The Field of Play (IV)

Some thoughts on the field of play, where thinking happens and understanding grows:



There is an interesting short book with some Picasso drawings and the following remark:

plain-bullPicasso’s work – just plain bull.”

In 1945 through 1946, Pablo Picasso produced a powerful series of drawings of bulls. When you arrange his bulls in order of detail the most detailed is a realistic drawing of a bull. All the features are there. Then, in a series of 18 drawings, Picasso step by step simplifies the previous image. The shading of the hide vanishes. The details of the muscle disappear. The texture is gone. The three-dimensionality evaporates. By the 18th bull, we see a line drawing – a simple image consisting of 10 curves and 2 ovals. But those 12 marks distill the essence of that bull – its strength and masculinity. The clutter is gone; the essence remains.

This final image was the only one in the series that Picasso entitled the bull. By systematically cutting peripheral parts (being careful not to turn the bull into a cow), we force ourselves to appreciate what’s important. Isolating those elements can give a great deal of focus…” – Edward B. Burger / Michael Starbird

There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.” – Pablo Picasso

Screen Shot 2017-06-02 at 4.14.19 PM

Recall Spencer Frederick Gore (1878 – 1914):

‘By drawing, man has extended his ability to see and comprehend what he sees.’

That’s very clear, Gore’s single sentence; it gets right to a very significant point. But there’s something in it we can emphasize.

Consider two things:

  • a real bull (a live one, in the real world, in “3D”, living, breathing, sweating)
  • “The Bull” (Picasso’s)

Does one of these make sense without the other? Start with Picasso’s drawing. Does Picasso’s drawing, “The Bull”, make sense if there are no real bulls? If they don’t exist and never did exist?

The non-esoteric answer is: No.

The point is one of interdependency. There are real things, things as they are, and there are the ways that we see those things. For us, these two essential things are completely interdependent. It is necessary to have both.

Let’s check in the other direction. Do real bulls make sense (to us), without Picasso’s drawing? Again the answer is indisputable: No. It doesn’t have to be Picasso’s conceptualization of the bull; the question is not literal, it is: does a bull make sense to us without some kind of conceptual simplification that we make?


A real bull is too much to grasp, both physically, and in terms of our comprehension of the animal as a whole. We can’t conceive of the bull in its very complex entirety. Instead we simplify it. We don’t survey and map it in every aspect. Doing so exceeds our cognitive capacity (and is impossible). Instead we prioritize and simplify. We build a representation, mental, or in some medium, of what matters (to us). So for example, if we see a bull in the real world, we build a mental representation that includes the following features:

  • large
  • heavy
  • horns
  • near or far from me?
  • danger
  • is there a barrier between me and the bull?
  • has it noticed me?
  • does it care?
  • is it approaching me?
  • what are its intentions?
  • can I get away?

We’d probably notice its general shape/form too and it’s color. We may recognize it as “a bull”. We are all, always, doing what Picasso did. We narrow focus to the essence of things, to understand them, because things as they are, are too much to grasp.

This is true also for high-fidelity models of things in the virtual world. Indeed the higher the fidelity to the real world, the more we are dependent on simplified representations for understanding.

Continuing with this point then:

  1. we can’t understand real things, whole things
  2. we must narrow to simplified essence to understand real things

And, (2) makes no sense without (1), and (1) makes no sense without (2).

This is why we’re still talking about drawing. But, more importantly, with this simple recognition we’ve hit on something essential about the nature of thinking itself. Thinking (and understanding), not only involves, but essentially is, a bouncing back and forth between (1) and (2), a ping-ponging between things as they are, and simplified essential representations, between wide environmental whole, and the act of narrowing focus.

Between these is where thinking happens and understanding grows.


Go to part 5: The Field of Play (V)

Return to part 1: The Field of Play (I)

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