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This article can be found in Issue 4 of Vhcle Magazine.
2010: Object and Context
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Object and Context, 2010 Vhcle Magazine Issue 4, Design
A practical example of this fundamentally different world view is a cleverly conceived study by Takahiko Masuda and Richard Nisbett in 2001. The study sought to observe the differences between American and Japanese participants’ attention and their ability to report what they saw in an animated video of an underwater scene. The great majority of the American comments were oriented toward the objects like fish. The Japanese participants mentioned information about the field, or background, twice as many times as Americans did and were able to make sixty-five percent more observations about the field than Americans.
The temptation to conjecture about the study’s larger cultural implications rightfully belongs to sociologists and anthropologists. But I think that there are also encouraging insights that each individual can make use of. Namely, that we make many decisions about where to apply our attention within the pattern of light that enters our eyes. The filters we use to construct and analyze information can broaden to include more relationships regardless of our cultural heritage. But I think that there is a particular cautionary note to most of us inculcated in a Western view of the world. And that is to stretch attention to be more inclusive of the relationships between the objects that so often dominate our attention and the often over-looked context within which those objects exist.
A musical note played in a song of a certain key may lift us to great elation. But the same note heard against a different key may be horribly dissonant. We do not need to look too far to find this kind of object-oriented thinking in much of America. How we demand our politicians to obstinately hold a position without regard to the reality of the situation that surrounds them, how we judge and reward our schools for performance with not the slightest acknowledgment of the economic hardships that affect learning, even on the highway, how many people seem oblivious to the fact that they are moving within a flow of other cars — all these examples point to a need to incorporate a greater scope of vision if we are to collectively or even personally ascend to the next level of understanding.
I'll leave you with two simple exercises: the next movie you watch, look around the whole frame that surrounds the main actor or action. Secondly, reflect on how much of your next conversation’s meaning is never spoken and how its context may mean more than the words. There are layers of information that surround every object. Without context, objects are meaningless.
Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco Bay Area whose first love is drawing and painting, tries to avoid computers until there is no other recourse, and because there is no other recourse, yearns for the open spaces. Tim is a graduate from the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and majored in Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a college art and design instructor and freelance artist.
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The way that we see the world is defined by our cultural training. In other words, the manner in which we organize our perceptions and how we prioritize our attention are strongly influenced by what we are taught to value. That may seem obvious, but the contrast of differences between cultures can reveal things that may otherwise escape awareness. A central aspect of the way that we prioritize attention has to do with how we relate subject and space, object and context.
In art, we like to distinguish between positive and negative space. Simply stated, positive space refers to the object in an image and negative space is the area around the object. Though this definition, like most art definitions, leads to considerable ambiguity when taken literally, it nonetheless is quite accurate when predicting the attention of the viewer. For example, an image of a cloud in the sky directs attention in such a way as to define the cloud as a positive shape and the sky around it as negative. But if that same image is also inclusive of a landscape, we tend to think of the land as positive. Now if a person is standing in the landscape, we think of the person as positive and all the surrounding elements as negative.
In the long tradition of Western art and culture, a premium value is placed on the positive shapes. Indeed, even the terms positive and negative imply a scale of value or preference. Eastern art, particularly Far Eastern art (China, Korea, and Japan) uses a much different sensibility. There is a much greater infusion and integration of negative space into Eastern compositions.
Looking at the excellent work of the German renaissance painter Hans Holbein the younger, we see incredibly dense detail covering every surface of the picture plane (The Ambassadors 1533). It is almost as though the rationale directing the composition is that if there is empty space it needs to be filled. Another example would be the intricate ornamentation of Gothic cathedrals.
This is the antithesis to the Chinese principle described in the Tao Te Ching. “We mold clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that makes the vessel useful.” On the surface, this may simply be a metaphor for the mind. As we empty our minds of its ceaseless chatter, it is filled with the universal energy, or “Tao”. But that philosophy creates a broader view of the world which places great value on open space. This is clearly seen in the work of Dong Yuan’s The Xiao and Xiang Rivers (tenth century).
This emphasis on open space is also reflected in the extreme proportions of the rectangles used to define the picture plane in Eastern art. Chinese landscape art can often be five or six times longer than its height. Western art rarely ventures beyond picture planes whose sides are one and a half times the proportion of the other. Extreme rectangles almost demand a dominance of negative space.