I was thinking about this idea a lot a year or two ago because I had just read Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees and was excited. I want to think about it more so I am sticking it here, in the world's most random blog. In the book, Lawrence Weschler quotes the painter Robert Irwin, who writes about how you separate the line of a painting from the rod on the wall it's hanging from:
Well, of course you do it on a scale of values. In other words, the line in the center has some kind of compounded meaning which gives it the emphasis to be focused on. Whereas the rod on the wall, of course, is very meaningless. So therefore, you can, in a sense just not see it . . . So what we're really talkingabout in this whole process is not anything to do with the painting itself, but rather something to do with this thing of value . . .
And figure and ground is a whole system of that kind of focus. You've got a way of looking at the world . . . In this case, you simply eliminate those rods by a deductive process of meaning. They're meaningless, so therefore they simply fall out of view.
But now, when you have a construct like that, that's how you go through the world. In other words, you don't just do it when you're looking at painting. We're talking about a mental construct to which the whole civilization has deeply committed itself.
There's more and it's excellent but I have been typing all day. But he talks about how cubism flattened figure and ground--"the marriage of figure and ground." And he talks about how he (Irwin) is doing work that marries painting to the environment: "Suddenly it had to deal with the environment around it as being equal to the figure and having as much meaning."
This is one of those ideas that is both beautifully obvious but also won't stop unfolding. I will even set aside what it means to the way we watch political conventions, or walk around the world for hell's sake. Just confining it to art for a moment it is still slightly thrilling (and much more manageable).
What constitutes figure and ground in theater, and how can they be married? (Married=flattened is funny.)