Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Center of Art

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.


m. jordan tierney said...

someone once said to me, "fiction has nothing to say to me.". this proved my suspicion that she was inhuman and also very sad and angry in her isolation due to fear of humbling herself with the rest of us in our broken and beautiful humanity.

Jon Marro said...

Susan! Another marvelous post. I couldn't help but share and respond to the illusion of the nursery room floor and how once we learn about illusions as adults we're more equipped to navigate through them. i find this particularly compelling as i'm writing my screenplay in hopes to call out the greatest illusion we haven't seen yet-Oneness. That "mythic theme of separation" is the mythic illusion i'm tackling in my writing. how to construct a cinematic world that calls this out. one that identifies and so clearly shows how we ourselves cause and perpetuate this illusion is what i'm up to. my goal and intention in the film is to teach ways of being that create Oneness. That even if the world is all one big illusion, be it a hologram or a dream, that we do have the power to create it as we want it to show up. By creating new thoughts, new beliefs, new actions, new speech and new attitudes about the circumstances that seem to surround us. To see that love and resentment cannot fill the same space and we can create anything as a choice. we can choose to be be happy or grateful that we can pay our bills-or that we have bills! many people i know have said that cancer or other diseases or illnesses were the best things that could've happened to them! they really woke them up to life where in other places they were literally dying. i'm not claiming any of this is true, just a view of life that serves to empower. that we have a choice to create the circumstances as opportunities as set-backs or as exactly what we need. i had this thought as well when thinking about why we can't stare at the sun. evidently the back of our retinas have no sensory or nerve endings that elicit pain, so you could stare at the sun and they would burn away-causing blindness without you feeling a thing. then i thought that this is mostly true we life. we fall asleep to life's majesty-it's granduer-or the constant bombarding of media and advertising. it's so in our face that we become blind or desensitized to the magic, miracles, and omnipresent beauty that surrounds us. we're staring daily, every second at a world of wonder and we have to remind ourselves to see it. this is what i think great art does. it reminds us that the picture we're looking at-on the wall-or in front of us is ALL art. it's all divine. so one vision i hold for the world is that we all take on our greatness. our beauty. the perfect divine masterpiece that we are. that we wear our being framed like a work of art, like the most splendid mirror so we all may see through the illusions. so we may use each other and truly open our eyes to awaken.