As a Little Child

Look at a wall, suggests Matthew Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head). What color is it? You probably have an answer, a simple one, but when you force yourself to look closely you can see all sorts of variations. The paint is uneven; the old color shows through here and there; the color changes with the changing light coming through the window.

The simple answer is the answer of an adult observer, an experienced observer who can “extract invariants from the flux of stimuli,” so that he sees only the invariants. The simple answer is the answer of a socially informed observer, one who knows something about how walls come to be colored: “As an acculturated member of society, I happen to know how painters proceed when painting a wall. They don’t carefully draw geometric shapes with slightly different shades here and there; they show up with five-gallon buckets and knock it out. This is not something I consciously think about when I am sitting in a beige room, going about my business. But I have this stock of social knowledge, and it seems to condition my immediate perception of the wall as uniformly beige.”

Inexperienced observers—colloquially called “children”—don’t have this experience or stock of social knowledge. They can’t isolate the invariants, and so they see the variations of color. We have grown old and tamed the world. To children, it’s still a wild whirl.

To children, and to artists. Artists force themselves to ignore observational experience and social knowledge. And artist “must defamiliarize herself with her everyday perceptions, which depend on—are conditioned by—her past experiences, including the experience of inhabiting a world that is thoroughly conventional. She has to try to perceive as a baby does, or as the empiricist supposes we all do, but this is a subtle and extraordinary accomplishment. There is nothing infantile about good art, but it does show us the world as viewed by a consciousness that has, for a spell, liberated itself from conventionality.”

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