Perception in art stands for a complex relation between visual stimuli and a personal understanding of them. It is a theoretical postulate that aims to clarify the relation between artworks and individual opinions and evaluations. Far from being a universally established matrix of understanding art, perception is conditioned by a context from which observation and evaluation are made. Instead of general models of understanding, it is conditioned by numerous factors, including political, social, cultural, gender and racial. It affects how we see art and what meanings we attribute to it, but is also an active factor in artistic creation. It would be hard to make assertions about the meaning of art without the previously established notions of value that come from multifaceted perceptual conditionings. The views of both an artist and an observer contribute to the understanding of art, and the first is not distinguished in its importance from the second.
As seen from numerous historical examples perception affects the meaning we attribute to art, and often such understandings change over the course of time. Some universal postulates may persist, but most of them are dependent on the particular social mores of a given time. Perception and our opinions are closely linked. Turning to art, we can see that throughout history evaluation of artistic styles changed over the course of time, which contributes to the above assertion of a connectedness between our opinions and perception of art.
In 1945 Maurice Merleau-Ponty published Phenomenology of Perception which put him on the map of modern phenomenologists, together with Edmund Husserl, Eugen Fink, and Martin Heidegger. He developed his own interpretation of phenomenology’s method, based in Gestalt theory, psychology, neurology, and the critique of prejudices of empiricism and intellectualism. For Merleau-Ponty indeterminate and contextual aspects of the living reality cannot be removed from the whole account of the sensory. Sensing is a “living communication with the world that makes it present to us as the familiar place of our life.” We invest the perceived reality with values and understandings that refer essentially to our lives and bodies, but we often forget that this reality is as it appears to these perceived values and that it is not a truth in itself. Moving on to include artistic practices in his discussion, Merleau-Ponty turns to expression as the perceptual exchange between an organism and its surroundings. Perception has creative and expressive dimension that is manifested in art, and paintings are manifestations of expressivity of a perceptual style into a more malleable medium.
In explaining the development of artistic styles in relation to perception Merleau-Ponty resorts to a language of progress and historical development that establishes the historical trajectory of art as a systematic development starting with our views and understandings, where artist’s subjective preferences have no consequence. Perception in art, as we mentioned in the introduction, is conditioned by both the observer’s and the artist’s situatedness. Art styles had developed from a willed decision of an artist that casts his inspiration in visual form inside historical trajectories, and come as a coherent deformation in inherited traditions. In art, meanings acquired from perception are concentrated in visual expression, and style represents “an interpretation, an optional way of depicting the world.” The unfinished character of modern painting, as Merleau-Ponty describes it, is not some kind of a turn from objective observation and depiction of the reality to a more subjective vision, but is rather a testimony to a “paradoxical logic of all expression.” Two following cases from modern art explicate in more detail the fickleness of perception.
Cézanne belongs to a group of artists who worked in France at the turn of the centuries and whose paintings were highly criticized by contemporaries. Together with Impressionists he marks the beginning of the new age in art where formal adherence to realistic representation is substituted with expressive renderings where line, form and color take primacy. In clash with Impressionists, Cézanne desired to develop an analytic style where reality would be simplified and explained through basic shapes. In observing how the appreciation of his works changed over decades, from being rejected numerous times by the Paris Salon to being hailed today as the forerunners of modern art, we can understand the influence perception has on our views. Unaccustomed to see the world simplified to basic forms in art, Cézanne’s critics described his paintings as extremely ugly, while Camille Mauclair, an anti-modernist writer, noted that “Cézanne never was able to create what can be called a picture.” However, Merleau-Ponty describes his works as a proto-phenomenological determination to represent the birth of perception through painting.
Perhaps the most notorious example in the history of art is the exhibition staged in Munich in 1937, named Degenerate Art or Entartete Kunst. Its title came from a broader decision by the Nazi regime to classify artistic practices by their ideological appropriateness. The show that toured several other cities in Germany ridiculed and derided modern art, and those who produced it faced severe consequences later. Modern art was seen as un-German, Jewish or Communist, and in contrast to blood and soil ideology of the Nazi Party. Oto Dix, El Lissitzky, George Grosz, László Moholy-Nagy, Piet Mondrian, and Paul Klee were among the artists whose works were shown, and many fled the Germany in the aftermath or were stripped of their professorships and forced to live in exile. Negative perception of their art by the ruling elites, blinded by ideological, racial, and nationalist prejudices, outlawed some of the most valued modern artists and art works, and affected cultural production in Germany that turned to idealized representations of the national that, besides historical, have little or no value today.
There is no difference in how art is perceived today and what factors affect our understanding of it. Our views are still formed by complex influences, and perception is not divested from them. We could make numerous examples from contemporary art proving that perception is far from being rendered objective or unaffected by our personal standings. Graffiti and street art could serve as a good example. Instead of being observed as another art form, graffiti, which still today provoke mixed responses, were in the beginning synonymous with a decaying urban environment, and urgency from the officials to eradicate them came from a need to bring order in a chaotic social reality. Another example that testifies to complexities inherent in perceptual understanding is Susanne Kriemann’s 80-piece slide projection - 277569. This intriguing piece comprises of photographs showing a wooded area that is not specified. The number that stands for the title also gives out little a propos the content. As the artist explains, photos are taken from an archive, and represent the area that was flown over 277,569 times during the Berlin Airlift in 1948/49. They are historical markers of the start of the Cold War, but this information is buried for the observer beneath the numerous, almost abstracted forms of trees that are their main protagonists. Artist’s perception of these photos as a historical testimony, and the viewers’ often uninformed guesses, position this artwork between the contrasting understandings which inform every practice of meaning making. Belonging to the domains of abstract photography and historical document, 277569 is a good example of how perception and social conditionings affect our views of art.
Editors’ Tip: Merleau-Ponty and the Art of Perception
This collection of essays brings together diverse but interrelated perspectives on art and perception based on the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Although Merleau-Ponty focused almost exclusively on painting in his writings on aesthetics, this collection also considers poetry, literary works, theater, and relationships between art and science. In addition to philosophers, the contributors include a painter, a photographer, a musicologist, and an architect. This widened scope offers important philosophical benefits, testing and providing evidence for the empirical applicability of Merleau-Ponty s aesthetic writings. The central argument is that for Merleau-Ponty the account of perception is also an account of art and vice versa. In the philosopher s writings, art and perception thus intertwine necessarily rather than contingently such that they can only be distinguished by abstraction. As a result, his account of perception and his account of art are organic, interdependent, and dynamic.
Featured images: Esther Stocker - Space Installation. Image via lodownmagazine.com; Graffiti Art.Images via Widewalls archive; Laszlo Moholy Nagy - Photogram. Image via Widewalls archive. All images used for illustrative purposes only.