The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

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JUL-AUG 2020 Issue
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The Case for Impure Vision

It is well known that in the wake of the Romantic era, Cézanne and a host of other artists dreamed of restoring a sense of innocence and purity to our senses—the naiveté of the artist and the innocence of the viewer. Is there such a thing as pure vision? When we are confronted with a painting, is it possible for us to see the object in pure visual terms without being influenced by a host of factors such as one’s prior history of seeing art or one’s acquaintance with art history? The answer to these questions is a firm and absolute no. Not even the everyday vision of an infant is likely to be a purely sensory affair given that some internal ancestral biases are likely to be at play already. But the vision of the adult, the manner in which they contemplate a painting (or, for that matter, a natural landscape) is certainly neither pure nor virginal. Let me add that this answer probably applies to any average adult independent of their intelligence, cultural milieu, and even their degree of acquaintance with the world of art. The reasons behind the “impure” vision are so deeply embedded in the way our minds are biologically structured and how they typically operate, that in spite of individual variations, the reality of impure vision imposes itself.

There is an important reason behind the impurity of vision—or, to consider it from a different perspective, its “particularity.” It is the intricate structure and physiology of the visual apparatus. Vision interconnects with other perceptual channels and it also relates to the neurobiology supporting conscious minds. In brief, the articulation of the complicated machinery behind the looking at and the seeing of a work of art, along with the insertion of that machinery in the wider context of generating a conscious mind, are responsible for a functional spillover from vision toward a variety of other functions.

First, let us consider the projection of vision into other sensory modalities. It so happens that after the signals that constitute vision arrive in the retina and travel from there over a complicated maze of visual pathways and centers, they enter a convergence/divergence framework that brings them into contact with other regions of the nervous system. Signals from early visual cortices meet with signals hailing from other sensory modalities. Incidentally, this is the reason why early on in life (and in some cases throughout life), we encounter the phenomenon of synesthesia, whereby a visual signal, for example, may prompt quite vivid internal responses in other modalities, such as auditory or even olfactory. Both as a developmental stage and as an atypical condition, synesthesia testifies to the possibility of bringing together several senses in a single perceptual pool. (In my experience synesthesia is common in artists, especially musicians. Ravel was the greatest of all synesthetes!)

Second comes the projection of vision into the world of affect. This is a general phenomenon and it is unrelated to the specifics of visual perception. Colors, textures, patterns, figures, deeply analyzed or interpreted on the fly, all have the potential to suggest ideas or objects or actions, subsequently generating emotive reactions and feelings. Sections of a painting as well as whole configurations within a painting may continually offer new interpretations to the observer. This ability to continue offering the viewer new interpretations is a hallmark of great art.

But the impurities do not end here. Either through the visual channel or the affective channel, the process of seeing and analyzing a painting also taps into a variety of non-explicit arrangements of our biology in terms of how these relate to the maintenance of life within optimal boundaries, that is, to homeostasis. This is one more reason why seeing is inevitably “modified” by non-visual factors.

Is there such a thing then as a “virginal vision” of art? Can we ever see the world or a painting in pure sensory terms without being influenced by external factors of the moment or cultural factors or some internal biological factor that precludes that simple pure vision? The answer is definitely not. The affective contribution to impurity is especially remarkable when the artist portrays themes that rapidly conjure up emotion. I am thinking, for example, of Renaissance paintings that depict scenes of profound suffering where identification with the subject is possible and where an empathic response can be firmly established. The idea that empathy can engage responses in the somatic sensory cortices is certainly reasonable but the overall feeling response, whose components are generated at the brain stem level and at the level of the insular cortex, is even more powerful.

Cultural notions of beauty and value also play a role in shaping our vision. Some paintings by de Kooning from the celebrated “Woman” series (or Picasso’s work in the ’30s, for that matter) are bound to displease some beholders, as they do not conform to more traditional canons of beauty. On a personal level, let me recount the following story: as admirers of Jackson Pollock and of Lee Krasner, my wife and I had acquired a Pollock drawing and we thought it was only fair that it should be matched by one of Krasner’s. After much searching we did find a beautiful charcoal piece that pleased us. My problem began once it was delivered. When I had first seen the work in the gallery I had not realized that in one area of the composition the lines and shadings would make me think of a cartoon figure! Now I “saw” the cartoon distinctly, every time I looked, at odds with the rest of the composition, and it disturbed me immensely. I tried in vain to suppress this bit of unwanted “interpretation” but to no avail. Eventually we returned the piece because my strange reading imposed itself every time I looked. I simply could not live with it. (The interpretation of seemingly abstract patterns as specific objects or persons is known as pareidolia and is a normal phenomenon encountered in imaginative individuals. Identifying faces in moonlit clouds is a typical manifestation. When it was first described, pareidolia was thought to be a sign of madness!)

Ultimately, we see a work of visual art in almost the same way we see everyday reality. We engage two distinct but complementary approaches. One approach uses the visual system and allows visual perception to make contact with our storehouse of knowledge; the other approach uses our affective apparatus. The two approaches feed into each other and provide us with fairly comprehensive and adaptive reactions to the world around us. Even if our visual system would not have been as intricate and richly connected as it is, the dual approaches of vision and affect would guarantee the impurity of our vision.


Antonio Damasio

is Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Philosophy and Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2020

All Issues