On Perception

My interview with Tim Hanni, MW, seemed to have resonated with a lot of people, demystifying certain questions about the subjectivity of taste and perception in wine. What he said made a lot of sense to me as a non-wine person, and paralleled my experiences in the visual realm.


When I arrived in NY in 1983 at the tender young age of 25 to do my MFA at Hunter College, a tutor took our class to see art guru/critic Clement Greenberg who spent the evening telling us which artists were major, minor and really bad. All you needed was a good eye, he said, with the implication that his eye was the best, and if your didn’t agree with his assessment, then yours wasn’t. Even then, I realized that art was a more complex matter than that, and decided I would continue to make up my own mind based on my own perceptions and thoughts. Besides, almost everyone in the art world in NY would tell me that they had a good eye, and they couldn’t all be right.

I’ve learned a lot by listening to people who know more than I do, but I have a strong mistrust of those who claim to know better than everyone else.


The following year, I started going once a week to draw the works of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for about three hours, and would usually stay in the afternoon to look some more. Over the course of four years, I drew Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer about a dozen times, and sat and stared at it many hours more, hoping to discover the meaning of art and life.

I left NY for Europe, spending countless days in museums and churches, drawing and looking, and a couple of years later went back to look at the Rembrandt in the Metropolitan. I saw so much more in it, understood so much more, that it was almost as if I had never laid my eyes on the painting before. You never know what you’re missing.


In 1989, two policemen approached me while I was staying in a youth hostel in Edinburgh, and asked me if I would be willing to participate in a police line-up. They were looking for a certain type, they said, and to my inquiry about what would happen if I were to be picked out, they answered that they already had the person they suspected of committing the crime.

The next day a police van came to pick me up, and made a few other stops to gather more males of the supposedly same type. We were then led into a hall with office-style partitions with one-way mirrors (rather than the separate room set-up seen on police shows), so while we couldn’t see who was talking, we could hear what was being said.

We looked vaguely similar, all with brownish and reddish hair and a fair complexion, but with several inches differences in height and noticably different builds, and I doubt if anyone would have remarked on a family resemblance. The suspect was brought in and was told to pick someone and take his place.

On the other side of the partition, a man was told that he had witnessed an assault on a certain date, and asked if he could identify the assailant. He picked the wrong person, although he said he was sure it was him. Then the victim himself was brought in and asked if he could identify his assailant, and in all certainty he identified yet another person who was not the suspect.

So much for eye-witnesses.


Between the two World Wars, Dutch painter Hans van Meegeren, unhappy with the way the art world had failed to give him the recognition he felt he deserved, decided to exact his revenge by creating “new” Vermeer paintings. He spent a lot of care making sure his new “masterpieces” looked old and crackled, and finally leading 17th century Dutch art expert Abraham Bredius confirmed Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus as a genuine Vermeer.

After World War II, van Meegeren was arrested for selling national art treasures to the Germans. No, they weren’t art treasures, they were my fakes, he said, and to prove it, he had to paint another in jail, where he died getting a different sort of recognition from that which he felt he deserved.

Today, it seems implausible that his paintings could have been considered genuine Vermeer’s, but it is hard to put ourselves in that time with less knowledge of Vermeer, and when, perhaps, Dutch art experts and others wished for more Vermeer’s to exist, and to be the ones to discover or own them.

I, of course, am pretty sure that I would have detected the van Meegeren paintings as being fakes, but as past experience has taught me, being sure you’re right isn’t all that different from being certainly wrong.

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1 Response to On Perception

  1. vintuition says:

    Dear Zev, some random thoughts with which to append your excellent post. I used to lecture on Shakespeare from both objective (Oxfordian),
    and subjective (Stratfordian) point of view, and so I know that the ‘good’ i.e. academic approach ought to involve both. That, though, was academic Shakespeare, different. As for objectivity, the very notion of it is taxing for our subjective brains, and it should be. In reason, objectivity is based in a distant and unbiased point of view. Our perceptions are, clearly, filtered through our experiences, likes and dislikes, emotions etc., and we all have our own filters. This, too, is why we tend to gravitate towards critics/reviewers who share the most filters with us. And I’m sure most of us,like me, also seek out opposing viewpoints, too – maybe, instinctively, seeking that ‘objective goodness’.
    Art, at its most powerful, is always a subjective, very individual experience. Because art, according to B. Croce, is a mental, subjective occurrence, it is determined by, and subject to individual interpretations. Wine, of course, is yet still a different matter. I reckon some objective criteria governing its essential, and quintessential, goodness apply. No-one would insist on the ‘goodness’ and virtue of (evidently) badly-made or faulty wine. Other than that, the rules of subjectivity do apply. And this is what makes wine exciting for me, both as food and as the subject of enquiry/discovery; perceived, experienced – and enjoyed from my own subjective point of view. Thank you for this post, Zev, and for your quality presence on Twitter.

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