Perception in the Arts

The subjectivity of perception makes art what it is. Art is all about perception and individuality, since everyone has a different background, experience, taste, and opinion about any artwork. To determine the extent to which perception plays a role in the development, and the existence, of the arts, it is essential to identify the knowledge issues of perception in regards to the area of knowledge. First, is perception consistent and definite? Does previous knowledge (prejudice) influence how one perceives an artwork? Is perception subjective?

These questions will be explored using one all-purpose example in the arts: El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic artworks. Firstly, perception is not universal in terms of time, as very evident with El Greco’s works. Virtually all of El Greco’s paintings were disdained by his contemporary painters and the public during his lifetime, 1541-1614. His works opposed too many aspects of Baroque style, which was popular in the 17th century. El Greco, therefore, had no followers and no audience at that time; his works were considered to be unnatural and overly-complex.

However, in the 20th century, his works greatly influenced painters, leading to the birth of expressionism and cubism. For example, Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne studied El Greco’s structural compositions, his ability to interweave space and form, and the special effects of highlights, which were all disregarded in the 17th century. Also, Jackson Pollock, an expressionist, also followed El Greco’s expressionistic composition. Therefore, the “unnatural” and “overly-complex” features in the 17th century became the dominant characteristics of the new form of Expressionism.

In general, perception is indefinite, with the ability to change over time: the time that a piece of art is created and perceived influences the way it is perceived. Also, previous knowledge and experience significantly influences perception. For instance, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, El Greco’s most famous work today was presented at the Louvre in 1838. At that time, the audience knew, ahead of time, of El Greco’s life, career, and works; therefore, there was much enthusiasm and attraction to the painting.

Meanwhile, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz was also studied in art schools in the 19th century where students analyzed its composition and form. However, before the students knew the title of the artwork and its artist, they had little interest and fondness for the work. Therefore, this reveals how previous knowledge (in this case, of El Greco’s life, artistic talent and fame) affects how it is perceived. Without that knowledge, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz could have simply been an amateur’s painting. This brings up the same issue once again.

Knowing that the artwork is by El Greco, one may have a positive bias to the work, hence perceiving the painting to be better than it actually is. Lastly, perception is very limited in that it is very subjective. For example, we are selective in what we perceive, ignoring certain aspects while emphasizing others. For instance, in El Greco’s El Espolio, or The Disrobing of Christ, the oppression of Christ by his cruel tormentors is believed to be artist’s intensions; such studies emphasize El Greco use of vertical and lateral space of the canvas to present this idea.

However, some critics say that the subject, rather, is to satirize the situation, since Christ is looking up to Heaven while his figure is segregated from the other people and the violence. Also, there is a figure in the painting’s background that is pointing at Christ accusingly. Therefore, it is evident that in these various analyses, different aspects of the painting are emphasized. The real meaning of any artwork is, consequently, not known and cannot be proven in any way.

No one sees all the details that another sees in an artwork, hence making it very subjective. This knowledge issue links with the question that cultural background influences the subjectivity and limitations of perception. My prior experience may cause myself to view an artwork in a certain way, and not another. For instance, since I am religious, I regard El Greco’s El Espolio to be a genuine presentation of the oppression of Christ by his tormentors; I do not perceive it to be a satire of his death.