Perception as reality in the visual arts
An exploration of the nature of artists’ perception
What does reality mean to you, and how do you perceive reality as an artist?
In the seminal book Ways of Seeing published in 1972, John Berger argued that we do not just see things, but we always see our relationship with the things we look at. Because none of us has an uncritical relationship with the world.
Though ideologies, political authorities, and mundane leaders may try to hide their relativity behind the wall of “ultimate truth”, they can’t and won’t ever be able to erase one evident fact: perception is not neutral. We see a complex mix of what we are, can, have learned, and want to see.
“We cannot see things as they are, for we are compelled by a necessity of nature to see things as we are. We never can get rid of ourselves.” (From an article published in the London based newspaper The Atlas under the title “Things as they are” in 1831)
Art is transformation. Metamorphosis. Change. And transformation is about seeing differently, through and beyond appearances and the limits of physical, cultural, or political vision. It is also about creating mindfully, which is being in the process. Art is about infinite possibilities, not about big, fat, ultimate answers. In the field of art, perception is reality, which in its turn is a faithful expression of the artists’ multiple points of view.
In this blog post, I’ll discuss the topic of perception as reality in the visual arts, and I’ll confront two different approaches to reality and art-making. Because this seems very important to us as artists.
If you’d like to dig deeper into your perception of reality and to better understand its nature, make sure you read this blog post till the end.
Art and the nature of our perception
Every perception is filtered through one’s worldview, which is a blend of culture, experiences, values, and so much more. Each one of us has a unique perspective on the world, which the world faithfully mirrors. Yes, the world is an expression of ourselves.
Let’s take the example of a tree. What do you see when you look at a tree?
Firstly, I see the physical characteristics of the tree, e.g., its form, size, colours. I also see particular traits, such as strength, beauty, or maybe solitude and fragility. Secondly, I see lines, surfaces, dots, patterns, and relationships. Because the close observation of the tree leads me to its essence and, ultimately, to my personal expression of it.
No matter what you see in a tree and how you choose to express your emotional connection to it, you can only see the tree through your unique lens. And the more you look at it, the more you see yourself in it, no matter if you’re fully aware of that or not.
In other words, the tree is not a "thing-in-itself", but merely an outward appearance of something called "tree". Because, in actual fact, the tree is a unique expression of yourself. It is your own reality – a mirror of your feelings, moods, thoughts, dreams, past or recent experiences, and lots more.
Your inner perception of reality is self-projection. It is per se unique because you and your perspective on the world are unique. As I explained in the blog post entitled "How to see like an artist: 8 highly-effective strategies", the inner perception is opposite to the outer perception, which is a rather objective view on a consensually shared reality that humans see when they look around and label things as such.
Can anyone ever access reality-itself ? Definitely not because reality-itself is beyond our capacity of perception and understanding in this space-time frame. As Immanuel Kant said, the appearance of things as they truly are is subjectively conditioned by our sensible intuition and cognition.
Every perception is, therefore, self-expression and an opportunity for self-exploration. An artist is a permanent snorkeler and an active watcher of the world inside and the world outside him, which are, in fact, one and the same thing.
As a painter, you’ve always got a spectrum of possibilities between the following two poles: painting exactly what you see and painting how you see. How do you reconcile these two poles? And do you necessarily have to?
Painting exactly what you see: the outward approach
To me, painting exactly what you see equals imitating or reproducing reality from an outward place, where you and the things you paint are two separate entities. This means to be literal. To paint everything you see. To strive for a perfect description of the form, size, proportions, and tonal values of the outer world. Put simply, this means to place subjective perception opposite to reality.
In the long run, the outward approach to reality might make you feel frustrated. Just like I felt when I came out of art school. My works looked good because they were “well-drawn and painted”, but my style was poor, and there was no striking personal message attached to them. Have you tried this before? Let me know how you felt.
Like I wrote in a previous blog post entitled "One essential thing about art", I believe that art doesn’t imitate or copy anything, but thrives on otherness, on the very essence of what it means to be different and unique in its own right. Art changes everything into something different. And finds possibilities instead of answers.
Painting how you see: the inward approach
When you take the inward turn and let your inner perception unfold, what you paint becomes an expression of yourself.
Let’s come back to the example of the tree. When I look at it from within, I can identify certain characteristics that I can relate to in that specific moment. I see the tree as an extension of myself. Its branches and leaves carry my personal message. My subject and I become, thus, one.
When you change your perspective on reality, you begin to see the world differently. And your perception becomes synonymous with your own reality.
Finding your way: change perspective
There’s a clear distinction between the outward and the inward approach to reality and art-making. You must make a choice: gravitate towards one of the poles, or walk the spectrum of possibilities between the two.
If you are bored with realism, feel uninspired, or have hit an artist block, then find a way to transcend immediate reality through your perception and style, and to bypass a purely descriptive and dull imitation of reality. You can find here some highly-effective strategies.
To come back to the example of the tree, you should start with a rejection of conventionalism and a simple question, like: “This is not a tree. This is not what it appears to be. And this is not what social convention says it is. This is something else. What and how is it, then?”.
Look closely, observe slowly, then take a step back and recognise patterns and relationships. Make connections. Turn immediate reality upside down. Flip your current vision and see what happens next! This is life-changing because it has the power to transform you. The world becomes your inner space. You and the outside world become ONE.
In your inner space, you can create, organise, combine, and recombine everything at your own will. In that space, you’ll feel your creative energy, engage in a process, and see what comes out of it. It’s all there – your ideas, passions, hopes, ghosts, joy and sadness ...
Freedom is unlimited and “creation is only the projection into form of that which already exists” within you (Srimad-Bhagavatam).
Reproduction is a noun. Self-expression is a verb. Why wouldn’t you think of your art as an active, never-settling creative process? Or maybe as an outcry, laughter, protest, meditative breath, or expression of wonder?
“A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.” (Elaine de Kooning)
Thank you for reading till the end.
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Recognise your pointlessness, and keep creating!
From Germany with love,