Visual dissonance is defined as a state of psychological tension caused when one experiences a disparity between what one expects to see and what one actually sees. The concept is related to a well-known phenomenon in social psychology called cognitive dissonance, which happens when we perceive a discrepancy among our attitudes and/or our behavior. Our eyes see the world of art with a thousand expectations based on our personality and our cognitive structure (knowledge system). Sometimes those expectations are fulfilled, sometimes not. In the case of unfulfilled expectations, the viewer is required to resolve his or her tension, or simply to abandon the piece and consider another. An important part of human motivation is found in dissonance reduction, in that people do not (normally) choose to live in a state of psychological tension. In psychological terms, such a state is aversive, to be avoided or resolved.
The technique of producing unexpected visual forms is widely practiced by modern artists, who seek to gain our attention, and to further our intellectual effort, as we attempt to reconcile our expectations with what we see. Some viewers may choose to resolve the conflict by simply turning away with the rhetorical rejoinder, "I can't believe what I saw." While denial of sensory impressions might make a clam happy, most of us try to overcome the dissonance through cognitive means.
There are three basic means to reduce visual dissonance: (1) reducing the importance of one of the dissonant elements, (2) reinterpreting one or more of the elements, or (3) changing one of the dissonant elements. We will illustrate these principles by considering a painting by the surrealist artist René Magritte (see figure 8.6). Look at this figure. What do you see? What does it mean? Do you experience any visual dissonance? Perhaps your first reaction was the same as mine, namely, "Shouldn't the guy's face appear in the mirror?" (An alternative reaction is, "Shouldn't the guy be facing you, with the back side correctly reflected?") There is something radically "wrong" with this painting, or the laws of physics have
suddenly been suspended. When one looks at this painting, a type of visual dissonance develops in the sense that what one "sees" is contrary to the "reflected image" schema that is part of our accumulated experience of the world. How can one work oneself out of this cognitive maze? Here are some common means of diminishing the dissonance.
• "The painting is not important." In this strategy, visual dissonance is reduced by denying the importance of all elements of the painting. It is an easy solution, as the person may simply dismiss the painting as frivolous and move on to the next painting (if viewing this painting in a museum, for example). Alternatively, one might deny the importance of some (or all) physical laws.
• "The painting means more than what is literally depicted." Here the viewer looks beyond the mere physical representation of the painting. Such interpretation could lead to a hypothesis about symbolic meaning and personal character, such as that the figure in the painting (or all of humanity) is so negative that he cannot even reflect his own frontal image. Deeper, nihilistic thoughts of the nature of man might ensue.
• "This painting would be more consistent with my impression of the world if it truly reflected the person's image." In this case, an active person might repaint the painting with the frontal image. Another, more intellectually demanding version of the strategy is to deny the laws of reflected images or to invent new laws. For example, one could argue that Magritte had concocted a really wonderful mirror that showed the back side of whatever is presented to it.
Much of art has been purposely designed to generate a form of creative tension in the viewer that cries out for resolution. In many forms of classic art, the artist presented social issues that embarrassed the establishment, while many contemporary artists present visual statements about art, religion, psychoanalysis, as well as social conditions. All of these are intended to motivate the thinking person to find a deeper message in the art. Although these disturbing art forms may not be as comforting as viewing a Norman Rockwell illustration, they demand active participation in the construction of "reality."
Cognitive Dissonant Art—Mona Revisited
Another example of cognitive dissonant art is shown in figure 8.7. Here Marcel Duchamp shows us his Mona Lisa, who, unlike da Vinci's, is sporting facial hair. The title of Duchamp's Mona Lisa is L.H.O.O.Q., which, pronounced letter by letter in French, means "She's got a hot ass." (Perhaps we can now understand the meaning behind Mona's enigmatic smile.) Duchamp thought art should function as a "cerebral pistol shot," and few can deny that the frivolous L.H.O.O.Q. gets our attention. The viewer sees something inconsistent with his or her expectation and is prompted to resolve the dissonance. One physical manifestation of this inner reaction is the movement of our eyes. We move them so they focus on the dissonant features, gawking unabashedly at the moustache and goatee.1
Another variant of Mona Lisa that further illustrates visual dissonance within a social context is offered by Andy Warhol. When Leonardo painted his Mona Lisa, it was an original, one of a kind, and intended to be viewed as such. Many consider it to be sacred, a hallowed icon not to be defaced as the graffitist Duchamp has. But since the original painting was done, technological developments have occurred,
including photography and mass reproductive techniques, that alter the social position of the work of art. All of these techniques have made "originals" available to a mass audience. In figure 8.8, the pop artist Warhol has taken the best-known portrait in the world and reproduced it 30 times, satirically calling it Thirty Are Better Than One. To many, Warhol's Mona is patently offensive, a banal reproduction of one of the world's greatest pieces of art. It is "common" and "cheap." From another point of view, however, the viewer is forced to overcome his or her cognitive dissonance and look beyond Warhol's image. The viewer might consider the context of the twentieth century, which has trivialized the singular masterpieces of art, literature, and music through mass reproduction in which the counterfeit is usually a degraded imitation of the original. Many of these counterfeits are junk, like the popular kitsch art that might use the Venus de Milo as a timepiece, with a clock embedded in her belly: a visual diet that matches the gustatory diet of the masses.
Such is the nature of the unreal world we have created. But such an interpretation requires a thinking brain filled with knowledge, not junk.
"Great" art pieces are iconically stored in the collective memory of civilization in undefiled condition. There Mona Lisa does not sport a goatee; George Washington does not have a nose ring; Tutankhamen is not shown smoking a fat cigar; Venus has no arms You don't tug on Superman's cape. and the Discus Thrower no jock strap; Degas's You don't spit into the wind. ballerinas wear tutus and Rembrandt's portraits are overclad. Icons sometimes become idols, as we —-Jim Croce will see in the section on canonic representations.
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