Are they lazy? Don’t they think seeing takes a little effort? Are they willfully disinterested? Maybe they’re wanting the necessary skills? or maybe they’ve just not been taught? Maybe more exposure would help? It’s a mystery….
The declarative Indian philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti, said that “seeing is the only truth; there is nothing else.” And he wasn’t speaking metaphorically — about seeing of the philosophical or insightful variety. He was speaking about seeing a bird or a tree, a lovely face, or the smile of a child. Why do these things so often fail to register or even seem to matter? Further, why, for some, do the most basic elements of curiosity, wonder, or the desire to think or to explore something new seem to vanish? William James was puzzled by that calling it the “enigma of arrested development.” He had no answer. The loss is a mystery whose onset can strike at nearly any age. When it does, in extremis, it’s deadly … for not seeing, the loss of wonder, is more than being myopic or stultifying. It diminishes us like a pool of water evaporating in the sun.
When it comes to “art” how often I have asked myself, “why don’t they see that art can be more than decoration, more than a matter of taste or entertainment or a matter of fashion?” Why are we so reluctant or unwilling to give more than a few seconds to art that we “can’t relate to” or “don’t get” right off the bat? Is it that we don’t want to be bothered with something new or troubled with having to ‘work’ with something we think we shouldn’t have to? Do we really want art to show us what we already know, what we’ve already seen, what we can easily recognize? Do we think that seeing just ‘happens’? It doesn’t. Seeing is about paying attention. To do that, you have to be awake.
Because ‘paying attention’ is not easy to do most of us can’t do it for long … and we can’t because we don’t believe it takes practice. So the less attention we pay (to anything, but especially art) the less we see, the narrower our horizon becomes, the smaller our pupil of awareness, and hence (psychologically speaking) the more visually challenged or unconscious we become. Researchers into human consciousness have suggested that keenly aware folks live as much as 95% of their lives unconsciously. Most are paying attention about 1% of the time! That’s not necessarily nor altogether a bad thing unless, say, you’re at the wheel of a car or have your hand ‘on the Button.’ But it does illustrate, when it comes to art, the challenge artists face. Art that disturbs may be art trying to get our attention. Art is like an alarm clock that only works if you want to be awakened.
Distractions from attention are legion, but principal among them is our own mind and heart. Too easily do we look to the world around us to confirm, to be the evidence for, what we already think and feel. Why … ? Because the learned perspective we have on things inevitably places us at the center where we are located by our beliefs, familiar traditions, and the sum of our lived experiences. Without thinking we act as though the world revolves around us … everything is about ‘me.’ It’s comforting to imagine that’s true because, after all, only “I” have my experiences. But it’s wrong. In fact most things are not about ‘me’ because experience happens at a moment, in a place, and with an other not of my own making. So … if the only thing you see in art is what you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ you’re not having an art experience, you’re looking in a mirror seeing yourself. You’re not seeing what’s there. Art is a mirror for it’s maker alone. The moment it’s shown it becomes a window, a window you can see only when you’re not looking at yourself. Otherwise you are merely in the vicinity of an art event, but you are not seeing what’s there — like the birdsong you didn’t hear over breakfast or the small flower you passed beneath the hedge. If or when you do experience art you may still like or dislike what you see. However a window will show you something different than what you did or did not like in the mirror … and you’ll know the difference because it’s not just about you.