The unimaginable in art and perception
“Green is the most restful colour that exists. On exhausted men this restfulness has a beneficial effect, but after a time it becomes wearisome.“ 1
This essay explores the unimaginable as a concept in art and the question, if working with the unimaginable can help to develop things, which have not been there before; develop new concepts.
This research is closely linked to perception and differences in the way of perceiving. Perception plays an important role for the things which are imaginable as well, as you can only imagine things which you already know, or at least things, whose components you know. As this is described in 1969 by David Wright:
“Not much has been written about deafness by the deaf. Even so, considering that I did not become deaf after I had learned the language, I am no better placed than a hearing person to imagine what it is like to be born into silence and reach the age of reason without acquiring a vehicle for thought and communication. […] How does one formulate concepts in such a condition?”2
Perception might already differ from every person to another. There is no proof, with whom we could compare perception definitively. This means, that there might be various kinds of “normal perception”.This essay is written under my own subjective way of perceiving, which I would describe as “normal” and I hopefully share with most people.
In the following part, I will examine three fields of a diverse perception. These are all somehow “unimaginable” to me. The fields are analysed in correlation to art and the creative process. The fields are the neurological condition of synesthesia, blindness and mental illness.
Synesthesia, a different way of perceivingAnalysed regarding Wassily Kandinsky's colour theory
Synesthesia, often (wrongly) described as “unison of senses” is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. It can either be cross-sensory or be located in the same field of sensation. The most common forms of synesthesia are grapheme colour synesthesia, in which letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured. And visual motion sound synesthesia, that involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker. There are more than one hundred different forms of synesthesia. The synesthetic perception differs from every synesthete to synesthete, varying in combination of sensory and cognitive pathways, as well as in intensity. Often, a synesthete has more than one form of synesthesia. Moreover, synesthesia, in some cases, can be evoked also in the absence of a direct sensory stimulation. To evoke a synaesthetic perception for synesthetes with this form of synesthesia, it is sufficient to evoke the concept of the “triggering” sensation, for instance by showing the trigger in a photograph.
The ability of synesthetes to connect senses, which usually are not connected, can effect positively the finding of new solutions in certain fields. During the phase of illumination, in which–due to Graham Wallas' model of creativity–the information gathered in the phases of preparation and incubation creates the “flash” of a new idea, this is an advantage.3 In the fields of literature and music exist various examples suggesting that synesthetes are capable of a special creativity, such as Kandinsky, Baudelaire and Rembrandt.
The russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky was a synesthete who received colours not only as optical but also as acoustic stimuli. As Kandinsky describes in his 1912 published book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, according to him, colours are moving in different directions:
“Yellow and blue have another movement which affects the first antithesis–an ex-and concentric movement. If two circles are drawn and painted respectively yellow and blue, brief concentration will reveal in the yellow a spreading movement out from the centre, and a noticeable approach to the spectator. The blue, on the other hand, moves in upon itself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and draws away from the spectator.”4
“An attempt to make yellow colder produces a green tint and checks both the horizontal and excentric movement. The colour becomes sickly and unreal. The blue by its contrary movement acts as a brake on the yellow, and is hindered in its own movement, till the two together become stationary, and the result is green. Similarly a mixture of black and white produces gray, which is motionless and spiritually very similar to green.”5
Moreover, he compares the sound of colours to the one of musical instruments:
“In music a light blue is like a flute, a darker blue a cello; a still darker a thunderous double bass; and the darkest blue of all-an organ.[…] White, therefore, has this harmony of silence, which works upon us negatively, like many pauses in music that break temporarily the melody. It is not a dead silence, but one pregnant with possibilities.”6
Blindness, a different way of perceiving
Analysed through the artworks of Sophie Calle
Blindness is the condition of lacking visual perception due to physiological or neurological factors.
The four artworks of the french artist Sophie Calle subsumed under the title “absence et manques” treat the subject of blindness in comparison to seeing people and should be therefore discussed here. The titles of the four works are “Les aveugles”, 1986 (The blind), “La Couleur aveugle”, 1991 (Color blind), “Fantômes”, 1989–1991 (Phantoms) and “Last Seen”, 1991.
Not to repeat myself, I will focus on two of these works. Firstly, Les aveugles. Calle asked different people, who have been born without sight, what the image of beauty is according to them. She presents them by showing their portrait and their response, which is emphasized by a photograph of the object, which was described as the image of beauty. The important aspect to investigate is the fact, that we both parties can never know, how the other perceives. With this work, Calle takes even two steps in making the unimaginable imaginable. First, by asking the question and secondly, by representing these answers by a photograph, which their authors, or initiators can not see. Hereby, she adds in the given context a new meaning to these photographs on their matalevel.
The second work, I would like to investigate is Last Seen. But the main aspects of this can be referred to the work Fantômes as well. In the series Last Seen, Calle works on a famous crime:
the theft in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston of five drawings by Degas, a vase, a Napoleonic eagle, and six paintings by Rembrandt, Flinck, Manet, and Vermeer. The condition of Gardner in her will, that the arrangement of the galleries remain fixed, leads to the fact that a sense of loss remains a permanent fixture of the museum. Calle interviewed the curators and other staff members of the museum, asking them to describe the absent works. These descriptions were opposed to photographs of the settings with the missing pieces.
Under the aspect of the unimaginable, the phenomenon of transference in other media plays a certain role. As Kandinsky said
“[…] an absolutely similar inner appeal cannot be achieved by two different arts. Even if it were possible the second version would differ at least outwardly. But suppose this were not the case, that is to say, suppose a repetition of the same appeal exactly alike both outwardly and inwardly could be achieved by different arts, such repetition would not be merely superfluous.”7
This concept is also applicable to the idea of the perception and memory of two different personalities. Within the answers Calle received as descriptions of the same picture, not two where identical; some of them not even similar. This is not only due to the memory of the surveyed, even if the object would still be there, everyone would describe it differently, according to diversity in backgrounds, experiences and priorities.
Cognitive disabilities and mental disorder
Visual agnosia is an impairment in “recognition of visually presented objects”. In one of its forms, associative agnosia, a person perceives the forms of objects correctly, but is not able to identify these. Oliver Sacks reports in the title essay of his book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” such a case and gives an insight into the ways of perception of his patient with associative agnosia.
Concerning the creative field, there are many other interesting cases of artists with cognitive disabilities and mental disorders. In the beginning of the 20thcentury, the German psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn started a collection of art in the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidelberg. This collection, published in 1922 in his book “Bildnerei der Geisteskranken” (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) was the first serious study of psychiatric works. The works where collected mainly in the hope of new findings concerning the patient's mental situation. The works gained attention by artists as Franz Marc, Paul Klee, Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet. One of the artworks shown by Prinzhorn at a lecture in Stuttgart, was the drawing “Willenskurven” by Hyacinth Freiherr von Wieser. This drawing especially fascinated the German painter, sculptor and scenographer Oskar Schlemmer. His schematised choreographic figures relate in some way to these drawings.
Von Wieser, brought to a psychiatric clinic in Munich on account of symptoms of schizophrenia such as auditory hallucinations and disorganized speech, was driven by the idea, that characteristic forms of the human will can be translated to curves and vice versa. To protect the viewer, he appended the text „Vorsicht für andere Gefährlich zu betrachten“ (Caution Dangerous to look at for others). With his model „Willologie“, he describes this idea on several pages.
The German painter, art professor and typographer Willi Baumeister describes in his book the unknown in art:
“The original sort of artist does not actually see. Because he plunges as a front liner into the unknown with each work, he cannot predict what he will encounter... Even when the artist, moved by an incomprehensible primordial will in high consciousness of his action, says, chisels, or paints his thing, he lets himself be surprised by that which emerges through his hands.”8
Considering Baumeister's understanding of the “new” in art, and the above mentioned idea of Kandinsky about the phenomenon of transference in other media, the transference of anyobject into anyother medium has to be reflected critically. It leads to the conclusion, that reality not be transferred in any other medium.
„[…] es [ist] nur scheinbar die Abbildung der Wirklichkeit, die man in der Fotografie erwartete.“(it only seems to be the reproduction of reality, which was expected in photography.)9
“Photography is abstract by nature. […] photography's abstract nature is the permanent doubt that exists as to the validity of the photograph as objective proof, as absolute truth, as a material rendition of reality.” 10
How does this impossibility to transfer one thing completely into another medium affect the possibilities of comprehending the perception of other people?
The next step for my thesis is to examine the concept of the “unimaginable” further. Wherefore I will use the form of interviews and experiments. Concerning synesthesia, there are several artists, using the phenomenon in their artwork or even giving courses for creativity by the means of synaesthesia. I am looking for synesthetes, interested in participating in my project. Possibly, I would like to observe one of the provided workshops as well. Besides, I would like to investigate within “experiments” how people will be affected through different ways of perception. Participants in these interventions (or which form the experiments will have), should be people with all different ways of perceiving.
1 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, by Wassily Kandinsky, 19122 “Seeing Voices”, by Oliver Sachs
3 cp Hughes 2010, Simner 2006
4-7 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1912
8 Willi Baumeister (1889–1955) in (The Unknown in Art [Das Unbekannte in der Kunst], 4th edition, page 138)
9 Hans Beltling about the photography of Jeff Wall in „Der Blick hinter Duchamps Tür“ p. 141
10 Jean Loup Pivin, “The icon and the totem, Realistic abstraction of the real”, in “Blink.” (Phaidon)