Recently, I’ve been reading all about stories. Or, more accurately, how much we love and live for stories and the extent to which we create stories using bits of information. I’m interested in what determines whether we appreciate a work of art and when we don’t. My theory is that it relates to whether we feel we can create a narrative about the work of art or not. If we don’t get it, we don’t like it. I’m particularly interested in the narratives of still life art.
And in my reading, I came across this short video from 1944.
The question is: what is happening here? I showed this video to my three children and this is what they said when prompted to describe the video:
‘The big triangle is trying to get the little triangle to go into the room and he’s being mean and also the circle doesn’t want to go in there.’
‘Yes, I agree, the big triangle, he’s a bully, the circle is scared of him. He tries to get them to go in the room but they don’t want to go. But in the end they conspire against him and trap him in there, I think. Then he chases them and breaks it all up because he is angry’.
‘I think the same. The big triangle is the mean one’.
Their answers were perfect (and interestingly, very different in terms of level of detail which didn’t correspond to their ages).
I also asked some grownups for their responses, which, in contrast to the children’s responses and in complement to them, are interesting.
‘I think this is to do with parenting. The triangles are parents and the circle is the child and the big triangle obviously has some serious anger issues’. (This person needed to watch the video twice – he wasn’t sure what sort of response I was expecting.)
‘Domestic abuse? Sadness, anxiety -> courage and freedom.‘
‘It looked like the destruction of a family unit and their home. Mother and child flee leaving the father to smash up the home.’
‘Big grumpy triangle lives alone, along comes the happy friends little circle and little triangle. BGT gets annoyed by the happy joy outside its house, so comes out to give them what for! Little circle is frightened and hides behind the door….’
‘Larger of the two triangles is a bully, picking on the smaller triangle. The circle was initially scared of the large triangle but then gets the strength to go with its true friend the small triangle.’
The real answer to what is happening is: nothing much. It is just an animation of shapes and lines moving around.
This short animation was created by two psychologists, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, over 70 years ago. The aim of their experiment was to demonstrate attributional processes in perception. Or, in other words, the extent to which viewers imagine causal events based on limited information. When asked to interpret the moving objects in the animation, subjects interpreted it, just as my three children and friends did, in terms of animated beings, attributing motives and personality traits to the different objects. The subjects then (and today) watch the video and create their own narrative to explain it. The extent to which people do this of course varies and this test has been used to determine autistic tenancies as well as other similar conditions. However, generally, people will turn the animation into a story. And doing so, they find comforting as the alternative is confusing and distressing.
We are born story tellers. We find comfort in explanation and narrative. We can’t cope with chaos and uncertainty. Why is that? Jonathan Gottschall has written an entire book on this subject.
Could this explain the frequently asked question when confronted with abstract or conceptual artworks: but is it art? Yes, it is, even though you can’t narrate it. Embrace the chaos, I say.