Tassava's Reviews > Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing

Vision and Art by Margaret S. Livingstone
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Jun 20, 2009

it was amazing
Read in June, 2009

This is an excellent overview of the science and biology of seeing, especially as related to modern art. The author, Margaret Livingstone, a neurobiologist, skillfully presents the scientific material, though some of it is nonetheless pretty tough going. Livingstone, is very good at using a wide range of spectacular diagrams, photos, paintings, and other illustrations to advance her exposition and argument.

This argument - and its applicability to how we make and see art - rests on a critical distinction between our two overlapping systems of vision. Though colorblind, the older "Where" system of vision is good at detecting small changes in brightness (or what is technically called "luminance"), motion, spatial position or depth, and the general configuration of a scene. The evolutionary newer "What" system, present only in primates, is slightly slower and less sensitive to brightness but is capable of recognizing objects and their characteristics, including color and details. Livingstone's discussion of the Where/What systems roams over topics ranging from the structure of the eye and the arrangement of visual ganglia to the functions of cones and rods and the critical "center/surround" neurons which are sensitive to sharp changes or breaks in luminance, rather than subtle shifts. She also comments more or less in passing on the evolutionary failings of the eye and human vision. We cannot, for instance, see colors in dim light or in darkness: without quite a bit of light, all colors look like black or gray to us, even though one would imagine that an Intelligent Designer would have been able to endow us with the ability to see colors at sunset.

All of this neurobiology is adduced to a clear and powerful explanation of why and how certain kinds of art - centrally painting, especially the Impressionists and their master, Monet - work visually. In short, focused sections, she explains, for instance, how Monet achieved remarkable effects such as flowers that seem to sway in the breeze or water that seems to flow or why Ingres' stunning portraits are believable even though he often painted or drew his subjects' faces in far more detail than their bodies or clothes. Three chapters on depth perception effectively show how skilled artists use both artistic rechniques such as perspectival drawing and neurobiological concepts such as stereo vision to achieve depict three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional page or canvas. While 2-D depth is itself an illusion, many chapters also include one or more entertaining optical illusions which take advantage of our neurobiology - for instance, the sequential processing of our Where and What systems - to mess profoundly with your mind. (I was impressed by the experiences and the explanations of the perspectival illusion on page 102 and the "scillintiliating grid" illusion on page 56 and the endpapers.)
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10/18/2016 marked as: read

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