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The Art of Perception

The Art of Perception

”Where you sit determines what you see”. I was reminded of this nostrum during dinner with friends in mid-December of last year. I had presented Marc and Deleah with a Christmas ornament that I made – a hollowed and dyed maple ball with a wooden final.

Marc said ‘What is this?’

“A Christmas ornament”, I replied – “or just an ornament if you don’t celebrate Christmas”.

“No, it isn’t,” he said.

Now Marc was not playing word games. He is a man with serious chops as an artist, professor, and businessman in the world of artistic enterprise… so, I listened. I believed that he was making the point that my labeling of the object presented limitations, both on the work – and maybe in life as well. He viewed the object as a mini-sculpture.

Photo by Marc B.

As a follow-up to our conversation, Marc sent me two items: a) a picture showing the ‘ornament/sculpture’ in a different presentation and b) a discussion of one of Rene Magritte’s paintings. The painting was “The Treachery of Images”, which presented an object (a pipe) with the painted words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” – “This is not a pipe”. In this work, Magritte was declaring that the image of the ‘pipe’ was not an actual pipe, nor the drawing of the words themselves, actual words. He is challenging the audience to make a distinction between representational art and the object itself. His piece is a philosophical argument.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein followed a similar line of thought: he believed that the object that a word stands for does not convey the meaning of the word (or, I assume, its image). He is famous for the line “If a lion could talk, we would not understand it.” Bottomline, our language and communication of ideas is very much dependent on context and use, not simply pointing to an object while saying its label. Therefore, Magritte says his painting is not a pipe. (I think Freud would agree, even though he felt that ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’).

There are lots of ways that context and/or use can be altered. It occurred to me that another method of underlining the difference between an object and its representation, is by varying the angle of view – or its scale. After all, art is essentially juxtaposition – allowing the viewer to see something in a different way. To that point, two sculptures highlight the same utilitarian object – a clothespin – in a vastly different context.

Claes Oldenberg’s Sculpture

Claes Oldenberg created his work in huge scale in urban Philadelphia – and it is certainly representational! It’s easy to see that this piece distinguishes itself in context from a run of the mill clothespin. Yet another take on the clothespin theme was completed by Mehmet Ali Uysal for a park in Belgium. Now this is also an installation of grand scale, yet I think we’d all agree it is more ‘clothespinny’, because it speculates a use in line with a conventional pincer. 

Mehmet Ali Uysal’s sculpture

So now we come full circle. Where you sit determines what you see. The labels we use are rooted in the context of our experience. Sometimes a simple challenge will cause you to change where you normally sit and realize a different field of view.

Note from an Impressionist

Perhaps because it was December when Wally presented his friend with his beautiful handmade gift, he assumed it would be perceived as a Christmas ornament.  In spite of Christmas carols playing on the radio, Wally’s intention to make it an ornament to decorate a tree was not enough to prevent his friend’s perception to wander.  Perhaps his friend was planning his summer vacation or planting his garden, Christmas just wasn’t on his mind. Because of the situation, location, time of year, what he had for breakfast, when he opened the gift his first impression was not that of a Christmas ornament.  I’m not sure of the shades of difference between impressions and perceptions, but first impressions are strong persuaders of how we react.  Impressions and perceptions can change over time.  Fortunately, time allows us to adjust first impressions based on additional information, change of mood, time of day and degree of hunger!

Having owned an antique store for a short time and having been an avid antique hunter for most of my life, I always looked for alternative purposes to the items I purchased.   What I perceived as an end table, with a little creative thought could be repurposed as a plant stand, an aquarium stand, a book shelf and whatever one’s creative mind perceived it as regardless of its original intended purpose.

Perception is a critical process we experience daily.  It is essential to life.  It deceives us, comforts us, endangers us, supports us, and the list goes on… We all perceive constantly.  When Wally approached the topic. my first impression was not about objects and how they are perceived but rather about people.  I am an impressionist!  First impressions are my life blood.  More often than not, that protects me from behavior I might regret while giving me time to adjust my impressions ’til I feel comfortable with my perception of the person.  I think most of us do that.  When I go to a new doctor that first impression dictates what I will share.  That reaction more than likely changes with subsequent visits.  What about that crazy driver in front of you who is driving at a snail’s pace?  I have two friends (who shall remain nameless) who perceive that person to be someone on the spectrum somewhere between common criminal and mass murderer (slight exaggeration here).  But perhaps over a beer or glass of wine could be fine company.

I guess my point is perception is everywhere- all the time- an essential life skill.  I wish I could quote some world-renowned expert in the field, but I mostly read fiction.  I trust my first impressions and adjust my perceptions as time passes and I get to know more about those people who impressed me!

The Power of Embracing Perspective

After reading Wal’s story about perception I was struck by his ability and willingness to be open to listening to his friend’s interpretation of the gift that was given.  Despite the fact (reality) that he intentionally crafted this wood-turned Christmas ornament, he was still able to accept that his friend perceived it differently.

I have often heard, and used the phrase, “perception is reality.”  However, as I spent more time thinking and reading about perception, I realized that perception is not reality.  In an article in Psychology Today, Jim Taylor, Ph.D. suggests that, by definition, perception (“The way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”) and reality (“The world or the state of things as they actually exist… existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.”) are not the same.  However, because our perceptions come from a myriad of personal experiences and influences and since these are often strong enough to create a sense of certainty within us, it is may be more accurate to say, perception can (and often does) become an individual person’s reality.  My “reality” isn’t reality.  It’s just a construct of what I believe, based on everything I’ve assimilated over these many years as fact and right and good.

Therefore, when one’s beliefs are challenged, ignored, or replaced with another’s opposing thought, it is understandable for the common response to dig in, defend, and spend time creating a convincing argument to help the other see the “error of their ways” and counter with the value of one’s initial viewpoint.  It is my belief that we are seeing this kind of behavior more than ever before.  And, more than ever before, there appears to be less trust, less compromise, and fewer examples of collaboration and community.

But there are a few exceptions! Case in point, Wal who reminds us that despite the inarguable fact that he intentionally made an ornament, he was willing to listen to another’s immediate challenge to his label (his reality) and substitute it with a term/realty of his own.  And, in doing so and by asking questions, Wal was able to understand his friend’s point of view.  Furthermore, he seized the opportunity to think more about art, perspective, and philosophy.  I would venture to say that he likely enhanced his relationship with this friend, as I know few greater needs than the need for people to feel heard.

Wal closes his piece with words worth repeating:

“So now we come full circle. Where you sit determines what you see. The labels we use are rooted in the context of our experience. Sometimes a simple challenge will cause you to change where you normally sit and realize a different field of view.” If we could learn to practice what these simple, but powerful words suggest we might be open enough to realize a different field of view, which in turn might allow us to better understand each other.  If we understand each other better and feel heard, then perhaps…  (I’ll let you finish this piece with your own perspective.)