Seeing and Looking

Seeing and Looking



The art critic Roger Fry, writing in 1919, discussed two lands of seeing – or, rather, as he put it, the difference between seeing and looking. Seeing is a useful skill that nature has given us. It has to do with the use that appearances have for the business of living. In other words it is functional. We extract key information as rapidly as possible from this kind of seeing.

Looking, on the other hand, seems less obviously to have any utility value. It is what appreciative viewers of art do, and the non-utilitarian character of such looking leads Fry to say that ‘biologically speaking, art is a blasphemy. Why might the making and sharing of art be an offence against biology? For Fry  it is because it serves no obvious purpose. Looking, writes Fry, is a type of vision that is ‘quite distinct from the practical vision of our instinctive life’. When we look, our vision ‘dwells much more consciously and deliberately’ upon the object in front of us.

Fry thinks children have a special capacity for this, because they have not yet fully learnt the more defensive techniques of mere ‘seeing’. They look at things, he says, with cpassion’.

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