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    Cognition and the Visual Arts

    Robert L. SoIso

    A Bradford BookThe MIT PressCambridge, MassachusettsLondon, England

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    Second printing, 1997First MIT Press paperback edition, 1996

    1994 Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyAll rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronicor mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage andretrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.This book was set in Bernbo by DEKR Corporation and was printed and bound in theUnited States of America.Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataSolso, Robert L., 1933-

    Cognition and the visual arts / Robert L. Solso.p. ern. - (MIT Press/Bradford Books series in cognitivepsychology)Includes bibliographical references and index.ISBN 0-262-19346-9 (Hb), 0-262-69186-8 (Pb)1. Visual perception. 2. Art-Psychology. 3. Cognition.

    1. Title. II. Series.BF241.S63 1994701'.15-dc20 93-48658

    CIP

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    5 Context, Cognition, and Art

    This life 's five w indows of the soulD istorts the H eavens from pole to pole,

    And leads you to believe a lieThen you see with, not thro', the eye.-W illiam Blake

    Art is always viewed in context. To the layperson, context is the location ofthe art--such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the National Gallery-and one's companions-Aunt Betty from Sun City, your roommate fromcollege, a new boyfriend. To the cognitive scientist, however, context in-cludes two additional features: the physical composition of the visual field andthe personal history of the viewer.

    The first of these was mentioned in previous chapters. Because thephysical composition of the visual field is an important part of the scientificstudy of context, we shall extend our previous discussion and see how physicalfactors interact with other contextual features in a visual display. Basic percep-tion is fixed by physiological structures that are jointly enjoyed by all membersof the species. These invariant structures are an essential element in theunderstanding of the initial stages of visual perception. As personally porten-tous as most of us believe we are, the laws of physics and physiology do notwrap themselves around us; rather we wrap our impressions of the worldaround the laws of nature. Both individual psychology and common physi-ology contribute to the perception of art.

    Another type of context will be introduced in this chapter, the contextprovided by an observer's rich personal knowledge as he or she views art.Sometimes this type of perception is called higher-order cognition, as itengages past knowledge and the social/political setting in the interpretation

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    Context, Cognition, and Art 102

    of art. Each of us approaches an art object with significantly different per-spectives because of our unique personal history and social experiences.Knowledge is not haphazardly arranged in the brain, but is systematicallyorganized around themes, or schemes, that are important structures in theunderstanding of art as well as all of reality. We will learn more about thisintriguing topic in this chapter, but now consider how physiology and psy-chology function in the seeing and understanding of a classic piece of art.

    Mona Lisa: A Case StudyWhen you visit the Louvre in Paris and see Leonardo's portrait Mona Lisa,you will see the physical features of that painting essentially identically to howall other humans see them-because the light reflected from the painting andthe initial processing by one's neurophysiology are fixed by physical laws. Inthis example, notice the misty ambience that permeates the painting.Leonardo created this effect by sfumato, the subtle transition of tones that givesa hazy softness to the contours. In addition, you can clearly see certaincontours, note figure-ground relationships, detect colors, discover contrastsand "good gestalts," and so on. Basic visual information is similarly organizedby all people.

    The meaning, or semantic value, derived from these basic forms, how-ever, is subject to wide individual differences. When you see Mona Lisa'senigmatic smile, you see it differently than might your companion, or I, orMarcel Duchamp, or indeed Leonardo. But for centuries, the painting andespecially the smile have been evocative.

    The "message," meaning, and interpretation of art depend on yourprevious specialized knowledge of painting and related phenomena. Thatknowledge, plus your vast idiosyncratic knowledge of the world, contributeto the (internal) context in which art is viewed. If you know something ofthe history of Renaissance art, the work and personal life of Leonardo, thereligious dogmas of the time, the medium used, and so on, then when youactually see Mona Lisa you have already formed an opinion about what youare seeing. Even if you slept through Art 1, you look out at the world witha thousand hypotheses-about people, fashion, landscapes, facial hair, smilingwomen, and the unique attributes of great art. Even now, as you read andthink about art and cognition, your mind is alive with the formation of ideasabout paintings in general, and Mona Lisa in specific. Actually seeing MonaLisa is a test of your hypotheses about the world (the world as anticipated by

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    Context, Cognition, and Art

    5.1 Leonardo Da Vinci, ,\fon.; Lisa (I . . .1 Gio((mJa).

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    Context, Cognition, and Art 104

    your mind) and what the world is (as represented by your senses). Theinterplay between the internal (cognitive) representation of reality and theexternal (physical) representation is a fascinat-ing problem in cognitive psychology, art, sci-ence, and philosophy.

    If you have ever toured a gallery with afriend, you know that differences in the inter-pretation of art vary widely; even among pro-fessional art critics (those paragons of artisticjudgment), sharp differences are commonplace.Each of us carries around with him or her avast and unique mental storehouse of informa-tion about the world. And, since higher-orderperception is determined by our past knowl-edge (a kind of personal "cerebral encyclope-dia"), your view of Mona's smile is probablydifferent from mine.

    Physical ContextThe physical context of visual objects has asubstantial impact on basic perception. Thingsmay appear bigger, smaller, brighter, darker,bluer, redder, closer, farther, clearer, hazier, andso on, than they actually are, depending on thenature of the object and the context in whichit is placed. We begin our analysis of physicalcontext with several simple examples, and thenmove to more complex examples includingpieces of art.

    BRIGHTNESS CONTRAST

    First, consider the importance of physical con-text on perceived brightness, as shown in figure5.3. In the sets of concentric squares at left, thetwo small gray squares are of identical intensity,yet the one at top appears much darker than

    W hile w orking on The Battleof Anghiari, Leonardopainted his m ost famous por-trait, the Mona Lisa. Thedelicate sfumato ifThe Vir-gin of the Rocks is here sopefected that it seemed m i-r ac ulo us to th e a rtis t's c on te m-poraries. The forms are builtfrom layers ifg lazes so g ossa-m er-thin that the entire panelseem s to glow with a gentlelight from within. But the

    fam e of the Mona Lisa comesn ot fro m th is p ictorial su btle tyalone; even m ore intriguing isthe psychologica l fasc ina tion ifthe sitter's personality. W hy,among all the sm iling facesever painted, has this particu-lar one been singled out as"mysterious"? Perhaps therea so n is tha t, a s a p ortra it, th epicture does not fit our expec-tations. The features are tooindividual for Leonardo tohave sim ply depicted an idealtype, yet the elem ent if ideali-zatiotl is so strong that it blursthe sitter's character. Onceagaitl the artist has broughttw o o pp os ite s in to h ar mo nio usbalance.

    -HW Jansotl

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    Mona-LeoLeonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is probably the most thoroughly analyzed painting in theworld. Critics have pointed out that the background is "impossible," and, if you lookat the countryside behind the woman, the side on the left does not match the side onthe right. Psychoanalytically inclined critics have suggested that Leonardo may haveexperienced an "Oedipus anxiety" caused by an unresolved sexual fantasy involving hismother, which was manifest in his portraits of women. Yet other critics suggest that inmany of his portraits a self-portrait can be seen. Lillian Schwartz has shown us thecombined faces of Mona Lisa and Leonardo, in a work called Mona-Leo. What do youthink of this effort? Is Lisa actually Leo in drag? To my eyes there is a striking symmetryin this image. What alternative hypotheses might be supported by this observation?

    5.2 Lillian Schwartz, Mona-Leo.

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    Context, Cognition, and Art 106

    5.3 Two examples of perceived brightness and context.

    the one at bottom. The effect is due to the context of the surrounding (darkeror lighter) squares: the perception of brightness is determined, in part, by thecontrast between a figure and contextual stimuli. An even more dramaticcontextual effect is presented in the figure at right, in which a ring of uniformgrayness appears lighter on the left-hand part of the display (where it issurrounded by a black field) than on the right (where it is surrounded by awhite field).

    The influence of context on the perc