Psyche 9(10): 'A Scientist's Vision of Art' by Amy Ione

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Patrick Wilken

Feb 24, 2003, 9:25:54 PM2/24/03


Amy Ione
The Diatrope Institute
P.O. Box 12748
Berkeley, CA 94712-3748

Copyright (c) Amy Ione 2003

PSYCHE, 9(09), February 2003

KEYWORDS: visual perception, visual art, qualia, art and science,
vision science.

REVIEW OF: Livingston, M. (2002). *Vision and Art: The Biology of
Seeing*. New York: Harry N Abrams. 208 pp. ISBN: 0810904063.
$45.00 hbk.

ABSTRACT: *Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing* by Margaret
Livingstone is reviewed. Livingstone's analysis balances genes and
experiences in proposing explanations that illustrate commonalities
between art and visual perception. The book contributes to the
literature that applies visual perception research to artwork,
although it fails to probe where artistic visual processing might
differ from visual processing *per se*.

Visiting a museum one is often surprised to see how many of the works
incorporate modalities studied by visual scientists (e.g., depth
perception, blurring, texture, etc.). Yet, when reading the scientific
literature one finds scant indication of these overlaps. Similarly, in
the art literature one is likely to find these features characterized in
terms of context, narrative iconology, intuition, and subjectivity
rather than visual science. Margaret Livingston's book, *Vision and Art:
The Biology of Seeing* is an exception to this. Successfully linking
art with visual perception, she demonstrates that commonalities exist
between artistic sensibility and our visual apparatus. As a full-fledged
neurobiologist, moreover, she has the background to simplify the range
of scientific information that demonstrates intersections between visual
art and visual science, without explaining away the power of art.

Artists and the general public will no doubt welcome her clear, concise
explanations about the 'tricks' artists employ to excite us. Visual
artists will find much to think about in regards to how their peers
creatively (and intuitively) utilize texture, luminosity, color, brush
technique and depth perception. They might also pick up some ideas for
experimentation in the studio. Those captivated by art are likely to
relish the way this beautifully presented full-color publication probes
artistic devices and the range of artistic styles and eras studied.
Notables discussed include Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso,
Bridget Riley, Chuck Close, and many more contributors to our visual

Livingstone approaches the subject in terms of a marriage between genes
and experience. Information is framed primarily through the 'Where'
System that defines the locations of objects (motion perception, depth
perception, spatial organization, figure/ground segregation, etc.) and
the 'What' System that characterizes their properties (object
recognition, face recognition, color perception, etc.). While the
differences between these two systems offers a viable approach to
organizing and explaining the nuances of visual perception, the book is
less successful in conveying how artistic vision differs from vision
*per se*. The failure to distinguish these two visual modes was
particularly evident in the way examples were introduced. Throughout
the book the author integrates well-chosen examples to demonstrate areas
of interest in visual science. For example, Isia Leviant's *Enigma*
(1984) and Bridget Riley's *Fall* (1963) do effectively convey that the
juxtaposition of luminance-contrast borders with areas of equiluminance.
It is obvious that we experience a powerful illusory motion from the
high-contrast lines. Leviant's circles begin to turn and Riley's
repetitive pattern offers an illusory stereo depth. Yet, while the
effects are identified, and clearly affect the eyes when we view the
work, there is little indication of what the artist did to study and
then create the effect illustrated. This process, I believe, is more
than illustration and without seeking out the mechanisms particular to
the artist, the work introduced objectifies the art more than it studies
artistic visual processing.

Given this, what I believe the treatment lacked was some thought on how
artistic inventiveness and visual processing might be interrelated.
Throughout the book it occurred to me that it was unfortunate that
Livingstone did not juxtapose her excellent examples with an artist (or
several) who open the door to how a practitioner might study and learn
more about the modalities. Jan van Eyck (1390 - 1441), for example,
would have been a powerful reference point for many of the topics
addressed, including geometrical references, light and color,
luminosity, texture, depth perception, visual interpretation, etc. Long
considered the inventor (or perfector) of the oil paint technique, his
work would have added key information to the role of artistic methods in
general and historically. For example, when Livingstone illustrates how
artists have dealt with the limited range of pigment reflectances she
doesn't seem to recognize that the work referenced mixes categories.
Her early examples are images that were contrived before oil paint was a
common medium. Artists knew that egg tempera and gold leaf had
limitations and recognized that when employing these materials it is
almost impossible to show light within a picture. As a result they
developed a lexicon that side-stepped the difficulty in convincingly
representing the 'visual idea' of luster, sheen, and reflection. To
oversimplify, the problem is that the egg gives a surface that is too
matt and the gold will appear as either a dark or pale background
(depending on the light). When artists learned how to mix oil and
pigment, Jan van Eyck being the master here, the visual quality of
painting expanded due to oil's capacity to represent the physical world
we see more successfully. While it still wasn't possible to re-create
the variations and light of the physical world it was possible to
definitively expand how color, light, luminosity, and physical reality
were portrayed/represented on a panel or canvas. The technological
advantage the mastery of oil paint offered is not found within our
visual system per se but how this breakthrough expanded the artistic
repertoire does appear in the luminance and gradations artists
presented. While the historical chronology records a new direction, the
development that linked art with visual processing wasn't merely a new
trick indicating stylistic changes.

Van Eyck's inventiveness shows the artistic 'eye' particularly well,
which is why he was long credited with inventing oil paint. Moreover,
his work (and one might chose other examples) shows the degree to which
an artistic dedication might revamp our visual experience descriptively
and metaphorically. To continue with this example, van Eyck's
contributions are particularly interesting both visually and for other
reasons. Many ideas in the visual science literature are derived from
studies of abnormal or generic visual systems. Those who have used a
visual anomaly to offer an insight into art (or visual science) are
perhaps harder to discover. In van Eyck's case, some of the most
insightful research was conducted by the renowned art historian Erwin
Panofsy, who was anisometropic, seeing clearly at a distance in one eye
and at close range in the other. It is said that Panofsky was able to
pinpoint van Eyck's special ability to present images that operated as
both a microscope and a telescope because of the way his [Panofsky's]
own visual system operated. Livingstone's omission of specialized
artistic processing was not a major flaw and hopefully future research
into this area will add more studies that link what is particular to the
artist to the commonalities studied by visual science.

A second limitation of the book was the no doubt inadvertent way in
which it illustrated many of the areas discussed. To her credit,
Livingstone mentions on several occasions that the texture or depth we
would encounter in an original is lost in the reproduction. This is
true and I believe a good way to encourage readers to visit the works
and experience them full-size and with all of their blemishes visible,
so to speak. She also adequately distinguishes color mixing in vision,
paint, printing, and photography. Unfortunately, for whatever reason,
examples in several cases present colors that do not correspond to the
printed illustration. On a page with a striking yellow background, the
caption refers to the orange background. On another page where the
colors appear as Venetian red and slate, one explanation refers to the
tan and blue of the illustration, while another on the same page
describes these colors as red and gray. Discussing these discrepancies
with others led to some discussion about how we might define the colors
we perceived and the degree to which those reproduced matched the terms
adopted in the text.

Once reading turned to interactive evaluation, the question "Do you see
Red like I see Red?" seemed to take on major importance. This is a
much-debated question in visual perception and consciousness studies,
where discussions of qualia now are used to help define the issues.
(Generally qualia are defined in terms of a mental state with a very
distinctive subjective character.) While some, such as Dan Dennett, deny
the utility of the concept, others debate where they fit within an
explanatory model. One view is that qualia are real but are reducible
to a physicalist explanation (e.g., Shoemaker, Tye). On the other side
we find those who say that qualia are real but are not capable of
reduction to a functionalist or physicalist explanation (e.g., Kim,
Chalmers, Levine, McGinn). Livingston concludes that

[T]he question of whether you see red like I see red is basically
semantic. There are indeed many people for whom the experience of
red is quantifiably different from my experience of red, starting
with the kinds of cells in their retina that are activated. But,
because our brains are built by both genes and experience, we can
also say that your experience of red differs from mine simply on the
basis of knowing that our life experiences are different. (p. 33)

As noted, *Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing* approaches the
experience of art generically and thus the specialized experiences
within the artistic brain that distinguishes artistic processing from
that of normal (and abnormal) processing is never approached head-on. To
her credit, she does not adopt the axiomatic assumption that art is
about spirituality, a view that has limited the work of people like
Semir Zeki (see, for example, *Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and
the Brain*, 1999). Her study, however, would have benefited from some
discussion of his idea that artists are neurologists, studying the brain
with techniques that are unique to them. Instead, like Robert Solso's
*Cognition and the Visual Arts* (1994), Livingston probes for
connections linking art and science with greater specificity. Her use
of full-color illustrations distinguishes her contribution from Solso's.
In addition, his pioneering work in this domain was more concerned with
the experience of art in terms of history, culture, and cognition. All
three of these works demonstrate the degree to which visual scientists
are beginning to recognize what artists have to add to scientific
research and consciousness as well. Personally, I find it exciting that
recent scientific research on vision and visual perception is now a tool
that we are using to distinguish philosophical predispositions about
visual art from actual brain operations.


Solso, R. L. (1994). *Cognition and the visual arts*. Cambridge, MA: A
Bradford Book.

Zeki, S. (1999). *Inner Visions: An exploration of art and the brain*.
Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patrick Wilken
Postdoctoral Fellow in Biology, Caltech

"A person with a watch knows what time it is, a person with two is never sure."


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