The New Impressionists

by Blake Gopnik

From the Editor: The following article first appeared in Toronto's The Globe and Mail, on Monday, April 17, 2000. Those interested in the psychology of perception or who have an interest in art will find it particularly intriguing. Here it is:

A few years back some waggish art-history students were looking for a mascot for their departmental association. With much hilarity--a laugh a minute, we art historians--they settled on Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, a less-than-celebrated sixteenth-century critic and theorist. The joke? Lomazzo wasn't always right-on about art. What with him being blind and all. But turns out now the joke may be on them. John Kennedy, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is busy showing that paying close attention to the blind may tell us a whole lot about art after all.

Over three decades of experiments the Irish-born scientist has shown that the blind can make and understand pictures in ways that no one had imagined. And that fact forces us to rethink many of our preconceptions about representational art in general.

"We can do an awful lot more with senses that we regarded as being limited," explained Kennedy, an inveterate enthusiast whose gift of the gab confirms his place of birth. "You'd have to be intellectually dead not to be excited by the idea that we may have thought about representation in much too limited a way for much too long."

Kennedy's excitement about his research seems to be spreading to the broader academic community. In 1993 Yale University Press published his seminal book, Drawings and the Blind. Right now Oxford University Press is releasing an entire volume of original essays on the subject--including one by Kennedy, a pioneer in the fast-growing field. (Full disclosure: I became a Kennedyite some years ago when I was the token art historian in a research group of his.)

If we tend to think of pictures as eye candy, it isn't hard to make them finger food as well. Take a sheet of plastic, set it on a soft support, draw on it with a ballpoint pen, and any lines you make turn into little ridges just ready to be explored by the fingers of the blind.

Or better yet, give them the pen, and they'll make pictures just about anyone--sighted or blind--is likely to recognize, by sight or feel. A credible cat, a man standing or lying down, a water glass, a chair, a bathtub--all produced by blind people who've never looked at those things in their lives, who've certainly never seen a drawing or touched or drawn one before. Within a few minutes of taking up the pen, a person who has grown up without sight can move from the skills of a two- or three-year-old to the skills of a kindergarten kid, to those of a grade-schooler, even, for those with a special knack, to junior-high-school level.

  Their pictures may not seem impressive works of art, but when you think that they were made entirely by touch and show a world only ever known by feel, they become a minor miracle.

Meeting me for lunch at the Art Gallery of Ontario--frequent field trips take the scientist out of the lab and into museums--Kennedy, a sprightly fifty-seven-year-old with a mustache and antic eyes, waxed eloquent about the many and varied implications of his work. "It always seemed that [pictures] should be anchored in vision, and that all our thoughts about them should be about them as visual matters." For generations of scholars and theorists--including Kennedy, who got his start at Cornell under the great perceptual psychologists James and Eleanor Gibson--the psychology of vision seemed the obvious place to go to figure out how pictures work.

"What we're learning from the blind is that that's only half the story. Vision may be a route into the part of the brain that understands pictures, but it isn't the only route. . . . It seems that another road that leads to the center that understands pictures can be touch."

Of course, like the sighted, not all blind people are particularly interested in the images that tickle that center. But when they are, there's no stopping them.

One evening awhile ago Kennedy went to test a man. His subject began by pointing out what seemed like a no-brainer--"I can't draw. I'm blind"--and then spent two hours immersed in drawing. "My God, I can do it." At 9 p.m., when Kennedy suggested calling it a night, the man asked for more time. When 11 p.m. rolled around, he still wasn't ready to stop. "At 1 o'clock in the morning, he was willing to let us go," laughed Kennedy. Seems that a fascination with pictures may just be so natural, you'd have to be more than blind not to see it.

And that is one of the crucial findings of Kennedy's research. Over the years various skeptics and relativists have tried to argue that realistic pictures are as artificial as, say, the shapes of the alphabet, and that culture--especially Western, imperialist culture--teaches us to use and understand pictures the way it teaches us that ketchup goes with fries. But Kennedy's work is the final nail in the coffin for such improbable conceits.

"If a blind person who has not had a picture in their life before . . . produces a picture for the first time when we say, `Take up thy pen, and draw,' then that says whatever they're producing--if it's immediately recognizable to other blind people and to sighted people--is not arbitrary. It's a fundamental universal of perception and cognition." Picture-making isn't some artificial invention of oversophisticated elites. It ties right in to the deepest parts of the human brain--to a place so deep, in fact, that it's equally accessible to both sight and touch.

And when we find out something's wired that hard and deep in the brain, we shouldn't be surprised that people get pleasure from fooling around with it--that they like exploring pictures and making them.

One of the reasons we like representational art so much--and have since at least the days of our cave-decorator ancestors--is that we don't have to learn to grasp its basic content the way we do with texts or many other symbol systems. Images hit us "where we live, right away, intuitively, implicitly. . . . I've seen people look at pictures, and tears came to their eyes immediately."

But the other reason we like it so much is that, no matter how automatically we all may get the subject of a realistic picture, it took hard, rewarding work for our ancestors to become really good at making them. (Whether artists should still win kudos for simply using those ancient inventions is another matter.) By studying the blind, Kennedy can watch the learning about picture-making that the sighted spread out over decades and that cultures spread out over centuries happen overnight. "I've seen blind people who begin to enjoy drawing coming up with systems, then discarding them and inventing a better system. I have seen one person move dramatically from 'I'm just showing the front of an object' to 'I'm showing foreshortening,' which is generally five or six years later in sighted people."

That some blind people can actually understand the basic principles of foreshortening and perspective and even begin to apply them spontaneously in their drawings is one of Kennedy's most flabbergasting discoveries. One blind man called Ray made a picture of a table with its four legs splayed out, as though looming forward at the viewer, and the tabletop between them smaller, as though farther away. "He said expressly, 'This is from underneath.' And then he said, 'I'll give you another drawing,' and he drew it from up above. And then only the rectangle of the top was shown--no legs, he said, 'because the legs are hidden behind.' I realized that this man understands how to use a vantage point in a drawing."

On the one hand this is extraordinary. Perspective--the set of precise rules that tell us how to draw nearby things larger than what's far away--is the ultimate tool for making realistic pictures, but it was invented only once, in Renaissance Italy. "Everybody gets it from them," said Kennedy. So you might expect it to be the last thing blind people would ever come up with on their own. On the other hand, the reason perspective works so well--and the reason many cultures have come up with informal versions of it--is that it capitalizes on our most basic understanding of where things are in the world around us and how they relate to where we are. "It's about the direction of parts," said Kennedy, explaining his crucial insight. "And that's not something inherently visual."

For the sighted vision simply discovers the same things about the world that touch reveals to the blind. "Blind people understand a lot about the directions of objects in the world. They often have to judge where they are with respect to objects as they move around in the world and change their vantage points." A blind person who didn't have a rich idea about the way the world's laid out, and how things change around them as they move through it, would be permanently chair-bound. And that's something Kennedy is keen to help prevent.

Kennedy's work with blind people started as an offshoot of his work on pictures by and for the sighted. But years of working with the blind and spelling out how rich their vision really is have made him something of an activist. The old idea that training for the blind should be about protecting them from the world has to give way to helping them explore it to the full. Giving them the chance to make and read pictures can have a part in this exploration, just as it does for the sighted.

"Many of the blind people that I've been asking to participate in my experiments have then said to me, 'I would like to show you something,' and have taken the materials for making raised-line drawings and made drawings of subjects I would never have dared ask them to draw." One blind woman, having just discovered drawings, lamented the lack of picture books in her own childhood and asked for drawing materials so she could try her hand at making some for the next generation. "I remember one blind man who said 'This is wonderful. I've always wanted to make drawings. But people told me I was blind, and I couldn't do it. But I can do it.'" Only give them the chance to explore the magic of pictures and, like sighted people everywhere, the blind will jump at it.

"Many blind people are very proud of the fact that they can get on the TTC, go to Pearson Airport, get onto Air Canada, fly to a foreign city, make their way around, use tactile maps, get tactile diagrams and pictures of things, go to seek things out. Go to art galleries, knock on the door, and say `I want to know what's in here.' Go to museums, and say, `Lemme know which things here I can grasp, and which things are too fragile and too precious for people to put their fingers on. I'm interested. I want to know about these things.'"