the formation or retrieval of narratives. And even natural objects, such as plants or rocks, may be perceived as constituents of narrative structures, such as seasonal or geological changes. In general, our knowledge and perception of the world is permeated by more or less full-fledged narratives, which are necessary for our ability to make the world comprehensible, to manipulate it, to see causal relationships, and to prognosticate possible changes. Indeed, conceptions of theory-neutral observations (i.e. to some extent story-neutral ones) have nowadays very few adherents within philosophy of science and epistemology. The question is not whether almost anything tells (or can tell) us a story; the question is rather how much it does so, and how explicit this story-telling is.

And when it comes to pictorial material, then, I am arguing that narrativity and at least implied temporality are more than just contingent or accidental aspects in pictorial representations, but indeed constitute a basic characteristic in many cases and perhaps even are a presupposition in order to comprehend them at all and to appreciate them (not least with regard to pictorial works of art). Pictorial material is frequently and intentionally produced in order to trigger stories to give rise to narrative hypothesizing. But these assumptions, of course, need a far more detailed elaboration, which unfortunately would go beyond the scope of this paper.

BARSALOU, Lawrence W.: "Deriving Categories to Achieve Goals", in Bower (1991), pp. 1 - 64
BAXANDALL, Michael: "Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy - A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style", Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, (1972) 1988
BOWER, Gordon H., BLACK, John B. & TURNER, Terence J.: “Scripts in Memory for Text”, Cognitive Psychology, vol. 11, pp. 177-220, 1979
BOWER, Gordon H. (ed.): "The Psychology of Learning and Motivation - Advances in Research and Theory", vol. 27, San Diego: Academic Press, 1991
BREWER, William F.: "Schemas versus Mental Models in Human Memory", in Morris (1987), pp. 187 - 197
BRILLIANT, Richard: "Visual Narratives - Storytelling in Etruscan and Roman Art", Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1984
CARROLL, Noël: “Beyond Aesthetics – Philosophical Essays”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001
FLUDERNIK, Monika: “An Introduction to Narratology”, London/New York: Routledge, 2009
GOMBRICH, Ernst H.: "Moment and Movement in Art”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 27, pp. 293-306, 1964
KAEMMERLING, Ekkehard (ed.): "Bildende Kunst als Zeichensystem 1 - Ikonographie und Ikonologie", Köln: DuMont Buchverlag, (1979) 1987
KROGH HANSEN, Per (ed.): „Borderliners – Searching the Boundaries of Narrativity and Narratology“, Copenhagen: Medusa, 2009
LAGERROTH, Ulla-Britta, LUND, Hans & HEDLING, Erik (eds.): "Interart Poetics - Essays on the Interrelations of the Arts and the Media", Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1997
LESSING, Gotthold Ephraim: "Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry", trans. Ellen Frothingham, Boston, 1910
LEVINSON, Jerold (ed.): “The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
MANDLER, Jean Matter: "Stories, Scripts, and Scenes: Aspects of Schema Theory", London/Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1984
MITCHELL, W.J.T.: "Iconology - Image, Text, Ideology", Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1986
MORRIS, P. (ed.): "Modelling Cognition", Chichester, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1987
PANOFSKY, Erwin: "Studies in Iconology", New York: Harper Torchbooks (1939) 1962
POCHAT, Götz: “Bild-Zeit - Zeitgestalt und Erzählstruktur in der bildenden Kunst von den Anfängen bis zur frühen Neuzeit“, Wien/Köln/Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 1996
PRINCE, Gerald: "Narratology - The Form and Functioning of Narrative", Berlin/New York/Amsterdam: Mouton Publishers, 1982
ROSCH, Eleanor: "Cognitive Representations of Semantic Categories", Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 104, pp. 192 - 233, 1975
ROSCH, Eleanor: "Categorization", Encyclopedia of Human Behavior, vol. 1, Academic Press, Inc., pp. 513 - 523, 1994
ROSCH, Eleanor & MERVIS, Carolyn B.: "Family Resemblances: Studies in the Internal Structure of Categories", Cognitive Psychology, vol. 7, pp. 573 - 605, 1975
ROSCH, Eleanor & LLOYD, Barbara B. (eds.): "Cognition and Categorization", Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1978
ROSÉN, Sven: "Succession i simultana bilder - Stilkritiska studier i antikens och renässansens konst", Lund: Gleerupska universitetsbokhandeln, 1912
SCHANK, Roger C. & ABELSON, Robert P.: ”Scripts, Plans Goals and Understanding – An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structure”, Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1977
SCHANK, Roger C.: “Tell Me a Story – Narrative and Intelligence”, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1995
SCHANK, Roger C.: “Dynamic Memory Revisited”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999
SKALIN, Lars-Åke: ”Centres and Borders: On Defining Narrativity and Narratology”, in Krogh Hansen (2209), pp. 19-75
SOLSO, Robert L.: “Cognition and the Visual Arts”, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994
SONESSON, Göran : "Mute Narratives - New Issues in the Study of Pictorial Texts", in Lagerroth, Lund & Hedling (1997), pp. 243 - 251
SOURIAU, Etienne: "Time in the Plastic Arts", Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 7, pp. 294 - 307, 1949
WILSON, George: “Narrative”, in Levinson (2003), pp. 392-406
YARBUS, Alfred L.: "Eye Movements and Vision", New York: Plenum Press, 1967

1 Cf. Pochat (1996), p. 7 (my trans.): “While there have been numerous studies within art history concerned with the concept of space and the rendering of spatial depth, starting with Panofsky [1924]..., treatises on the character of ‘time’ and its outcome within the visual arts don’t reveal the same continuity and impact, although certainly some contributions related to the subject have been published.”

2 See e.g. Panofsky: "Ikonographie und Ikonologie" (1939/1955); reprinted e.g. in Kaemmerling (1987), pp. 207 - 225; Panofsky (1962).

3A third - iconological - type of interpretation would treat the artwork as symptomatic of a cultural climate or world view, that is, formulate statements sug­gested by the work in this respect.

4Though this approach towards works of art is well-known and promi­nent among art historians, it has not been accepted unanimously, but has e.g. been criticized for giving a one-sided account - and evaluation - of artworks because of its tendency to reduce them to something like verbal messages. See e.g. Otto Pächt: "Kritik der Ikonologie" (1977), reprinted in Kaemmerling (1979), p. 355 (my translation): "[One]...treats the picture or work of art as if it were an emblematic mosaic, a pictorial writing...Art is seen as a procedure...for wrapping certain messages for the purpose of transportation...The task of the art then to remove the kernel from the shell...For this way of thinking the ranking of the artwork is inseparably connected with the value and the content of the message which it transports. Art is here...a means for achieving some ends, not an end in itself, and could in principle, when its task has been accomplished, dismissed."

5 Prince (1982), p. 4.

6 Ibid., p. 145f. For example, narratives “presenting relatively many time sequences should have more narrativity than … [those] presenting relatively few…” (ibid., p. 146).

7 Ibid., p. 145.

8 Cf. Skalin (2009), p. 26ff.

9 Carroll (2001), p. 122.

10 Ibid., p. 409.

11 Ibid., p. 126.

12 Fludernik (2009), p. 6.

13 Quoted in Gombrich (1964), p. 294.

14 Lessing (1910), p. 91.

15 Ibid., p. 92.

16 Ibid.

17 Cf. also the discussion in Mitchell (1986), pp. 94 - 115.

18 Souriau (1949), p. 294.

19 Ibid., p. 301.

20 Gombrich (1964), p. 301f.

21 Yarbus (1967). Cf. also Solso (1994), pp. 134 – 138.

22 Cf. Mitchell (1986), p. 100.

23 See Rosch (1975; 1994); Rosch & Mervis (1975); Rosch & Lloyd (1978).

24 It should be pointed out, though, that there may be categories which actually reflect an all-or-none rule, that is, some entities belong, formally speaking, to the category in question in strict essentialist terms, while others do not. For example, the category odd number includes any number whatsoever that produces a remainder of 1 when divided by 2. All category members satisfy the rule equally. Still, despite the existence of exact formal criteria for category membership, it may be claimed that such a category has a graded structure, psychologically and cognitively speaking, due to the efficiency with which people establish membership of certain numbers, or due to the fact that they regard some numbers as more typical than others (say, 3 compared to 1057). Cf. Barsalou (1991), p. 8.

25 Cf. also the discussion in Skalin (2009).

26 Cf. also Sonesson (1997), p. 244 f.

27 For an early work on this matter, see Rosén (1912).

28 For a detailed analysis of the relief on the Column of Trajan, see Brilliant (1984), pp. 90 - 123.

29 Cf. Mandler (1984). Within cognitive psychology, a number of terms have been employed to refer to mental representations of (more or less) complex phenomena. Apart from schemata and scripts, psychologists have also made use of terms such as mental models, causal mental models (which imply explanations and justifications), frames, situation models, episodic models, and so forth. Several of these concepts seem to have the same core set of attributes, though perhaps a basic distinction can be made between (i) representations of pre-existing generic knowledge, and (ii) specific representations which are constructed at the time of use. For a discussion and comparison of the meaning of these terms, see Brewer (1987).

30 Cf. Mandler (1984), pp. 13 - 17.

31 Schank & Abelson (1977).

32 Bower, Black & Turner (1979).

33 Schank (1995, 1999).

34 Cf. ibid. (1999), pp. 123-136.

35 Cf. ibid., pp. 137-154.

36 Cf. Schank (1995), pp. 189-218.

37 Baxandall (1988).

38 See Carroll (2001), pp. 79-81.

39 Cf. George M. Wilson (2003), p. 394.

40 Schank (1999), e.g. p. 22.

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