Tuesday, 18 October 2022

You don't see what you see

 Interesting piece of evidence about an entirely wrong approach of art and science, and how art is forced within a quasi-objective context, 'explaining' what we 'really' see. Wrong descriptions of the work of art, and wrong description of the process of vision, with inevitably wrong conclusions.


By breaking-down the process of seeing into separate details, the context of seeing is being undermined: a painting is not a process but a summarizing image ‘outside time’, it is a holistic object. The process of seeing – the workings of eye and brain interpretation – takes place outside the painting, it is not part of the work of art. A painting invites the viewer to enter the imaginary reality of what is depicted with his own faculties of interpretation, in order to make a holistic connection between the way the artist has looked at reality and how the viewer looks at it; the work of art invites us, for a moment, to look at reality through the eyes of the artist, thereby potentially extending our ways of understanding reality. The process of interpretation is thereby entirely located on the side of the viewer. If Cézanne really tried to express the ‘temporary process of seeing’ within his painting, he would have left the context of the art of painting, which shows that he did not quite understand what painting, as an art form, really is. The work of art is an entity different from the process of seeing and interpretation, in the same way that writing a text is different from reading and interpreting it. Such blurring of contexts breaks down the communication between the work of art and the viewer and places parts of the process of interpretation within the work of art itself, which intrudes into the activity of interpretation. This intrusion undermines the freedom of interpretation.

Also it is nonsensical to consider ‘the seeing’ as something that ‘in truth’ consists of various separate parts; the essential aspect of seeing, the way as carried-out by the brain (the mind), is the summarizing, holistic process, in order to connect us as closely as possible to our environment. This process is the body’s ‘machine’ which makes it possible to experience what we see as an image, as truly reflecting the reality around us: it is a process that connects us to reality, to make us experience being  part of that reality. This does not at all exclude our subjective imagination as part of the interpretation process; but this imagining is also part of the holistic experience, which forms a continuum between objective and subjective: between what is there, and what lives in our own mind. In viewing a painting, our consciousness freely moves inwards and outwards through this continuum of the seeing process, and attempts to break it down in separate parts is trying to undermine our interpretative faculties.

This need to undermine the organic, the connecting aspects of a natural process and to think that the ‘objective’, the ‘true’ nature of reality consists of the outcome of what the ‘machine’ of the bodily interpretation does, is dehumanizing. It is like saying that a person is ‘in fact’ an accumulation of cells, bones and flesh, and that your impression of ‘a person’ is mere illusion. All of this is a philosophical problem of reality, where science is misused as is art, and demonstrating the restricted nature of the materialist, scientific world view which claims that matter is all that exists. Such vision is now widely accepted in mainstream media in the West, adding to the alienation of people presented with an idea of reality which undermines their sense of Self and connection with the world.

Of course, all of this does not exclude the possibility to enjoy Cézanne's paintings for what they really are: colourful arrangements (of fragments) of reality, sketchily painted, and put on a flat surface which becomes more important than a mere basis for an imagined reality. Compared with the much more holistic approach of an artist like Monet, it can be argued that Cézanne was a painter of lesser talents.





  1. If there's a problem with the article it's nothing to do with observations about the taxonomy of vision as convergence of processes physiological and cognitive that can be studied separately and together. The problem is the whole article is Wilson making a post hoc attribution to Cezanne of an awareness of ideas that have been developed in the last forty years as research on vision and cognition have developed.

  2. "By breaking-down the process of seeing into separate details, the context of seeing is being undermined:"

    This comes across as nonsense. Breaking down the process of seeing into details doesn't undermine anything.

  3. Of course it may seem nonsense if taken-out of the context of the article. In the text the meaning of the 'explanation' of the process of seeing is the claim that what Cézalle saw, was 'the real way' of how we see. I.e., the reality of the process of seeing is not the synthesizing activity of the mind, but the machinery of what the eye does. Understanding texts is related to the context in which the text appears. The comment makes the same mistake as the author of the article, zooming into the detail and missing the whole. It is the wide-spread habit of reductionist thinking, which is exactly the problem with the article and the 'interpretation' of Cézanne.

    1. That there are differences between what you think you're seeing and what is there to look at is part of any introductory course in drawing. Art students are told up front they need to learn to delineate between what they think they see and what they're actually seeing, which is a long and extended training process of eye and mind. To claim that distinguishing between sight and cognition undermines the context of seeing comes across as the kind of claim that would be made by someone who is an art consumer with no training in visual media.

    2. This comment refers to something that is not in the post at all, comparable with the chain of misunderstandings of the article in question.

    3. your post is a misreading of Wilson's boilerplate ad copy for Cezanne tying the painter's work to research in cognitive and visual processing.

      The tell in Wilson's piece is: "The exact nature of Cézanne's achievement has obsessed many art historians and philosophers over the years. But a critical insight could be found in the field of science. As discoveries by neuroscientists, philosophers, and psychologists have proved, Cézanne's methods have a curious similarity with the visual processing of the human mind. He overturned centuries of theories about how the eye works by depicting a world constantly in motion, affected by the passing of time and infused with the artist's own memories and emotions."

      By the time Wilson gets to this:
      "Cézanne's achievement, therefore, was to use the act of painting to scrutinise human perception with unprecedented honesty and curiosity. "Cézanne was the midwife of 20th-Century modernist art movements," Natalia Sidlina summarised. "He put questions at the core of what he was doing, he put the process ahead of the result."

      In doing so he displaced a traditional notion of the eye as a passive "camera" and replaced it with a more nuanced consideration of perception as fallible, mobile, improvisatory, time-based and always inherently embodied. And the more we discover about how the eye interacts with human consciousness, the more Cézanne's probing, sceptical art makes sense. Perhaps this is why he has continued to be such a compelling figure in the history of art."
      it's clear that he's not subverting anything, he's written ad copy for a Cezanne exhibit.

      Your post misreads the genre of the article. Everything in a journalistic article hinges on the lead and the lead is clear, art exhibit. Imputing to Wilson's article some subversion of the context of seeing is something you have read into the text that isn't necessarily there. If it "is" there you need to build a case by citing the actual text.

    4. Thank you for spending so much effort to explain your interpretation of that article. This has, however, not inspired me to revisit the article and check my own interpretation, because it is clear to me that you read the text from a perspective that is not mine, and one that takes things literally and not seeing through the obvious attempt. There are often attempts by defenders of modernism and conceptual art to claim forerunners in history, to steal some of the aura of past achievements, because so much of contemporary art is not art at all. Thereby the fundamental break with the past, as has been demonstrated extensively by both art historians and the various avantgarde artists themselves, has to be ignored to lend some respectability for things that don't deserve it. In the article, it is obvious that 'science' has been brought-up to give Cézanne a legitimacy which is nonsensical, and in his case unnecessary. Also you should temper your tone a bit on this blog, to prevent your commenting from being deleted not for content but for lacking civility.

    5. ironically, I made a point of emulating the style and tone you have used in posts like the one about genius inflation after the initial response I had. I wasn't sure if you were going to catch on to that or not, that I was replicating some of the rhetorical flourishes you've used over the years. I will try to avoid doing that in the future since it came across as uncivil.