Sunday, 24 March 2013

Appearances: Seeing, Perceiving and Drawing (Part 1 of 4)

To speak of appearances, as many aestheticians, philosophers and art teachers do, is to talk in a very particular way about the things that we see. It is to suggest a vaguely sceptical attitude in which the entire realm of the visual is understood as being somewhat deceptive, faulty, incomplete or illusory. Appearances are conceived in this way as something 'out there' in the world that we passively receive. Things are thought to present themselves to us through appearances, and in so doing they undergo distortions that make them 'seem' not as we know they are. A commonly cited example would be the circular disk that is believed to 'appear' as an ellipse when tilted relative to our position.

To 'appear' is to come into view but it is also to ‘seem’. The latter form must surely be the one most commonly intended in descriptions of appearances. It is certainly unlikely that anyone would seriously suggest that appearances involve any form of active agency or any wilful determination on the part of objects to reveal or obstruct their apprehension: to 'present' themselves. Yet there remains a suggestion that appearances are objective properties of things. To speak of appearances in this way is to pay surprisingly little attention to the role of perception – indeed it is to regard perception as being only indirectly related to appearances. If appearances are indeed attributes of things located out there in the world then they must, of necessity, precede perception - they must come before it and can be in no way dependent upon it.

A tilted disk cannot be both an ellipse and a circular disk at the same time. We all know that a tilted disk is a tilted disk and not an ellipse, no matter how much art teachers might insist that what we are in fact seeing is an ellipse; if only we would look hard enough to see what is in front of our eyes. A significant proportion of the teaching of representational drawing is predicated upon this notion of appearances – as if everything we see were in fact some kind of pre-packaged two-dimensional representation that we simply have to copy onto paper, as if ellipses and foreshortening and negative space etc. were uncomplicated objective properties of the world. If this were the case one wonders why children and the naïve are so unanimous in their conviction that circles are circular. Have they not yet learned to look? And if looking comes before knowing – as it surely does – wouldn’t they be able to draw what they see before they can draw what they know?

Contrary to popular opinion, what children and the naïve draw is not the product of a lack of looking or even a lack of visual discrimination on their part nor is it a lack of dexterity. If you think that children lack dexterity then you should look again. Beyond the mere scribbles of infants, in nearly every child’s drawing I have ever seen, their ability to join the ends of a circle is practically faultless. If this doesn’t prove that children can manipulate pencils with a high degree of accuracy then I don’t know what test would.

It is very true that children draw what they know rather than what they see. We could go further than this and say that what children and the naïve draw is not what they see, they draw what they perceive. Perceiving is not another word for seeing. Perceiving is our response to things seen. Perceiving is the knowledge we form on the basis of what we see and therefore children strive to draw what they perceive – what they know of what they see.

To say that what the naïve artist needs to do if they wish to produce photorealistic drawings is simply to look harder or to see more exactly is presumptuous at best. To believe that the failure of untrained and naïve artists to draw perspectivally correct images is due to a lack of observation skills - of attention to appearances - flies in the face of millennia of representations by innumerable artists, many of whom have devoted their lives to image-making and the disciplined observation of the visible.

What the naïve artist needs to learn is not to see better or to look harder but to acquire the sophisticated strategies of perspectival simulation and pictorial representation. By doing so they will continue to see things just like the rest of us but their perception will have changed in a fundamental way: they will now know how to make pictorial representations of tilted disks, and much else besides.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Drawing and Representing

The other day a colleague sent me the following quote from Emma Dexter’s Introduction to “Vitamin D New Perspectives in Drawing”:

“Drawing is everywhere. We are surrounded by it,  it is sewn into the warp and weft of our lives: we practice it as one of our earliest experiences as schoolchildren, and as parents we treasure the drawings made by our offspring like nothing else. People draw everywhere in the world; drawing can even be used as a global visual language when verbal communication fails. As adults we use it pragmatically to sketch our own maps and plans, but we also use it to dream  in doodles and scribbles. We use drawing to denote ourselves, our existence within a scene; in the urban context, for example, graffiti acts as a form of drawing within an expanded field. Indeed, drawing is part of our interrelation to our physical environment, recording in and on it, the presence of the human. It is the means by which we can understand and map, decipher, and come to terms with our surroundings as we leave marks, tracks, or shadows to mark our passing. Footprints, in the snow, breath on the window, vapor trails of a plane across the sky, lines traced by a finger in the sand  we literally draw in and on the material world. Drawing is part of what it means to be human…”

My colleague is considering using this quote as part of a drawing project and asked my opinion of it. I responded by saying (perhaps a little cantankerously) that:
“the quote rests on an unspoken but questionable division between drawing on one hand and representing on the other. I'd suggest that it is actually representing that Dexter is speaking of, not just drawing. And by that I mean the full range of media from static 2D media through  film, to audio, performance and poetry etc. Drawing is a medium. It just so happens that it is also common to a number of - but by no means all - processes that are used by artists. Representing, on the other hand is used, not just by artists, but by everyone.”
In the arts we have inherited divisions between media that have dominated the teaching and conceptualisation of art for centuries and, sadly, in the process we have also inherited much of the hierarchical thinking that accompanies them. The fact that drawing has been seen to have a subsidiary role to other disciplines like sculpture, painting and printmaking is because drawing was long considered to be a fundamental skill or core activity and was consequently not recognised as the medium that it very definitely is.

“Drawing is the primal means of symbolic communication, which predates and embraces writing and functions as a tool of conceptualization parallel with language.” Deanna Petherbridge, “The Primacy of Drawing”

No doubt the expediency of drawing has also led to its relegation amongst its more ‘noble’ peers, since the disciplines of Painting, Sculpture and Printmaking are often far more labour intensive in their manufacture, and skilled labour – especially resolute skilled labour - is often highly valued.

The reason it is so vital to recognise drawing as a medium equivalent to sculpture or printmaking etc. is because in this way we can better appreciate what happens when it is taught as a core activity. By doing so - by taking a medium and teaching it as if it were a fundamental skill - we actually reinforce the doctrine of drawing as a subsidiary process whilst also obscuring its position as one of any number of tools that comprise the wider set of practices that we might call Representation. If we teach drawing in this way then it makes little sense to exclude other equally important skills like modelling, photography, moving-image making or even gesture, song, music, dance, writing etc.

Let me be clear though. I am not advocating the dilution of art education to a smorgasbord of very different and often incompatible processes (try making sculpture out of song) but rather I'm trying to show that drawing is no more a core skill than photography is. Core to what? Core to representing? Not even nearly.

Representing (verb) unlike drawing, painting and sculpture (noun?) etc. is not a medium. Representing is what we do with media. Representing encapsulates all forms of communication and it is representing , not drawing, that is the primal means of  communication, which predates and embraces writing, language, drawing, painting, photography etc. and functions as a set of tools and processes of conceptualization without parallel.

There are two reasons why we might want to give increased attention to drawing in the teaching of art. Firstly, drawing is comparatively difficult to master and secondly (and, I would argue, much more importantly) it slows down the process of observation and can lead to greater sensitisation to its own processes, to the subject at hand and by extension to the work of other artists. I’m all for that. But let’s not forget what drawing is. Drawing is a medium, and like any other medium it can be used to compliment, underpin, resolve and contradict other media and like all other media it is just one tool amongst many that allow us to create representations. Representing is not just part of what it means to be human, it is perhaps the very essence of what it means to be human.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Discriminating Attractiveness (Part III)

Physical appearances are largely predetermined by our genes and are therefore very difficult to change, which is why judgements based upon them are often so disagreeable. Behaviour on the other hand is widely regarded as being malleable and we are therefore far less wary about making judgements based upon the actions and dispositions of others. Indeed it is still socially acceptable to treat people preferentially based upon their behaviour. If someone isn’t likeable, honest or attentive then why should we treat them equally? More to the point, how could we possibly avoid being unconsciously prejudiced against unlikeable, dishonest or inattentive behaviours? Surely it is the anti-social and the badly behaved who should adjust their behaviour, not the rest of us?

As with hairstyles, clothing or many other cosmetic alterations to physical appearances, behavioural traits can often be adjusted without influencing the personality or character of the individual. But might it be argued that there are many that cannot; personality traits that are more like our bone structure or the colour of our skin? If so then how might we distinguish between those that are fixed and those that are malleable? Moreover, if we expect people to change their behaviour, how sure can we be that they have any control over the traits that we find objectionable? And if they don’t then is it any more justified to judge someone on the basis of their personality traits than it is to judge them on the colour of their skin?

In the previously cited paper by Nalini Ambady and colleagues they mention that: “all attempts to train teachers, for instance, in nonverbal behavioural skills have met with marginal success.” They speculate that more highly rated teachers most likely have an increased ability to communicate using non-verbal cues (though they make no mention of what these cues might be). If it is possible to recognise the qualities of an effective teacher in as little as 2 seconds then there must be something appreciable at work that expresses itself in almost every particle of their behaviour. Whether this is a singular quality or a constellation of subtle cues is as yet unclear, but if effective teaching is the result of the use of such behavioural cues then the question arises whether it is possible to acquire them or – more crucially - whether the attempt to do so would be the behavioural equivalent of trying to acquire someone’s genetically inherited bone structure?

Despite the combined insights of more than a century of educational research there is still a great deal to be settled about what makes a good teacher. But if it turns out that the defining traits of the best teachers are impossible to acquire other than by genetic inheritance and early psycho-social development then the repercussions would seem to be profound, if only for teacher training. But, if certain behavioural traits are as immutable as physical appearances then we might justifiably question the degree to which certain behaviours are discriminated against, not just in higher education but within society as a whole.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Discriminating Attractiveness (Part II)

In 1989 Stephen Buck and Drew Tiene undertook a study of student evaluations of expected teacher effectiveness made on the basis of photographs. In addition to the photographic images Buck and Teine also provided printed descriptions of the “teaching philosophies” of the pictured teachers in terms of  authoritarianism or humanism. In contrast to earlier studies where only photographs were used Buck and Tiene discovered that in this instance the physical appearances of the teachers made no difference to the evaluations made. Buck and Tiene concluded that: “Attractiveness by itself was not found to have an effect on any of the ratings of teacher effectiveness.”

On the face of it this is very reassuring because it suggests that the physiognomies of teachers play an insignificant role in perceptions of their potential to teach when compared with other factors. However, it could be argued that the underlying assumption - that appearances are the only gauge of attractiveness - is fundamentally mistaken. Someone’s teaching-philosophy is by no means a neutral description of their approach to teaching. On the contrary, it is a significant indicator of their beliefs and values as a teacher and more generally as a human being. Buck and Teine appear to have overlooked the fact that beliefs and values are major contributors to behaviour - and behaviour is surely an inextricable component of attractiveness. 

So whilst physical appearances might have a negligible influence on peoples’ evaluations of one another, behaviour on the other hand has a significantly greater impact. Your friends are probably not your friends because they are physically attractive (although you might find them so). They are your friends because of the things they say and do, because of the many subtle and attractive ways they behave. 

If art can tell us anything about this subject it is that we very definitely make judgements, not simply on the content of expression but on its form. But where people are concerned, expression comes in many different forms, not merely the physical. Few people would disagree that photographs are a dubious means to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers or students. But if no other clues are available we will inevitably make assumptions based on whatever evidence is presented. It is no surprise therefore that the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) phased out the use of applicant photographs more than a decade ago. 

If behaviour really is a more accurate determinant of the effectiveness of teachers, then how much time do you imagine would be needed to form an accurate evaluation of a teacher? Presumably it would be necessary to get to know them a little first, say an hour at least to be really sure. Longer? In the early 1990’s psychologist Nalini Ambady and colleagues conducted a number of studies of evaluations of expected teacher competence based on video footage. They found that even with as little as 6 seconds of video: “complete strangers were able to predict quite accurately the ratings of teachers by students who had interacted with them over the course of a whole semester!” Indeed they found that with only 2 seconds of silent video the evaluations suffered little in accuracy. 

Like Buck and Tiene, Ambady and colleagues found no significant evidence of the influence of attractiveness on the evaluations. But, like Buck and Tiene, they also made the assumption that attractiveness is a measure of physical appearances. Closer examination of the behavioural criteria used to rate the teachers reveals that eleven out of the fifteen behaviours evaluated could, without the slightest difficulty, be considered as attractive - they were as follows: Accepting, Active, Attentive, Competent, Empathetic, Enthusiastic, Honest, Likeable, Optimistic, Supportive and Warm. The implication then, is that the majority of qualities considered important in highly rated teachers are also commonly regarded as attractive.

Part III further compares physical appearances with behaviours and concludes by considering the implications of a alternative interpretation of the nature of behavioural traits.