In counseling a committed and highly original student concerning the fact that in class discussions no one said anything about her work, I suggested pushing the emotional content. She has beautiful technique and important things she wants to show, but vision depends on having an inner template, something to connect it to that we understand. Her imagery was too unfamiliar, too outside the known, to pull them into its world. But no matter how foreign the imagery, if the emotions sound a chord, we connect and keep looking. The arrangement of light, color and forms in space registers as a feeling before we identify what it is. We orient ourselves automatically to being in a place and for the time our attention is absorbed by it, a painting is a place. Our relationship to where we are is central to navigating life and is therefore the most potent of all metaphors. Neurologist Antonio Damasio wrote, “Feeling, in the pure and narrow sense of the word, was the idea of the body being a certain way.” Emotional life starts with where we are, and that’s a statement that can be taken at multiple levels.
The plane we stand on is hugely important to our sense of where we are in space. In a famous experiment called the Visual Cliff, newborns of many species, including human babies, were presented with a particular visual situation. A cliff with a checkerboard pattern was covered by strong plexiglass and at the other side was something that smelled good to eat to entice them to cross. Even with the tactile evidence of a clear barrier that would keep them from falling, not one of them was willing to cross. One of the researchers painted a trompe l’oeil version on the nursery floor when they had a baby. Sure enough, even though it was just paint and the baby could feel solid floor, the baby wouldn’t crawl across it. We inherit a physical responsiveness to our sense of the plane that supports us and adjust to it instinctively. Adults thought nothing of walking on it, which suggests how powerful learning about illusions can be in helping us recognize them and not be taken in. It also shows us that we can overcome inherited responses to the world, an idea with far reaching implications. Knowledge permits us to stand outside of our immediate circumstance and reflect from a distance before acting.
Being outside the mainstream offers a different overview. So much of the greatest art comes from the fringe, the outer perimeter of society, the pain of disconnection often motivating the expression. The mythic theme of separation, ubiquitous in great literature, is what we all deal with to some extent, perhaps much more than we realize. When we see it expressed in art, there is consolation in the shared experience even when the particulars are different. The insights offered by art become part of our sense of where we’ve been so enlarge the territory of our understanding.
When Paul Miller, aka DJSpooky, gave the keynote speech at the Transformations Conference at MICA this past October, he said black art had moved from the fringe to the center. I thought about it for days afterward and couldn’t help but think it has always been at the creative center, though not necessarily recognized as such. Being on the outside may be a necessary condition for offering something new to art. Achieving perspective on a difficult circumstance requires getting beyond it. As a jazz fan all my life, my focus has always been on the innovators, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, so many, who found new ways to express the struggle of being and understood the feeling of separation in a more overt way than the more privileged part of the population. To feel the separation more acutely intensifies the need to go inward. Van Gogh was not part of the mainstream art of his time but his paintings help us feel that sense of being passionately alive. James Baldwin spent much of his life abroad, not given the stature here he deserved, yet reading his work is like experiencing a force of nature, so intense are the feelings expressed which bring my own feelings more intensely to life. Through great art, we learn the most important lessons of being human, how we feel and where we are. Just like history describes the events of a time, art shows us what it feels like to be human. It brings us together in the heart of human experience.