|excruciatingly difficult, even nerve- or neuron-racking, which it quite literally is, as I hope
to explain at least in part as we go. At its best, it is a dialogue of haptic (i.e., touch)
industry and kinesthetic (i.e., movement) awareness that is held in check by constantly
referencing against a changing mental image.
Every choice, every move we make, alters the mental picture as we go, fed and
stimulated by the continuous prompting of sensual input from touch and movement.
And even for the wordsmith, whom we typically think is left brain, driven by symbolism and
less affected by tactile suggestion, we find this not to be the case. That same
haptic/mental dialogue prevails with tomes of examples referring to the pleasure of the
scribing process itself; of holding a pen against paper, of ink, of pressing keys, sounds
of its clacking, of hand motions, of fingers tensed and curled, and of the watching of letters
and then words form in front of you.
I suggest that it is identical to the image-crafting one too, where it would appear that
this so-called ‘fertile exchange’ is more truly a rotation of attention; physical execution
allows time for the mental one to reboot. The clumsiness of our movements, the drag of
the pencil, the tapping of the keyboard allows us the time to reconfigure the imagery.
There are simply more seconds involved in tapping than imagining, and far more
seconds in dipping a brush into a chosen color and finding the right place on the canvas
or vase or plate or stone. And that is a very good thing. A recent description by the writer
Philip Pullman stands out as he decries the use of the Internet:
Moving a little mouse about and seeing a cursor zip down a screen—
it is not satisfying. I would infinitely rather draw something—there is
more pleasure in moving a pencil across a slightly resistant but also
slightly forgiving surface of a roughened paper…I like a sensuous
engagement with things. Yes!! (Mitchison 2010)
This chapter tries to demystify that magnificent and decisive process, both from a
visualization standpoint and a physiological one, the latter being the course most often
overlooked but ultimately the most defining because it is the only way of getting it done.
The primary tools will be that discriminating for ‘difference’ is the starting point and how
that gradually moves outward through the physical act of separating, collecting, isolating,
and confining, or literally pinning the image down. Ultimately all art form results from the
mental and physical process of isolation and confinement so that attention cannot waiver
beyond the presentation of the form.
There is a method to this madness. But first, why is fixing attention by confining imagery
Because ‘art’ really is a mnemonic device, and as any such memory-enhancement
tool, it functions in a forward-seeking role by prejudicing recognition. Once you see
Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ (Les Nymphéas), you cannot regard any aspect of a real-time
water lily without filtering through or past his seeking caricature since as yet you lack your
own. And this too is a purposefully driven impulse, not for pleasure, not for beauty, but
for success. ‘Art’ therefore, is a vestigial behavior to construct search alarms, both good
and bad, that accelerate the possibilities for survival. It’s our version of looking for the
worm and looking out for the hawk.
When the object-bearing image is extricated from its circumstantial context, a closer
relationship is triggered because of its immediacy with the viewer. A Faberge Egg tossed
into a mass of gleaming jewelry releases its content, but held in hand, amplifies it.
We see this best with relatively modern distribution channels that we take for granted like
graphics, books, and the Internet. But we can just as easily understand the remarkable
proliferation of ideas and cognitive sophistication in Aurignacian art when it was isolated
and pinned down to their stationary objects like horns, animal bones, pebbles, shells and
rock faces, including subterranean ones, though in a different way, and much like a movie
By both capturing and captivating our attention in these oft-used smaller objects, the
‘appreciator’ had ample opportunity to revisit the image on a highly restrictive format
without refocusing attention elsewhere. Imagine holding a Fabergé Egg. Imagine a
Japanese holding a Netsuke carving, imagine a small child holding a Thomas the Tank
Engine, and then imagine primitive man holding a torn leaf poked through with three dots
against the rays of the sun.
Intimacy has always been essential, a dialogue of sorts in which the viewer grappled
with the imposition of an image against his normal preoccupation with the boundaries that
defined himself such that his sensitivity to sensory input was turned down to turn up the
image. If we take a moment to analyze what we do when we view art, we’ll easily recognize
this exchange, during which the body or self is left in abeyance over the consideration
of an image. And back and forth it goes.
But this is nothing remarkable since any act of ‘attending’ shunts cognitive focus.
If my foot hurts and I’m thirsty, I’ll forget the discomfort when I finally drink. If I’m depressed,
counting distracts me. If I’m in love, I can forget I am thirsty.
Handheld images reproduced in books, beginning with woodblock, line engravings,
and then lithography (invented by Alois Senefelder accidentally in 1796), and later
photographic reproductions disseminated in magazines and the like - often have far more
impact than the real deal because the eye and focal point is contained by the rigorous
format of the page before you, in comparison to the distractions of a museum and the
ambient noise of competing art, surroundings, etc.
Removed from its self-selected context, which in its most extreme these days is a
museum, imagery in a vernacular setting has to battle through so much more. The same
intimacy is true to an even more heightened degree by the hosting of the Internet’s bright
screen that draws attention exclusively to the frontal plain without peripheral distractions
so that when art is represented, we are able to scan it more thoroughly within a
circumscribed locus and without any visual conflict.
Consequently, we naturally tend to iconize images more readily in this manner of
presentation because of the immediacy of the viewing and the natural conversational
intimacy. Conversational because it sits smack before you like another person,
exchanging, refining, zooming in and out as a friend might when discussing all shades of
For example, I will never forget my shock on finally seeing a 3-dimensional copy of the
‘Venus of Willendorf’ (fig. 2) at the Museum of Natural History, having long viewed the
icon in books and photographs. I believed it to have been larger than life, which is always
the natural tendency when recognition of imagery is constructed out of context and
therefore exemplary. This is important. Art is intentionally exemplary and made to be ‘loud’.
Its behavioral directive is not of indulgence, as many would guess, but rather as
purposeful. I still like to inform people that the ‘Venus’ is a mere four and a half inches tall,
which never fails to illicit utter shock.
The point is that isolating objects is the most effective means of presenting
‘visualizations,’ something I suggest that anatomically modern man naturally came to
discover when he adapted objects such as pebbles, animal bones and horns, rock faces,
and utilitarian objects, thereby captivating his audience with a frozen format.
Movies are a case in point, though not obviously so since we think of the moving
image rather than the fixed presentation or delivery system. Darken the chamber to cut
down on peripheral distractions, brighten the screen and bring it front and center, and
the presentation speaks for itself. As Frank Capra, the famed MGM director explained:
No saint, no pope, no general, no sultan has ever had the power
that a filmmaker has, the power to talk to hundreds of millions of
people for two hours in the dark. You have the power to say anything
you want, so why not say something positive? (McBride 2000:191)
But this is extreme, to say the least. Other platforms served just as well,
particularly when we considered them as objects rather than purely images.
But before we can discuss this on any deeper level, we first have to consider the first
step in this process.
Collecting for Difference
What’s most curious, though unsurprising, about human perception, is that like most
animals, we gravitate toward likeness more readily than differences, but constantly seek
differences to settle our nerves about consistencies. Sound nutty? Not really. It is a rather
obvious point when considered in terms of survival imperatives to identify aberrations
quickly in time to make lifesaving adjustments. Often, that effort to seek interruptions in
patterns consciously comes from a faster-working scanning, sub- conscious sensation
that something is amiss, or that there is, in fact, no pattern when there generally looks
to be one. At what order of magnitude do we interpolate inconsistencies into patterns,
and at what point do we notice them?
For example, Jean Nouvel's crazy window building at 100 11th Avenue on 19th Street
in Manhattan makes me queasy. The reason is primitive: From the ground and passing
by usually in a car, I haven't got sufficient time to establish what the window pattern is.
It is unsettling to think that there is none which is always what seems to be the case
from below. We are used to window patterns, and therefore anticipate them to dismiss
them. If you stop to consider how many times we do this in a single minute, you'd be quite
amazed at the speed of recognition and thinking we do all the time.
Therefore, when the reality does not appear to fit the expectation, a cognitive nausea
sets in. Our brain goes into overdrive and does not have sufficient time to determine,
let alone classify, the results. It is much easier to decide a priori that something will defy
patterns. The nausea comes from a mental inability to extrapolate a pattern before
moving on. Humans like to leave things as settled law, especially when they are not in a
seeking mode. When isolated in experiments, such behavior to anticipate consistency
speaks loud and clear.
…there appears to be an interesting paradox in the human ability
to categorize a complex scene presented for a brief time such as 100
milliseconds… Although they may fail to detect small inconsistencies
in the picture, they will notice any large systematic inconsistency. …
[the same person] may be completely incapable of reporting what
appears in the place of the error when the picture is errorless and
complete. (Sutherland 1968:301)
Redundancies connote safety and an unnecessary investment in attention.
Deciding what constitutes a safe paradigm from a remarkable one is common to all
creatures in their survival behaviors. For humans, we instinctively recognize that repetition
is code for safety, and interference or obstruction of it is not. Extreme coping devices for
anxiety, as in obsessive compulsive disorder, hinge on methodical repetition. We count
when we exercise to get through it. Routine is comfort food.
But ‘art,’ especially decorative art, does the same by inventing patterns that repeat
and are in effect mollifying code for ‘You don’t need to attend to this.’ The ironic hitch is
that we must scan along these rhythmic images with our cognitive antennae fully up to
determine if there is an aberration before letting it go. And we do so all day long,
scanning for interference and for repetition faster than most of us are even aware.
The greatest irony of all is that the plethora of imagery for a given object, say a face,
has so many variations that the breadth of renditions over time and space and history
and context is so vast that it becomes a pattern of repetition in itself, a single pattern of
so many repeated and expected nuances that it falls into a gross pattern in which the
smallest changes, ‘the small inconsistencies,’ are not important or discernible, as noted