I've heard that expression several times recently. What do the words commonly mean or intend to express? What must be considered if those words are to have any useful meaning to me? Despite the fact that the phrase is in common use, I find it to be confusing. But, I can only speak of what language means to me.
"Artists see things and make a fuss about them when others tend to look through or past those same things."
Making visual art is something I do. Although I've used various media to make what I call "designs", the majority of what I do is with oil paint, watercolor, charcoal and pastel and best described as realist-based, expressively altered interpretations of the world around me.
Sometimes "the world around me" consists of objects or activities which catch my attention and provide tangible material to interpret and represent while on-site. On other occasions I rely on my memory of the observations or activities and render something without the benefit of access to the object, individual, event or action or even a sketch of the subject. In addition I often attempt to interpret literature, short stories, poetry, the written word, and render an image based upon my imagination and interpretation of the descriptive language provided by an author. (Ray Carver and Anais Nin are my authors of choice at the moment.)
We have to inform the visual impression with additional information to make sense of what we "see". Maybe "seeing" doesn't equate with understanding? Maybe "what you see" is "what you get" if you don't look any further, if you reduce "seeing" to acquiring colors, depth, perspective, light. Maybe the expression ("what you see is what you get") is simply an invitation to look and look and look and look some more? Maybe it is a warning; that you should, for example, know more than just what you see if you are going to be informed? "Interpret the signals of sight at your peril!"; that fire is hot and if you try to walk through it there is danger. But you may not see heat, only flame. To put the flame with heat you have to use your mind, your intellect.
When viewing my work, though, it may not be easy to distinquish the on-site rendering from the piece completed with only reference to, for example a short story, injected with a high dose of imagination. So, I guess maybe "what you see is what you get", that is, what you are looking at is what you are looking at but a viewer may not apprehend all of what she's "getting"!
But does that make a difference? Maybe it is simply a philosophical question but I believe the question is important if we seek understanding dispite ambiguity in the world.
While jay walking, it may be important to be able to judge how fast the oncomming vehicle is traveling as you stride across the roadway. Presumably, the more reference points available the more accurate the estimate. Parked cars along the side can reference the moving vehicle and with those points ambiguity lessens.