more on the Zen of Seeing

Posted by on May 5, 2020 in blog | No Comments

Its epistemology….

HEY WAIT! Don’t let that big philosophical word stop you from reading on. Remember, this is “Zen,” so basically it’s really pretty simple. But just to add to your vocabulary so you can impress someone at your next gallery opening, “epistemology” is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. It’s the way you know anything. So…when you’re looking at an artwork, there’s a difference between justifying what you see & can say about it and someone else’s opinion. Everyone has an opinion; very few know what they mean or why. Especially when it comes to art.

In Zen there is a distinction between knowing what you see and merely identifying what’s before you. By “knowing” I mean that you can recognize what’s there rather than just giving it a name — like, “Oh, what a beautiful sunset,” or, “those are called ‘lady ferns,’ aren’t they?” Naming is not seeing. It’s like mistaking a note for the music.

It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know. We do not get nearer by a hair’s breadth to any natural object so long as we presume that we have an introduction to it from some learned person. To conceive of it with a total apprehension we must for the thousandth time approach it as something totally strange. If you would make acquaintance with the ferns you must forget your botany. You must get rid of what is commonly called knowledge of them. Not a single scientific term or distinction is the least to the purpose, for if you would truly see something — anything — you must approach that object totally unprejudiced. You must be aware that no thing is what you have taken it to be. In what book is this world and its beauty described? Who has plotted the steps toward the discovery of beauty? You have got to be in a different state from what is commonplace & ordinary belief. Your greatest success will be simply to perceive that such things are.

OK. Read that last paragraph again. Slowly…. I’m not being arcane, obtuse, or opaque. It was written on the 4th of October in 1859 by Henry David Thoreau. You actually can understand it if you want to. Don’t join the citizens of Concord who failed to buy Henry’s books because they couldn’t understand them! Without really intending to, Thoreau offers as concise an approach to the Zen of seeing as could be imagined. When he talks about seeing any natural object or the beauty of the world we live in, he’s describing how to see what’s there. When it comes to art, remember, “no thing is what you have taken it to be.” This is especially true if it’s in the only gallery worth visiting.

[If you’re seriously curious about where this passage from Thoreau came from, leave a query in the comment box and I’ll give you the reference.]

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