Does it matter what we look at?
I mentioned to a friend the other day that I doubted I’d go see The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When asked “why?” I said that I didn’t think I could watch a violent rape as entertainment however “artfully purposed” it was. I hastened to add that my doubts were not a “statement about the movie.” Rather, they signal a feeling I can’t shake, one I’ve had for a long time: that what we choose to look at, how we feed our mind with images is not a lot different from how we feed our body. Diet impacts rather profoundly the kind of life experience we have. And just as some kinds of foods are more healthful and nutritious than others, so, I’ve felt, are some kinds of images. But are they?
Does it make a difference what we see? Or, as a painter, I wonder whether the kind of images we choose to paint or the kind of images we surround ourselves with or select for our entertainment affect us in any sustained way? Of course we all know the striking impact of being moved in a moment by an image that evokes surprise, disgust, curiosity, compassion, etc.—the marketer’s stock in trade. But is there something more than the ephemeral going on? In the main, do images we create and consume function in any way other than just being there as decoration or pastime? Or are they basically reflections, a mirror through which (like Alice) we walk into our culture or (like Narcissus) gaze into our own mind’s eye?
“Oh, yeah,” said my friend, “It’s the old art imitates life imitates art conundrum.” The aesthetic equivalent of the chicken or the egg? Sort of, maybe…. But, you’ll recall, I introduced this thought in my last blog— that the kind of images we have in our mind, the stuff we see that stays with us, does make a difference. But what difference it makes…? I don’t know. Mostly these are questions for which I have feelings but no real answers.
Does what we see make us better or more corrupt, calmer or more violent, healthier or more sick? Are the images we choose to be around and entertained by like the people we choose to hang out with—influential but not determinative? How do we know? How much do they shape our attitudes and behaviors, focus our attention, or affect how we feel? Do they influence our choices not only of what we look at (movies, shows, exhibits, performances, web sites, videos, news etc.), but what we see, virtually effecting our perception and how we think about things? It’s hard not to imagine that they do…at least to some degree. How can we deny that our friends make a difference? Or that what’s in our head, the stuff we’re constantly exposed to, has no influence in how we see or shape the world around us?
Intuitively, this makes sense. But is it true? Is it accurate to say that what we see makes a difference, makes us different? Is it accurate to suggest that the images we surround ourselves with and allow into our head actually influence how we look at other things around us, how we feel or think, and maybe even what we do? I think so—but I don’t know that. These hunches or assumptions that seem so common sensible are perfect examples of what researchers call “the illusion of validity.” What they mean is that too often the judgments we make intuitively, judgments that just seem natural and right, more likely than not turn out to be wrong under scrutiny. Money Ball, the story about how manager Billy Beane turned the Oakland A’s baseball team into winners in 2002, is instructive. It offers an entertainingly powerful portrayal of what happens when years of conventional, intuitively sound, wisdom gets turned on its head. When the best ole skippers in baseball ply years of seasoned decision making against a new counterintuitive approach using statistics and probabilities, what happens? What happens is that over a season, the intuitive wisdom doesn’t hold up, the numbers do.
Does this mean that intuitive judgments are always wrong or without value? Of course not. But we need to recognize that their power is not in their accuracy, it is in the speed with which they’re made. In a life-threatening situation, e.g., there’s hardly time for statistical research! But to supplant accuracy with speed, or reality with illusion, when the situation does not demand it is naïve. So…wondering whether the images we create or the images we ingest and give a home to in our head, actually makes a difference in our experience of the world or somehow affects the kind of culture we create and inhabit…well…these would not seem to be questions well-suited to intuitive judgments. But consider this: images invade us at the speed of light. They come at us a lot faster than a wild animal in the woods! It may be that we have to decide intuitively while someone’s doing the chi square stuff!
Images are a function of the eye/the mind. The mind is an eye is the mind. The line between percept and concept, between the information our eyes convey and the image the mind registers, is so thin that it is practically indistinguishable. So what we see is actually a construction, a cooperative project between the eye (all the stuff it picks up and delivers as sense perception) and the mind (that assembles all that information, coordinates it with our prior experience, and makes something we recognize—an image.) It doesn’t seem unreasonable, then, to assume that what we see, comes from all of that stuff we hold in our mind’s eye, the raw materials from which we imagine—for better and worse—how things are, or, what they might be. It would seem, wouldn’t it, that the kind of raw materials we use, the information we fill up with, is going to affect the outcome of our imagination?
Isn’t it a matter of fact that we must first imagine something before it becomes real? For example, the atom bomb. Wasn’t it imagined before it vaporized human beings? “The communicator” on Star Trek…wasn’t it imagined before the cell phone had a ring tone? Do these images and ideas just arrive from nowhere? I don’t think so. I think they are constructed. I think that our imagination assembles them from the reservoir of images absorbed by the eye/the mind. If that’s the case, don’t artists have a hand in this? Don’t they produce or manipulate a lot of what goes into the reservoir? Conversely, as an audience, don’t we have some control over what we absorb and hold in our mind’s eye? Don’t we choose in good measure how to fill the reservoir from which we interpret our experience and build the world in which we live? Could the old cliché, “what you see is what you get,” be more than descriptive?! Might it also be determinative?
Doesn’t it make a difference, then, the kind of images we create, the kind of images we consume, promote, codify, and protect? Doesn’t it make a difference not only in the kind of culture we construct, but in the kind of people we become? Maybe what we choose to look at makes a difference not only in what we see but in what we can or cannot see.
That’s next time….