Monday, April 14, 2014

Quatrain #31: Figure & Ground

Figure is the object of attention; ground is everything else in the perceptual field. The relationship between figure & ground is always bound together because it is quite simply one of the most fundamental aspects of human perception that enables us to identify, order, and group information, process it, and ultimately make sense or meaning from it. We just can't help it. It's just what the brain does with visual information. So as far as the visual arts goes, if there is a strong figure-ground relationship, then the perception of an image is strengthened and offers greater clarity to convey ideas to a viewer. It seems as if no matter how hard one works at it, figure cannot exist without ground.

In the construction of two-dimensional imagery there are two basic figure-ground strategies that visual artists have at their disposal. The first strategy is referred to by its namesake as a figure-ground image, which refers to certain objects, points or spaces that are emphasized and easily distinguished from the rest of the image. The rest of the image is then a supporting visual element, and a viewer perceives a separate figure within the ground of the image. The second strategy, known as a field image, refers to the opposite visual effect, in that each part of the image is just as important as every other part. No object, point, or space is emphasized or dominates perception, so viewers perceive the image as a whole: figure enmeshed and intertwined within the ground of the environment itself.

But here's something to make all that come undone. The aforementioned definitions are based on the idea that all humans see the exact same way, but the fact is, we don't. The sequence in which one perceives figure & ground is clearly dependent upon the cultural and economic structures a person was raised in. Comparing specifically, far-eastern cultures to western-european cultures, University of Michigan social psychologists [Hannah-Faye Chua & Richard Nisbett] have done years of research to reveal this phenomenon. Here's a hyper-abridged version of their research, which is extracted from a newspaper article I found in 2005 that conveys the essence of their work.

When shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene. Nisbett illustrated this with a test asking Japanese and Americans to look at pictures of underwater scenes and report what they saw. The Americans would go straight for the brightest or most rapidly moving object, he said, such as three trout swimming. The Japanese were more likely to say they saw a stream, the water was green, there were rocks on the bottom and then mention the fish. [View the entire 2005 Associated Press article].

Reading about this research by means of the article I've quoted arrested me, and it has ever since served as a reminder that the worst thing one can do is assume that the person next to you is seeing the same thing you are.

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