This post builds on the last, and picks up a couple of additional 'prior concerns'. Interestingly, the blurb on the back of Machotka's book identifies him as a professor of psychology and art. No surprise then to find discussions about the business of perception.
Two ways of perceiving: '[There are] two ways of looking... [i] mechanisms of identification and [ii] processes of organisation... Organising processes include groupings and segregations of objects, the formation of a coherent sense of space, and the perception of meaning or expression [which] may precede recognition... [for a brief moment] we may register only color, size, tilt, curvature, and other properties...
[Then there are] mechanisms of identification or recognition: of deciding what the thing is that one is looking at. They are schematic and require focused attention... we... need some sort of category or mental template, or schema, against which to judge the visual information available...
Purely abstract paintings may be subject to a different process. Since there are no objects to identify, organisational processes should dominate from the start.' (pp.36-37)
These ways of looking are 'rapid', 'require no specific attention', interpenetrate without our being aware of it', are even 'simultaneous' (p.36). They're certainly 'involuntary'.
I'm puzzled about how to view, how to understand, and ultimately how to make images which are abstracted or abstract. So I think I'm most interested in the 'processes of organisation'. What am I actually doing when I look at a painting, especially an abstract one? Can I get better at it? How?
An analogy: Reflecting on something as abstruse as perception is demanding. It's hard to describe processes that are involuntary, and essentially hidden. In this circumstance it's not unusual to resort to metaphor, to make things more accessible (in my experience gaining understanding is often little more than getting used to an idea, taming it by making it familiar).
Immediately preceding his discussion of perceiving, Machotka compares the experience of looking at a painting to that of listening to music: 'in listening we respond to the formal relationships of its notes - its melody - at the same time as we grasp the words, and the response to the melody is normally the more deeply emotional one of the two. With paintings, the shapes and surfaces that we recognise as objects, come also to be seen... as relationships - of size, color, distance, and above all of balance and movement. Colors will be seen primarily in relation to each other rather than by themselves, and they, too, will create patterns of tension and resolution. Experiencing a painting formally has much the same aesthetic effect as feeling the tensions produced by changes of key, repetitions of themes, changes of instrumental timbres, or resolved and unresolved chords.' (p.36) I suppose it sort of makes sense, but the seductive attraction of the analogy - and also its danger - is the temptation to suppose that because the emotional impact of music is 'understood' (i.e. experienced) this in itself makes the so-called-similar visual experience 'understood' too, simply by virtue of being told that they're quite like each other. But this is not automatic. It's entirely possible to know that one experiences something (an emotional response to a song, say) without knowing how or why it affects you, and - with or without such insight - transference to a different context (e.g. looking at a painting) might be entirely spurious. Surely the differences between the auditory and visual experiences are at least as great as any supposed similarities? And how 'understood' is the musical experience anyway? This probably needs quite a lot of unpacking.