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Index of Summer Essays

#2: Autism vs. Artism

Wave Forms - Photograph  2005 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Wave Form

Autism is hallmarked by the inability to perceive or process sensory information — including physiological, verbal, visual, psychological or other gestures, signs and signals. Sounds familiar? Perceiving and processing sensory information is what artists do.

Information about autism may be found online at Autism Web and other sites. Google Autism.

Using medium and form, artists represent the real and the unreal — the physical, metaphysical, emotional, intellectual and other aspects of real and abstract experience.

Autists experience the same play of light, shadow and color. With people, they see hands move, tense, circle or chop; faces twist or relax; bodies lean forward, back or sit. They hear whispers or shouts. What they don't see or hear or feel is why.

Our sublte and unsubtle gestures escape them. What emotion is tied to this or that movement or change? They don't know, have to guess, don't understand. It goes by them. Without training, they don't make the connections among others' bodily changes and emotions.

Pointing is wasted on my cat. He knows up from down (paws down, head up, nearly no matter what), in from out, and I've watched his eyes track bugs, hands or food. But the ability to connect what I'm pointing at and my message in that gesture does not go through. Animals don't get it, and I suspect, they don't really want or need it.

Autists need it, but they don't have it. Neither do art wannabes.

Apparent Depth with a Splash of Sunset - Photograph  2005 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Apparent Depth with a Splash of Sunset —
Light, dark and comparative volumes


Much of what sometimes passes for art is what happens when well-intentioned people without the ability to process sensory information try anyway. They may feel a need to create but don't have anything to say (message), or they have not learned how to express it (skill).

Either deficiency can be treated via education — from without (schools, classes, teachers) or within (practice, practice, practice).

Likewise, some artists believe they are portraying emotions or other abstractions in their work, but no one else can see them — except maybe friends they've explained it to. Because knowledge comes from the senses, those friends may believe but they do not know.

It may upset the creators when the deficiency is pointed out.


At issue is both perception and representation — understanding and skill. The two are intricately interrelated. Without the former, the latter is unlikely, if not impossible.

I know color-blind artists who have trouble with colors, and artists who can only see out of one eye who cannot render dimension, although some of us can fake it by judging relative size, gauging trajectories or learning about shadows.

Because we don't all have two good eyes, or they don't work together, stereo vision may escape us like finger pointing escapes cats, emotional understanding escapes some autists, or expressing emotions or intellectual concepts in essentially physical mediums escapes would-be artists.

We are all — especially white males — blind or partially blind (differently sighted) to some colors. I remember staring blankly at a page of colored dots during a test to determine whether I had good enough eyesight to be a pilot. I could see the dots, but the purported patterns escaped me entirely.

Some online color blindness tests include: the original Ishihara Test for Color Blindness, Color Vision Testing Made Easy, Structure Strangeness or Seeing Color.

My results told the testers I could not discern the subtle but important differences between a plowed field and a dirt runway; trees from grass at a distance of thousands of aerial feet (Imagine the engine stalled and won't restart).

From those and batteries of other tests, they decided I'd make a good administrator. What I really wanted to be was a photographer and writer, but what they made of me was an Automatic Processing Machine Operator (then they sent me to Viet Nam, where there weren't any of those), but that's the sort of disconnect one expects from a government agency calling itself “service.”

Signal To Noise - Photograph  2005 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Signal to Noise

Perhaps it would be more coherent in this discussion to employ the term, signal to noise ratios, with art being the signal and everything that gets in its way, noise. Unfortunately for this metaphor, we usually understand signals as encoded — into puffs of smoke, dots and dashes, dits and daws, bits, bytes, words, letters, symbols, daubs of paint, hefts of metal, etc.

In any communication there's an encoder, a transmission and a receiver. We may not know why it does what it does, but when art does it right, it communicates. We recognize it as art, even if we cannot explain why. We get it.

Let's take a moment to consider the modem in or attached to computers. It's a simple enough device that we vaguely understand, and we may extend that understanding to some less obvious forms of communication, like art.

Modem = MOdulator DEModulator

Modulate: 1.


To adjust or adapt to a certain proportion;
regulate or temper. 
To change or vary the pitch, intensity or tone.  
Electronics. To vary the frequency, amplitude, phase, or other characteristic of (electromagnetic waves).

Modems encode signals, then push audible dits and daws through phone wires or out into the aether. The modem on the receiving end demodulates the signal, translating it back into something your computer and you understand, words and pictures on a screen.

That communication works far more efficiently than the artist/viewer loop does, but both are afflicted with noise.

Green Stripes - Photograph  2005 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

Green Modulation — Signal and Noise

Art is created by artists with ideas, some of which are translated, more or less successfully, into media and presented (pushed) — if the artist is lucky, good at selling themself, very talented or commercial — to viewers.

But art is not an efficient transducer.

When computers were room sized, operators talked about GIGO. Garbage in, garbage out. Like E-mail over modems, what you put into it is what comes out the other end, even if you send a blank message or misspell words.

input  does not equal  output

What's put into art by its creators rarely equals what comes out. The problem may be signal or noise. When someone experiences art — when they see, touch, feel, hear, smell, etc. it, we have transmission.

But communication only happens if who perceives it, engages it. We don't have to get it, we just have to open ourselves to the possibility, look at (as opposed to just seeing) it, think about it, allow it the time and opportunity to work its magic, to get through our automatic, intended and accidental barriers and into our minds.

I imply. You infer.

Like most communications, art is subject to interpretation.

Like the differences between inference and implication, art interpretation does not belong exclusively to the artist, although the artist can be one of those their art communicates with.

imply 1.

To involve by logical necessity; entail:
Life implies growth and death.
To express or indicate indirectly: His tone implied disapproval. See Synonyms at suggest.

infer 1.


To conclude from evidence or premises.
See Synonyms at conjecture.
To reason from circumstance; surmise
To lead to as a consequence or conclusion: “Socrates argued that a statue inferred the existence of a sculptor.”

Interpretation is the exclusive domain of viewers (listeners, readers, etc.) — you and me and everybody else. We are who puts the pieces together, and we don't have to agree — with each other, the artist, art history, critics or anybody else.

Like beauty, art is in the eye of its beholders.

Depending upon their credibility, critics may have something to do with the acceptance or declination of art. Media (newspaper, TV, radio, whatever) critics have historically wielded power. Art critics, too. Sometimes.

A one-eyed, color-blind artist with a bad modem can still make good art that communicates on several levels with its perceivers. But even they have that noise problem.

Like autists, some artists can neither perceive nor represent visually abstract concepts, and we're left with little or no signal and too much noise. Often, if that noise is pretty, we let it pass.

High signal, low noise = art. High noise, low signal = maybe art, maybe decoration, craft or commerce, although much craft (and that other stuff) rises to the level of art, and few two of us would agree which is which.

Octo Fleckshun - Photograph  2005 by J R Compton. All Rights Reserved.

There's a wonderful hour of stories about autism on National Public Radio show Studio 360, archived at

July 13, 2005

J R’s Summer Art Essays      index