The Art Of Perception.

Posted on August 15, 2013



‘The Foole doth thinke he is wise but the wiseman knowes himselfe to be a Foole.’ (William Shakespeare: As You Like It).


‘When I was five years old, my mother always told me that the secret to life was happiness. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be happy. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment. I told them they didn’t understand life’. (John Lennon).


We all love a good quote don’t we. Especially one that really speaks to us, backs up our world view and validates our choices and sense of right and wrong? But why do some quotes speak to us more than others. What is it that we feel a tangible, concise summary and articulation of our world view achieves? As a person of some modest talents, I know like many of you who are talented at something, that to a large extent this talent comes easily to you. Because it comes easily to you, you perceive it takes little effort to master the skill, therefore place on it little worth, and assume the same skill must come easily to everyone. Let me explain.

In 1999 David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conducted a series of cognitive tests on some of their students. What has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect is described as the following; ‘a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their capabilities at a talent or skill, much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their mistakes.’ (Wikipedia). In other words, the less you know, the less you don’t know there is still to know. The result being unsubstantiated over confidence in one’s abilities.


The Dunning-Kruger effect actually also works the other way. It goes on to suggest that actual above average competence in any given field may in fact weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding or capability. David Dunning and Justin Kruger conclude; ‘the mis-calibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the mis-calibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others’ (Wikipedia). Bertrand Russell once said, ‘One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision’. Indeed even as far back as Confucius, who said; ‘real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’, the cognitive bias has been observed in people. Dunning and Kruger however, were the first to put these ideas through a more rigorous and scientific test.


There is potential in any collection of human beings for great differences in thinking to go unnoticed if we all think we mean the same thing when we use a word or phrase. Quotes help us point at something clear and concise and identify with in an attempt to be better understood. It is a fundamental need in human beings I think to feel understood but the journey towards understanding each other needs a context to it.


Now, we are not all scientists. At least I mean to say that while those of us who wish to might look upon science as the closest we have yet to the fullest understanding of a subject, we are not all privy to the correct conditions in which to adequately test our own theories. Out in the real world all sorts of relativism, inaccuracy, and compromise makes up how we interact. Language is only a tool in communicating with each other, and it is not fool proof. In fact I would suggest it is impossible for two people to fully understand one another’s point of view. Relativity, experience, intelligence, social skills and more, distract us from truly listening, observing and understanding each other totally, literally and without fear or favour. I am particularly interested in this scope for understanding one another 100%. Therein lies a challenge then. What goes unsaid, the subtext, environment and context to someone’s use of language is a fertile ground for exploration for the philosophically minded. Certainly it has always intrigued me. To direct a play one day, is on my bucket list of things to do for this very reason. There is then a clear space in our ability to understand one another perfectly, beyond the obvious daily communications we use. The attempt to explore this area of shared cognitive no man’s land, to discuss and articulate this space: we call this Art.


To add weight to my initial assumption that we identify with that which validates or flatters our intentions and world view, I should mention that the quote above by John Lennon isn’t an entirely arbitrary addition on my part. You see, I went to Liverpool this weekend, for my birthday and a chance to get away and be a tourist. The Beatles history was part of this, but particularly for me, being in John Lennon’s home city was another check on the bucket list.


It was my first visit to Liverpool and it wasn’t what I expected. I had envisaged a carbon copy of Manchester just nearer the Atlantic Ocean. Actually Liverpool is very much it’s own city, with it’s own humour, style, and history. One of the first of many ‘Liverpool quirks’ that stood out to me was an unobtrusive red bricked building with the following gold letters emblazoned on it’s front: ‘The Liverpool Chinese Gospel Choir’.  This, admittedly unseasoned traveller, had never seen such a combination of cultures and genres mixed together so proudly and unapologetically before. It soon becomes apparent as you wonder to the newly renovated docks and throughout the city centre that this is Liverpool. The largest part of it’s history is built on being a major port during the British Empire, all of the worldly influences that came to it’s shores and the working class, unpretentious attitude of the old ship building dock workers of it’s heyday. I hasten to add I loved it, and part of me (although I should whisper it when back home in Yorkshire) felt like I had found my people. If one can generalise and particularly in a tribal way, then I found in Liverpool a tribe that I understood and felt at home in.


On my travels, I popped into the Tate Modern Art Gallery on Albert Docks. My initial expectation was to feel out of my comfort zone and dare I say it, bored. But I was on holiday, so thought I’d try something new. Viewing one particular piece by Moyra Davey entitled ‘Copperhead’, (I encourage you to seek it out) I was almost surprised to find the creative side of my brain firing up. More than this though the artist had used her language as a whole in a way I recognised and identified with. The choice of words and style and flow was similar to mine own. The conceptual idea, and the personal backstory I anticipated, welcomed and appreciated. I looked on the first piece of modern art I’d ever really bothered to stop and engage with and I felt I understood both the art and the artist. My partner didn’t. For her there were some pieces of paper on a wall. End of. And so ensued (sat almost alone together atop a bench, directly in front of the said piece of artwork) a lively debate about the merits or modern art, it’s wider usefulness, perceived pretensions, my growing protection for the work itself and my active creativity that had been sparked by the work. I momentarily wished the artist could see us both discussing her work. In the very gallery, in front of the very wall on which it hung. Our discussion was as much a part of the experience the artist wanted to create, I thought. And then it dawned on me; in a Dunning-Krugeresque lightbulb moment in my own head. I got it, because I’m an artist. I think like an artist. I use language like an artist. What I mean to say is; this was news to me. But how could someone artistic and musical all his life, a song-writer, singer and with a music degree ever be unsure of the true extent of his creative capabilities enough to not identify with the title ‘Artist’. Let me tell you how it feels to me to be creative.


copperheadMoyra Davey (Canadian), Copperhead #77, 1990, chromogenic print, 51 x 61cm. Courtesy of the artist and Murray Guy, New York. © 2010 Moyra Davey Via Art Gallery of Ontario.

All my life up until this point creativity has been fun, easy and playful. It has never felt like hard work. I have (albeit occasionally) but consistently, dismissed much of my artistic temperament and tendencies (or had them dismissed for me) as being banal and common place. This self-discrediting can be achieved by any number of negative explanatory ulterior factors attributed to one’s talents. My creativity, was explained away as ‘day dreaming’ when I should have been paying attention. My apparent ease with discussing the philosophical… ‘thinking too much’. My work ethic and attention to detail to create the maximum emotional impact of a performance… ‘arrogant, obsessive, working too hard’. The list goes on. Either in my own head or in the interpretation of my thoughts and actions from some others, I have too readily and for too long accepted the understanding of myself as less than my full capabilities ought to have led me to. One could argue that this tendency to question my full artistic capabilities lends me (within the dunning Kruger context) to belong in the more capable camp. Certainly I do expect what comes naturally to me is shared by everyone. If this is confusing you, let me share this quick personal example of what I mean.


It took me twenty years of existing on this planet before I discovered I had synaesthesia. In my mind’s eye, all the letters of the alphabet and all the numbers I imagine, have their own specific colours. They are vivid, extremely detailed and always the same. Synaesthetes are said to likely be creative, have good memory and generally find their cognitive quirk interesting and positive. However, twenty years it took me before I asked my brother whimsically, what colour his letter B was when he thought of it, before it became rapidly apparent that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I had naturally assumed up until this point that everyone saw their letters and numbers in the same way. Hence an example of the space between us, that philosophy, music, art, film, theatre etc all seeks to explore and articulate.


Back in the Tate, sat on that bench, I had a moment of realisation, similar to my synaesthesia moment. I realised that my partner and I were both right, but had we not discussed it, we would never have known the difference in the interpretation between us. The artwork meant something to me and was making me think, but it was (there’s no way around the issue) also simply a collection of pieces of paper stuck on a wall. How we independently perceive the art, makes it art. If a tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If art is displayed on a wall, and nobody in the audience understands it, does it stop being art? Maybe. Maybe art is simply a catalyst. How we interact with it, or react against it is the point. Whether or not it sparks off creative thought, or shines a new light on an old familiar subject. As a musician, I have my own understanding of the music, but it’s irrelevant if my audience feels nothing. I sensed the artist in this case would have been glad of our debate. For us she had been a catalyst, a distraction, an escape, entertainment and a point of contention, but very definitely her artwork had not gone ignored. What it sparked in my imagination was the same creativity I get having heard a line of poetry or music, or watched a film, or seen a play at the theatre. I hadn’t just become middle-class before you ask. I had just fallen in love with a city that defines itself as friendly, unpretentious and anti-authoritarian remember. But I got it nonetheless. Art for me in that moment, served as a scientific benchmark from which I was able to judge my reaction to a constant variable compared to someone else’s. There are not many moments in a creative person’s life when you can compare talents. Art is subjective after all. While Usain Bolt can measure his times running the 100m and know without doubt he’s the fastest human being ever on record, artists and musicians don’t have this tool to gauge their capabilities.


The closest I get to judging my capabilities as a singer is by how my live musical performance makes my audience feel in that moment. That’s it. The live audience os the singer’s Dunning-Kruger test. The quest for an audience reaction, the greatest lesson. The resulting validation of your creative choices, the greatest teacher. That shared moment between singer and audience is why, many singers come to love live music. It’s not an exact science of course. One hundred different people will feel one hundred different things. In that live exchange though, the singer gets his only impartial sense of his own talent and capabilities as an artist. On stage, my talent comes easily. If there were no audience there to hear the performance I would be no better placed to judge my own performance than if I had sung in the shower at home. Hence the uncertainty of the talented. On stage, I am simply the catalyst to help a group of strangers attempt to bridge the cognitive space between us all. Music, like art, allows us to share in a uniquely separate, but also public enjoyment of the same fixed musical variable. Usain bolt was always the fastest person he knew. fastest in his school, then village, then neighbourhood, then country, then the world. Being first across the line proved it, the stopwatch recorded it. I was always musical, but would never have the record of a sportsman to prove it to myself. Music to me is a feeling. Reading music is simply code for the expression of that feeling. If feelings were so easy to articulate, we’d all know when we were in love. A whole industry is built around the fact that many do not. Feelings; like synaesthesia, are known all too well to their host, but cannot be accurately measured with a stopwatch and articulated beyond doubt to another person. And so the subjective element of any art form potentially robs that artist or musician of a true, scientific, impartial, and dispassionate, appraisal of his own talent. Singing to a live audience is the closest we singers get to judging our own degree of skill. The impact we leave on people, the memories we create in three minutes thirty seconds, the feelings we create then and there, that is our gauge, or variable, our stopwatch, our science. In the applause (or lack thereof) in the handshakes afterwards, or the drinks bought, or the phone numbers given out, pr the bookings of further gigs, etc etc.


Don’t mistake me, I know my talent as a singer well now. But not because of any inherent self awareness or cognitive bias toward my own capabilities. Quite the opposite. I know my talent only from countless trials and errors. The mistakes and triumphs accumulated over years of live performances. What’s more, I need to constantly remind myself of this ability with consistently frequent performances. Morecambe and wise, Eddie Izzard, and many of the great comedians, learnt to be funny on the job, working the crowd. They tried new things each time, kept the good and ditched the bad, and got funnier as time went on as they hones the skills. All artists learn on the job, and I don’t think you should ever stop. The best example I can give any non performers what it’s like is to ask you to remember learning to drive and slowly grasping the combined skills. Performing is that. You just have to persevere and keep moving forward.


How we think makes us artists, or not. Our thoughts become our actions. Our actions express our perspective on the world. Art for me, I have discovered is not about the picture on the wall. It is about the wider discussion and conversation between all of us. The space between us exists no matter how in love or familiar we may even be to one another. There is a gap in our ability to understand and convey each other’s perspective even beyond language, and beyond the heory of mind.


I present you with a crude example as to why singing teachers and students often miscommunicate for the same reason. If you just arrived on this planet now and you couldn’t see, how would someone convey to you what the colour red looks like? I know what the colour red looks like. You know what it looks like. We can even look at something we both recognise as red and agree it is red, but how do we know that what we are both seeing and processing in our separate brains is the same colour? We don’t know. That is the gap between us. Similarly, if a singing teacher gives an arbitrary or vague direction such as, make it ‘sunnier’ or ‘brighter’ we are reliant on two separate individuals sharing the same interpretation of that direction. Singing teaching can lead to problems if this happens too often. To combat this, a whole school of vocal teaching and technique has developed called the Estill method, that focuses not on words to teach how to sing, but a biological, scientific understanding of the human body. Raising and lowering your larynx creates different vocal effects. Being told to raise your larynx cannot be misconstrued, as the ‘sunnier’ direction can. In the world of the professional live performer, being able to guarantee your technique will work on the night, beats guesswork every time. In art class at school, we sometimes were taken outside on a nice day and all told to draw a picture of the same tree. Did any of the pictures of the same tree look the same? No. This space between us that could only be articulated through tangible artworks, is why art exists.


The attempt to articulate this space and bridge the gap is the Art. Those of us who attempt to articulate this space are artists. Those of us who respond to art are artists. one cannot exist without the other, whatever medium we choose. Art, needs an audience. Artists need a reaction, otherwise it is just a piece of paper on a wall. Music needs an audience and a reaction to, otherwise it is just a group of instruments and singers making a noise. The singer’s primary goal then is to simply not be ignored. After that, the subtleties of trying to manipulate a desired feeling in your audience begins. The singer may look like the most important person in the room, but in reality, like good leadership in the Army, the singer’s job is to serve his audience, not abuse the position of power by showing off or being self-indulgent. At some point down the line you realise that everyone will interpret your performance differently. You have little control over this. Ultimately all a singer can do is give the performance away, and be a catalyst for creative thought and feeling in your audience, just like every other artist in every other medium.


In the interests of being a catalyst for further thought and not simply being ignored: here are three quotes to end on for your delectation and delight. Two are rather self indulgently on my part from the same personally admired source. I invite you to sit on a bench with a friend or lover, and discuss the following excerpts, and in doing so share in the attempt to articulate and bridge the unspoken space between you both.


‘Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the ‘transcendent’ and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.’ (Christopher Hitchens).
‘There are moments in life, when the only appropriate emotion is outrage. And to not express it as such is a moral failure’. (Christopher Hitchens).
‘Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad’ (Miles Kington).