Art and Perception

Art is an excellent way of perceiving the world and also a wonderful way of abstracting ourselves from it. It can turn out to be something soothing or unsettling. It can make us laugh or cry, and we may find it to be useful or even pointless. It makes us utter wonders and horrors making us able to either love or despise it. As if all this wasn’t enough, just a single artwork is capable of sparking different views from different people. Even the same person can change their opinion as time moves on. Therefore, art is everything and its opposite.

Something, however, seems to present itself as a certainty: Art makes us feel, see and live immensely! Entangled in such a high degree of controversy, some important questions have surfaced in my mind: Why are we fond of one artwork and hate another, even though they both share abstract traits? What kind of emotional, rational and intellectual processes are called forth when we look at an artwork? What is the path that art chooses to take within us – from the first point of contact to the moment in which we express our opinion. What are art’s major valences and where can we find the source of its magic?

Art plays an unparalleled role when it’s time to convey ideas and philosophical or even abstract concepts, as well as to pass on feelings and emotions that arise precisely when words seem to have run its course. It enables a mind-boggling incursion into unexplored territories of our imagination. It is a mighty elixir that extends our creativity and represents a terrific challenge for our critical thinking. In a more or less self-conscious manner, art leads us to feel, think and reflect, and its role is irreplaceable for abstract thinking.

I’d like to share my vision, stressing some important and decisive ideas for the artistic conception and appreciation. This information can be useful for artists during their creation process, as well as for art lovers. These are tools that will extract the widest volume of information from a work of art.

Art is able to reveal concepts that are only feasible through the medium in which they disseminate themselves. It’s a privileged form of language, an exclusive communication channel, which detains its own codes. That way, sounds and images convey intrinsic information, which would otherwise not be properly transmitted. A gap is then permanently fostered, established between the artistic language that is conveyed, the perceptions received and the descriptive verbal language, which is already a fruit of rationalization. That is why, sometimes, it turns out to be a difficult task to write or to merely argue about an artwork or a song. Nonetheless, they are both still capable of causing feelings and emotions more or less clear or defined. 

All the senses have their say when it’s time to build a sensorial map – an intricate web of information and crucial references, which awaken in us feelings. For instance, art, when it can effectively project images in our minds, interferes with our inner beings and leads us into a vast range of feelings. Sometimes these feelings are actually an immediate reflection, and we aren’t even conscious about them, nor do we think about such things. In these circumstances, such inputs and insights come to us in a “raw state”. In other words, they do not cross the reason’s conscious filters. It’s a sort of immediate knowledge, obtained in a clear and direct way, without getting any help from reasoning itself. 

This turns out to be a great surplus, because we have the privilege of not only perceiving, but also feeling, while automatically processing information. Something that may take place in the subconscious or even within a totally unconscious procedure. A good example of such is the impression and psychological reaction that people feel when coming across colours or shapes. Or the way they react to certain timbers or rhythms – which, when processed, can cause a more or less pleasant sensation, based on the feeling that they have projected onto us.

With painting, a predominant colour, or the way the light is used, can contribute to the overall atmosphere, nurturing sensations that are a step beyond our consciousness. Even more interesting is the fact that this will also reaffirm our taste and opinion – elements, which we cannot control as much as we think we are able to. Therefore, art and aesthetics detain the ability to produce emotions, which are not even within the scope of our own judgment, creating a fertile ground where abstract concepts are transmitted, sensations are generated and emotions are born.

When we’re looking at a painting and we find a hat, a cane, a suit and a smoking pipe, we infer that there’s a man somewhere – we then start to rationalize. In this process, images, sounds and other stimuli go through a cognitive stage (post-sensory), where a wide array of structures that receive, process, filter, organize and take into consideration all sorts of data. In the long run, the outcome of these mental cognitive processes is precisely what nourishes our opinions and what is deemed as knowledge. Just as in the previous procedure, the stimuli also cause vast amplitude of sensations and feelings, but, by becoming perceivable, they allow, in a way that is practically and directly associated with reasoning, an immediate judgement.

If the function of reason is practical, the function of the intellect goes through elaborating theories and explanations on the information collected. We put together the man, the hat, the cane and the smoking pipe and we say: that’s Magritte! Now, all of our luggage (both rational and emotional), memory and other intellectual processes are triggered; fostering a brand-new deduction and, therefore, a certain kind of feeling. This way, art also has the capacity to appeal to a wide set of memories: just a mere image can awake a memory that otherwise would be trapped in an eternal sleep. Just as a song can make us relive a long-gone moment. Therefore, art has the ability to captivate feelings and emotions to change our mood and even our state of mind.

Among all of its forms, this is precisely where art has its most surprising role: the artists, rather than conveying a message or an impression, have the power to access our inner selves using the senses, nurturing a swirl of feelings and igniting the soul. In a painting, its shape, light and colour can create an unprecedented and unexplored world packed with new meanings. Therefore, the sensory systems, our rational and emotional experiences, alongside the intellect, display an important and crucial role in our “final judgement”. It doesn’t stop there, as there is another preponderant factor to consider: taste.

To one’s great surprise, taste has such an imperative role, that most people, when they don’t approve, they stop giving it credit and importance. Sometimes they may even question if it is actually art. Paradoxically it could end up overlaying all the aforementioned processes, even considering how entirely subjective taste is. By becoming more important than reasoning and intellect, it affects our final opinion and judgement.

After all is said and done, what is taste? The aesthetic sensations are associated with a pleasant or distasteful feeling of pleasure and displeasure. When we enjoy the particular sensation that is provoked we consider it good or “Beauty”. Obviously, it’s a subjective appreciation, which depends on many factors. This taste, appreciation, or aesthetic judgment comes from feelings and is found half way between reason and intellect. In a way, it concatenates a bridge between them. Therefore, all these factors: sensorial, emotional, rational, intellect and taste, will influence our judgment in accordance to the importance that one places on each of them. There’s a wide constellation of elements between us and a work of art, which will influence our mood.

By Pedro Boaventura • Excerpt from Masters of Painting - Volume 1


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