Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Learning to See

I’ve spent the last three years learning how to see. This struck me yesterday. Or maybe Saturday. I don’t know. I might have been reading John Berger’s About Looking or Ways of Seeing when the thought wormed its way through my brain. But I know that the moment it all crystallized was when I began reading Lawrence Weschler’s True to Life: Twenty-Five Years of Conversations with David Hockney. I haven’t really delved in to Weschler’s musings on art beyond the sublime Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences and the quick hits of The Convergences Contest over at McSweeney’s. In truth I didn’t even know who David Hockney was until I picked up the book, flipped through a few pages in an attempt to make it seem like I was actually planning on justifying the purchase, then walked downstairs to hand the man behind the counter at the Borders on University in Madison, WI my debit card and sign over $24.95 plus tax. Such is the power of Weschler. I can know that this person I knew nothing about before this very moment will matter a great deal to me in the near future. By page 6 of the book Weschler allowed David Hockney to tell me why I should care.
“My main argument was that a photograph could not be looked at for a long time. Have you noticed that?” Hockney led me back in to the studio and picked up a magazine, thumbing through randomly to an ad, a photograph of a happy family picnicking on a hillside green. “See? You can’t look and most photos for more than, say, thirty seconds. It has nothing to do with the subject matter…All you can do with most ordinary photographs is stare at them – they stare back, blankly – and presently your concentration begins to fade. They stare you down. I mean, photography is all right if you don’t mind looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed cyclops – for a split second. But that’s not what it’s like to live in the world, or to convey the experience of living in the world.
I have in my mind a photograph that was never taken. I know I pointed the camera, I know I pressed the button. But for reasons I will never understand that picture disappeared forever the moment after I did that which was necessary to record the moment. It inspired the idea for a short story that I never thought I had the capacity to write. Well, two short stories, really. One told forwards, one told backwards, both narratives hinging on the moment of the picture. The story concerns two young lovers. In the first story, the one that goes backwards, we meet the young man grown old, sitting in the ashes and bitterness of a life lived poorly as he tells his son the story of love grown cold. The second story is those recollections moving forward. But throughout the story there is a hint, just a tinge, of dissonance. The unreliable narrator, perhaps. Memories colored by emotion. For in the second story the love doesn’t actually grow cold. The happy young lovers grow together, grow in love, grow up. The moment of fracture and separation never seems to materialize. Then we find out that these two stories aren’t actually one and the same. In the first the bitter old man holds up an old, yellowed photo of that single, perfect day he fell in love with the woman he now despises. “Why couldn’t she have just stayed that way?” he asks, challenging the past, reality, and time itself. In the second we find that photo was never taken or lost and long forgotten. The lovers moved forward, together, with nothing solid to hold their memories in place and anchor their expectations. This is what the story does for us. It allows us to pull away from the unblinking gaze of the paralyzed cyclops. The storyteller takes that moment and focuses on details, making tiny things huge and erasing big things from the frame. It’s the same thing the artist does. See, that’s the thing I never understood about art. Perhaps it was my education, perhaps it was my own mindset. But I always told myself I didn’t understand art because I’d never bothered to memorize the tables of names and styles and dates and movements that indicate to everyone that we “know” about art. I should have understood art the same way I understand music. It’s a visceral thing. I hear Idlewild or the Peacemakers and I know that I like them. I don’t have to know about their influences or the history of rock to know that when I hear a particular song it transports me to a place where I am, for a moment, happy or sad or at peace. It’s about the moment of transport, the moment of transcendence, not the history of the electric guitar and the cultural impact of The Beatles. In truth I wish that at some point in the dim past I was surprised by Vermeer in the way I was once surprised by Soundgarden. I still remember the first time I turned on a radio and heard “Black Hole Sun.” I still remember the feelings that that single moment evoked and how I was, in that moment, transformed from a junior higher who had only heard that secular music was bad to someone whose life would be, at least in part, defined by rock music. I know far more about the Seattle grunge movement now than I did then. I know about Green River and Malfunkshun and Mother Love Bone and the death of Andrew Wood and the Temple of the Dog project. I know that Soundgarden’s musical influences included The Stooges and Black Sabbath. I understand that there was a vast history of music that started with monkeys banging rotting tree trunks and progressed all the way to the point where Chris Cornell put pen to paper and created “Black Hole Sun.” And yet I do not care. Because to me that particular five minutes of music isn’t about the history of rock, but about a thirteen year old kid in a minivan suddenly realizing that music could do things he’d never thought possible. In truth, isn’t that what all art should be about? I came to me so easily with music but was so difficult with art. Perhaps it’s because we separate art from ourselves. I can carry “Black Hole Sun” with me in a way I can never carry “The Milkmaid.” Art, after all, belongs in museums. If it’s not in those foreboding institutions then it’s collected in to the personal spaces of the rich. The rest of us can go to art or purchase it in coffee table books that discuss the history of the piece and further reinforce its separation from us. Or we can get a poster-sized reproduction. But that almost doesn’t count. It’s the college dorm-ification of art. So art seems like this big thing that requires dedication and knowledge to properly understand. But, really, is that so? I suppose it helps to understand some context, at least as we get in to modern art. Cubism makes more sense if you know the simple fact that it’s an attempt to break away from the single-point perspective so prevalent in Western art and to show its subject from multiple angles on a single plane. But other than that how much do we really need to know to stand in front of a painting or a picture and let it inform us? More importantly, who am I trying to impress with my knowledge? Does being able to say, “Ah, yes, I so enjoy [painting]. You do know that it was painted in 1655 over the course of four days while he had a slight head cold, don’t you?” make me a wonderful human being? Or does it make me a self-important, stuck up jerk? I think we’re too eager to substitute knowledge for understanding. I think we’re too busy attempting to posture and prove we know what we’re talking about to actually stand up and say, “You know what? I know nothing of that. Tell me.” It’s why I’ve taken Lawrence Weschler as my teacher in my journey of sight. Last week I, in effect, said, “I don’t know who David Hockney is, but I want to find out.” That is the vulnerability with which we need to approach art. It’s the vulnerability with which we need to approach the world. It’s not about knowing all the answers, but about knowing all the right questions to ask. That’s the only way to truly learn anything about ourselves or the world around us. And we will change over time. Sometimes we will change and find those questions have different answers. Sometimes we will change specifically because of those questions and their answers. I’m not the same person I was that day I took a picture that somehow disappeared in to the ether. Looking back, though, I realize that even though I would have sworn then that I didn’t understand art, that I wasn’t visual, that I actually already got it. The story that came from that non-event is the perfect illustration of David Hockney’s paralyzed cyclops. It’s odd, too, since the immediate lesson that I took from that day was actually pretty much completely wrong. Like, on every possible level. It was a summer day. I’d only recently met Her and was still very much under the impression that She was going to be a long-term net positive in my life. We were down at the University of Chicago, wandering amongst the courtyards and neo-Gothic architecture of that wonderful campus. We were walking down an open air walkway and decided, for whatever reason, to sit down. There she was, this most beautiful person, framed perfectly in that Gothic arch. As I recall, she later confessed that she’d picked that particular spot to stop, had seen that exact view. This is one of those little things of all art. The simple question, “Why did the artist pick that subject?” Of all the millions of perspectives, angles, people, things, this one subject, this one place, this one direction was chosen.* Why? The follow-up question is, “Why did I remember that particular moment?” I attempted to apply my own art to it, after all. But I made a mistake. I thought that by applying a particular lesson I could create a desirable outcome. The whole point of my never written short story was that by not preserving the exact moment we can allow the memories to grow with us and as the person inevitably changes we can allow them to do exactly that. But that doesn’t always work. I changed and she didn’t like it. I don’t think she changed much at all and I gradually came to realize that the person I thought she was that afternoon at the University of Chicago was quite different from who she actually was. Or, perhaps, is. For, in truth, it doesn’t matter. To me she’s always the past now. Even though she probably lives within fifteen miles of me right now and even though I sometimes find myself in the same room as her there was a moment about a year and a half ago when she entered the realms of the dead. At least, that’s how it looks from my perspective. In the moment I think we’re all single-point in the way we look at the world. In hindsight I think we’re all cubists. The paralyzed cyclops gives way to a mosaic where sometimes we see that moment or that person in the very best light and sometimes it’s darkened by all the bad that came before or after. I suppose that’s why she was the perfect vehicle for me to tell my story of leaving Christianity. Like that relationship my religious experience was neither wholly good nor wholly bad. The story in the end wasn’t one of sudden anger or ensnarement in the schemes of the devil. It was, instead, the story of a gradual opening of the eyes, of learning to see. It was the story of realizing that all the knowledge in the world is worth nothing if I’m not willing to be vulnerable in front of the questions. The Christian religion is a snapshot of a single moment in time that then had a story built up around it that was told and re-told time and again for two thousand years. Through all the stories and interpretations there’s still only one picture to look at and that photo rarely supports the words told around it. Every once in a while someone from my past shows up out of the blue and basically says to me, “Hey, I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I’m surprised you’re no longer a Christian. Why aren’t you a Christian?” I’ve learned not to answer that question, since anyone who claims to have read my blog but then asks that single, basic question hasn’t actually bothered to understand the stories I tell. Actually, that may be too harsh. I suppose there could be another way to look at it. My inquisitors may simply seek knowledge without understanding. It’s not too far-fetched to think that’s a possibility, since I came from churches where the ultimate goal of every meeting was to understand what the Bible told us to do and the supreme form of inquiry was to go to the pastor and ask, “So what does this passage mean?” We also had it drilled in to our heads that people who weren’t Christians chose to not be Christians for simple reasons, usually involving slavery to sin or sheer bloody-mindedness. The idea of open inquiry leading to a rejection of a specific set of superstitions as absurd never factored in to the conversation. So it’s not hard to imagine that the people who ask me really think that there’s a simple answer to the question of why I left and that I’m simply withholding it for some reason. Or that there’s some way to take all my experiences and reduce them to a single sentence that says, “I left Christianity because __________________.” Then, armed with this newfound knowledge they could engage in all the silly apologetics that are so easy to see through from this side of the lens and convince me to go back to church. What they fail to see is that I have spent the last few years of my life seeking understanding. I have learned to open my eyes. I no longer see the gathering of discrete packets of information as the basis of my existence. I want to see how everything is connected. I want to know why I look at the world one way and someone else looks at it another. I want to pick up a book about an artist I know nothing about and be confronted by the way he sees the world. I want, in short, to understand. I want to see. -------------------------------------- *This question, of course, does not apply to abstract artists, at least not in the same way. It applies to cubists in a completely different way.


The Woeful Budgie said...


(Also: "Surprised by Vermeer"= band name alert?)

Natros said...

Thanks for this. I can remember a few times where graphic art managed to surprise me; truly see things differently, but they've not been common. Somehow, as you said, music, and fiction (especially short stories) have a way of grabbing ahold of me, and not letting go until I see a bit more of the emotion and experience on "that side of the lens."

As an aside, I found your blog after reading many comments by you on Slacktivist. It's been an interesting experience hearing your stories of departure from evangelical Christianity. I think we have some similar backgrounds (even attended some of the same IV conferences, it seems), and much of what you've said resonates with me. And yet, despite my doubts, I can't let go of the story I've heard, and seen: of the Creator who became the created, who disarmed powers without violence, who defeated death itself, and invited us to join Him in creating a better world now and forever. I still think it's a story worth telling, and worth pursuing, even if I'm not much good at telling it.

Anyway, all that to say: thanks for sharing, and I hope you won't mind me listening to your stories. Thanks, too, for the recommendation of Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers--I bought "Americano" after hearing you talk about them, and I'm loving it! They're playing in Santa Fe in a few weeks, and I hope to go see them there!