February 22, 2014, by Stephen Mumford
Making Sense 1
Images hit the retina whenever our eyes are open. Mostly we let those images pass by, ignoring them in favour of more pressing thoughts. Sometimes an image deserves our attention and we take a perception, an action that makes sense of the visual manifold.
There is a special kind of perception that we can take: an aesthetic perception. There are many scenes before us but only a select few that we enjoy aesthetically. It can be a sunset beaming through the evening clouds, a view from a mountain top or a friend’s smile that pleases the eye. But it is the visual arts that actively encourage the taking of aesthetic perceptions. An everyday scene in a street may be used only to survey the route across the road. But put it in a frame and hang it in a gallery and that same scene has a very different use, one that invites purposeless observation and contemplation. The beliefs and intentions of the viewer determine what is seen and how it is seen. Seeing is an action – something we do and with respect to which we are active – rather than a passion, done unto us.
The visual arts trade on the immediacy of the seen. A picture can paint at least a thousand words for it is often easier to show rather than to describe. And the image underdetermines any such words of description. The picture might not be only any empty chair. Perhaps it is Gauguin’s chair. But then where is Gauguin? Why did he leave and when will he return? Does it feel lonely? The picture depicts an emptiness, telling the story of an absence.
Much art comes to us through our eyes. It is not just painting, film, theatre and photography that we must learn to see. Most sculpture is primarily seen; galleries usually will not let us touch. And even dance – that most physical and embodied of arts – has its sense of movement and pose conveyed upon us through our visual experience. Full appreciation of the art comes only with the trained eye, when one knows for what one should look.
In more innocent times John Berger assembled a book of essays, some of which were entirely pictorial and wordless (Ways of Seeing, 1972). Perhaps we are more likely now to be trampled under the unstoppable progress of empirical science, which sometimes would allow validity only to that which can be confirmed bythe senses. Berger showed that there really is more to seeing than meets the eye. Much depends on how we look, which in turn is determined by our often unnoticed presuppositions. If we want to understand this process better, and assist science in its search for perceptible truths, the visual arts are as good a place as any at which to start.