Agnosia is a clinical condition involving the loss of ability to recognize objects, persons, sounds, shapes, or smells. It’s usually associated with brain injury or neurological illness. Some researchers feel it’s genetic. There are many different types. Simultanagnosia, for example, causes people to see parts of a scene but not the whole. They “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Associative agnosia is a failure to recognize the function or meaning of individual items, although, surprisingly, the afflicted may be able to draw them. Apperceptive agnosia is where people may know what an object is and does, but are unable to copy it. Integrative agnosia is where one has the ability to recognize elements of a scene but yet is unable to integrate these elements into a comprehensible whole.
We are all familiar with work that appears to be by someone who is not paying attention to what they’re doing. Often seen in mature artists, young and old, the work looks weary, contrived and lacking in passion. Boredom, over-familiarization and a shortfall of desire can bring this about. The condition can be just as threatening as ordinary incompetence. Let’s face it, we all have different degrees of ability, both inherent and learned. It seems that a degree of agnosia exists in all of us. Here are a few thoughts for heading off attacks:
Just as mind games such as crossword puzzles and sudoku may fend off Alzheimer’s, the active stretching of the perceptive skills and the regular commitment to replication or expression keeps the neural hinges oiled. The dedicated artmaker must constantly hit the “refresh” button. Squinting, sequestering, reversing, distancing, using mirrors and other visual aids can help. Mere knowledge of habitual and repetitious agnosiac conditions can help repair defective neural routes. Facing up to creative shortcomings — such as failing drawing skills — requires rededicating with verve and intentionality. Training yourself to see things “baby-eyes new” and feeling the magic go a long way toward beating the problem.
Self-awareness is the key. Further, by attempting to understand the miraculous variety of human nature, we are better able to assess and repair flaws in ourselves. That’s what our game is all about. Apart from giving us the joy of throwing things around, art is the persistent reparation of flaws.
PS: “The fields lose their colour, the trees become gray or brown masses. The dark waters have the bland tones of the sky. We are losing sight of things — but one still feels that everything is there.” (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot)
Esoterica: Agnosiac or not, wise humans need to look ahead and make plans. In the previous clickback we’ve put up an interesting selection of anonymous 2007 resolutions. As promised, we will be returning them to you about midnight on January the 1st. Please feel free to send your 2008 ones to email@example.com. We’ll store them free of charge until we return them on January 1, 2009. It’s my sincere wish that you have a joyful, creative and successful year.
Notable related quotes:
One looks, looks long, and the world comes in. (Joseph Campbell)
One eye looks within, the other eye looks without. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)
I have the feeling that I’ve seen everything, but failed to notice the elephants. (Anton Chekhov)
If you look at a thing 999 times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it for the 1000th time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time. (G. K. Chesterton)
People only see what they are prepared to see. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes. (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
If only we could pull out our brain and use only our eyes. (Pablo Picasso)
To look at a thing is very different from seeing it. (Oscar Wilde)
To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward. (Margaret Fairless Barber)
So shall we come to look at the world with new eyes. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
What color is that?
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I was wondering if there is an agnosia for not knowing what a color is that you’re looking at. I find myself asking myself constantly… “What color is that?” I’m not color blind but yet when looking at a scene it is sometimes confusing. For instant, the color of pavement can be many colors depending on the lighting, yet never the color that you would think it should be, like black or grey. Experience has gotten me past this particular subject. So basically I gave up on local colors and just go with a color scheme.
(RG note) Thanks, Brad. Not knowing what a colour is may be more prevalent than we think. While we may be afflicted by literary considerations (the red barn, etc.) or the unconscious favouring of particular colours, just being able to translate local colours to pigments is a genuine problem for many. Add reflected light, light and shade, and the effect of nearby and adjacent colours and you can be in even deeper trouble. Self-training, clean observation and constant practice are in order. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Challenged mind — healthy mind
by Karl Heerdt, Lockport, NY, USA
It seems to me that the artists that would be most susceptible to this affliction would be some of the artists I see all the time. They are the ones who feel they have learned all there is to painting, are complacent enough with their skills and are just going through the motions of painting. They are doing no more learning and their minds are not put to the task. On the other hand, there are artists who never feel they have learned enough about painting, and are always studying, finding new ways to look at things and trying to improve. There are none among us who could not benefit from further study. Art is a lifelong learning experience. A challenged mind is a healthy mind.
Personal tide pools
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA
I feel like I am returning to my childhood creativity after years of study and discipline of craft. While I treasure the study of design principles and technique, feeling free to call upon imagination and memory is the spark that ignites me these days and sends my painting to a place I may have been called to inhabit years ago. (These days I am painting a series of “Night Cities” which takes me back to memories I now see have resurfaced time and again throughout my life.) Artists come into the world with minds not as cold “blank slates,” but rather as beautiful, intricate sponges soaking up “the Maya foam of the universe,” to quote Hermann Hesse‘s Soap Bubbles: Life experiences shape our own personal tide pools where we gather ideas, skills and the energy to spur us on to make something original and unique. This is so exciting!
When other faculties fail
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA
I have never been accurate at drawing. I’ve tried to make up for that shortcoming by excelling in other ways. It sure makes me appreciate someone else’s good drawing when I see one. I had perfect vision into my forties, now at 55 — I have Complex Vision and wear tri-focal lens. My hearing is the next concern. I follow my mother genetically in many ways, and she is now profoundly deaf. I can’t keep the house up like I used to, and the paperwork piles up higher and higher. I forget to shave and get my hair cut. When all else seems to be diminishing — through my art, I carry on. It is the one effort I never tire of working at. Even if I were to go deaf and blind — I would still figure out a way to create — it is my blessing and my cross to bear.
Heading off dementia
by Vivian Kapusta, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
My father, Elwood Hewgill, is 92 and suffering from dementia. I have watched his ability to draw disappear. Previously he drew with perspective and understanding of the way buildings were built. He was president of a sketch club for several years. He was a man who could see a problem and solve it. Dad could build a better machine for any purpose. His problem solving was creative. His best paintings were buildings, always technically correct. He no longer knows how to operate the TV control. Until you watch someone become more vague and lost, you take brain operation for granted. It isn’t just ‘use it or lose it.’ There is also dysfunction that is a combination of genetics and the way we live our lives. I agree that we need to push ourselves to remain active physically and creatively.
Failure to see the whole
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Last week I watched a student pick out a fallen branch in the far left corner of her composition. She said it interested her and she began to add lots of detail to this area. She did not seem to understand that there is a purpose in designing a whole painting and that there is a mission to make a painting visually entertaining. I realized quickly that her problem was deep seated. For her the reference photo was a collection of objects. She had no concept of a “whole.” She saw only pieces and no relationship between the pieces. For her there was only a series of details. A cloud of confusion seemed to cover her ability to perceive in the manner of the other students. My explanations didn’t seem to help. I worked on her painting and stood a good distance away to help her to see the whole design but I sensed it all seemed fuzzy to her. There was something working differently in her brain that created this confusion.
Catch them early
by Bill Kerr, Courtenay, BC, Canada
I try to squelch agnosia tendencies in the sketch stage. I avoid the unbelievable and the undecipherable. There is a coastal mountain peek I see each day I return from skiing. It makes the Matterhorn look dull as it is simply unbelievable. Painting it would make your work take its rightful place on ’70s Pizzeria walls. Then there are also scenes or objects that as Alan Wylie says… “won’t read.” I have a nice painting of the shore of the Riviere Charentes, path with overhanging limbs, bright sky and shadows on a pathway, a bridge with flags and so forth. Everyone looks at a minor element, the ruins at the end of the path. Despite being accurately represented they “don’t read” and are puzzling. I had to make them into a cafe. So the moral is to be sure it isn’t over the top and beyond belief… (if you are a realist or close thereto, and if you do representative work). Be sure the subject can be actually represented and that your work can be understood by someone who has never seen this thing and doesn’t know what it is!
John F Carlson
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
Your statement, “We are all familiar with work that appears to be by someone who is not paying attention to what they’re doing,” made me think of what I had just read in Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting: “Curiously enough, we think we truly appreciate long before we do. We find later we did not even see the things truly, because we had not yet arrived at the station that made true appreciation and consequent ‘vision’ possible. As a result, we are forced to a gradual change of mind about things that we once thought ‘wonderful.’ Because growth is so gradual, we are correct in suspecting the virtues of anything that comes to us ‘overnight.’ If divine truths could be handed down from the old to the young, we would have arrived at the omniscient perfection eons ago.” (John F. Carlson) I have been enjoying landscape painting, but after reading Carlson, I realized that for all of the observation I thought I was doing, it still fell short of what I could be doing. His book is like a pair of new glasses. Carlson’s insights have made me see that I have not seen things clearly. I am growing to appreciate things about the landscape that had previously escaped me. But Carlson is also a philosopher of sorts. Not only does he make me see more clearly, but he also makes me think more deeply about all of life. His book has been a healthy reality check, both for my eyes and for my passion.
(RG note) Thanks, Martha. Born in Sweden, John F Carlson (1875-1945) came to America at age nine and studied art in Buffalo and at New York’s Art Student’s League. His remarkable book has been steadily in print for more than eighty years — a testament to its wisdom and authority.
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
The Zen Buddhists call it “beginner’s mind.” No matter how much I know and have experienced in an area, I need to keep that attitude of constant learning anew. In my former life as a teacher I saw it in my fellow teachers as they settled into “this is the way I teach it” and thus stopped being open to new ways. As soon as I feel I am getting “comfortable” I know I need to try something new, a new brush, a different tube of paint, a different brand of paint, a different painting surface… spray bottle, spatter, screen, collage, or pour on the paint.
(RG note) Thanks, Elsie. You describe it perfectly. The highly popular Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki is a terse dialogue on keeping fresh. The author is one of the best known Western Zen Masters.
Ebb and flow
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
Interesting. I see creativity as an ebb and flow. When things are flowing my brushes are flying, dancing, and full of color and light. When things are ebbing my brushes are still, or quiet, and I am looking for “new baby eyes” and looking at the works of artists I admire or I am getting to know. I try hard not to judge ebb or flow as I know that both are necessary to achieve the creative dance I require just to breathe. I know ebb time is when my creative juices are gathering and that my flow time is the result of the rest and quiet that my ebb time gave me. I am grateful for both as both are unnecessary for me to paint… or to do any of my creative endeavors.
Handy read before dozing off
by Marie Louise Tesch, Rapid City, SD, USA
I received my autographed copy of Love Letters to Art just in time for Christmas. It is a terrific read with the format of a letter with a painting. I want to encourage everyone to get a copy and be sure to read the Forward and Acknowledgements; I realize many folks skip that part, but it adds so much flavor to the journey as you enter the prepared pages. I have it next to my chaise lounge, handy for a quick read before dozing off into my afternoon nap. Thank you to everyone who put together this lovely product. Besides the great written material, the thing itself is pleasant to hold and behold. Great design, excellent font choices, love to run my fingers across the raised gold letters.
(RG note) Thanks, Marie. While we all worked long into the wintry nights, there are still more than two hundred who will not receive their books until the New Year. I apologize for this. Also, through some slip-up in our system, we actually sent out two books to about twenty people. There will, of course, be no charge for the second book, and it will be a big expense for people to mail them back. So if you happen to be one of the double recipients, please just give it to a suitable friend on any appropriate occasion.
New Year’s Resolutions
(RG note) Thanks to everyone who sent in their plans for 2008. We will archive them carefully and get them back to you on January 1, 2009. There is still time to send yours to firstname.lastname@example.org. I couldn’t help taking a peak into some of the resolutions that have already come in. Some include wise and valuable material that we are transferring to our Resource of Art Quotations. For example: “As Mas Kodani, a Buddhist in Los Angeles, said in the early twenty-first century: “One does not stand still looking for a path. One walks; and as one walks, a path comes into being.” We make it up as we go, and we make it up by going. “Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk.” (Antonio Machado)
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Ann King of Victoria, BC, Canada who wrote, “We can paint and look, paint and look, and not really see our problems. Our brains are amazing.”
And also Anonymous who wrote, “A gennagosiac is a person who is unable to see the wisdom in Genn’s material.”
And also Dr. Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA who wrote, “There is also anosoagnosia, where a patient doesn’t recognize the severity of his or her illness, either intentionally or from genuine agnosia.”
(RG note) Thanks, Ted. I have noseyagnosia, a condition where people are nosey about other people’s agnosia. Happy New Year!
Enjoy the past comments below for Creative agnosia…