Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Realism and Reality

Despite the fact that more distant objects are projected at a smaller scale onto the retina than closer objects, it is crucial that we perceive the size of distant sources of food, predators etc. as accurately as possible. If our ancestors had perceived proximate objects as larger than distant objects, their chances of survival would have been severely limited. One of the major evolutionary obstacles for the development of visual processing therefore, must have been to overcome the fact that distant objects are projected onto the eye in this way. What we see when we look at distant fruit is distant fruit, not tiny little tidbits. Nonetheless, when we draw distant fruit we have to render them at a smaller scale than closer fruit. It is nothing less than extraordinary that this technique works at all, let alone that it leads us to say that pictorial images look realistic. And it is no wonder also that it took us so long to discover one of the most important strategies for producing such images: perspective.

According to the influential educational psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980), young children do not draw “what they see”, they draw what they know. In Piaget’s view the child is not capable of “pure observation” but instead “he sees the world as if he had previously constructed it with his own mind.” Piaget’s theory has its origins in the philosophical doctrine of Subjective Idealism, a view that conceives of perception as a mental construct, an inner analogue of the external world - a world to which we have no direct access. Traces of this doctrine inform the work of many theorists and educationalists, both past and present, including John Ruskin and Georges-Henri Luquet whose work greatly influenced Piaget. Both Luquet and Piaget claimed that children’s drawings develop from “intellectual realism” (i.e. what children know) towards “visual realism” (i.e. what they see).

So, according to this theory, when we draw with visual realism, we draw what we see. But does this really stand up to scrutiny? Visual realism and reality (what we actually perceive) are by no means the same and it doesn’t follow therefore that there is a simple correlation between what we see and visual realism. If there were, we probably wouldn’t need to distinguish between the real and the unreal, between the real and the realistic, between reality and realism.

We take it as given that everything we see is real and we reserve words like ‘realism’ and ‘realistic’ for representations. So, to say that photographs are realistic is to say very little about what we actually see.

It should be obvious that we have evolved to see the world – as far as is humanly possible – exactly as it is. And whilst pictures look like the world, the two are not interchangeable. Our terminology has evolved in its own ways to reflect this fact.

No matter how realistic an image might be and no matter how susceptible we are, in certain rare circumstances, to mistake images for reality, there is never some point at which pictorial realism gradually or suddenly becomes full blown reality. There is no special lens, no magical painterly potion, no mystical technique that will ever transform a depiction into reality. Realism is forever barred entry into the kingdom of the real.

For a child learning to draw, it is a significant challenge to acquire the many skills necessary to convert three-dimensional experience into two-dimensional depictions. Fortunately children are surrounded by examples (pictures) that show them that the feat is possible. But one of the most significant things that stands in their way is a formidable evolutionary background in which the perception of a distant predator has always been the perception of a distant predator, not the perception of a cute little predator looking at us with hunger in its eyes.


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