I will be analysing James Elkins, an art historian who argues that the act of seeing is more than “Just looking”, in the book ‘The object stares back’, it is more complicated, “Seeing alters the thing that is seen and transforms the seer,” (James Elkins, 1996), When an observer looks at either an object or another person they bring everything they have ever seen before foreword therefore two observers will never see the same thing. Similarly, ‘How to see the world’ ( Nicholas Mirzoeff, 2015) chapter 2 ‘How we think about seeing’ reflects Mirzoeff’s thoughts about how making sense of the world isn’t determined by seeing but rather how we make sense of what we see, ‘..we do not actually ‘see’ with our eyes but with our brains’ (Mirzoeff, 2015:73) meaning our experiences and understandings change how we view the world.
Both Elkins and Mirzoeff compliment one another in their ideas and discoveries with the understanding of an underlying meaning that there is more to just seeing. Elkins communicates his thoughts surrounding the subject in an intimate, first person perspective for example; “But vision, I think, is more like the moments of anxious squinting than years of effortlessly seeing” (Elkins, 1996:18). Contrastingly, Mirzoeff uses a third Person perspective. The distance of third person is more objective and immediate compared to first person arguably making his analysis more scientific due to using more statistics and facts. Mirzoeff introduces Daniel Simons, a psychologist and Christopher Chabris who created an experiment known as ‘The invisible Gorilla’ 1999. The people involved in the study were asked to count the number of times the white team in the video passed the basketball to the black team. Whilst this was happening a person dressed as a gorilla suit walks in-between the teams (Figure 1). “Roughly half of the people watching did not even notice the gorilla” (Mirzoeff, 2015:77).
They were concentrating on counting. Simons attributes this to what he calls ‘inattentional blindness’, “The inability to perceive outside information when concentrating on a task.” (Mirzoeff, 2015:77). I believe Mirzoeff is describing how we perceive the World, too fixed on the small things and missing the major elements in life, missing what matters.
In a similar manner, the neuroscientist Humberto Maturana from the 1970’s who discovered that certain animals see different to humans allowing them to become more skilful at hunting and aware of the outside world, “not just by evolution, but as a condition of day to day existence” (Humberto Maturana,1980). This goes in saying that when repeating the gorilla experience today, students have evolved with media and video games and they now see things differently with more people noticing the gorilla, “A population that has grown up with video games and touch screens sees things differently.” (Mirzoeff, 2015:79).
Also, experienced Basketball players are also quick to notice the gorilla with up to 70 per cent more as they are trained in their sport.In comparison, Elkins proposes the idea of his “eyes being tools, similar to a blind man’s cane or a carpenter’s tape measure” (Elkins,1996:34). I feel similar to the gorilla experiment when tested on students of today and basketball players. If an individual is unable to see or hear, our body evolves and our other senses become stronger which is almost and akin to learning a new tool. Elkins then talks about his ears being ‘specialised’.
Although there are constant noises of the world in the background, our ears “don’t just pick up everything, but they actively search” (Elkins, 1996:34). Our bodies have evolved and are now capable of a lot more in comparison to the past. But it isn’t just down to evolution, it has a lot to do with the way we make use of visual information, taking aspects and tuning them into our day to day lives.
Formerly, we were trained to concentrate on one ask, yet with the overloaded hustle of our lives today we are more familiar with the term ‘multitasking’ meaning we are more likely to spot the gorilla. To support this Mirzoeff introduces the reader to Wittgenstein’s ‘duck/rabbit’ drawing (Figure 2) which also demonstrates how our focus on one thing can simply distract from focussing on another. Mirzoeff points out that we see what we choose to see which can lead to prejudice or biased thoughts and while this is happening the true nature of things are obscured. This considers the inaccuracy that one can simple see and requires us to broaden our perspectives. Elkins quotes, “the Mona Lisa would turn into a diva if she were hung in the Paris opera, and if she were hung in the Paris Metro, she would look like a homeless person, wrapped in rags” (Elkins, 1996:35).
The Louvre where the Mona Lisa is housed transforms her presence and the glass case she is kept behind acts as a little altar and the Louvre acts as a church where people come to worship. In addition on, we are presented with a painting (Figure 3) titled ‘icon with the Fiery eye’ (Elkins, 1996:37) hung in a Moscow church. Elkins adds that with closer inspection, the more and longer you look at it, the painting changes and each time becomes something different. Some say it could be a painting of Jesus and If the painting was placed in a church you would automatically associate it being Jesus, If the same painting is placed in a mosque for example it would then mirror the figure of a muslim prophet.
This is because of our historic understanding and what we are familiar with simulating these ideas.I believe this relates with Mirzoeff, “People today often put more trust in a less-than-perfect photograph or video that takes an effort to decipher than they do into a professionally finished work, because they suspect that the latter will have been manipulated.” (Mirzoeff, 2015:90). The image can become so many different things to each person but also the place the image is displayed and viewed will alter how one identifies with it and how the observer recognises it. In addition, Elkins talks about an art historian’s trip to Italy visiting the Michelangelo sculpture.
An older woman dragged a young girl to the sculpture and knocked the girls head against it whilst chanting. The art historian who was taking notes while he admired the sculpture had an opposite experience to the woman who was using the sculpture as a way to remove evil spirits from the daughter’s head. It brings us back to the image on page 37 that is assumed to be Jesus and how no two people will see the same object in the same way.
I believe this correlates with one of Elkins’ examples, when witnessing a crowd of townspeople gathering around “a cheap, holiday inn styled painting and a plastic baby doll Jesus draped with christmas lights” (Elkins, 1996:40). The people, blind to acknowledge what is considered an important painting less than twenty feet away. However, he describes that both the tacky baby doll and the masterpiece had similarities and both “glowed with light of the new sun” (Elkins, 1996:40). The important painting his body luminescent and the plastic doll with a light up bulb. Elkins then says “We are not guilty of failing to speak about our own ways of seeing our own irreligion, our own assumptions about what is of interest” (Elkins, 1996:40).
Elkins develops on this idea that observers presuming a painting or image is what it is. He goes on to say that we don’t acknowledge the important aspects of life, rather we are too naive, yet we will kneel before what is considered unimportant. Contrastingly, Descartes famous aphorism ‘I think therefore I am’ (Descartes, 1637) shows his conscience recognising his existence. Descartes argues that anything that exists that assumes your attention such as vision can be doubted. Descartes encourages the reader to view each subject matter with a sense of curiousness, he raises awareness that anything in life can and will be doubted. Without evidence of some sort, you are accused of speaking untruthfully, yet if there was supporting evidence, our minds wouldn’t question it.
This highlights our naivety, we must ignore our perceptions and uncover the surface meanings, viewing things differently, always questioning the state of being. So rather than exempting something for what it is, you must abandon this naivety and uncover the deeper meanings. Additionally, Descartes diagram ‘Vision’ (Descartes; from La Diotrique, 75) which displays how vision is mathematically possible (Figure 4). “The image produced on the retina was interpreted by what Descartes called sense of judgement. The drawing represents judgement as an elderly judge, assessing what there is to be seen and coming to a decision about it” (Mirzoeff, 2015:76). I believe Descartes is saying that the images we see shouldn’t be confused as something our eyes see, but more something our brain does. Everything that we see, or think we know is based on, our education, age, our culture, moral values, our social norms, economics but also a reflection of our own personal thoughts and decisions, this is referred to as cultural judgement.
Our brain modifies how we view culture. Mirzoeff defends that our brain changes our observations and alters how we make sense of things. As people we pursue them unconsciously and are oblivious to some observations because what we already know is embedded within us. When Elkins talks about his experiences and how they not only add to what he is but also change what he is. He points out that an experience doesn’t change a person but simply adds to it. Which correlates to page 82 of ‘How we think about seeing’, neuroscientists use Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (Figure 5) allowing them to see where the blood flows in response to specific stimuli shown in figure 23.
Illustrating that the brain uses select parts of the brain when using our memory. Which corresponds with Elkins, things we have seen before or heard before change our view. Different connections happen, our vision changes and changes with what we know and consequently our observations influence how we perceive new things.
To conclude, When comparing the two texts I found, although writing styles were very different, both Elkins and Mirzoeff often express similar ideas about vision and the subject of seeing. ‘..
we do not actually ‘see’ with our eyes but with our brains’ (Mirzoeff, 2015:73), I believe this summarises what Mirzoeff is communicating in this chapter ‘How we think about Seeing’. Seeing is an action which happens without question rather than a process that naturally occurs. Referring back to Elkins “Seeing the world is not about how we see but about what we make of what we see” and Descartes diagram where Mirzoeff emposes that we don’t view subject matters in their actuality, due to our brains constantly altering what we observe because similar to Elkins discoveries, everything we have ever seen before alters how we perceive the word.
Elkins challenges the reader declaring that we take are sight for granted, we open our eyes and take in what we see. This chapter is eye opening as Elkins claims there is a much greater underlying meaning and he states the closest we get to ‘Just Seeing’ for example is in the morning when your vision is blurred. This notion that Seeing is much more complex than ‘Just looking’, when the observer looks, whether an object or a person, everything they have ever seen in the past is brought forward. Accordingly, there can never be just one observer, there or two or more and the surrounding idea that we can never passively just look.