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Believing is Seeing

January, 1992

SEEING IS BELIEVING, or so they say, but I'm a more than a little convinced that the reverse is equally true, that believing is seeing. How else account for those people who can be brought to look at an exhibition of blots, squiggles and smears and come away thinking that they've seen "art?" Surely someone made them believe before they saw. So convincing can some of these persuaders be that I have no doubt that even they believe that what they are seeing is art. Art writing, after all, is a very subtle thing and if someone with a little authority–someone, say, who is able to get into print–tells us that a pile of debris dumped in the middle of the floor is avant-garde, ground-breaking stuff and that so and so is a genius in the budding and that writer is able to make us believe it then, lo and behold! we see the very thing before us. Of course, we may not have noticed previously that those blobs, zig-zags and daubs signified anything (other than blobbing, zig-zagging and daubing) but–well, now that you mention it, yes, I do see that it is, indeed, "art." Such psychological sleight of hand–sometimes referred to as "hyping" or "working the crowd"–really doesn't take a whole lot of skill–not as much, for instance, as getting someone to print it (but even that's getting easier)–because humans are, generally speaking, a fairly easy species to fool. Given the limitations of the five senses we've been given–especially that of sight–we're pretty easy marks. And given that few of us really have the courage of our own convictions (about anything) then it's no great shakes to convince us that what we are seeing is not really what we are seeing. To show you how easily you are fooled, let me give you an example–something you can verify right at home. Go to your bathroom mirror and look at your face. Now, take a ruler (even a comb will do) and "measure" the length of your reflection. Now measure the length of your head. Neat, right? How many mornings have you looked into that mirror and never realized that the reflection you are "seeing" is half the size of your actual head? You've been doing this all of your life and yet you saw what you believed you saw. Artists, of course, know the "magic" of illusion–and those who know their Gombrich know this particular one. And this is as it should be. Art, after all, is little else other than illusion. It is when art writers practice deception and take advantage of our inherent inability to detect illusion that things get a bit tacky–when not downright criminal. Most people are on shaky ground to begin with and, when it comes to looking at art, well, we just don't spend a whole lot of time looking at it–at least not as much as artists, art writers, critics, curators and dealers do. Why else do you think that so many go to museums and plug things into their ears rather than cleaning their glasses? They've already been conditioned not to trust what they see–they must be told what to see. Looking at art through your ears is no different from looking at art through your belief-screening device. So, if you are inclined to believe the "experts" you will go to see an exhibit of works that appear to be nothing more than streaks, splashes and smudges or read an article about someone who is spending hours making such streaks, splashes and smudges and believe that you've just had an aesthetic experience. You've seen art. You may scratch your head, even shake it in disbelief–but, who are you to question the pundits? Believing, after all, is seeing.

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