Personal Values

Today I went with my friend Jaron to the San Francisco MOMA. We had gone to see the wonderful Olafur Eliasson exhibition, which was indeed awesome. But for me the real highlight was wandering through the museum’s permanent collection afterward and coming face to face with one of my favorite paintings – RenĂ© Magritte’s masterful painting Les Valeurs Personnelles (Personal Values).



As you can see, this painting is based on a simple but very effective visual trick: Innocuous objects from daily life are blown up to monumental scale, and then placed back into a personal setting, where they completely dominate and become shocking.

To me this painting has always been the purest expression of Magritte’s quest to get us to see that the mystery and unknowableness of existence is embodied in even the most ordinary things. His paintings were not trying to solve the mystery – I don’t believe he thought such a solution to be possible – but to engage with it, to regain a sense of awe in the face of existence, thought and perception.

Magritte’s views on this topic had always influenced my own work. In my computer generated images there has often been a somewhat surreal quality – ordinary objects seen in surprising ways that make you look at them in a new light – reflecting my own belief that to see the world through the prism of perception is always to be confronted by mystery. For example, the following image from one of my papers on texture synthesis is clearly influenced by Magritte:



So to come upon that particular painting on this particular day was wonderful. I’ve been wrestling lately with a need to bridge the gap between the ordinary on the one hand, and the sense on the other hand that each moment can be a source of infinite mystery and adventure. This daily blog has been part of my attempt to build that bridge. Each day that we get to be here is infinitely precious, and yet most days we somehow seem not to notice.

Every time you wake up in the morning and create something new, something that has never before existed in this world, especially if you build it out of the most ordinary of materials, you are speaking to that mystery. And maybe that’s the best we can ever do. As Arthur O’Shaughnessy so aptly put it: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”

One Response to “Personal Values”

  1. Craig says:

    In a Nekker cube or other ambiguous images I feel a perceptual symmetry breaking where the first interpretation seen remains dominate. So after Ken’s description I could see Les Valeurs Personnelles as giant objects in a normal room. But for me, it keeps snapping back to being normal objects in a small room. Toiletries in a dollhouse. All of the non-bedroom elements seem to be of the same scale. The interpretation might be less bimodal if the objects in the room all had different scales. I associate that look with mixtures of kid’s toys: a tiny fire engine next to a big frog. Toy Story used a lot of that “mismatched scales” look.

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