Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What Dreams May Come

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock repeats this phrase:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The poem paints a portrait of shallow people doing tea-and-coffee talk and uncomprehending art talk.

That’s not us.

What you learn from reading these posts is not the ability to impress your friends with chitchat about art and artists.

I set a much higher goal, as did Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia. 

The objective method they pioneered and I continue to teach in class settings and in these posts assists you in learning to see—to see more deeply and richly then you ever have.

When I first developed classes to teach this method, I titled them “Informed Perception,” or “Adventures in Perception.”  I did not title them “Art History” or “Art Appreciation.”

If you review the first posts in the blog, you will remember this. Click here to review the following posts: Learning to See; What to Look for in Art; What to Look for in Art, Cont’d.

Based on a few responses to my previous post, Making the Invisible Visible: Part II, I realized some of you do not believe artists like Horace Pippin, Edward L. Loper, Sr., and me “see” our subject as a new visual experience.  From your comments, you think artists see exactly what you and everyone else sees. 

In other words, you understand artists distort visual reality to record the meaning of an aesthetic visual experience in a picture, but you assume this is some kind of “intellectual” or “conceptual” process rather than a perceptual one. 

I beg to differ.

It’s all about seeing.  And if you learn to read pictures, you will “see” as artists “see.”

As I conducted my little experiment in Crested Butte, I discovered that onlookers of my work did not see what I saw.  I shared their responses in the previous post. 

In this post, I will try to convince you of this: what I see when I encounter a subject and subject it to a new visual idea is nothing short of extraordinary.  I enter the door of perception.

Dr. Barnes argues, “We have mysticism at its height when the harmony between the self and the world is taken as the key to all experience, when everything is felt to be full of life, and at heart one with ourselves.  Then the indifference or lifelessness of most of the world is felt to be no more than illusion, and the mystic feels that he sees beneath appearances to the realities underlying them.” (Art in Painting, p. 47).

I do not call myself or think of myself as a mystic.  However, I have experienced astonishing “visions” when I am painting.  When this happens, I feel at one with the universe, as though I penetrated a blocked existence and, for a brief time, see the “rightness” and “realness” of it.

I agree with Dr. Barnes:  aesthetic value is something “which is moving, which must be experienced, which cannot be finally demonstrated, or completely communicated, to other people of different endowment.  In other words, the esthetic experience is of a mystical character.” (see also Laurence Buermeyer, The Aesthetic Experience, pp. 142-155).

When I start a painting, and I take the first interested look at my subject, what we call our “real world” feels to me like the illusion.  What I “see,” literally, what I “see,” is as real, no, actually more real, then it.

Matisse said much the same thing when he answered a question about how he “saw” a tomato.    He said, “If I am going to eat the tomato, I see it just as you do.  If I am going to paint it, I see it differently.”  Notice the choice of words.  He did not say, “If I am going to paint it, I make it into a picture.”  He said, “I see it differently.” 

This is what we know: an artist encountering a subject creates a new experience—not what the subject was, not just his reaction to it or what he felt about it, but a new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.

This is why John Dewey titled his book Art as Experience. 

All current research in neuroscience and visual cognition confirms that humans do not “see” what we think we “see.”  In fact, our eyes do not “see” at all.  They transmit light waves to our visual cortex.  We learn to interpret those light waves.  We re-create visual reality.

How do we re-create what we see?  The books, Visual Intelligence, by Donald Hoffman or Cognition and the Visual Arts by Robert L. Solso hold the answer. 

Read these two quotations:

Vision is normally so swift and sure, so dependable and informative, and apparently so effortless that we naturally assume that it is, indeed, effortless.  But the swift ease of vision, like the graceful ease of an Olympic ice skater, is deceptive.  Behind the graceful ease of the skater are years of rigorous training, and behind the swift ease of vision is an intelligence so great that it occupies nearly half of the brain’s cortex.  (Hoffman, Preface, XI-XII)

Perhaps the most surprising insight that has emerged from vision research is this:  Vision is not merely a matter of passive perception, it is an intelligent process of active construction.  What you see is, invariably, what your intelligence constructs.  Just as scientists intelligently construct useful theories based on experimental evidence, so your visual system intelligently constructs useful visual worlds based on images at the eyes.  (XII)

We see what we learn to look for.

Here is one example:

1.     Samuel Scudder, a student of Louis Agassiz (Harvard professor of natural history), writes in an essay “Take This Fish and Look at It” about his training.  He says that the habit of direct observation is nurtured in the sciences, and its lack is considered a serious failing.  He describes his first lesson in ichthyology under Agassiz.  The lesson was simple.  Agassiz gave him a haemulon preserved in alcohol and told him to look at it.  “In a little while I will ask you what you have seen,” he said.

2.     Scudder looked at it for ten minutes and decided he had seen all that could be seen. Then he waited for a few hours for the professor to return.  Finally, bored, he started to draw the fish, and to his surprise, he began to discover new features in the creature.  When Agassiz finally returned, Scudder related his findings.  But Agassiz was disappointed, and told him he had missed one of the most conspicuous features. 

3.     For three long days, Agassiz put that fish in front of him and forbid him to look at anything else.  “Look. Look. Look,” he told him. 

4.     Scudder concluded this was the best lesson he ever had. 

5.   Agassiz accompanied this method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement by a warning.  Agassiz told him, “Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law.”

In other words, direct observation to make discoveries is as valid for scientific investigation as it is for artistic expression:  it is the goal that differs, not the process.

If “facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law,” then subject facts are equally stupid things until brought into connection with a picture idea, the expressed meaning of a visual experience.

Here is another example:

Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “seeing is very much a matter of verbalization.  Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.  It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’”
Dillard goes on to say:

I see what I expect.  I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions.  Finally I asked, ‘what color am I looking for?’ and a fellow said, ‘Green.’  When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against:  the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.
I just can’t see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct.  The herpetologist asks the native, “Are there snakes in that ravine?” “No sir.”  And the herpetologist comes home with, “yes sir, three bags full. (18)

There is a correlation between what visual artists see and the forms they create to define their seeing.  This translation of a visual experience into color characterizes the interaction of artist with subject.  The result of that encounter, the acting back on the subject by the artist, which means distorting it for the sake of the new idea—the picture idea (the visual meaning that the artist discovered through his experience of that subject)—is recorded in the new entity, the expressive object (aka the picture).

In my previous post, I described Ed Loper’s experience as he observed Horace Pippin working on the painting West Chester, Pennsylvania.

West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1942, Oil on fabric, Wichita Art Museum
Let’s look at the picture.

In the picture, the road pulls up from left to right, and a relatively monochromatic foreground unit sets up the central tree.  The tree creates a pushback (repoussoir) element for the flattened row houses. 

The left side of the building pulls forward to the same plane as the front.   Flattened, this red/brown color unit serves as the background for a stark color drama to unfold.   Light-dark motifs of blue-gray window frames centered with dark gray or black set the theme.  The theme varies with some black windows edged with lighter gray.  White window frames contrast with black or dark gray panes. Black window frames contrast with white panes.  

The dark-light motif carries over into the tree foliage, with the greens set off by black. Black branches are echoed by gray ones. 

The fence, similarly, has fours slats of medium gray.  Then notice how the next two are black.  Then the next five are darker gray.  Then one is taller, one shorter and lighter, two lighter still,  two blue gray, and two almost white.  They beat like the rhythms of a jazz drummer across the picture plane.

These rhythms of light and dark, short and tall, with varied spaces in between, set one decorative theme.  Feathery flowers on the tree become a simple motif repeated in the ends of branches and in the background trees on the far right, like single repeating notes.  There, too, light patterns repeating the linear motif appear light against dark on both the right and left.  The dark black/green shapes of the foliage in the tree echoes in the light clouds in the blue sky.

The angles of the windows and doors, the sliced road, the fence slats and spaces between the fence slats are clean cut and contrast with the graceful flow of the foliage of the tree. A powerful contrast occurs between this and the relatively inactive foreground below. The entire ensemble, united by drama, tonality, space, and a natural kind of logic, speaks its own language and, as Miss de Mazia said, has an “it-ness,” its own reality.

As I described in the last post, Wilmington artist Edward Loper, Sr. watched Pippin paint this picture.  At the time, Loper was working for the Works Progress Administration, and he was being taught to make exact watercolor reproductions of early American antiques for the Index of American Design.  He noticed the road was not black. The asphalt in the sunlight was quite light, almost orange.  He also noticed the distortion in the building.  He did not see all the flowers on the tree.  He saw a typical Catalpa tree. The fence was a single ordinary fence with no breaks or higher and lower and lighter and darker slats.

Loper could not understand why Pippin was, as he saw it, “making a mess.”

Pippin told him he was not “making any of it up.”  He saw it exactly as it was.

This encounter taught Ed Loper a lesson about perception, and it can teach us as well.

Pippin “used” his subject to express the visual meaning he experienced.  The insight is total: at the first interested look, Pippin actually “saw” the scene the way he wanted it to be, not the way it was.  He did not “make it up.” This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said that writing should be “blood warm,” meaning that we should be aware that a living, convincing individual with all his uniqueness intact is talking to us, sharing the experience with us, so that we can learn from it.

Notice, again, the choice of words: “sharing an experience with us.”  Not sharing “reality” with us. 

What helps the artist “see” the other “reality”?  What transforms vision into an experience?

In the chapter “Method,” in Art and Education, a collection of essays by John Dewey, Dr. Barnes, Laurence Buermeyer, Mary Mullen, and Violette de Mazia, you will find the following quote:

The traditions of art constitute the working capital of every artist; they are records of what painters have in the past discovered and revealed as significant; and the ultimate test of any painter’s importance is his ability to add contributions of his own, by means of which his successors may carry further the work of discovery.  The intelligence of the painter manifests itself in his use of the traditions to illuminate for him the world which he seeks to depict. . . .

Every tradition may be regarded as a way of seeing and a manner of organizing; by extracting from the whole body of traditions the elements which serve best the purpose of his individual vision, the painter displays his intelligence in creating his individual form. (18)

Individual form, then, is laboriously born from the marriage of adapted tradition and personal perception (aka “seeing”).

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is accepting all of the following:  “seeing” is learned; reality is not what we think it us; what is real is a question currently debated; there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy (thank you Hamlet). 

Aldous Huxley got it right when he wrote in The Doors of Perception:

What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time.  His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful.  A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.  It is a knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existent. (p. 33).

Huxley’s Doors in the Wall of Perception open for him when he takes a mind-altering drug.
Most artists transport to another reality by simply seeing what their training, background, and interest makes possible for them to see.

You can learn to “see” as they do by studying and describing what their pictures express.

I hope you walk through the doors of perception at least once, because it is a life-changing experience, and you can do it without drugs.  Once you know it is possible, you will find it easier and easier to do.

Ed Loper showed me how to see what I believed, stubbornly insisted, and angrily argued was not there.  Like a sorcerer, he conjured into being invisible color shapes and made them visible to me.  Violette de Mazia further enhanced my aesthetic and visual education.  I have been showing you how to see by writing these posts.

Try it.

Here is an easy way to begin.

Violette de Mazia showed me “islands of light” in Renoir’s paintings.  Here is one example:

Bois de la Chaise (Noirmoutier), 1892, Barnes


Notice the “islands” of light and color in the tree’s shadow.  Notice the “islands” of light and color on the tree’s trunk and branches and foliage.  They are those small, shimmering, colorful shapes that, inn places, seem to float.

Now look at the photographs I took today:
Islands of Light in tree trunk and grass
 Islands of Light in soil and grass under two tree trunks
 Islands of Light in pavement
Now look at this painting:

Bauman, Islands of Light, 2010

In the photographs, you can see the islands of light I noticed during my morning run because Renoir showed me how to see them.  In my painting, you can see how I used my understanding of Renoir’s islands of light in my picture.

And, yes, in all cases, I “saw” them.

Go for a walk and look for islands of light.  If you want to share them with me, take a photo and send it to me.  Tell me if you saw them for the first time.  You can e-mail your discoveries to me by clicking here:  Marilyn’s e-mail.

That’s a start.

I conclude with a quote from Laurence Buermeyer.  At the end of The Aesthetic Experience, he wrote:

…the objectivity which is the consummation of art is impossible to one whose mind does not feed upon the wider range of things which are a part also of human affairs, morality, science, religion.  The burial of art in itself, and the burial of the artist in himself, are one and the same thing, and that is a burial.  That way lie dilettantism, academicism, sentimentalism, and virtuosity. (p. 184)

This way lies perception of heaven and earth never dreamt of in your philosophy.           

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your insightful response, Marilyn. But you didn't tell us what Scudder missed! [But Agassiz was disappointed, and told him he had missed one of the most conspicuous features.]
    RE. the Huxley quote: I understand that Steve Jobs attributed much of his creativeness to LSD. "What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time...."
    Huxley's quote reminded me of my approach as a docent at the Barnes: As a docent at the Barnes, I began in Room I with the paintings of nudes by Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, and Seurat. How do we explain the differences? After all, each is painting nude females, but it would be impossible to mistake a Seurat for a Renoir or a Cezanne for a Matisse. I told the group how Barnes defined as what I call “originality.”
    It "oozes" to use Huxley's term from
    1. The personality of the artist.
    2. The artist’s background and experience
    3. The artist’s mastery of his/her medium.
    It still distresses me to hear friends call a painting a “work of art” which has no distinguishing features that reveal the painter as a unique person.