Monday, May 25, 2009

Enlarging Views


I laughed out loud when I read that the pleasure chemicals of the brain were stimulated by rejecting information that didn’t fit one’s worldview. We protect our image of how it all works, like the cell membrane protects the cell. Invasions of non-self are attacked as enemies and we feel pleasure in the act of defense, protecting the boundary to keep the inner world stable. But like other aspects of the brain that are pliable, we could probably learn to use other views to extend our own and gain a better understanding of the world. Knowledge about the mind shows us it’s potential to evolve. Just like over time, we try new foods and enrich the scope of tastes we appreciate, it’s time to develop a taste for ideas and perspectives that will expand our way of seeing. Nobel laureate, Ilya Prigogine wrote, ”Reality is a construction in which we actively participate.” He pointed out that when the complexity of information grows too great for the existing way of organizing it to manage, a living system will reorganize to accommodate it, or fall apart. We have to enlarge our construction with better organizing images if we’re to cope with the complexity of our world.
We need better images for differences than duality. What breaks the spectrum of life into poles, republican/democrat, right/wrong, authorized/unauthorized, black/white, don’t account for the multiplicity and richness of the human species. Maybe we might try thinking of different perspectives as views of a landscape. The canyon is not opposed to the meadow. They are two realities of the whole, full of endless variations. Definitions of intelligence include being able to hold more in the mind at once, tolerance for contradiction and ambiguity, involvement and curiosity about what’s unfamiliar. All of these qualities can be cultivated.
Curiosity is damped by fear, something that begins to show even in young children. In strange situations they cling to their mothers, burying their heads in her body. With enough fear inside already, it’s hard to take in more stimuli. We protect the membrane enclosing the known. In fear, adults cling to a static view that won’t allow anything to disrupt a hard-to-maintain inner equilibrium. Boundaries are automatically defended until the defense and the fear behind it are recognized. As Frederick Perls used to say, “Before a thing can change it must become what it is.” Understanding what resistance to change means about our own inner dynamic is the first condition to opening our minds to the new.
The model of thinking based on dividing the flow of existence into categories ultimately allows the definition of the category to take the place of the complex interacting system that any individual really is. It creates mental walls. Once we’ve labeled something, our previous judgments about what we’ve labeled rush in and cloud our perception. Ideologies are mental cages. We can rattle the bars, hooting and screeching, and still stay safe inside. The educational system puts too much attention on being right, instead of the art of acquiring and organizing new information.
Every life story shows the evolution of a point of view that has it’s own context of relevance and offers important knowledge about the big picture. Think of knowledge as rhizomatic rather than a dualistic. Each node is hub to many outgrowths connecting in multiple directions. It expands and grows in power and knowledge as more perspectives are accumulated, rather than making judgments about ideas and dismissing the ones that threaten a fortified worldview. If we don’t cling to one version of reality as truth, but entertain a viewpoint as a flexible hypothesis, we can more readily absorb what contradicts it and our perspective grows.
We are part of the intricate organism of life, connected to other humans like neurons in the brain, supported by the other processes in the cosmos like the systems of the body. When we use labels and definitions to separate, we are ourselves separated. If we can deflect our tendency to judge and categorize, then we can really see, and observation builds real knowledge. The attitude toward difference can be one of discovery, happening upon an unknown part of the landscape that changes our inner map and values the new for the benefits it brings.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Converging Views

Art Talks

If you want to have a really interesting conversation, start with a painting and watch what unfolds. Forget about any preconceived ideas of what talking about art should be and simply follow what attracts you and what kind of ideas, feelings and memories arise.
I remember reading about a meditation instructor that counseled never to look in the direction of a noise because every new thing to intrude on vision would start a train of associations. Imagine how much more material is stirred when the thing we see reveals deep perceptions about what it feels like to be human.
Before the first discussion of out-of-class work each semester I quote Thomas Carlyle,
“The chief value of a book is that it stimulates the reader to self-activity” and note that the same is true of art. Picasso said, “when a painting is finished it’s dead for the artist but lives on in the mind of the viewer.”
How my images live on and what they evoke in others is the information I most want to hear. In any discussion where the artists are present, information about what viewers see reveals the implications of the artist’s choices, and is more illuminating than having it evaluated by standards the artist may not share. Discussions about art enable each individual to experience their own sensibilities through what is triggered by the image and the varied thoughts of others. The I Ching emphasizes the importance of sharing varied opinions saying, ”Knowledge should be a refreshing and vitalizing force. It becomes so only through …discussion [with others]. In this way learning becomes many-sided and takes on a cheerful lightness, whereas there’s always something ponderous and one-sided about the learning of the self-taught.”
This is the wonderful thing about a studio class. Artists are independent thinkers. The variety of ways of seeing enrich the group as a whole. Every association reflects the range of meanings the work can evoke. It’s important to draw out the contrasting views so the artist has an accurate picture of the full scope of connections the image can engage. As the current class disperses, a particular kind of discussion, grown of the individual worldviews of this group of students, this class-mind, disappears as well, but the range of outlooks and enlarged perspective created by the group remains in each individual. Every different group brings out new ideas and enhances flexible thinking.
What is most important about talking about art is that everyone should do it.
Building on the work of Rudolf Arnheim, Abigail Housen and Philip Yenawine developed an educational system called “Visual Thinking Strategies” backed by experimental work showing that the thinking skills of schoolchildren can be improved in other subjects by talking about art, describing what they think about when they look at a painting or photograph and why. They see improvement not only in observational skills but reasoning skills. Building neural connections between the feeling and thinking parts of the brain unifies felt assessments of significance with generation of ideas that relate to the image, fostering self-awareness and liberating thinking from a need to be right. Without the contest for rightness, our views are expanded by the range of other opinions. Where there are no wrong answers, creative thinking flourishes. In an article in “Family Medicine”, (April 2005,) Reilly, Ring and Duke recommend “communal viewing of artistic paintings as a modality to increase sensitivity, team-building and collaboration amongst medical trainees” additionally citing a study where it improved medical diagnostic skills. Moving beyond “the realm of right answers” led to more meaningful discussion and more thoughtful reflection.
Having more art around opens opportunities for people to engage in discussion that would have a beneficial effect on their minds and their understanding of others. It pushes conversation beyond the trivial and superficial to the big themes of life. It offers opportunities for creative imagination inviting viewers to make up their own stories about what is going on in the painting. The studies showing the value of discussing art for all kinds of thinking emphasize the enjoyment that participants feel in such a liberatory mode. It enables us to be stimulated by differences rather than threatened. Regular art talks with friends, colleagues and community groups could educate neglected aspects of our intelligence, tuning our sensitivity to each other and the deeper meanings revealed by vision.