Connecting to the Unreal: Art Perception

(Excerpted from the book Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epsitemology)

Many feel a human-to-human connection to the figure in this Modigliani painting even though it is not physically human in many ways.

Many feel a human-to-human connection to the figure in this Modigliani painting even though it is not physically human in many ways.

Fans feel a connection to cartoon characters, seeing them as if they’re living beings, following their lives, laughing at their jokes, feeling good when good things happen to them and bad when bad things happen. A kid can feel closer to a cartoon character than a living, breathing next door neighbor.

Fans feel a connection to cartoon characters, seeing them as if they’re living beings, following their lives, laughing at their jokes, feeling good when good things happen to them and bad when bad things happen. A kid can feel closer to a cartoon character than a living, breathing next door neighbor.

A complex and fascinating question is why do humans have such strong emotional reactions and human connections to unrealistic art? Why do viewers become scared, even haunted for days, by a movie monster they know doesn’t exist? Why do humans become enthralled by distorted figures and scenes that aren’t realistic? Why do viewers have emotional attachments to comic book characters?

The answer lies in that, while humans know art is human made artifice, they decipher and perceive art using many of the same often nonconscious methods that they use to perceive reality. Looking at how we view reality shows us how we view art, and looking at how we view art helps show us how we interpret reality.

This topic could fill up books, and this short essay here offers just several examples about our art perception. Food for further thought.

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Art perception is irrational
People don’t perceive art, or for that matter reality, on the purely logical, rational or literal levels. Art is designed to communicate psychologically, aesthetically, sensually, viscerally, irrationally, subconsciously. There is nothing logical about instrumental music. The sounds are felt. Beauty and ugliness are psychological experiences. Unreal things, distorted figures, a fictional monster in a movie can strike a visceral chord in us that our normal daily reality can’t. A computer generated science fiction landscape can be perceived as beautiful.

Humans have aesthetic, subconscious reactions to many basic qualities including colors, shapes, angles and balance, whether the qualities are in the real world, dreams or art. These qualities don’t just symbolize feelings and evoke meaning in nature, they symbolize and evoke in abstract art and even your new bathroom design. A black bathroom, or even salt shaker, is consider ‘darker’ than a yellow one.

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Natural cognitive methods for processing information
We interpret art using many of the nonconscious cognitive methods we use in the real world. As described in more detail throughout this book, humans have learned and inborn mental methods, biases and assumptions used to nonconsciously identify things and judge the complex information in our daily lives. We compare side-by-side objects to judge size, distance and speed. We identify distant silhouetted objects by how their shapes match up with our memories. We ‘recognize’ objects and qualities in paintings, sketches and movies using these same nonconscious methods.

Even though the figure in the left painting literally has no legs, we perceive Mona Lisa as a whole person and not as some freakish amputee. This mimics how we automatically perceive as whole a real person standing behind a fence or sitting behind a desk. We naturally and unconsciously  fill in unseen information in our minds.

Even though the figure in the left painting literally has no legs, we perceive Mona Lisa as a whole person and not as some freakish amputee. This mimics how we automatically perceive as whole a real person standing behind a fence or sitting behind a desk. We naturally and unconsciously fill in unseen information in our minds.

In both nature and art, we subjectively pick out figures and patterns in ambiguous and even random information. This includes castles and dragons in clouds and train stations in sketches. These are visual illusions, products of the imagination.

In both nature and art, we subjectively pick out figures and patterns in ambiguous and even random information. This includes castles and dragons in clouds and train stations in sketches. These are visual illusions, products of the imagination.

Using the same visual cues we use in nature, we perceive depth in two dimensional paintings, movies and photographs. Diminishing scale, relative size of objects, overlapping objects, changes in focus and tone indicate depth in both our back yard and in the above 1400s oil painting. The curious thing about perceived depth in paintings, photographs and movies is the artworks are physically flat. The depth is imaginary.

Using the same visual cues we use in nature, we perceive depth in two dimensional paintings, movies and photographs. Diminishing scale, relative size of objects, overlapping objects, changes in focus and tone indicate depth in both our back yard and in the above 1400s oil painting. The curious thing about perceived depth in paintings, photographs and movies is the artworks are physically flat. The depth is imaginary.

Both in real life and when art viewing, humans focus on some information in a scene while being oblivious to other. The audience can get into a movie to a point they forget they are sitting in a theater and watching a projected image showing paid actors seen in earlier movies. This explains why a movie shark can make jump the audience in a desert theater one thousand miles from the nearest ocean.

Both in real life and when art viewing, humans focus on some information in a scene while being oblivious to other. The audience can get into a movie to a point they forget they are sitting in a theater and watching a projected image showing paid actors seen in earlier movies. This explains why a movie shark can make jump the audience in a desert theater one thousand miles from the nearest ocean.

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Symbols.
Symbols are an integral part of the human experience on many levels. A symbol is something that represents something else, something larger. It is a short hand, often to a complex idea. To many, blue at the top of an abstract painting or kid’s sketch represents sky, and green at the bottom represents grass or ground. A gold ring on the finger symbolizes marriage.

Not only can commonly known symbols be used in art to communicate ideas, meaning and mood, but this illustrates how humans don’t need reality to communicate real ideas. Symbols literally aren’t the thing they symbolize.

Literature, this paragraph you are reading, is a long series of symbols. The meaning isn’t in the symbols themselves, but what they evoke in your mind. I couldn’t communicate many of the ideas in this book without these symbols. Someone who doesn’t know the code (English) can’t know what is being written.

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Kids playing 'cowboys and indians'

Kids playing ‘cowboys and indians’

Humans mentally adapt to and accept new and artificial worlds.
Throughout our lives we learn new games, rules, languages, rituals, manners, fashion, ways of thinking. In art, we accept and adopt new musical styles, symbols, genres, conceits, artifices. Through repetition and experience, artistic symbols, conceits and associations become more than convenient intellectual devices. They become ingrained, seem natural.

Our perception of reality is formed by the conceits of art. People around the world perceive the Old West from Hollywood movies, even though historians will tell you those depictions are historically inaccurate. People gain dubious perceptions of faraway places and peoples from sitcoms and action movies.

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Each art medium is limited in what it can show literally.
A painting or sketch doesn’t have physical depth or movement. A silent movie doesn’t have voices even when the people on screen converse. The letters of a novel can’t graphically show a sunrise.

This means a medium must use artificial devices to communicate the literally undepictable. Through exposure, audiences accept the devices, don’t even think twice about them.

Movie subtitles so foreigners can know what is being said.

Movie subtitles so foreigners can know what is being said.

Comic strips use panels to depict the passage of time, and words and bubbles to depict talking.

Comic strips use panels to depict the passage of time, and words and bubbles to depict talking.

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Speculation, play acting, day and night dreams

Kids dressed up

Kids dressed up

All humans speculate about the past, present and future, things that haven’t happen, things could have happened, things that might have happened. People wonder what their life would have be like if they were born in a different family or time and place or with different looks. Someone wonders how the conversation would have gone differently if he hadn’t made that stupid remark. A woman may wonder what dress will go across best at tonight’s party. People ponder when they will die, what their life will be like in the future. People wonder it’s like to visit Iceland or live in Paris. Speculation is an essential part of human intelligence. Great inventions and human achievements arise from speculation.

Humans day dream, play act, dress up as different people, pretend they’re different people, mimic others, act as if they animals to amuse their kids, dress up in costumes for Halloween and masquerade balls, join Civil War recreation clubs, have imaginary in their head conversations, practice speeches before imaginary crowds.

In our sleep we have strange and surreal dreams of impossible situations and lands and scenarios. Dreams can resonate and haunt us deeply. Dreams affect how he think and act in our daily lives.

The surreal situations, fictitious plots, made up characters and distorted figures of art go hand in hand with our normal dreaming, speculation, play acting lives. A novel may have a made up plot and fictions characters, but our daily speculation and day dreams involve similar fiction. Science fiction is often a serious intellectual, if also entertaining, speculation of the future and space. A painting or movie may have a surreal landscape and bizarre characters, but so do our dreams. Much art is about dreams and daydreams.

Salvador Dali said his surreal art was directly influenced by his dreams

Salvador Dali said his surreal art was directly influenced by his dreams

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Humans know and feel there is more than what they see and can comprehend, more than what they experience in their day to day lives. They know people in a society hide their true thoughts and feelings. They know they themselves have feelings and ideas that can’t be put into words. They know there are real concepts they can only imagine about. The unrealistic, the impossible, the surreal, symbolism can evoke that which realistic art and our daily lives don’t. Abstract patterns and wordless music can evoke secret memories, emotions and philosophical ideas that a photograph or neighborly chat cannot.

A 'photorealistic' snapshot of a posed family can reveal little about what the subjects really think and feel, while an expressionist painting can tell a lot. In fact, expressionism intended to express psychological reality rather than physical reality. The artists believed both couldn't shown at the same time.

A ‘photorealistic’ snapshot of a posed family can reveal little about what the subjects really think and feel, while an expressionist painting can tell a lot. In fact, expressionism intended to express psychological reality rather than physical reality. The artists believed both couldn’t shown at the same time.

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