Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Is an Innocent Eye Possible?

In his defense of Turner, critic John Ruskin wrote that "the whole technical power of painting depends on our recovery of what may be called the innocence of the eye; that is to say, of a sort of childish perception of these flat stains of colour, merely as such, without consciousness of what they signify, — as a blind man would see them if suddenly gifted with sight.”

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Norham Castle, Sunrise, c.1845, Tate

Is such an "innocent eye" really a state of vision that we can recover? Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, in his book The Age of Insight, explains that the 'innocent eye' is not possible: "All visual perception is based on classifying concepts and interpreting visual information. One cannot perceive that which one cannot classify."

Visual perception scientist Leon Lou says: "The innocent eye, or seeing ‘what the eye sees’ is a meaningful expression many artists use to capture their experience in observational drawing and painting. However, a literal interpretation of the innocent eye does not comport with a science of vision focused on object perception. Nor is a two-step model involving a ‘bottom-up strategy’ a plausible account of the notion."
Read more:
Leon Lou: "Artists’ Innocent Eye as Extended Proximal Mode of Vision"
Book: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present
Gombrich's 1960 book Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation (Bollingen) also discusses this topic.


A Colonel of Truth said...

(I) disagree with Kandel. The innocent eye is reality, is truth. We muck things up with language, any language. To point, it is impossible to describe (to classify) all we see. Etc. Impossible! For once you start describing you are, because of filters, too missing, omitting, etc. In defense, study the field of General Semantics (Alfred Korzybski, father of, outlined in his challenging tome ‘Science and Sanity’). For digestible translations, John C. Condon’s ‘Semantics and Communication’ is superb. Also, S. I. Hayakawa’s ‘Language in Thought and Action.’ Logically, Kandel’s position is nuts. Perception first, translation after. Perception is. Translation is not the perception.

Sara Davis said...

My brain loves Turner because it had already absorbed modern art. I did not have to relearn and understand the context of his paintings. I already had that when I met his work and so I could just see the beauty of them without having to use my brain to fight with the unfamiliar style.

It's easy to laugh at the 19th and 20th century critics who struggled with the transitions to modern painting but they had to fight that part of our brain that does not like what is not immediately understood and familiar.

Susan Krzywicki said...

The field of "holistic processing" in facial recognition supports the idea that there is no innocent eye when anything approaching a human face is involved. Apparently our eyes cannot help but leap at the agglomeration of features and process them as one coherent "thing": a face. Apparently it doesn't work that way for just plain old objects.

I just got a brand-new baby grand-niece two days ago and her eyes are the true "innocent" eyes. But they are already changing...focusing, looking for things that lead to sustenance and continued life. Any birth, yes, innocent...but days later she is starting to process. I don't know what scientists say about how her inner dialog is going - when those visual images start to turn into words - and I think this is what A Colonel of Truth is saying: we turn from pure thought process (whatever that is) and create these artificial constructs based on language. And those start to separate us from true sensation.

Rubysboy said...

I'm surprised that Kandel would make such a bald statement given the primitive state of psychological understanding of consciousness. repeatedly in history scientists or science journalists make some sweeping claim like this and later, more sophisticated studies counter the claim. Experts used to say babies can't see at all until they are six weeks old. ]

the question is a bit confused: who knows what innocent vision is, anyway?
What counts for artists is, can you defeat some of these automatic classification processes?
I think you can. for a few seconds. If you've learned some new seeing habits.
I'd bet that research on trained artists would confirm this.

James Gurney said...

Colonel, I believe he's not talking about classification in a verbal sense, but more in a basic perceptual sense. Optical illusions, such as the "face/vase" illusion demonstrate that your brain classifies the shape as one or another, and it's almost impossible to unsee it.

And as Susan suggests we see two dots with a line below them as a face, even when we're newborns. That all happens without the intervention of words.

Rubysboy, you're right, the question may be a bit confused. I may have done Dr. Kandel a disservice by oversimplifying his point and taking it out of context. By the way, the argument against the notion of an "innocent eye" goes back at least to art historian Gombrich around 1960, and Kandel credits him. Kandel is on the cutting edge of neuropsychology of vision, and I'm sure that he'd be the first to admit that we're just beginning to unravel all this.

Sara, it's incredible how modern some of Turner's late work appears to us, so far ahead of Monet.

R. A. Davies said...

The word is never the thing itself, hence, war.

Roberto Quintana said...

I’m not thrilled with Kandel’s book: “The Age of Insight”.
IMHO his reach far exceeds his grasp (grasp exceeds his reach?). His insights into turn of the (last) century Vienna, Gustav Klimt and the emergence of the “Modern Movement’ in art are insightful, but his lionization of both Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele’s mastery, frankly baffles me.
As to the ‘Innocent Eye’, Kandal does a much better job in his book: “Reductionism in Art and Brain Science.” There he talks more about the brain’s visual ‘Bottom up’ perception, and it’s (simultaneous?) ‘Top down’ interpretive, approach.
For a really good read on our perception, vision, and art, I much preferred Anjan Chatterjee’s: “The Aesthetic Brain”- how we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art.
Apparently our visual canter(s) are linked to, and routed thru, our memories; so we maintain a rich ‘context’ thru which we have an ‘aesthetic experience’ of our world, not just a perception.
According to Chatterjee, Not only are we hard-wired for faces (Portraiture), and bodies (Figurative), but also for places (Landscape), and objects, and special orientation (Still-Life), also: line, contour, texture and color (abstraction).

@Susan: While newborns are able to see light and movement, their optic-nerve is not fully developed until later, after birth. -RQ

DIana said...

As I understand it, Turner was 70 at this point and his vision was failing. He's hardly going to produce well defined images if he can't see clearly anymore. A friend of mine returned to painting after years of photography, and I was jarred by his colour choices (very primary and harsh). He had cataract surgery a few weeks ago, and the difference in his use of is astonishing....beautiful, sophisticated, rich. He says that it was though he was looking through a yellow fog which is now lifted. Turner was painting what he was seeing, and the results, as usual for him, are glorious.

James Gurney said...

Roberto, thanks for those recommendations. Speaking of books about visual perception for artists, I would also recommend the books by Semir Zeki and Margaret Livingstone.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

Breathing in the fresh crisp air on a thick foggy morning, is Turner.

Mona said...

I'm living by the Kafka Quote "Who keeps the ability to see beauty, will never grow old"
I believe, keeping the innocent eye alive is like a muscle. We have to remind ourselves to appreciate, to see the facets that make things truly interesting.
And what makes me love Turner so much is his way of picturing what others don't, despite a lack of realistic detail - the emotional aspect of perception.