©2014 By Bob Litton
I am going to have to admit something to you folks: I have no notion…yet…what I am going to say in this post. Sometime last evening, the theme of “how does what we see determine or reveal our personalities and values?” invaded my noggin. I did not know the answer then and I do not know it now, but I was willing to think and write on the wing. Let us see where that tactic leads us.
I suppose most of my readers have had enough life experience to recognize the above optical illusion of a woman, the age (old or young) of whom the viewer is asked by some psychologist to declare. It was reportedly created and published in 1915 by cartoonist W.E. Hill, so you can see that the attire is not the throwback you might have imagined it to be. The majority of us, I believe, see only a young woman first and then have to focus and concentrate to perceive the old woman; or vice versa. I have seen it so many times by now that I can isolate either quite quickly.
I do not know whether Hill was trying to develop a serious psychoanalyzing tool or simply drawing an ambiguous image for people to have fun with. I like to consider it as serving both purposes. As for a psychological tool, it is comparable to the old bromide about the glass of water being half full or half empty: either interpretation supposedly reveals a characteristic within the viewer’s personality; he/she is either an optimist or a pessimist. Of course, a complication in this test might arise if the viewer possesses a quirky fondness for old women, or just lost his/her home in a flood; then what is less appreciated by most people would be desirable to this viewer. Another goal of the psychologists might simply be to test people’s various abilities to compare and distinguish.
I have discussed perception in the arts in previous posts: “Chaos of Taste…” (May 1, 2013); “McGuffey…” (Nov. 23, 2013), and “O Beauty…” (September 27, 2014). I have also held many conversations with an artist friend concerning our different modes of depicting a subject in our productions: I emphasize volumes; he emphasizes lines. Of course, neither of us is absolute in these approaches; it is just that the first quality we look for in any other artist’s work is one of those two. Recall that in my essay on “McGuffey…”, I praised the 19th century illustration of a cat for its furry detail created by a multitude of lines; and in my essay “Bob’s Wee Art Gallery, Part I” (June 22, 2014) I cited cowboy artist Andy Adams as an influence in teaching me the value of texture through lines. Nonetheless, I hold up as my model of supreme artist N. C. Wyeth, whose precision modeling made his illustrations for several young people’s literary classics visually palpable.
But my friend is almost religious in his devotion to the “line” artists, that is, those who through their thick and thin lines connect this portion of a work with that portion, so you can understand his concentration on comic book art and the graphic novel, particularly those by Jeff Smith. He much appreciates Walt Kelly, the late creator of “Pogo”, for his “flow, grace, rhythm and simplification.” Among the fine arts figures, he favors Paul Klee and Leopoldo Santos-y-Mendez for their “strong geometry” and Edgar Degas and Norman Rockwell for their “draftsmanship”. (I am with him on Degas and Rockwell.) We do not argue about our contrasting values, although I believe we each feel a slight urge to convert the other. *(See note below.)
So, where do these diverging lanes originate and where do they lead in our psyches? I cannot speak fully for my friend, although I can generalize from observation and describe him as an optimist. His viewpoint has been heavily affected by Zen Buddhism, so he sees nothing in the external world as really touching him either harmfully or helpfully; everything is simply there. Also, excepting his personal preferences, he believes almost totally in the principle that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that anything can be classified as an art object to somebody.
As for me, I definitely am a pessimistic depressive. After nearly seventy-five years, I feel that I have seen more than I need to see in this world — from trolley street-cars to the landing on the Moon, from the party-line phone system to the proliferation of cell phones, from tent revivals to the emergence of ISIS. Stop the world! I want to get off! And yet, I have read recently that pessimists both live longer and are calmer in crises than other people: the movie Melancholia, wherein the people of Earth are fatally faced with an oncoming planet, has as its primary theme the second of those attributes. I sure hope the first attribute is untrue. As though I haven’t already seen enough of a changing reality, I now feel convinced that I will live long enough to see the end of the world. Consequently, I reach back mentally and artistically to my childhood, to grasp the solid elements that made it cheerful. I crave the bold, shadowed forms in N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations. I search and search through my bag of childhood memories, like a pig after truffles.
But this pig has already eaten all the truffles.
*After I had first posted the above, my friend sent me an email in which he asked me to add a few more artists to his favorites list. I thought that inserting them within the body of the essay would render it too crowded, so I am appending his email message here:
“When you’re listing Degas and Norman Rockwell, put Toulouse-Lautrec in between them.
“And you can add Rockwell Kent on the graphic arts side next to Leopoldo Mendez.