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It’s All In How You See It

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When I was a kid I was in love with “Magic Eye” images. The notion of a hidden three-dimensional image appearing as if out of nowhere from a pattern printed on paper was truly like magic to me. Never mind that my constant staring into these books probably contributed to my astigmatism later on—this stuff was amazing! 

Perhaps it’s not so surprising that I later pursued a career in visual perception research. Given my interests, I probably think about visual illusions a lot more than most people do.

For instance, the Face-Vase illusion for me is like the perfect representation of our societal culture wars and the constant back-and-forth between mutually incompatible realities.

rubin vase illusion

But I digress. I’m here to talk about art.

I imagine plenty of people have likened their struggles to “get” a popular work of modern art – like, say, Andy Warhol’s soup cans – to those poor suckers who fail to see a Magic Eye image, and are left with nothing but a headache from all the squinting. 

It’s not a bad analogy, but it doesn’t quite work for me. Those who can successfully perceive Magic Eye patterns still have to engage in effortful eye disalignment practices every time they wish to see the hidden image. Whereas once we “get” a certain piece of art, or a certain artist, no more effort is needed going forward. The understanding comes to us as if it had always been there.

Our perception is forever changed.

Not surprisingly, I liken my relationship with art to a certain visual perception illusion I learned in my psychology classes. Like the Face/Vase illusion, this came from a researcher who built upon the work of those geniuses of perception from the early 20th century, the so-called “Gestalt” psychologists. This image in particular usually looks like random blots of ink to those who haven’t seen it before:

But typically, upon further viewing, a certain image “pops” into our perception, and the random blotches actually contribute to a coherent picture. Moreover, once that image forms in our brain, we can’t ever unsee it. Every time we come across this particular assemblage of blots, the people who see a [redacted] will always see a [redacted]. 

I won’t spoil it for you. 🙂

With respect to my own relationship with challenging art, perhaps my most significant perceptual shift was with the films of Abbas Kiarostami.

My roommate and I got through grad school in part by taking advantage of Netflix’s fantastic early streaming options (Rest in Peace, actual streaming variety) and the school library’s film collection. Both options had a lot of international films available, and a lot of art films. I believe the first Iranian films we watched were fairly straightforward dramas, like Majid Majidi’s beautiful Children of Heaven. Soon enough we began to watch our first Kiarostami film, as he is considered one of the masters of Iranian cinema.

My roommate put on The Wind Will Carry Us and we started to watch. 20 minutes into the film, I was already growing impatient. There was nothing but a car on a dusty road, shot from a distance, while the people in the car muttered and argued off-camera about directions. Nothing was happening! Soon enough, I said “screw this pretentious crap!” And I walked out of the room, poking in once in a while to insult the movie even more.

I should admit that I had been burned by art films before, most notably by Jean-Luc Godard.

After loving Breathless and Band of Outsiders, I dug into films like Alphaville and Contempt, and I had nothing but, well…le mépris…for them… In other words, I found myself staring at a bunch of random splotches while some con man was insisting that there’s a hidden picture to see, if I could only learn to see it. Well no thanks sir. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

But afterward my roommate insisted that the movie really was great, and he moved on to Kiarostami’s other films. I gave one more of them a try. This was Ten, which focuses entirely on one woman in her car, talking to her various passengers. Just more conceptual art crap without any substance to it! I got up and left the room once again…and my roommate stayed and loved it. 

I don’t quite know what it was that actually got me to shift, maybe it was simply the passage of time. The continued praise coming from my roommate probably had something to do with it. But a little later I found myself watching one more film: The Taste of Cherry:

Kiarostami’s The Taste Of Cherry

And this one roped me in from the get-go.

Despite mostly taking place in a car like the other ones, there was a sense of mystery about the man driving and his motives that kept me watching. The film is by no means easy watching: it’s slow, it’s severe, and it’s extremely dark in its themes. But it’s also transfixing, and beautiful. By the end (an ending that my wife hates to this day, by the way) I was nearly in tears from the poetic grandeur of this extremely low budget film. Here I thought that Kiarostami was a con man peddling empty gimmicks, when he really was a monk trying to teach me how to see. And see I finally did. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, the scales had fallen from my eyes.

I was completely changed from that point onward.

I re-watched The Wind Will Carry Us, and saw a hymn to life and death that felt so much more poetic, vital, and fresh than most films tackling those themes.

Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Cary Us

I re-watched Ten, and saw an arresting portrait of a woman as she struggles with the contradictions of modernity in Tehran.

Kiarostami’s Ten

I watched Close-Up, and saw a meditation on justice that used real people from a real scandal as actors to dramatize real moments of their lives, working to bring them together in real life through the artifice of film.

Kiarostami’s Close-Up

And I even watched Five, Kiarostami’s film that is composed of nothing but five long shots of the ocean. And in that I saw a brilliant moving canvas, one that altered my perception of narrative and cinematic beauty far more than any other film.

Maybe it’s just a trick, this stuff that Kiarostami does, but it’s a magic trick that now gets me every time. He truly is one of the greats.

Kiarostami’s Five

Needless to say, my wife and most of my friends don’t see what I see. They just see the random splotches. But perhaps they have found coherent images in things that I happen to dismiss as noise and nonsense.

Different magic tricks work for different people, and perhaps different patterns work better or worse as illusions for different people. And yet people can change, and they can suddenly, finally see what had eluded them for so long. 

Does this mean I need to give Contempt another chance? I’m not sure if I’ll ever see anything worthwhile there, but you never know.

What’s the art that you simply cannot understand, those hopeless splotches? And are there works where you eventually came around to see something more?

Let me know in the comments!

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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June 14, 2022 5:37 am

I saw the movie Powaqqatsi after having read some highly complimentary reviews and just didn’t get it. I can’t say I hated it because that would require too much passion. I just left the movie feeling a little stupid — both because I didn’t understand something other people loved and because I’d just spent an hour and a half trying in vain to do so.

mt58
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mt58
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June 14, 2022 9:50 am

Very kind- thank you.

You and all of our wonderfully creative Contributing Authors do the heavy lifting.

I just hang the drapes. 

minor major 7th
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June 14, 2022 12:18 pm

Great post, Phylum.

I mentioned in a previous comment that film–or, more specifically, film theory–is something that does not compute. Pacing, lighting, camera angles, mise-en-scene, etc. I have tried to understand and appreciate all those concepts, but I don’t know how to “deploy” them, so to speak. Consequently, it renders film, for yours truly, one shot after another.

While I would like to develop an in-depth approach and appreciation based on such theory, I don’t think it will happen. I am therefore left with reliance on my visceral and emotive response: beautiful film; I felt something (whether it be positive or negative emotions).

For example, Roma. I loved it. It moved me. I couldn’t tell you why.

Or No Country for Old Men. English major here. Read the entire McCarthy cannon. I enjoyed the film. But I couldn’t tell you why it worked as a film.

This is all to say, I admire–and am in awe–of your ability to “see” film in the way you describe above.

This all reminds me of visiting an art gallery, in undergraduate, with a good friend who majored in video and digital art. Most of the installations and the performance pieces on that day all flew over my head.

My friend’s response was to ignore the idea that I had to “get it.” Rather, she insisted–and supported–that we just talk about the experience–or what each piece made me feel. Years later, I went to one of her exhibits, with that advice in mind, and (as you put it) I came around to “seeing” her video and digital art as part of discussion of nostalgia or consumerism.

On a lighter note, Magic Eye always reminds me of the Scholastic Book Fair at school. The Magic Eye books were huge when I was in elementary school. So much so that my father gave me money to buy a few. Only for my mother to reply: the whole point is for him to buy books he can read.
Days later, I was reading the latest Goosebumps release, and found mom staring intensely at the book I picked up for my dad.

thegue
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June 14, 2022 1:20 pm

I have never been able to see the 3D images in Magic Eye. Ever.

Call me Mr. Pitts.

I didn’t appreciate art until I was in my early 20s, and a friend and I had a lazy Sunday afternoon to ourselves. He suggested the Philadelphia Museum of Art (free then on Sundays), and I scoffed.

He had been an art history major, and told me I didn’t like it because I didn’t know it. I received my first lesson then, and it has made all the difference.

My favorite painting is Joan Miro’s “Dog Barking at the Moon”.

I went on and taught art history in my World Cultures/Global Studies classes, and continue to visit art museums whenever I can.

Dog_Barking_at_the_Moon_(Miró).jpg
JJ Live At Leeds
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June 14, 2022 1:36 pm
Reply to  thegue

I wasn’t quite as bad with the magic eye pictures but there were a lot of times I sat there staring at them as they failed to come into sort of focus. Excellent cultural arc, from being an art novice in your 20s to teaching art history. Makes all the difference having someone insightful to impart their knowledge and help others along the path.

And at a complete tangent to the subject of art, today’s test match has just ended and all I can say is ‘Wow!’

thegue
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thegue
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June 14, 2022 2:36 pm

OMG that was amazing. I thought they were sunk after Root was out on 3!!

JJ Live At Leeds
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June 14, 2022 1:26 pm

Interesting stuff. I was at the Long Division music festival at the weekend. One of the bands; Lyr, feature Simon Armitage the British Poet Laureate performing spoken word verses set to darkly atmospheric alternative rock music. I had no idea he was even in a band let alone performing until I walked into the hall and saw him. Personally I found it quite captivating but at the end of the first song the guy next to me turned to his friends and gave his blunt assessment; “Pretentious shite”. All the better for being in a broad Yorkshire accent to provide further depth to his disdain. Beauty is indeed in the eye, or ear, of the beholder.

Going a lot more mainstream for my hopeless splotches. Everything Star Wars. I don’t really get it. I mean I can objectively see the attraction but it does nothing for me. And its not that I’m trying to be cooler than thou, eschewing mainstream blockbuster film making as there’s plenty of that I enjoy. Just the force is not strong in me.

thegue
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June 14, 2022 1:29 pm

I also wish I could see all the fantastic cinema that is out there, but I haven’t caught a decent movie (re: not my wife or my children’s choice) in 11 years. Thanks for providing me a list of Iranian films I need to check out, besides Persepolis.

cappiethedog
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June 14, 2022 1:35 pm

An art film should polarize an audience, like the oeuvres of the late Abbas Kiarostami and Jean Luc-Godard. The term is overused. To me, in regard to independent or foreign films, if it’s audience-friendly, it’s not an art film. An art film isn’t supposed to entertain you. An art film should polarize. Kiarostami and, especially, Godard, are excellent examples. Godard feels like homework. If you want to get young people interested in film history, what Godard film would you choose? I can’t think of one. There is no entry point. All of his films are difficult.

I don’t think Kiarostami, or any filmmaker, wants(or wanted) to be grouped together under the banner “slow cinema movement”. I like Bela Tarr. I don’t like Apichatpong Weersethakul. I like Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I don’t like Theo Angelopoulos. My favorite Gus Van Sant films are from his Tarr fanboy period: Gerry, Last Days, Paranoid Park. But I’ll keep watching Eternity and a Day, because someday I might get it. Same goes for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Currently, I’m obsessed with Kelly Reichardt. Meek’s Cutoff, in my opinion, belongs in the Criterion Collection.

dutchg8r
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June 15, 2022 3:56 pm

Ha! I swear, I did not read any of the comments before I posted mine, that’s funny you mention Drive My Car as well!

dutchg8r
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June 15, 2022 3:50 pm

I’ve come to the conclusion that art is a very emotional experience, where it seems like you need to actually be in possession of emotions to experience and appreciate art. MrDutch loves going to the Smithsonian Art Galleries in DC, and I am always fascinated by his reactions to different works. Because I may as well just be staring at a blank wall the entire time. I know thegue mentioned the Philly Art Museum’s Free Sunday’s back in the day – my parents took full advantage of that over the years! But for all those visits, the only things that stood out in my mind were the suits of armor and glass sculptures and crystal creations. They were tangible, not something I had to interpret.

I think the same goes for movies for me. If it’s done right, it will awaken some emotion in me, and I actually feel like a normal human. But more often than not, the movie just exists for me. Most recent example I can think of is that Japanese movie “Drive My Car” from last year. I wound up appreciating how the movie was filmed, and got what was making people rave about it, but in the end, I essentially watched 2 sad people in a car for 2 1/2 hours, and they were still sad when the final credits rolled. Like, wth?

What really irks me is when I feel like I’m being manipulated to feel a certain way. Teachers and professors saying how a book or how a painting should be interpreted sets me off, believe it or not! I’ll come to my own conclusion, thank you very much, like the author or artist told them directly what it was supposed to represent when it was done centuries ago, pfff. 🙂

Now, those Magic Eye things?? I ruled those. Almost always saw the image within 15-20 seconds. I realize while typing this, it may be because it was a definitive image. Like a math formula to solve – the answer was there. No interpretations required. Funny enough, I used Magic Eye to explain my work in a resume lately for internal promotion – our Geospatial database is like the Magic Eye pictures, where for many people, it just doesn’t click, ever. But I get it – I see the layers, the relationships, the interdependecies; if there’s a disconnect somewhere, I like figuring out the solution. So funny someone else happens to mentions Magic Eye!

dutchg8r
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June 15, 2022 7:35 pm

Oh, oh, I think we may have stumbled onto a whole new realm for museum curators, Phylum –

Art Therapists. Instead of a tour guide at a museum, lugheads like me can have an art therapist escort us around and help us understand what we might actually be feeling and get further insight on why we are so aggrevated at being forced to look at art. Same would go for movies too.

This could be something!

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