Friday, February 1, 2008

The fallibility of perception

Horizon Event, one of the paintings in my show at Fleisher

This is a response to Richard Di Dio's post on fractalog, art and the event horizon effect.

Richard, thanks for the interesting reflections about horizons. While I was familiar with the concept of an event horizon, I hadn't heard of horizon effect, but then I haven't been reading your blog that long. I'm sure it will all come into view with further study.

What I had been referring to, on one level, was the relativity of perception. Becoming an artist, and teaching art, has made me very aware of the process of perception.

Art students often see what they think, instead of what they see, just as a novice actor will editorialize instead of act. But that is just part of a more interesting phenomenon.

In Horizon Event I was trying to show how the eye sees near and far in a slightly paradoxical manner. Only a considerable swelling of the sea on the lefthand side of the painting could explain the proximity of that sharp edge, whereas the softer edge on the right side appears farther away.

The eye reads reality in both a summary fashion, which is quick and based on samples and assumptions, and in a detailed fashion, which is localized to the small central focus of our vision.
Artists like De Chirico and Giacometti recommended the primacy of illusion in art, but not a simple trompe l'oil illusion which only results in a literal account of nature. The reason for illusion in painting resides in one of the things photography doesn't provide -- the experience of volumetric space -- and in its ability to create an entire world as a coherent sensation (much as music creates an aural world of coherent sensation entirely new in the world).

With students, I often refer to the inner experience of perception as the dreamspace. It is on that stage that the mind's eye operates, and the physics of the real eye has to collaborate with the conceptions of vision that we learn, or which are native to its organization. I differentiate between these last two, because it seems clear that some of our visual cues may be learned, others may be hard-wired.

For instance, the interpretation of hard and soft edges by the eye can deny or allow space between an object and its background. It also, based on the degree of contrast or color difference, can make one area of a painting precede another in our timeline of noticing. A painting is read according to a hierarchy of "what stands out," and that is indirectly related to how near or far we estimate an object to be. Our evolutionary experience may have selected us, based on whether we noticed the lion or tiger in the grass. And the evolution of the lion and tiger was to become less and less noticed in the same grass. I am not talking here about whether early hominids needed glasses. You can have acute vision, but not notice cues. We learn cues for our survival. For instance, for many years drivers became skilled at navigating by turnpike signage (which is still cued to help us). But all of us know how it feels to not have noticed a sign, because we were talking. Talking, it turns out, is almost impossible while drawing or painting. You would think we would have been an inchoate species, but obviously communication between people is more beneficial than reading highway signs.

"What where," Samuel Beckett might ask, and that is the crux of our dilemma, not only as artists, audiences, and physicists, but also political species, and mere deciders. It is why the ancient Greeks considered tragedy such a good explanation of the perils of judgment. It was not only judgment, however, that was imperfect, it was perception.

We remember how many tragedies begin with an oracle that can be read in two ways. The ambiguity of perception here lies in the "I thought it was like this coin with two sides." In a way, it showed that the ancient world considered itself subject to the ambiguity of conceptual views. I don't think perception, per se, was understood as one source of the dilemma, although Oedipus certainly suffered from a horizon effect, created by his parents, who, of course, were trying to escape the fate of an oracle. In other words, what Oedipus didn't know was as important to the story as what he did know, and the lifting of that veil represents a basic, if classical, view of perception. In other words, perception is trusted as unequivocal evidence, in combination with memory, the perception of others, their memory, and truth telling. (Say, if Tiresias lies, or can't remember, the case doesn't come to a close.) There is much of our modern idea of justice in this conception, but we know modern justice is hobbled by simple problems of perception. Eye witnesses are not reliable, especially when identifying strangers seen only once.

In our day there is much talk about a universe that seems not massive enough to hold together. We have devised a concept (without direct perception) of dark matter, and with the assistance of Einstein's equation about matter and energy, enlarged the concept to include dark energy.

I suggest these are convenient myths based on human problems, not on physics. For instance, in the same ancient world of Greek tragedy, people were easily convinced by Ptolemy and other astronomers that the planets in our sky behave like wandering stars. On a dry level that is an irrefutable description, although we know now they are not stars; but they do seem to wander. But how do they wander? They wander in a very pictorial way, familiar to civilized people of that time -- they follow a path, and now and then they double back before proceding again, as if they had dropped something, or were pausing to talk with another "planet." Well, this is a manner of conceptual vision, based on the familiar life of people. Meteors, by the way, were called "messengers," to reflect their similarity in the scene to runners carrying letters -- a form later repeated by the pony express.

I don't know why this comment should venture so far afield, but I think you can see where I am heading by now. Since physics is lead by people generally associated with a superpower center of civilization (the United States, the European Union, the Soviet Union in its day), they like to think big. You say "no, no," but big is favored as an estimation of the universe.

Given a perception that the universe seems too large, wouldn't objectivity suggest it is in fact smaller? Is it logical to invent another unseen universe that is "dark," has "dark energy," seems threatening somehow?

Perhaps the concept of dark matter, which has grown into an almost engulfing notion of otherness in our concept of the universe, is a sort of projection of dangers people feel on earth, and need to express in some way.

The possibility exists that science can be a form of mythology, even though its history suggests it leads away from that. And yet, there is Ptolemy, as well as Lamarck, as well as Newton, who thought the universe was like a large room that stands still on the rock of God. You can see that some caution should be excercised, especially when something appears too pictorial, or seems too welcome as a metaphor.

There may be something wrong with the distance estimates to the Magellanic clouds, or with the intervening space between us and the Andromeda Galaxy M 31. Perhaps the local atmosphere of the Milky Way (another, bovine, concept) gives one distance to the cepheid variable stars nearby, and another, out-of-scale one, to distant galaxies. So much of our perception of size of the universe is built up on one or two experiments of astronomical perception, which may themselves be flawed.

And then, is it not possible that the gravity effect of the universe as a whole bends or slows light down enough to make the universe appear larger than it is? When you think the glass is only half full, do you fill it with imaginary water? When you look in a convex mirror, do you think the room is actually much larger, and bent like a bowl?

Perhaps we need to realize that we are first of all attempting to perceive with difficult instruments difficult distances through an unknown medium. If scientists could study art as part of their curriculum, they would come to know the fallibilities and operations of perception, even their everyday perceptions, done by eye, of a world they can walk through and confirm, but which they really only assume to know.

Long before judgment, long before "why" is uttered, there is the simple fallibility of perception.

February 1, 2008

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