In his 1972 documentary Ways of Seeing, John Berger argues that the rapid reproduction of classical artworks has made us ‘see art of the past as nobody saw it before.’ Berger offered an invaluable insight: classical artworks are intimately tied to a single place, and reproductions lose part of their aura of “uniqueness.” For museum curators, artists, and cognitive scientists, this theoretical claim continues to raise important issues. How might our perception of an artwork change when viewing it on a screen? How could a museum space heighten, or diminish, perceptive capacity?
In a lecture entitled “The Art of Seeing” at the Weston Library’s Centre for Digital Scholarship, Dr. Chrystalina Antoniades tried to answer these questions by presenting the results of a collaborative study with the Ashmolean Museum. Dr. Antoniades is a lecturer in medicine at Brasenose College in Oxford, who has identified tests that might aid in diagnosing Parkinson’s disease. A few years ago, she began to collaborate with Dr. Jim Harris, art historian at the Ashmolean, in order to unite art and sciences in a single study.
Dr. Antoniades and Dr. Harris wanted to test discrepancies in “change blindness,” which refers to a lapse whereby a visual stimulus is neglected by an observer. The study considered what facets, such as colour changes, damage, and design, became more apparent when the observer viewed a virtual version of an artwork rather than the original one. Dr. Antoniades divided sixty-two participants into two groups and used artefacts from the Ashmolean, including Japanese block prints and Renaissance bronze medals, which were duplicated with slight changes. For instance, an eagle’s talons were erased from a Japanese woodblock print, and the colours saturated. One group viewed the pairs of artwork through retrofitted ski goggles, and their line of sight was then relayed virtually to participants of the second group. Individuals in both groups were then asked to identify the alterations between the two works.
The results were clear: real-world change blindness was equivalent to that in the virtual world. There were slight differences: while colour changes were better detected in the monitor-based scenario, (e.g. an observer might notice that one version of the artwork was a darker hue of blue) design changes were better detected in the real world scenario. Nevertheless, change-blindness did increase when participants viewed a multitude of artefacts, which marked one of the study’s insights: our ability to detect changes is altered depending on fatigue and prior perceptual encounters. What, Antoniades asked the audience, might museums do in response to such fatigue? Rather than offering answers, Antoniades framed these questions as generative starting points.
One of the lecture’s strongest facets was its ability to appeal to an audience of both artists and scientists. Through a series of visual examples, Antoniades was able to show “how brains are able to distort reality.” Dr. Antoniades presented, for instance, a monochrome image of three monkeys in a jungle scene and asked the audience to consider the relationships within the work. She then showed a coloured-in version and invited us to consider the ways in which the depth created by the colors enabled one to discern a narrative within the picture.
Although such exercises illuminated the perceptual process, it seemed that the study’s sole focus on change blindness in real-world versus virtual settings was limited. It seems necessary to consider more variables affecting change blindness beyond the divide between virtual and actual. The study might benefit from introducing another variable, such as age, and probe whether virtual perception differs in younger and older participants. The way that one’s activities before the study affect perception might be considered — does it matter if participants came from work, study, or a sports session? Finally, whether change blindness is an ideal metric for “seeing” was itself questioned by several fine arts students at the lecture. They suggested that one might consider other perceptual differences in virtual and real-world perception, such as the ability to describe an artwork, or a viewer’s capacity to recall an artwork’s details. Moving beyond change blindness might further illuminate the “art” of seeing.
The lecture concluded with audience questions that then segued into an illuminating conversation with the attending experimental psychologists, curators, and visiting artists. Several challenged the notion that a museum was the ideal place to view art because it might “preclude us from the totality of seeing”; others wondered how the study might reveal ways in which one can heighten perceptive capacity. Dr. Antoniades considered these claims diligently and integrated them with her overarching aim of discerning discrepancies in virtual versus real-world perception. She operates within a movement that wants to restore interest in visual detection, taking seriously artist David Salle’s claim in How To See, “theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” in the contemporary art world. Responding to this statement, Dr. Antoniades considered that understanding how an environment affects perception might offer a route for seeing more of the nuances in an artwork. However, I was left wondering: if virtual and real-world perception is similar (at least in regard to change-blindness), how might museums use the findings from Dr Antoniades’ study to curate work in a way that enhances perception? And perhaps more importantly — with so much material available online, why do we still return to museums?
“The Art of Seeing” was part of the “Research Uncovered” lecture series, which invites University experts and guest lecturers to speak on their interdisciplinary research and digital methods. The full list of lectures is available here.