Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Contemporary Problems, My Response to Chapter 4

Chapter 4, Realism and Perspective

psyche 1 |ˈsīkē| noun:  the human soul, mind, or spirit

  Key Questions from Presentation
Perspective: is it objective, or just consistent? Within a closed system, we can have relational meaning
Like video games: consistent stylized representation is convincing, not realism
Same with design; has rules and practices, icons and codes, like stop signs, and typefaces, but beyond
Consistent aesthetic approaches, styles, repeated enough to become readable on their own

  My Key Questions
Idea of realism important to art history: natural, universal system of representation opposite of
       Social construction as theory, central to this book
Norman Bryson: something sensuous and natural about a stained glass window, e.g.
We read the stories, as if it wasn’t an illuminated, lose the art, the form, the feeling
Subjugate image to word, the ‘real’ message, the realism is in the text
Same with texts: we don’t even see the “sensuous materiality of the signifier,” lose sight of the design
Our reading satisfies the text, ends it, misses the image of the text, the “wordimage”
Figural practices secondary to discursive until Renaissance; power of representation, illusion, realism
As though something more, we see the thing represented, transported, takes us through material surface

Realism an excess:  “ more visual information than we need to grasp the narrative content”
Definition of design: form far in excess of content: must be for it’s own sake, i.e.
Power comes from finding the meaning in that excess; overproduction of meaning
Richer, deeper because not given, possibly not intended: an immaculate discovery, more than literal
Perspective in religious paintings: something peripheral, not the bible story, but a rival meaning
Story takes us along the straight path: “Jesus was condemned to death for your sins”
Piero’s Flagellation, he is in the background: perspective, hall, historical fugures etc. all richer
Along the syntagmatic axis, one link in a single chain;
       vs. the paradigmatic axis: vertical links to other associations, other media, other rules
Design takes us beyond the necessary, into the realm of freedom, i.e.

Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer broadening art history
Renaissance painting studied because of aesthetics, power of realism and illusion,
       so meaning must be greater as well (all beautiful people are much smarter, aren’t they?)
Modernism: we start the modern with images we like, Manet and Post-Impressionists, late 1800s

Where does it start? Modernism seen just as aesthetic, visual revolution, in representational conventions
See slides: art history in three images, shows method, theory that got us here
Crary: locates modernism, modern art, much earlier, a new kind of vision
Arrives early 1800s, machines for seeing: steam powered printing presses, stereoscopes, etc.
“A new set of relations between the body…and forms of institutional and discursive power…redefined the status of an ‘observing subject.’ ”
Doing two things: very complex idea of causes, modernism starts in body / institutions / discourses
Also: change marked not by ‘better’ paintings, but a new observing subject: diff defn’n of mod’sm
Look at history of the observer: proposing a new project entirely
Observer: one who sees, but also obedient: to “observe the law,” or a religious observance, is to obey it
Hegemonic, not marginal visual forms: optical devices, new tools and ways of seeing
A viewer adequate to the forces of modernity; we have become the observers that the system needs

Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes
First page: how many metaphors for vision are in our language, especially about knowing
[Read Page 1, including the footnote]: like voir in savoir and pouvoir: power and knowledge
Book actually looks at discourse: writing about vision, and how sight has been denigrated
Esp. in French critical theory, reaction to French role in creating modern vision and art?
Discourse: loose term, many different directions into and around in it

Goes from topic, “theories of vision,” to more specific, “in 20Ce. French thought,” to thesis:
Vision was denigrated, systematically and consistently mistrusted and attacked
Gaze” as the “objectifying looks of strangers” for Sartre: power of vision to define us by being seen
W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology
Wordimage, sees them together: fear of images in many philosophers, Marx to Sartre
Beyond enjoying and celebrating images, love of art and design:
       or perhaps we work at them because they scare us? Do you really know why you are in design?
Images powerful and dominant, but enigmas: our ideas about them no clearer today

How to make images dependable, reliable, trustworthy? Images can never be reflection of the real
One theory for mental images and one for material ones; do they work the same, what is the relation?
Both based on likeness? Or neither is
From my thesis:
W.J.T. Mitchell
If Mitchell starts with images and works in the other direction, back in to words: find the shape of words equally important, dissolving hard distinction between word and images
“no firm, unequivocal basis for the distinction between words and images” (Mitchell 1996: 53).
Words never the final ‘resting point’ of images; not an objective arbiter or resolution of image.
NOT looking for better ways to read images: the politics of the image is not in what it says.
The politics of the shifting mix, or even the equivalence, of word and image matters more
Forces us to look for meaning outside of structured systems, “languages”
Not a more ‘political’ interpretation of pictures: images function in determination of the social
To write, speak, or be heard is to have identity; to be seen, or even to look, is to be subject to another:
Traditional clichés about visual culture (children should be seen and not heard; women are objects of visual pleasure for the male gaze; black people are natural mimics; the masses are easily taken in by images) are based on a tacit assumption of the superiority of words to visual images (Mitchell 1996: 55).
Christian Metz’s analysis of film: visual never finally langue, but remains parole usage w/o structure
“Film can never be explicated fully as a systematic language” (97).
 “Representations are made and not given”, realism becomes a central problem
Irrealism necessary, negative force, critique of positivism and the synchronic (= design?)
Political agenda of aversion to mixing: race, class, and gender
also suppression of grainy, analog for purer, digital signal; hard distinctions words / images
eliminates the mongrel medium of design
Horror at undefined borders: prevent such miscegenation. Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoon
A form of ethnic cleansing, absolute separation of art and poetry
Mitchell sees a fear of images; images not simple reflections, no “similitude btwn mind and world”
Ironic, given “Pictorial Turn”: greater and more complex use of pictures in daily life
Pictures—“interplay btwn visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality”
images part of a chain of meaning: material à form à object à image à symbol
He also touches on comic books, from Maus to Dark Knight, complex, self-referential techniques
“All arts are ‘composite’ arts (both text and image); all media are mixed media, combining different codes, discursive conventions, channels, sensory and cognitive modes” (95). 


  1. If realism is an excess, and the definition of design is a form far in excess of content, and the whole point of this excess is to find power and meaning in the piece or subject, then it makes me question the aesthetic of minimalism or abstract art. In this program, I have been told by numerous professors that less is more. Of course I agree with the idea of "if it isn't helping communicate your message, don't add it", yet most contemporary designs today are comprised by an abundance of white space and graphic shapes that may be aesthetically pleasing, yet often contain no meaning.

    Looking back on some works that we have studied in our lectures classes, most of the pieces shown on slides were crammed with content and different meanings. Of course these meanings could have been all subjective, as discussed in the previous chapters of the text, but at least there were aspects to be deconstructed. For example, although Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge by El Lissitzky is comprised of simple shapes, with the title and perhaps its text and putting it in the context of its time, the message is there, at it can be read by people today given they know certain background information and history. Design is supposed to be the vehicle for communication, as this poster was, yet contemporary design seems to stray from creating meaning through symbols, be it material, to form, to object or not.

    There are in fact different types of design, and that of advertising doesn't suffer from any lack of meaning, however, design for the sake of experimentation does exist and shouldn't be disregarded when making the statement that design is a form far in excess of content.. Sometimes I think design is identical to fine art in the sense that experimentation with materials is one of the common ways to progress, but these experimentations are not always successful and can create even more confusion in meanings although they may be more aesthetically pleasing. I guess that somewhere in between is where we're supposed to make the distinction of what is good, and bad design.

  2. Design is said to be a very subjective field. The well-known idiom of one man's trash is another man's treasure is very much so related to this idea of design. What one designer likes, another designer may find horrible. I have personally experienced this is in my studio courses over the years as I can show the same concept to two different people and receive two very contradicting remarks.

    So if this is the case, then what is considered "good" design versus "bad" design? One of my professors used to say, "there is no such thing as good or bad design but rather a design that works". I think this is a very valid point because design should not be judged solely on its aesthetic appeal. The main distinction between design and art is that design is trying to communicate some message to the viewers. So if that message is conveyed, then the design works. It may not appeal to your individual preference but that does not mean that the design is bad.

    For example, I was looking through movie posters for different Indian movies and I did not like some of the designs. I found many of them tacky and couldn't understand why they were using particular typefaces. I was judging these posters by comparing them to those in Hollywood. But then I realized that the target market in India is completely different from the target market here. In India, poverty is very visible and it plagues a lot of the society. Movies are offered as an escape for this population who is burdened with enough troubles in their everyday life. Thus, the movie posters of mainstream Bollywood are mostly very colourful and happy so as to not remind these people of their reality. Colour is also an important part of the culture, as it is represented through the different cultural groups in their clothing, food and festivals. For this reason, those designs that I found tacky would work for that demographic but here it may not be as appealing.

    But even with design being such a subjective field where a lot of styles and approaches can be accepted based on the notion that they work for that concept, there is still an attempt to regularize and follow a certain style. For instance, I found that my initial experience in university was that professors preferred the modernist style of very clean, san serif fonts, minimalistic design and color versus works that contradict these ideas. Sheridan has adapted this sort of modernist thinking. (We talked about this idea in class.) When you look at posters around the campus for different events, it is very clear that they all follow the same style. But does this "neutral" design reflect the variety of ethnicities and groups in our campus?

    I guess what is so interesting is that even though design is a subjective field there is still an attempt to find the one "good" design. Clean and minimalistic design is preferred over design that is filled with more objects and content because that could seem cluttered. But who is to say that that is necessarily wrong or bad design? If design is considered as one field that accepts all styles, then we should learn to judge it based on its ability to convey the message to the particular demographic rather than labeling it as good or bad.


  4. I certainly think that perspective is one of the ways to try and demonstrate the reality that surrounds us. Moreover it has proven to be a very successful way and is highly practiced and developed today. Video games and 3D movies are good examples of how perspective is used now. But what interesting is, how we ended up taking the feeling of reality and changing it to become completely different from what is truly real. The worlds that are created, different creatures, so many possibilities that do not usually require any physical form to be a part of those new realities. All of this seems to be so attractive that it takes away from the real world that we live in.
    Many designers work with perspective to create something different or better from what we have now. Video game designs are both objective and sometimes consistent but still are very realistic and not realistic at the same time. This type of design works, it has viewers and buyers, but what it truly gives as? New experiences? I think that hundreds of years ago when perspective was used by painters it demonstrated their abilities as artists to recreate the reality on a paper, now I think we are continuing to develop the creation of perspective and reality through design but focus a lot on the wages from these projects and not on the real need. However maybe the reality that we are familiar with is changing.

  5. The idea that consistency and over-availability of visual information of realism gives power to the viewer actually reminds me of an article about memory from the New York Times that I recently read. Human memory is equated by some of the researchers in the article as a way of having a “dress rehearsal” for the future. You remember a situation from the past, and this helps inform present or future actions. Memory, especially visual memory (in the case of the article, the topic of eye-witness recollection) creates confidence in the observer—areas of the brain that are active while a person remembers an event that happened are just as strong when they “remember” an even that never actually happened.

    While that may seem off-topic, the connection between realism and memory that I am trying to draw are that realism, like memory, creates a confidence in observers because specific patterns of representation seem to repeat in visual culture.

    To illustrate the confidence of the observer of a visual piece, I’d like to discuss personal anecdote. While taking my less-educated-in-fine-art friends to view modern art, the same questioning of representational style always comes up, without fail: why is this considered “good” art? Any three-year-old could paint this.

    I have since come to prepare a speech about the value of this kind of work for situations like this. The speech has come to involve the historical significance of these paintings, rather than addressing what seems to be the reason that they feel off-put by these images: they cannot perceive a deeper “meaning” from abstract paintings (not that there was necessarily one there in the first place).

    It seems like they, and many other people, find discomfort in the degree of abstraction in abstract expressionist painting because they cannot perceive a sense of “meaning” from the lack of representative, more realistic forms. They admire realistic works for their craftsmanship, mastery of expression and geometric perspective, and are able to understand the meaning of piece better because of the specific imagery in the piece—the wine and bread represent the last supper, the lion is a symbol of power, etc.

    It seems to me that designers go out of our way to imbue meaning into works by the use of techniques such as symbolism, use of color, and repeated stylistic choices (such as typographic choice), rather than geometric perspective or realistic rendition. Perhaps, in that sense, design is a kind of realism. This relates to Bryson’s idea that realism is “more visual information than we need to grasp the narrative content” of a piece. As designers, we strive to give the audience clarity by overloading pieces with information that we feel supports what we are trying to communicate. Just as the observer is able to feel confident in their reading of a visual piece because of their understanding of the symbols within in it, designers feel confident that they have created something understandable only with is overly full of things that convey meaning.

  6. Chapter 4

    The design of the content and image of the text is often lost on people as most do not really care. Most just read the content while only a very small percentage of the population actually recognizes the image of the text. Even among those aware of the "wordimage," it is still mostly just the graphic designers who care.

    Details in the medium of the message can make or break the idea being communicated, even if most readers are not fully aware of how these details are operating on them. If details were an excess, then clean, stream-lined, Swiss minimalism should be sufficient as design solutions for every problem out there. As it were, events like those of the 60s proved to be far too complex and chaotic for such blandness. If details were not important, why would graphic designers nitpick about things like kerning and leading? The small things add up to drive the message home through the minute elements that make up a whole.

    Cartesian Perspectivalism still dominates the way people understand vision, despite newer models of subjective vision. As sight emerged in the Renaissance as an unmediated way for the body to access the world, it was believed that knowledge came from this objective sense. For many people, realism still holds a great deal of authority because it is supposed to be highly detailed and accurate in its information. Choosing realism is not always a matter of excess but of choosing to communicate to an audience by speaking with their "language."

    Realism becomes an excess when it overpowers or obscures the message. Some of Mucha's work, for example, were meant to serve as advertisements but the products his images were supposed sell were often overshadowed by the decoration. In the same way, the painters of religious paintings, I would argue, were not actually all that concerned with the story they were painting. Even though the title of Piero's Flagellation indicates that it is supposed to depict the severe punishment of Christ after his condemnation to the crucifixion, the one thing that truly stands out is the portrayal of depth through perspective. Perhaps Piero was trying to make the scene realistic by using perspective so that the viewer might feel as if he or she was actually there in this building. Unfortunately, perspective is an excess in this painting since it detracts from the story that was supposed to be conveyed. Even considering how static the people are in his painting is another failure in its inability to convey the injustice being inflicted on an innocent man. In graphic design terms, it was a bad solution.

    The deconstruction of classical vision by modern thinkers moved meaning into the reader's hands. Fortunately for graphic design, the uncertainties surrounding images give them an explosive potential. Depending on the context of that image, and the text that is brought to it, the image can have a host of different meanings (McDonald). I love graphic design precisely because of the potential found when images and text are used together. The grey areas of images gives it an incredible flexibility for design work depending the context it is used in, and the message that is attached to that image.

    Works Cited

    McDonald, Rod. "Looking and Reading." Design Department of York University. Accolade West ACW 006, York University, 4700 Keele Street, Toronto. 3 November 2011. Lecture.



  9. The idea of "realism" doesn't just stop at fine arts and graphic design. We normally associate the medium of film to be as 'realistic' as it's ever going to get in terms of the arts. However, this is an interesting passage I came across in a textbook I'm reading for a film class I'm taking (Film 1401-Introduction to film):

    "Realism as a standard of value, however, raises several problems. Notions of realism vary across cultures, over time, and even among individuals. […] It is best, then, to examine the functions of mise-en-scene in the films we see. While one film might use mise-en-scene to create an impression of realism, others might seek very different effects- comic exaggeration, supernatural terror, understated beauty and any outnumber of other functions" (Thompson & Bordwell, 113).

    One of the things that our professor from film class often tell us is to try and be patient with some of the movies he's screened. They may be boring (too long), exaggerated (acting too dramatic), but that it is simply because it was made in a different time era than our own. The acting may look overdramatic may infect, at the time it was made, be realistic to its audience.

    From this, I think realism isn't so much about aesthetic as it is also about the viewers and the makers and the relationships between the two. One of the questions from this discussion asks, how do we make images more trustworthy, reliable and dependable? I think it is no longer about how to render an image accurately, or with exact measurements. Rather, it is about understanding the social relationships that are created when an image is produced, made and distributed. And also the relationships between the maker of the image or medium and the people they are delivering said product to. Industrial designers spend a lot of time researching their users, likewise, designers focus on their client, target audience, etc. Only then can the products created out of this research be 'real', dependable and relevant.

    "Film art: an Introduction to Film" by David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson

  10. Digital technologies have greatly warped the traditional notion of realism. In fine arts, the consistency of information creates the perspective that content is convincing, and more realistic. However, none of it is "real."

    Photographs and films usually represented an authentic representation of reality. But I believe that photography or videography is never authentic or real. It always will be just images of what is real.

    With various photographic editing software like Photoshop, a photograph can so easily be manipulated and still look completely realistic that photographs have become an unreliable source at representing true realism. True realism attempts to recreate an objective reality without embellishment or interpretation but today, digital technologies can virtually always enhance or modify the real scene a camera captures. Digital technologies enable artists to convince and trick the mind into believing something is realistic.

    Video games and television are virtual reality simulators that creates a realistic perspective. Video games such as Super Mario were definitely puts you in a third person perspective just by how the game is laid out. On the other hand, first-person shooter games, such as the game titled Half-Life 2, is almost seemingly realistic and representative of what real life can potentially, physically, look like.