Abstract from my dissertation MA CSM, 2010, London
The first time I visited Tate Modern I was more than excited to see all the masterpieces in the permanent collection. When I came across Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss I spent all my time looking at it.
The marble sculpture was mounted on a base and the real thing had nothing to do with the reproductions I was familiar with. It was like a magnet and its energy was captivating; I could not take my eyes off it and leave the room. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I could not see the girl kissing. I started walking around the sculpture trying different points of view, but I was trying in vain. I could not see her kissing unless I was permitted to climb on the sculpture or bend and spirally twist my body to peep at the couple’s kiss. But is sculpture made to be viewed in this way? The way it was presented, mounted on that base, seemed to me to justify more the title His Kiss than The Kiss. I started wondering if this was the intention of the artist or if the Tate people never thought about it.
It is hard to answer the above question, but maybe that is not the point. Maybe it is more interesting to pose the question why we see what we see and what we understand of what we see.
Rodin’s approach to sculpting women was a homage to them and their bodies. His intention was not to present them just submitting to men but as full partners in ardour (The Kiss, Rodin). Perhaps what my eyes reported was not true. Or perhaps my senses revealed something that my mind had not thought before.
Reasoning, says Schopenhauer, is of feminine nature: it can give only after it has received. Without information on what is going on in time and space the brain cannot work (Arnheim, 1969, p.1).
The above extract belongs to Rudolf Arnheim (Professor Emeritus of Psychology of Art at Harvard) and is the first paragraph of his book Visual Thinking (1969). Even from its title the book makes a provocative statement: that our eyes produce thought. He suggests that perception is not passive but active: it gathers types of things called concepts and uses them to produce thought; and inversely, the mind has something to think with, if the material of the senses is still present. Arnheim’s claim is radical because in theory the mind is supposed to function in two separate ways in order to cope with the world: it must gather information and it must process it. He argues that in practice this is not the case, although the distinction between the mind and the senses persisted through history (Arnheim, 1969).
Greek thinkers were the first who dealt with the problem. At early stages, the human mind used to interpret psychological phenomena as physical things or events. Thus the split between the senses and the mind was first located not in the mind but in the outside world. It was the world which was divided into order and chaos, or else, into heaven and earth. Parmenides mistrusted the senses, which reported change in the world, and he called for the reason to put things in order and establish the truth. Sophists relied on the unreliability of the senses to support their skepticism: a stick dipped into the water looked broken, a distant object looked small. This was the beginning of subjectivity. A distinction between the outside world and the perception of it was established. In other words, it was the distinction between the physical and the mental. It was the beginning of psychology (Arnheim, 1969).
Greeks were aware of the problems this distinction created but were subtle enough not to condemn the senses. The criterion for the wise use of the senses was reasoning. For Heraclitus the “barbarian souls” cannot interpret the senses and Democritus warned the mind: ‘Wretched mind, do you, who get your evidence from us, yet try to overthrow us? Our overthrow will be your downfall.’ Plato and Aristotle developed a more complex attitude. Plato distrusted direct perception and Aristotle claimed that an object was real through its true, lasting nature and not through its changeable properties. However, they never forgot that vision is the first and final source of wisdom, as it is reflected in Aristotle’s words: ‘the soul never thinks without an image’ (Arnheim, 1969).
Arnheim continues his argument: Cognitive operations such as active exploration, selection, grasping of essentials, simplification, abstraction, analysis and synthesis, completion, correction, comparison, problem solving, combining, separating and putting in context are not privileges of the mind above and beyond perception, but essential elements of perception itself. ‘Visual perception is visual thinking’ (Arnheim, 1969, p.14).
When I saw The Kiss I opened my eyes and I found my myself surrounded by the given world: the Gallery, the walls, the works of arts, the visitors, the sculpture and my body. All these objects were given to my eyes, they resemble the retinal projection with me having done nothing to produce them. But that given world was only the scene on which the perception took place. Through that world I directed my glance, I focused on this particular sculpture scanning details; I explored the relations of the two heads kissing each other. This active performance of the gaze is called visual perception (Arnheim, 1969).
Therefore, vision is selective. An object may be selected for attention because it stands out of the rest of the visual world and/or because it responds to what the observer needs to see. The reason why our vision operates selectively stems from our need to survive as species (Arnheim, 1969). This fact may apply not only to the history of our evolution, but also to our everyday life. Survival explains our visual choices.
Another example of how vision operates is its ability to complete the incomplete: a box, partly covered by a vase, is seen as a complete cube partly hidden (Arnheim, 1969). Similarly, a woman’s head overlapped by a man’s head while they are kissing is seen kissing him as well. The observer completes the fragment he sees not because of previous knowledge of the object or the action, but because this operation takes place within perception itself.
Also, when the angle of a three-dimensional object changes this object seems to be transformed. Despite these transformations the object is perceived having a stable shape. A specific aspect of the object contains renvois, references, which suggest the subsequent ones. This is another application of our ability to complete the incomplete with our eyes. (Arnheim, 1969). Rodin’s The Kiss relies on renvois to emphasize the continuous roundness of shapes and the presentation of serpent-like figures. Our eyes actually see what the artist does not show us directly from a particular point of view.
Moreover, to see means to see in context. We see objects in relation to each other. These relations appear either in terms of contrast or similarity and affect strongly the way we perceive the objects. For example, under the pressure of contrast a pure red colour next to a pure yellow may turn purplish while the yellow becomes greenish. Similarly, juxtaposed shapes or objects sacrifice their identity in order to relate as a whole. Fittingness, the matching of things pointing to a whole, is an example of seeing things in terms of similarity (Arnheim, 1969):
Convexity fits concavity, the key fits the keyhole, and in the fable told by Aristophanes the male and the female yearn to restore the spherical wholeness of the original human body (Arnheim, 1969, p.65).
Looking at a work of art is the strongest experience of active exploration of shape and visual order which goes on when we use our eyes. When the exploration is successful the work of art reveals its meaning to the viewer (Arnheim, 1969). With The Kiss the artist abstracts an action in a timeless and single representation, and by giving to the work its title he makes an absolute statement of what a kiss is. Using titles means using language and language is more open to individual interpretations. We can project our personal experience to the title. When it comes to images, though, things and ideas appear in a more specific way. The statue itself is much less adaptable to our subjectivity than the words of its title. When art is high and successful to such a degree as in Rodin’s case, we are seduced and engaged. We willingly surrender to the artist’s intentions and adjust ourselves to what we see: We see the essence of the kiss and in conjunction with the title our subjectivity fits to it as a glove: what I think a kiss is is Rodin’s The Kiss. On the contrary, when a piece is unsuccessful we deny following it. The sculpture which shares the same title as Rodin’s masterpiece, The Kiss in Kings Cross St. Pancras Station is a mere anecdote of the love story.
The above analysis is an attempt to explain why Rodin’s The Kiss is seen “as such”. But why did I see a man kissing a woman and not the kiss? With this question we come closer to the observer’s role when we wrestle with vision.
Maybe I was right. Maybe the sculpture had not been made to be viewed the way it was presented. An object is visually endowed with its function. For example, a bridge is perceived as something to be walked over. Works of art were made for particular purposes and places. Being demonstrated in museums and galleries the artworks are deprived from their initial function which forms their identity. They are regarded as pure shapes and this can change their appearance dramatically (Arnheim, 1969).
A contemporary viewer sees things differently from one who admired the same piece of art in the past. Which features are grasped depends not only on the stimuli, but also on the observer. The cultural background, training, knowledge, expectations, wishes, and fears of the observer shape his vision. Memory is a crucial factor as well. Every time a perceptual act takes place, it performs a similar act which was performed in the past and survived in memory. The experiences of the present mix with the experiences of the past and precondition the future ones (Arnheim, 1969).
Maybe I was deceived by my eyes then. The fact that I come from a cultural background that patriarchy is persistent made me see the woman submitting to the man’s kiss. Maybe I imagined Rodin as a very dominant figure because at the same time I was reading Camille Claudel’s biography; ‘Only him could this!’ was my first thought when I realised that there was no point of view from which I could see the girl kissing. Or maybe all these reasons helped me to discover something that was already there but remained unnoticed. Arnheim claims that the feat of extracting a particular element from a pattern shows that intelligence work in perception itself. In this case, visual thinking is the ability to wrest a hidden feature or disguised relation from an adverse context.
Arnheim’s approach derives from Gestalt psychology according to which perception grasps generic structural features spontaneously. Another thinker with the same starting point is Merleau-Ponty. His philosophy questions the existence of an absolute observer. The world of perception, in other words the world that is revealed to our senses, is not the world we think we know, but a delusion. The physics of relativity confirms that an absolute and final objectivity does not exist. Modern art, philosophy and psychology point to the fact that we relate to space not as a pure disembodied subject to a distant object but rather as a being that lives in this place; we live in space not as a mind and a body, but rather as a mind with a body and we can see the truth of things because our body is embedded in those things. We have access to the external objects through our body. In this sense, it is impossible to separate things from the way they appear because the way they appear is connected with our body. In other words, it is impossible to separate things from our body because it is impossible to separate us from our body. Human beings connected with their bodies and their bodies connected with things, connected with the world (Merleau-Ponty, 1948).
A work of art is something we perceive. Thus it is similar to the object of perception: it is in its nature to be seen and not to be analysed. The direct perceptual experience cannot be substituted by any definition and discussion of this experience, however, valuable that may be afterwards (Merleau-Ponty, 1948). The reason is obvious since we do not consist of mind plus body; it is not our body that does the perception and it is not our mind that proceeds it. We are mind with body, which means that our body not only perceives but understands as well. If we use the word senses or eyes instead of the word body we come to our starting point again: visual thinking. For Merleau-Ponty, I would paraphrase, it is body thinking.
It was my body that responded to The Kiss and the word body embraces everything that has to do with subjectivity. My body actually responded to the view of two other bodies, a male and female kissing. To be more exact it was a representation of the two bodies kissing. But does the representation of relationships between sexes reflect any aspect of reality?
Kate Millett offers a radical answer by starting her book Sexual Politics (1970) with an extract taken from Henry Miller’s Sexus which describes colourfully the sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. Millett puts coitus, as described in literature and history, under the microscope of her analysis showing that sexual activity does not take place in a vacuum but in a larger context of human affairs. Sex serves as a model of sexual politics meaning that there is a great step to be made: the transition from these scenes of intimacy to a political context. She defines the term politics not as a world of meetings and political parties but as power-structured relationships by which one group of persons is controlled by another. This radical step leads to another one, even more radical: to a theory of patriarchy.
With her ‘notes’ (Millett, 1970, p.24), as she calls her book which became a world bestseller, she makes an attempt to prove that sex is a status category with political implications. Millett demonstrates how and why the structures of patriarchy prevailed in our civilization and how patriarchy is reflected in literature.
One of the most unfortunate aspects of civilization is the extent to which learning and scientific interest are so deeply affected by the culture in which such study is done (Millett, 1970, p.221).
It could be said then that The Kiss is a sculpture which reflects the structures of patriarchy. The reason why we cannot see that is because we already see and understand our world in terms of these structures of patriarchy.
Seeing out of the context, or seeing what other people may not see can be misunderstood. Whether perceiving a work of art as I did is a narrow approach triggered by a hidden detail or by the general grasping of it, or whether it is a subjective reading of my body with my mind, or whether it was only a misunderstanding, it was an adventure to figure it out.