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Sunday, August 17, 2014

To See With Mine Own Eyes

The thought might have floated in the darkness of the unconscious for a while, but did not surface until I recently saw the exhibition that put together Andrew Wyeth's paintings that contained doors and windows. It occurred to me that, although he often painted with meticulous and delicate attention to realistic details of objects, his paintings are often awash with a monochrome palette: the cold, brown winter fields.

As I came out of NGA to a bright Washington summer afternoon, I became conscious of the messy, busy view of the streets. Before me a family on vacation crossed the streets, wearing T-shirts with mismatched colors: blue, bright red, flowery skirt and khaki shorts. The patch of blue sky was cut by crisscrossing telephone and electrical lines overhead and green leaves of trees. The buildings around us were predominantly of white marble, thanks to the neo-classical design for the city, with a few modern glass offices and red-brick colonials stuck in the mix. A bit like this below:

Then it dawned on me that no painting from any era is truly realistic. Reality does not have a unifying tone or a coordinated color scheme. Reality does not have a frame that cuts out any stray objects or lines that harm the sense of beauty in the picture.

Even the most realistic paintings or drawings are subjective. No landscape, cityscape, or portrait, no matter how photographic, reflects images in the real world. Even Trompe L'Oeil paintings, known for its stated intent to imitate real objects, are artificial and have a color scheme. Every piece of art has a scheme, a point of view, a tone, a frame. Yes, even Jackson Pollack or Fauvism had a tone and scheme in each piece. Even contrasting color schemes are still schemes. Even when you try to make it unrecognizable, it's recognizably human. No piece created by man is free from the point of view of a man.

Impressionists would like to have us believe that subjectivity in art was invented by Paul Cezanne. A nice marketing ploy. But art has always been and will always be subjective. The unruly and unpredictable and unregulated real world just won't do. Can you really say Mona Lisa is objective just because we perceive the face as believably life like? Look, is the warm and harmonious color scheme real? Is the background landscape real? Where's she sitting that one could see this shrunken landscape behind her? Does the color of her forehead match that of an Italian woman? And who sits like that anyway, eh?


Inevitably, what is on the canvas is blatantly one person's mental image of what reality should look like. Art is never realistic. Art is always a representation. Art is always and forever seen through the mind, not the eye. This is why I don't think an alien species visiting the earth would ever "get" art. Humans as living organisms, yet, but the world seen through and distorted by the human mind ... what the heck is that?

So here's the rub. I have to conclude that there is a fundamental, irreconcilable difference between the world I see through artificial images (eg, paintings, photographs, movie and TV images, and images described with words) and actual images I see with my own eyes and process by my own mind. Because the mind is so adept at framing the visual input, trimming out the details it deems irrelevant or unimportant, and making up a message or theme of the abundant information, that we discard the most of the external input. As Sherlock Holmes pointed out, "You see, but you do not observe." Or we see only what we expect to see.

Prompted with the cue word of "waterlilies," what appears in your mind? To be honest, I have to search really hard in memory to dig out an image of real flowers and leaves in a real pond. Rather small and pale, not too impressive. More immediately accessible images are those of Monet's paintings --- I have certainly seen those more times and paid more attention. Yet, the waterlilies in Monet's paintings are images at least thrice processed: by his (not very acute) eyesight, by his mind's plan to frame and color them in a certain and harmonious way, and by his paintbrush. Ah, but then there are layers between me and the flowers that lay in front of the artist one day in his life --- the cultural judgment associated with Monet and his waterlilies and other known and unknown cultural preconceptions about all this.

The cud --- what does it taste like? And what about the real water lilies?

This is not to say that chewing others' cud is necessarily a bad thing. What I'm wondering is actually whether we know how much one sees and feels and believes is his own, derived from his own senses processing the tangible, concrete, material, real environment around him, and how much is pre-processed stuff from other people. The real world is, more than anything, indifferent to the themes and schemes, and the stories we tell ourselves.

I wonder.

See, the problem is, the memory of a picture of, say, a fish, or a video of fish swimming around, isn't terribly different from the memory of seeing a real fish swimming with my own eyes. The brain isn't particularly good at appreciating the real stuff. In fact, the pictures look better with their color coordination, simpler, more pleasing, more ... certain.

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