How We See: Objective and Subjective Means

Read this section for more on the differences between objective and subjective viewing.

Up until now we've been looking at artworks through the most immediate of visual effects: what we see in front of our eyes. Now we can begin to break down some barriers to find specific meaning in art, including those of different styles and cultures. To help in this journey we need to learn the difference between looking and seeing.

To look is to get an objective overview of our field of vision. Seeing speaks more to understanding. When we use the term "I see" we communicate that we understand what something means. There are some areas of learning, particularly psychology and biology, that help form the basis of understanding how we see. For example, the fact that humans perceive flat images as having a "reality" to them is very particular. In contrast, if you show a dog an image of another dog, they neither growl nor wag their tail, because they are unable to perceive flat images as containing any meaning. So you and I have actually developed the ability to "see" images.

In essence, there is more to seeing than meets the eye. We need to take into account a cultural component in how we perceive images and that we do so in subjective ways. Seeing is partly a result of cultural biases. For example, when many of us from industrialized cultures see a parking lot, we can pick out each car immediately, while others from remote tribal cultures (who are not familiar with parking lots) cannot.

Gestalt is the term we use to explain how the brain forms a whole image from many component parts. For instance, the understanding of gestalt is, in part, a way to explain how we have learned to recognize outlines as contours of a solid shape. In art for example, this concept allows us to draw "space" using only lines.

These sites have some fun perceptual games from psychology and science about how we see, along with some further explanations of gestalt:

Source: Christopher Gildow, Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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Last modified: Tuesday, October 19, 2021, 9:29 AM