Is seeing also understanding?
The physiological processes that come together to form our vision, or sight capabilities, are a component of the larger complex process of how we ‘see’ or comprehend the world. Consider the statement by Henry Sayre, “Everything you see is filtered through a long history of fears, prejudices, desires, emotions, customs, and beliefs.” Our understanding of visual culture, including art, is dynamic, informed by our prior experiences and identities.
We live in a time of unprecedented saturation of visual culture, exponentially increased by the ease of digital communication. The term ocularcentrism has been used to describe the dominance of the visual in contemporary Western life (Rose 3). But does seeing necessarily equal understanding? Consider Sayre’s example in questioning visual information, as to what colored stripe is at the top and bottom of the American flag (16)? As our national symbol, we assume we have a thorough understanding of it because we’ve seen it so frequently. However- not only seeing, but remembering what we have seen is often inaccurate, and can be more of a creative interpretive process than we may recognize.
To be able to engage artwork at a deeper level, beyond passive looking, it is necessary to develop a breadth of understanding in art history, methods of visual analysis, and specific descriptive language. To communicate how visual art affects you it is necessary to understand vocabulary, phrases, and concepts that allow you to think critically about visual images (Sayre 19). In the prior module you learned the terms and meanings of the language of form, the elements and principles of design. This module builds on that by considering perspective, context, and other methods of visual analysis beyond formalism.
Perspective is a point-of-view. In a way it is regarding something through a specific filter. Each perspective or filter has unique characteristics that direct how something is considered. For example, if you were analyzing an artwork in regards to gender, an aspect of identity, you might consider how being male, female, or transgendered might contribute to the experience of an artwork. Context or contextual knowledge relates to perspective, in that all perspectives are shaped by the circumstances around them that constitute a kind of background they form within.
3 Basic Types of Perspective
Culture is a complex concept that encompasses the ways that social life effects and informs our experiences. To quote Stuart Hall:
“Culture, it is not so much a set of things- novels and paintings, or TV programs or comics- as a process, a set of practices. Primarily culture is concerned with the production and exchange of meanings- the ‘giving and taking of meaning’ between members in a society or group… Thus culture depends on its participants interpreting meaning- fully what is around them, and ‘making sense’ of the world, in broadly similar ways (Rose 2).”
It could be said that growing up in America contributes to an ‘American worldview’. We each may have variations to this, but unless you were raised outside of the United States, you are strongly (consciously or unconsciously) influenced by an American perspective. This is an example of cultural perspective. Where in the United States you were raised might also contribute contextually to this, as many regions of the country are unique and form a specific kind of background.
Representations, in whatever form they take, contribute to ‘made meanings’ of culture, specifically as visual culture. As Gillian Rose points out- these representations, whether they are high art or advertisements, are not transparent windows on the world, rather- they interpret the world (Rose 2). When we select and take in specific kinds of representations there is an exchange of meaning that goes two ways. We participate in constructing culture by selecting and elevating certain forms of representations, and that specific visual culture we experience has the power to influence our personal view on life.
As time passes, scholarship and research occur and many people become aware of a particular artwork, art form, art style, etc. Recognition may increase (and sometimes decreases). Vincent Van Gogh is an example here—totally unappreciated while he was alive, he’s recognized worldwide as a notable painter. Other examples might be the negative attitudes towards jazz music or hip-hop in the mid-twentieth century. These currents of recognition often spring from institutions like museums, academic writing and journals, college art classes, and art history as a field of study.
Personal perspectives are formed by the layered aspects that form our individual identities. This could be any number of defining aspects such as, gender, class, race, where you were born and raised, education, aspects of family, group affiliations, etc., and the list goes on. These aspects form our unique biographical experiences that constitute our identities and color our personal point of view or the way we interpret our life experiences.
You may find that your personal response to art and artworks will change as you learn more about design, art making, and the history of art in general. Knowledge and/or education about art usually helps us appreciate and understand it.
Sweeping judgments based purely on a personal emotional response can be colored with bias and often come from having little knowledge of a subject or artwork or the larger cultural context. These are habits of thinking that inhibit a critical understanding of things that are new to us like artwork. In general, it’s a good idea to take a generous stance to art forms or artworks we don’t like or don’t understand or just don’t connect to.
Rose, Gillian. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching Visual Materials. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2012. Print.
Sayre, Henry. A World of Art, Sixth edition. Boston: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.