More Opticality

This post comes out of Shep Steiner’s comments on the Olitski post, both his questions to me and my questions to him. It’s an attempt to get to the fundamental level of what it means to say that pictures are experienced “optically.”

Let’s say that there are three realms in perception. First, there are phenomena in the world which impinge on our senses. Light bounces off an object and enters our eyes. Secondly, there is what we know, what we have learned to see. For example, a Rembrandt is dry colored oil on a canvas, but we see a face, and more than that we see a psychology, a spirituality, a history—clearly most of what we see in an artwork is what we know and what we’ve been taught to see, which is much more than what is literally present. That applies to all art. Thirdly there are optical illusions and perceptual effects that seem, at least nowadays, to be functions of the nature of perception itself. These things are intense topics of research today because of the demand to make computers that can “see” and render.

I don’t believe it is possible to draw firm boundaries between these three realms, and I don’t know of anyone who can. For example, optical effects are presumed to be objective because if one person can see them so can any other. This follows the normal scientific demand that experiments be reproducible, meaning that different scientists have to be able to get the same results, but if the evidence is the testimony of a viewer, then no matter how many give the same evidence there is always the possibility that what is discovered is just a collective agreement to see things a certain way, an agreement that may well be forged simply though common everyday experience. How many documented optical or perceptual tricks depend on straight lines or distorted geometries, and which therefore did not exist before the existence of straight lines and geometry? Our remote ancestors lived in a world composed entirely of amorphous and complex curving shapes—the bodies of animals and the outlines of plants and rocks—and our urban visual world, always framed by rectangles, may be impoverished in comparison. Or have we simply added something? In any case, in matters of perception, knowledge, or social training, trumps science.

All this is relevant to what we can see in a painting or a sculpture, and my position is that we see different things there today than we did even less than a century ago. The senses are constantly being educated, but more, desire and the will are producers of phantoms, which become realities. Things don’t have to be real to be real.

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