In Part 11 of Philosophical Investigations one of Wittgenstein’s themes is aspect seeing. His best known example is of the duck-rabbit – a puzzle picture that can be seen either as a duck looking to the left, or as a rabbit looking upwards and to the right. The sudden awareness of the previously unseen animal in the picture is an example of what Wittgenstein calls ‘the dawning of an aspect’. The visual stimulus doesn’t change. The retinal image that we have is presumably also unchanged. Yet we suddenly see what we thought was just a duck as a rabbit. This example emphasises the degree to which seeing is linked with expectation and concepts and is far from the passive reception of incoming visual data that some early empiricists believed it to be (Hans-Johann Glock in his A Wittgenstein Dictionary p.37 calls this ‘concept-saturatedness of perception’).
What’s This Got to Do With a Course At Tate Modern?
There are parallels between the experience of aspect dawning that Wittgenstein describes and the experience of being jolted into appreciating a new aspect of a work of art. For example, the common experience of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals in Tate Modern as tranquil objects of meditative and serene contemplation can be transformed if you learn the degree to which he intended his painting to be Dionysian glimpses into the abyss at the edge of what can be tolerated. For instance, in his biography of Rothko (p.355) James Breslin quotes Rothko (p.355):
‘I would like to say to those who think of my pictures as serene […] that I have imprisoned the most utter violence in every inch of their surface.’
Learning this can be the equivalent of suddenly seeing the puzzle picture as a rabbit when you have only previously seen it as a duck. You see the same paintings, but they now have a menacing rather than tranquil air.
For a brief overview of some of the main themes of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, see chapter 26 of the third edition of my book Philosophy: The Classics.