Thursday, October 18, 2018

Art is a record of selective attention

Painting in Rawlins, Wyoming Watch the video on YouTube
Every painting is a window to another world. More than that, it’s a record of the artist’s awareness of that world. It’s a document of reality as filtered through one person's consciousness.

This way of looking at drawing or painting is based on the "filtering" or "gating" models of perception that have arisen in neurobiology in recent years. You might think of it as a modern way of expressing Emile Zola's 1866 idea that "art is a corner of nature seen through a temperament."

Sensory gating theory proposes that we screen out the majority of information that surrounds us at any given time. The classic case is a cocktail party, where you focus on the conversation, while your brain discards the bulk of other sensory information. That other information is mere noise that might otherwise distract you from the signal.

Another famous example of perceptual gating is the "Gorilla Experiment." In this demonstration, the observer is asked to count the number of times a ball is passed back and forth. While you concentrate on that task, other things happen that you might not even notice.

In our normal daily life this gating is achieved for the most part automatically. But attention can be distributed consciously and selectively, especially with practice. As artists, we learn to control the perceptual filters that we use, and we deploy them at will. Essentially, this is exactly what we're trained to do whenever we paint or draw.

For example, at the beginning of making a picture, we gate our perception to notice only the perspective, the proportions, the relative measurements, and the slopes of the lines. During these early stages, we ignore such things as colors or edges or textures. As the painting progresses, we shift our attention to notice other aspects of the scene, shifting back and forth between noticing big shapes and small details. A classic beginner's mistake is to paint the eyelashes or buttons at the very start.

Ernest Meissonier, An Artist Showing His Work
In the midst of this process of filtering attention, we also enlist our emotions, because art-making isn't just a technical trick. We may have some personal connection to the subject. We might be looking for what pose is characteristic. Something might strike us as funny about it. Or the subject might impress us as scary or unsettling. Consciously or not, those emotions will drive choices of what elements we allow to pass through the filter, and what elements get filtered out.

Whether the results are realistic or distorted, they strike viewers as "artistic" because we identify with the very human filters that the art has passed through. Art engages us in a kinship with each other because it allows us to pass through the doors of perception from one human soul to another. 


Tom Hart said...

Another excellent post, James. It explains the most basic and satisfying joy I get from looking at art: getting a glimpse at the way another person sees - or rather the way s/he interprets what s/he sees - whether it be the brushstroke of a master or a child's drawing of her family.

Karen Eade said...

What a lovely post, thank you. Inspiring and thought-provoking.

Krystal said...

That's exactly what I tried to express to my students but it could not be told better ! Splendid post...

Patrick Dizon said...

Art is made up of many kinds of realities. I can't help but think of Andrew Wyeth's work as an example.