Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pictures before words?

I shall take you on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple… A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants and things resembling elephants will in due course be found roaming through the countryside. Peter Atkins ‘The Creation’

Art and survival
There is no doubt that life is carried forward because molecules of DNA, which constitute the genes, embody a coded history of life’s genealogical past. In this respect, we are part of nature in everything we do, from stepping on a bus to painting a house. Like all other living things our behaviour is governed by a chemical coding of our genes, which is a record of successful long-term interactions with the environments of our ancestors, near and in the distant past. It is a biochemical memory that remembers the body’s responses of growth reproduction and behaviour that have been responsible for survival. In this respect, the body of a plant, animal or microbe represents a kind of prediction that its future environmental experiences will, to a general extent, resemble those of its ancestors. Animals, especially those with brains, are particularly good survivors because the nervous system also has a remarkable picturing ability for remembering what is the most useful way of responding to short-term variations in the environment. As a computer model, the brain (hardware) and its networks of memory cells (the software) have evolved to continuously scan the environment, and use memories of good and bad responses to keep short-term survival strategies up to date. The genes model the basic aspects of the environment that change very slowly over generations. The brain produces models of survival as day-to-day interactions between perception via the senses and a mental representation of environment that triggers the correct response. This interplay between changes in the environment and their representation as virtual images in the central nervous system allows us to move through a mental world of our brain’s making, and produce neuromuscular responses that aid survival. Since brains are also products of natural selection, ancestors, near and in the distant past, also carried virtual worlds of their contemporary environments in their heads. Brains are a particular expression of DNA, tasked with the role of recording lifespan-events as pictures to help predict the immediate future.

We describe these virtual worlds as ‘patterns of thought’ and the process of perception that generates them as ‘reading the environment’. This faculty of ‘graphicity’ is a vital process of comprehension. We become interested in shapes and colours that do not fit into the known. In this we prefer intriguing suggestions to actual representation. For example, a trail of footprints occurring together with disturbed vegetation and dung deposits, is read intently by a hunter as the pattern of his prey. It is comprehended as a detailed mental map of events over a wide area, that points to the course of action necessary if the hunt is to be successful. According to Steven Dawkins it seems plausible that the ability to perceive the signs and generate such pictures might have arisen in our ancestors before the origin of speech in words. If the thought-picture could be represented as an arrangement of shapes and signs, constructing an environmental model in the head is a helpful way to communicate, and coordinate what has to be done in a social group. Such mental imagery could be an educational resource to help group cohesion and promote social evolution. This seems the likely origin of art, which depends on noticing that something can be made to stand for something else in order to assist comprehension and communication. Dawkins suggests that it could have been the drawing of mind-maps in the sand that drove the expansion of human evolution beyond the critical threshold of communication that other apes just failed to cross. It may be pertinent that ceremonial sand-pictures of native Australians function as maps. They are patterns created by an individual ‘dreamer’ through the two-dimensional spacing of symbols, standing for people and local topographical detail.

The fact that these patterns are closely associated with ‘dreaming’ is significant. Dreams are set up by our simulation software using the same modelling techniques used by the brain when it presents its updated editions of reality. These aboriginal maps of the dreamtime were community properties. Their role was to codify the neighbourhood and its use by the community in the form of a locally accepted non-representational pattern of relationships. The collection of pictographs reinforced the existence of a tribal territory and its natural resources by incorporating stories about its occupation by the group’s ancestors. The pictures, now being made permanent works of art on cloth and hardboard, once had a social function to maintain a subculture of understanding by reinforcing comprehension of group identity and space. Rock art of North America, which consists of pictographs constructed from circles, spirals and lines, also seems to have its origins in dreams, and a significance in carrying messages about origins and group identity across generations. Reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego there is tremendous variety in all aspects of indigenous art from prehistory to the arrival of Europeans, differing region by region, era by era, and often tribe by tribe. There are representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drum-heads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and may other forms.

In the cave art of the European Palaeaolithic we may contemplate on the existence of the bovine quality in art which is 35,000 years old, and may conclude that since then there has really been no fundamental development in our imaginative and technical abilities to represent natural forms that are close to us practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the whole body of an animal is contained in the shape of the rock. It was the rock that revealed its animal 'spirit'. Their common mental ground is specific material features, such as cracks and smooth, rounded surfaces, which are used to enhance animal features in the mind of the artist. Most of the paintings consist of collections of symbols arranged haphazardly on the surface, indicating that they were contributed at different times by several individuals. Occasionally they occur as if welded by one person into an overall composition. For example, the Chumash, who once inhabited the coast of southern California from Malibu to Morrow Bay, created painted compositions in which dozens of interrelated shapes were confined within a limited space. At Arrow Head Springs two rounded boulders with painted panels mark a Chumash sacred site on a steep slope overlooking Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

(001) 1,000-2000 BC Motif from a shelter cave in the Devil’s River drainage of Texas

(002) Arrow Head Springs Santa Barbara California Chumash Native American

Although the animal forms of Palaeolithic art have a high aesthetic profile, they are usually found together with abstract shapes, such as circles, spirals, and grids. These shapes emerge in the trances of modern spiritualists, and people with certain sight defects, where they are generated from particular regions of the brain. These findings have led to the belief that the rock faces played a spiritual role in the social life of prehistoric peoples. Beyond the rock face was their spirit world; the rock wall is a spiritual place where shamans sought power in a personal interaction at an important boundary between the living and material worlds. Trances have a practical purpose- healing people who are sick. In other words, in making art against stone, a spiritual healer was trying to understand what the brain makes us feel. We are essentially human when we use graphic ways of portraying other realities, and the Palaeolithic artist deep in a cave, or balancing on a rocky mountain-side, was expressing a mind identical to our own in order to serve his community.

An equally powerful biological imperative is to promote ‘self’. In the sense of the ‘selfish gene’ scenario, any behavioural characteristic that gives one’s own genetic endowment an advantage in passing to the next generation is subject to natural selection. From this aspect, art is also one of many behavioural expressions that allows an individual to be distinguished from the crowd. Piet Mondrian put it this way:

“Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself, in other words, of that which one thinks and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively”.

The advantages of contributing to group identity by reinforcing the contemporary norms of representation (subscribing to locally agreed icons of beauty and meaning), and the cultivation of an individual output are not opposing principles of artistic creativity. They represent primeval skills of being able to help highlight group identity through mapping one’s social unit, and having the ability to produce new ideas about the environment which improve one’s own survival.

Words with pictures
Illustration is an art of visual communication. The combination of great artwork and wisely chosen ideas is the formula for an illustrator's success in communicating with pictures.Pictures play a very important part in our everyday life. Sight is our most widely used sense and as a consequence of this, pictures play a significant role in communication. A picture is neither subtle nor universal enough to take the place of words in the strictest sense of the meaning, but that does not mean that pictures do not have a biological role in communication, because many pictures do a superior job to words under certain conditions. The underlying problem is that to fulfil this condition, the pictures rely on the diversity of language and words to secure their meaning.

Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion highlighted the biggest problem of communicating with pictures, and that is their inaccuracy. His claim is that the artist is psychologically susceptible to her own interpretation of the object she depicts. She sees where the lines are to be drawn and she makes the object conform to her own imagined stereotype. An artist learns a group schemata and a set of socially determined patterns when she learns to draw, and these will always, in the first instance, direct her to draw to those particular patterns and classifications. As Gombrich says, the `will-to- form' is rather a `will-to-conform', and ensure that the assimilation of any new shape conforms to the schemata and patterns an artist has learned to handle. The truth is twisted to fit the stereotype and the outcome is not always the accurate representation of the object.

With this being the case, it is hard to argue that pictures can accurately replace words. Words are specifically designed to convey accurate descriptions and meanings, whereas pictures are subjective and their accuracy is at the mercy of the interpreter. Pictures are only useful as a reminder of a frozen moment in time. A photograph of someone, is very quickly out of date, whereas language changes to suit time. A name can quite easily flash a better and more accurate image of the subject in the recipients mind, whereas a picture does no such thing. The importance of language is that it is communicable. Naming someone provokes a better image than an old photograph does and is just as instantaneous. The key to language lies in its wonderful subtlety and diversity. Picture communication can never say as much. Language is designed specifically with the purpose of communicating, whereas pictures are not. It is only because of spoken and written words, that humankind has progressed. Speech can be wonderfully diverse, but at the same time, its effectiveness lies in its economical use. Through language we can form relationships and communicate in other forms. According to this argument, pictures came after language because they needed vocabulary to find a purpose in communication.

Thoughts without a language are not truly thoughts, because they need language to define themselves. Helen Keller in her autobiography, remarked upon this, when she first realised the significance of language. When one day the word `water' was spelt out in her hand, while at the same time a cool stream was gushing over her other hand, the world of language was opened up to her. "...Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me...That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!...Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought."

It is easy to forget the significance of language. Real thinking, is only possible when we have the language there to convey it. `Water' for Helen Keller was no longer just an object of sense perception, it had a name that could be mentioned, conceived, remembered. Pictures only offer confusion unless they are qualified by language. To be able to communicate effectively the meaning of the picture, you have to place it in context. Whether this be a phrase on the picture saying; `danger', `vote Labour', or `support Manchester United' or just putting the picture in the place or the time, or next to the article that makes it relevant. We have passport photos and not composed paragraphs because it is a better form of communication under the circumstances of immigration control. Pictures add sparkle and colour to our life, but their use is entirely dependent on language.

The joy and necessity of language was wonderfully captured by Helen Keller, and just as the world would be a more insipid place without pictures it would be even more so without language. The creativity of words in poetry, novels and public speaking is sometimes harder, and less exciting, to reflect in pictures. Pictures have their place, they can convey messages quicker and make life easier and more exciting, but they are ultimately dependent on the social conditions created through language.

Cave paintings and representational carvings define the beginnings of "external long- term storage" of information. External storage has several qualities of interest.

It can be used by the individual as an extension of "working memory" for immediate use in thinking.
It provides long term storage, for retrieval at a later date.
It can be used to communicate to other individuals.

Before children learn to read and write, they do not know the difference between a line drawing and a letter. When an adult writes an 'A,' to a child it is simply another drawing. It is a picture, different than a face or a house, but it is still just another image drawn with a coloured pencil on white paper. Soon children learn that combinations of these letter-pictures mean more complicated things. When the drawings 'A-P-P-L- E' are combined, they form another picture, which we learn stands for the name of the fruit. Now the letter-pictures become word-pictures that can spark other images in our minds of the thing they stand for. We further learn that these word-pictures can be combined with other word-pictures to form sentence-pictures. To a child, there is no difference between words and pictures -- they are one and the same.

It is not clear how much thinking skills are helped by early drawing, or how much knowledge is conveyed. Communicating via pictures is potentially powerful, but would have been laborious with early materials, and not very portable. However, it seems likely that early drawing, combined with the communications abilities refined through use of speech, must have played a role in the development of early pictorial written languages.

When you carefully analyze a visual message, you consciously study each visual symbol within that picture's frame. The act of concentration is a verbal exercise. Without verbal translations of the signs within an image, there is little chance of it being recalled in the future. The picture is lost from your memory because you have learned nothing from it. Images become real property of the mind and remembered only when language expresses them. Linguistic experts do not need to argue that images have no alphabet or syntax because such assertions are true. The alphabet and the syntax of images reside in the mind, not in the picture itself. They are often placed there by the professional art critic. Consider, for example the exhibition of one of Damien Hirst's works 'A Thousand Years'. It is a glass and steel box in which live maggots feasted on a rotting cow's head, while flies, fed on sugar water, meet a violent end through their random encounters with the 'insect-o-cuter'. It is accompanied by the words "an examination of the processes of life and death; the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilise to negitiate our own alienation and mortality"

On a more mundane level. there are strong indications that the status of images in mass communication is increasing. We live in a mediated blitz of images. They fill our newspapers, magazines, books, clothing, billboards, computer monitors and television screens as never before in the history of mass communications. We are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished, not through reading words, but by reading images. Philosopher Hanno Hardt warns that the television culture is replacing words as the important factor in social communication. Maybe shortly, words will be reserved for only bureaucratic transactions through business forms and in books that will only be read by a few individuals. On the human law of 'minimum effort', reading is losing ground to watching because viewing requires little mental processing.

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