Notes from the Underground Part Five — Escaping Muybridge's Curse (Can We?)

Jean Detheux continues his series on the nature of art and draws us to understand that perhaps mimicking reality isn't a true representation of the world.

(about two kinds of aided perception)

In the previous article "Knowing Enough About Seeing To Let 'The Other' Draw Accordingly," I tried to show that if we want to look at our looking, we are faced with difficulties, and are likely to come to the realization that our seeing is very ambiguous, elusive, even utterly unknown and mysterious.

It seems that, when trying to pay attention to attention itself, we fall almost inevitably in some sort of circularity: trying to look at our looking is looking too, so that we are using the very tool we are trying to examine as the tool with which we do the examining itself!

We obviously need another way, an "oblique progression" as Merleau-Ponty called it.

If "catering to the appearing as it appears" is the goal, it is also the means!

Indeed, if, when faced with ambiguity and confusion, we accept those "as is" and no longer try to set order where we (think we) see chaos and disorder, but instead, accept those as they give themselves to us (to "me"), if we try as best we can to depict them "as is," we enter a different way of working, a different way of seeing. (Here, as I have shown before, we need to reverse our habitual way of proceeding, from "look, understand, do" to "look, do, in order to maybe understand.")

To trust that one's "not knowing" has more to offer than the ready-made "solutions" provided by others is an important step in becoming an artist, and a responsible human being.

An old friend, a remarkable philosopher by the name of José Huertas-Jourda, used to tell his students "trust your darkness." This is very appropriate to what I am talking about. (José has a lot to do with some of the ideas I am presenting here. He is the one who introduced me to Husserl 30-odd years ago, and his own thinking has uncovered many of the aspects of our "living present" that I am presenting in these articles.)

This inherent ambiguity we all can see as being the core, or at the core, of our own perception and it is possibly our greatest ally in our search for meaning, but it has often prompted many to search for (external) help, often accepting shortcuts and approximations, "simplifications" that bring with them their own sets of problems, and that most certainly do not provide any genuine answers. ("If you did not learn it by yourself, it is merely a borrowed plumage" goes an old Zen saying.)

In my previous article, I hinted at the possibility that we may have been (willingly) misled by Eadweard Muybridge's work and by the approach to animation that was (still is) derived from it.

We have been under the spell of those images, as they gave us the impression of explaining motion in a way that can easily be applied to creating animation. However, this "understanding" is far from being reliable, it is not even based on the way we ("I") see and experience motion, it is a fabrication needing the "out-of-human-time" images provided by a camera.

It is a "borrowed plumage."

This I will call "aided perception #1."

Muybridge's images are not very relevant to the way we see motion; they mislead us into assuming we understand how motion is made visible, how it works, but this is not motion as we perceive it when we are immersed in "ordinary" experience, it is motion as it is captured when time is frozen and the mechanical "viewer" is totally passive (an experience fairly unusual to us to say the least, and hardly available without the aid of a camera).

(That type of "understanding" of motion posits it as an isolated "tic-tac-toe," while we experience it much more in terms of a "swoosh" totally immersed in an infinite context, both in terms of space and time.)

Above all, this process singles out a subject and keeps it artificially isolated from its context. (Remember what I talked about in the previous article when I mentioned that in perception, the differentiation between figure and ground is far more ambiguous than we often realize, and each often fades into the other, refusing to maintain a supposedly distinct identity.)

I'll say it again in plain language: the eye does not work like a camera, and we do not all see the same thing!

What and how we (really) see has very little to do with "photo-realism," and yet, very few of us are at all aware of that. ("The problem with realism is that it has very little to do with reality," said Giacometti.)

Annie Dillard found some fabulous material in a book called Space and Sight, by Marius Von Senden.

The book gives detailed accounts of how people who were blind from birth reacted to their newly acquired sight (through the removal of cataracts by surgery). These reactions showed unmistakably how much "seeing" is an acquired faculty, not an inherent one.

Dillard integrated those stories in an excellent book called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the account of a journey that I wish would be more common amongst aspiring artists, and to which art schools should definitely "submit" their students ("Know Thyself").

One of the major points she makes is that "seeing is very much a matter of verbalization," which is exactly what I have been talking about in my previous articles.

If we don't have a name for "it," a name by which to differentiate "it" from the context, we can't see "it." (This does not mean we don't see anything, far from that!)

In fact, even that context/ground from which we differentiate "it" via verbalization is itself constituted by our world view, a world view which is no less rooted in our distinct culture as is the "figure" itself.

Even "space" is an utterly meaningless concept (note: a "concept!") for people who have not yet acquired this culturally induced way of seeing.

Indeed, they have no notion of "near" and "far" in their newly acquired visual world. "Distance" too, is a meaningless concept! ("A patient had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.")

Nor do they have a notion of "size," itself being also a meaningless concept.

"Shape" is another meaningless concept: a patient cannot distinguish visually between a cube and a sphere, but will instantly identify them "correctly" as soon as he is allowed to feel them with his hands and tongue.

As for the "realism" of photos, a newly sighted girl who saw some for the first time said something like: "Why do they have all those dark patches all over them?"

Someone explained to her that those were not dark patches, that they were shadows. And the explanation went on to say that shadows were one of the ways by which we know that things have shape.

The girl answered: "But things do look flat, they look flat with dark patches!"

(I am certain that many a painter will immediately relate to this as experientially true.)

St-Hubert 6, 1977. Graphite on paper, 14

St-Hubert 6, 1977. Graphite on paper, 14" x 17". All original artwork © Jean Detheux.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is full of amazing examples like these, and Annie Dillard manages very well to bring those "freak" experiences into the context of our "normal" life.

What she manages to do is to show that the experiences of those people who discover sight well after birth are loaded with teachings that can (if we make the effort to learn) show us how dull our habitual vision is.

Settling for the model derived from Muybridge's work gives animators ideas with which they are able to render a certain kind of motion, ideas which progressively leave the realm of the experiential and enter the one of the "fabricated," increasing the gap between our lived experience, and our symbolic world (the world as we represent it to ourselves).

This is very much in tune with the progressive dehumanization of all things in our culture, and animation, being a significant part of that culture, bears a lot of responsibility for the decline.

Animation constructed according to Muybridge's model is a very crude approximation of "the real." It is as far from "Life" as reading a printed restaurant menu can be from actually eating food.

There's a Sufi story that goes something like this: "A drunk man goes home after a party and drops his keys on the pavement. He starts looking for them until a friend, walking by, stops and helps look for the keys. They search and search, aided by the light of a nearby street light. After a while, the friend stops and says: 'I can't find them, are you sure you lost them here?'

"'No,' answers the drunk man, 'I lost them over there where it is dark, but as I can't see anything there, I'd rather search here where there is light.'"

This is very similar to what has happened to our approach to "figure drawing" and animation.

Once we surrendered our own unaided vision to the "filtering effect" of the sciences of anatomy and physiology, we surrendered the reality of our own darkness to the light of false, or at least "borrowed," certainty.

The "Mighty Principles of Animation" presented by Gene Deitch are a very potent example of this, reminding me of my early days in art school when, while Pollock and de Kooning were at the height of their art, the school still imposed on us unsuspecting beginners the notion that Art had to do with figure drawing based on 19th Century norms.

In Gene Deitch's "defense," I will stress the fact that what he called "The 12 Principles of Character Animation, as developed at the Disney studio" was modified for the article title into "Mighty Principles of Animation."

That is quite a qualitative leap!!!

As I mentioned in the previous article, many cultures other than our own, and even our own in years gone by, did not do not rely on an a priori knowledge of the inner structure of the human body when they deal with "figurative imagery," and yet, they have provided us (still do) with images that deeply affect us today, so potent is their presence, their reality status, their "truth."

But this is rooted in the "magical" (at least in the "poetic"), not in the "scientific."

Given that we tend to credit animation with the status of "Art," we have to understand that "ordinary science" has very little to do with Art if by "Art" we understand an activity that deals with the whole of human experience, including (especially) all our subjectivity.

To draw/animate a walking figure demands a lot more than merely relying on the mechanics of the figure "out there." It demands that we connect with how we ("I") see and experience "it," bereft of assumptions, in connection with how that walking "figure" appears to us ("I") as if for the first time.

That would be Art.

"More than anything else, cinema consists of the eye for the magic that which perceives and reveals the marvelous in whatsoever it looks upon." Maya Deren


"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science." Albert Einstein


View by Jean Detheux.

Attached Files 
1627-paintbox.mov1.1 MB