Shared Experience

Selected by Semir Zeki for the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society

Figurative painting is a very broad and imprecise term. It includes a huge diversity of different kinds of painting. Some of these different kinds have names such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and even within these categories different painters may be doing very different things so that the category can be as unhelpful as it is helpful. Many more kinds of figurative painting are unnamed. Much misreading and misunderstanding results from the assumption that two paintings which have certain superficial similarities are the result of similar concerns, when in fact the artists were trying to do quite different things from each other. If one went to a rugby match expecting it to be football one might be very baffled or critical until one realised that it was a different game; much art appreciation can run into this sort of difficulty.

In this piece I want to consider just two of these many kinds of figurative or representational painting. They are often confused because it is not realised that they are different from each other and as a result they are miss-read and miss-judged. The first, which I am going to call “Common Experience” is the kind of painting which communicates to the viewer what he, the viewer would see if he was where the artist was, or was imagining being. This kind of painting aims at presenting the viewer with a recognisable view or experience such as the viewer could in principle have himself. The second kind of painting, which I am going to call “Individual Experience” has the ability to do something quite different. It can give the viewer what he would not see were he in the place of the artist. It can give him something essentially and qualitatively different from that, something he could never experience except through the medium of that particular painting. It can give him what the artist saw or imagined. This, I believe was what John Betjeman was getting at when he once said to me, “art is shared experience.” By means of art, and perhaps only by means of art, we can to some extent become someone else, can for a while, perhaps only a fraction of a second, lose ourselves and become someone else. This experience unattainable other than through the medium of the painting, becomes a new piece of us and we are enlarged.

The first kind of painting, may set out to show you what you have never seen, China, Ancient Rome, Paradise, one of the artist’s dreams, but its intention is to show you this subject as you would see it. The second kind of painting may set out to show you the sort of thing that you have seen many times, what you see every day – a view out of a window, stuff on a table the head of someone you are looking at – but as you have never seen it, never could see it.

One reason why the distinction between these two kinds of painting, these two different kinds of experiences that certain paintings can give us, is not well understood is that the idea that two people may, indeed must, have a different experience when looking at the same thing, is played down, or discounted, or denied by most people, or more likely it simply hasn’t occurred to them. On reflection, it will be agreed that we might feel, or be struck by, or understand, what we are looking at differently from someone else, but actually see it differently? No.

Those who have spent a lot of their life educating their seeing, such as some painters have, know that they do indeed see differently from one another. One reason why they know this is because they know that they used not to see as they now do, and their paintings and drawings are to some extent a record of this changing perception. You become very aware of people’s different perception if you teach painting and drawing from observation. I well remember my unsuccessful attempts to get a student to see the intensely violet shapes of reflected sky in a newly varnished studio floor. However much I tried to help her, she saw only orangey brown where I saw violet.

It has always struck me as strange that most people are happy with the idea that a professional wine taster or tea taster can taste what they cannot, that a perfume blender can smell what they cannot, even perhaps that a musician can hear what they cannot, but they will not accept that an expert who has spent his life educating his sense of sight might be able to see what they cannot. This difficulty has got a lot to do with different theories of perception. Ideas about seeing are still dominated by the image on the retina. Since we all share the same image on the retina when looking at the same scene (optical imperfections aside) the common view is that we all “see” the same but that then our brains get to work on this in different ways. We all see the same but we may attend differently. The trouble with this theory as has often been pointed out is that for this to be how it worked there would need to be a second eye looking at the image on the first retina and a third eye looking at the image on the second and so on.

The theory of perception which has always seemed closest to my own understanding is that of J.J.Gibson who considered that, rather than sense data, it was environmental information, that was the raw material for perception, and that seeing takes place in the brain rather than in the eye which is merely a particular stage on the journey between the environment and our experience of it. Perceptual learning is an important part of Gibson’s theory and in The senses considered as perceptual systems, he writes,

“The answer to the … question, the extent to which perception depends on experience or learning in the theory of information pick-up, is this, it does so to an unlimited extent when the information available to the perceiver is unlimited. The individual is ordinarily surrounded by it, he is immersed in it. The environment provides an inexhaustible reservoir of information. Some men spend most of their lives looking, others listening, and a few connoisseurs spend their time in smelling, tasting, or touching. They never come to an end. The eyes and ears are not fixed capacity instruments, like cameras and microphones, with which the brain can see and hear. Looking and listening continue to improve with experience. Higher order variables can still be discovered, even in old age. Getting information to the receptors becomes troublesome when the lens of the eye and the bones of the ear lose their youthful flexibility, but higher order variables in light and sound can still be discovered by the artist and the musician.”

I think that many misunderstandings and disagreements about figurative painting arise from confusion about which of the two different kinds of painting that I have outlined is being considered, or from which of the two standpoints a particular painting is being judged. If somebody who thinks that the only purpose of figurative painting is to present him with a recognisable representation of what he would see if he were there, looks at a Cezanne still life, what will he see? Well, he will probably recognise some of the objects Cezanne had been looking at, a jug, a dish with oranges, some apples, a white cloth, but they will look strange and unreal and he will not say, “this is like looking at the real world”. He will probably, therefore, come to one of three conclusions according to his temperament and learning. “Cezanne can’t paint very well and is an incompetent artist who is ridiculously overrated”. This is, and has always been the view of many. “Cezanne wasn’t trying to paint realistically and was more concerned with other things like the integrity of the picture surface.” This is the underlying idea of most of what has been written about Cezanne. “I don’t yet understand what Cezanne was doing.” This is the humble attitude of a great many keen art lovers who are not taken much notice of. On the other hand somebody who is only interested in painting as a source of self-transcending experience is likely to underestimate the brilliant achievements of painters whose aim is to satisfy the common perception.

A further confusion arises from the fact that much great painting  from the Renaissance to Impressionism, satisfies both requirements. A Titian or a Chardin is so convincing as representation, and gives us such a brilliantly imagined visualisation of its subject that we may feel no need of or desire for the unique experience arrived at by the artist, which is entirely unknown to us and not available to us in any other way than through the medium of that image. I do not think that this is an either/or situation, – either as I would see the subject or as the artist saw it, – rather a continuum such that with practice and the right sort of unwillful attention one may get nearer and nearer to what the artist experienced. It should also be said that although a self-transcending experience is always available in a great painting, giving it was not necessarily the conscious aim of the artist.

Giving a viewer an experience such as he would have had, had he been in the presence of what is depicted, requires two not inconsiderable talents, the ability to conceive and visualise the subject, and the skill to represent that visualisation on a flat surface. The second of these talents, the ability to represent reality on a flat surface, has been much written about, and its development has been a major part of the history of western painting up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Once understood it becomes a skill, and can be learnt, like playing the piano. The process of pictorial representation can, with caution, be called a visual language and like verbal language it operates by means of certain conventions or rules, although unlike the rules of verbal language, this visual language is probably already wired into the brain at birth, or the essentials of it are, at any rate. We have all learnt to make sense of reality by looking at it. We recognise and understand naturally, So if a painter can present the viewer with the same sort of information as the viewer would pick up from the environment then the viewer will see what he would see were he in the imagined place, or he will see some measure of what he would see according to the richness of the visual information presented by the painting.

Turning now to the second kind of figurative painting, that I have called “Individual Experience”, that which can give you, not what you would see but what somebody who sees in a qualitatively different way from you saw or imagined seeing. How is this possible? How can we be availed of an experience the truthof which we do not question while we are in its grip, but which is entirely unknown to us, unrecognisable and unverifiable other than by its intensity?

In trying to answer this question it is first necessary to take another look at the nature of perception and what it has primarily evolved to achieve for us.

In order to survive in our environment we need to be able to make informed predictionson which to base our actions. To make these predictions we have to be able to recognise, which means in effect saying, this in my present is like that in my past. This surprisingly bright blue patch in my field of vision is like what I have seen before which turned out to be water so it will be worth the long trek to where I think it must be. That orange lump up there in that treeis like that other one which turned out to be food. What is important is to attend to the relevant sameness and disregard the irrelevant difference. This ability to recognise, so essential to survival, and which gives the security that we need in order to lead an active life, is necessarily achieved to some extent at the expense of the true uniqueness of everything. The experience of seeing a piece of water from a particular place at a particular distance, at a particular time of day on that day of that year in that weather will be in some measure different from any other experience of seeing water which has ever been had, and from any that ever will, and that is true without considering the particular state of mind of the particular person doing the experiencing which is of course different from that of any other person before or since and even from that person at any other time in his life. This uniqueness of experience is of no value from the standpoint of survival, rather its registration is positively unhelpful as it gets in the way of recognition which is achieved by seeing sameness, not uniqueness. So our evolutionary development and most of our individual learning from birth has been designed to aid recognition and to disregard uniqueness, and this helpful disregarding is unconscious and automatic. By definition, then, one cannot communicate to somebody else, share with them, an experience which they would be unable to have on their own by means of recognition. It may be said at this point that this is exactly what verbal language can achieve, but I would argue that the extent to which somebody’s experience can be enlarged qualitatively even by verbal language is limited without resorting to the ways of art. It is by means of poetry that we can be carried farthest from our own selves.

What are these ways of art? How can art communicate information (if I am allowed to call experience information) which cannot be communicated by other means? Firstly, it does it by being a metaphor for its subject rather than a simile or description. It is by making its transformation from what it literally is,- a flat pattern of colours if a painting, a rhythmical series of sounds, if a poem, – into an unknown experience all at once, as it were that it can get past the defence mechanisms of the perceiving mind. It is by being a metaphor that it can deliver an unrecognisable piece of somebody else’s world which is, none the less for that instant at least, experienced as true, is believed.

How is it possible to devise such a metaphor? In order that it should be a metaphor, that it should communicate a subject quite other than its literal reality, its structure must impart information about that subject. It can only do this by using some system or convention or visual language accessible to the viewer. But it has to do this in such a way as to prevent the viewer’s limiting mind-set delivering to him only what he can in principle understand or cope with already. In other words, the metaphor must be structured in such a way as to keep, the viewer feeding on the unfolding information while easing him past all his pre-erected cut off points. Somehow it must silence the viewer’s editorial processes so that he is carried beyond what he is programmed to receive, so that the subject of the work of art, the unrecognisable experience, is slipped under his guard. Imagine a computer game where the hero figure controlled by the player is the subject of the painting, and the object of the game is to penetrate the defences of a viewer’s unconscious and conscious mind in order to plant at its centre an alien experience. The player has to anticipate the defences, find ways round them, employ disguises, force sometimes, cunning misdirection, and all manner of highly inventive means to trick and deceive and beguile and flatter its way past all the obstructions erected by evolution and learning, in order to plant its seed from which the viewer will begin to grow in a new way.

The main way in which a work of art does this is by means of what I would call beauty but for those who are uneasy with this concept I am happy to substitute “interest” or some such word, though it seems a bit tame to me. What I am talking about is the abstract beauty of the metaphor as a thing in its own right, the beauty of the pattern of colours, the beauty of the sound of the ordered words. The artist has to invent just the right balance of intelligible meaning coming from the structure of the pattern as a conventional carrier of figurative information, and the structure of the pattern as something beautiful or interesting in its own right which will make the viewer want to go on looking at it. If it works too well as illusion, too consistently, then the viewer will see only what he would have seen and the true subject will not penetrate his defences. If it is completely satisfying as an abstract object in its own right then it will not metamorphose into the alien experience.  In the- first case, rather than finding himself surprised, delighted, ravished, enlightened, amazed, frightened, even terrified, but in any event carried away, he will be saying, “Oh yes, I know what this is, I know what he is on about, that is what it would be like”. In the other case he will be saying, “What a beautiful pattern, what an astonishing design, what gorgeous colours, or what a mess, my child could do better.” What happens with a good painting and a receptive viewer is that he switches involuntarily from one sort of attention to the other in a fluctuating way. At the point at which the experience that is being created in the viewer’s mind becomes unacceptable, unbelievable, his attention moves to the  colour,  the piece of paint  that has let him down,  so to speak and this switch to an experience of the painting as what it literally is, a flat abstract design, starts to take over his attention with the beauty of its abstract relationships and this carries him forward past the sticking point. After a while the figurative logic within these abstract relationships becomes irresistible and he switches back to figurative mode. This switching between the figurative and the abstract mode of attention can be very rapid or very slow. Sometimes it happens so fast that you are not really aware of it or just feel confused. At other times you may feel that you have spent perhaps a half an hour or longer attending to the painting as an abstract design and only discover later, perhaps years later that you had received an enlarging or transcending experience. Or you may have been attending consciously only to the painting as a figurative experience but later discover that it had educated and changed your understanding of design as a medium of expression. In the ideal state, when one is painting well or at one with a painting one is looking at, it feels as if one is responding to the subject and the abstract pattern simultaneously but I wait to hear from neurologists whether this is actually possible.

Of all painters it is Cezanne who arrived at the most experience transcending images. More than for any other painter it was the very quality of visual experience as such that he wanted to get to the heart of. In his search for absolute truth to his visual experience he left behind more and more of the received truths of perception and howto represent them on a flat surface. Any system such as perspective or tonal ordering, anything however basic, which was known to be true, whichwas believed to hold for all experience, would get between him and the absolute uniqueness of the particular experience he was giving himself up to in his attempt to paint it. “I want to be as stupid as a cabbage,” he famously said. He abandoned everything except his belief in the expressive potential of ordered colour as a response to coloured sensations. Coloured sensations being the product of distance, inclination, illumination, and local colour, were utterly unique and could not be predicted or predetermined. Drawing and everything else that went into making a figurative painting, had to be rediscovered in every painting. But more than this, he had to discover afresh each time he took up his brushes, what it was to see the world. What is it to see? What do we know of this world when we look at it? Cezanne became convinced that the only way to approach what he saw without prejudging it was through colour, the coloured sensations given off by the forms of nature at their various distances as they reflected theilluminating daylight. If he could find pigment colours and positions for them on his canvas that would be an equivalent for these coloured sensations coming from different distances in his subject then he would discover the true and unique nature of his subject without interposing any pre-knowledge either of the real world or of the ways of art.

In order that his picture should be built up solely from these ordered sensations of colour he had to make sure that none of the other systems of generating a believable representation of reality came into play in such a way as to jump the gun so to speak. If the painting had an easily readable perspectival drawing then the viewer would latch on to this and jump to a hasty and misconstrued conclusion of what the experience was that the painting represented. The same would be true if there was a recognisable system of ordered tones such as had formed the basic language of figurative painting, both good and bad, for centuries. There had to be nothing in the painting which would enable the mind to get ahead of itself, nothing to distractit from the patient attention to colour which would, in time build an experience of uniquely particular coloured forms in light and space, an experience utterly real and utterly unknown.

Cezanne’s need to prevent the drawing cues from setting up a hasty and wrong reading of the painting led him to choose his subjects very carefully. He often chose landscape motifs where the drawing cues were ambiguous or misleading. He liked unexpected changes of ground plane which were not signaled in any obvious way so that the normal assumptions one makes about the perspectival arrangement of positions on a horizontal plane, where trees grow out of the ground, where walls or paths cut across it, are thrown out because what one has assumed is one continuous plane is in fact two, say, with a drop between them. He chose positions where a near form cut across the field of view disguising a surprising transition which it masks. In his still lives he upset our “safe” assumptions by putting coins under the edges of vessels in order to tip, them off the vertical. He would arrange objects and fruit on two surfaces at different heights and then disguise this with folded cloths so that the obvious initial reading of all the objects being on the one horizontal surface would lead to quite wrong attributions of relative distances. Or he would achieve the same sort of effect by putting some apples up on blocks in the foreground but covering the evidence of this with draped cloths, encouraging, once again, a casual misreading of the spacial arrangement. The necessary information for the true reading of the forms and their positions in the space is always there in the colour, but it is there alone and unless you take the time necessary for the relationships of colour to build into meaning in your brain you will grab at a reading from the other intentionally insufficient or misleading cues and be baffled. I am making it sound as if Cezanne’s way of painting and choice of subjects was the result of pre-existing, carefully thought out ideas and this is wrong. His way of painting evolved steadily throughout his life from the everyday practice of doing it, it was empirical and, I imagine largely unconscious. He chose subjects that intrigued him, that made him wonder, that caught his eye. Painters who paint from observation will tell you that they are drawn to subjects that look “wrong”, to subjects that are surprising, extraordinary. To the eye/mind that has spent a lifetime understanding the logic of directional illumination, the sight of a street where both sides are in shadow, or both in sunlight because at that instant the sun is perfectly aligned with the street whose sides diverge slightly is entirely thrilling because one’s mind is telling one that it should not be possible and yet here it is being so. A still life set up with very small apples, crab apples perhaps in the foreground and a freakishly enormous apple in the background will look extraordinary and “wrong” to an eye/mind that has spent a lifetime understanding the look of objects at their different distances in the space we inhabit.

No artist knew better than Cezanne that a painting was a metaphor and he is most famous for emphasising that before a painting could be a landscape, a portrait, or a still life, it had to be a decorated flat surface. All great painters knew this but in the search for an ever more “realistic” representation of reality, awareness of a painting as flat decoration had to some considerable extent been lost and by the 19th century, painters of little merit could paint huge and complicated illusions with a dazzling competence that delighted the masses. Cezanne saw these paintings in the Salon and elsewhere and he hated them. These artists whom Cezanne despised had mastered a certain language of perspectivally based drawing and tonal modelling to such an extent that they could produce illusions of pretty well any subject they chose which delivered to the public a visual world that they felt at home in. Cezanne’s dislike of these illusory paintings was such that he mistrusted all aspects of the visual language of representation which seemed to deny the flat surface of the painting. These two obsessions of Cezanne, that before anything else a painting should be seen to be a flat decoration, and that colour should be the main and determining carrier of formal information, worked hand in hand.

As we have seen, in order for form and space and light to be precisely determined by colour, the formal information in drawing and tone which is the information that the brain is most disposed to take account of when arriving at an experience of three dimensional reality, had to be played down and this made his paintings look flat and coloured, made them look like the flat coloured decorations that they actually were. Cezanne’s reinvention of figurative painting as overtly flat decoration whose formal information was essentially in the ordered colour rather than in a pre-existing system of drawing and tonality, was entirely thrilling to the generation of brilliant painters who followed him. The fact that photography created its illusion by precisely the visual language of appearance that Cezanne had transcended, gave his paintings an even greater authority to those who understood them and also to many of those who did not.

Almost all the great painters of the twentieth century have acknowledged their debt to Cezanne, and it was he who led the way to Cubism and to the highly coloured paintings of Matisse, Bonnard and Dufy.  Spurred on by his example, twentieth century painters discovered how to use saturated colour to make overtly flat, non-illusionistic paintings which could communicate thrillingly real experiences. When in a Dufy or a Bonnard, you notice that the perspective of the window shutters converges to a different eye level than the horizon of the sea, it is partly because they do not want you to get an experience of space ahead of your registration of the unifying harmony of the colour, and they learnt this from Cezanne. Great paintings are often full of what seem like errors to the mind educated to think that a photograph or some other representation of reality operating according to the laws of appearance is the only true mode of representing reality. And in great painting these “errors” are always there for a reason, they are necessary, are required in order that the painting should have the power to work as a metaphor. It is only the metaphor, with its dual existence, which has this ability to ease us beyond our natural limits to the point where we can share the experience of another and be enlightened.

Sargy Mann, 1996