When is the last time I said thank you as I approached an artwork?
Typically, I’m looking for something in an artwork – looking for it to be or to do something. This can be subtle or gross – for example I have my thoughts about certain types of abstraction that can get applied pretty early in the encounter, and effect a wholesale rejection of the object. And I have similar thoughts and reactions when an artwork seems too ‘messaged’ – too interested in having me take on its point of view uncritically or as a knee-jerk political response. These are obvious.
But there’s a subtler kind of rejecting – a rejecting of the encounter itself. This happens when I am busy measuring the artwork against some preconceived (and mostly unconscious) ideas about what the artwork is supposed to do and be for me. I take this model from the conditioning of everyday life. It may be instinctual, biological – but I tend to move through my experience in a reductive and prejudicial way: I reduce the varied and continuously changing stimuli into two categories: what matters, and what doesn’t matter. And I then ignore the ones that don’t, and sift through the ones that do, developing a plan – of attack.
Further, my prepaving of what does and doesn’t matters bleeds into the opinions about things – about good and bad – that I carry with me moving forward. I learn, in other words, how to make my future encounters safe and familiar, and I superimpose those, on arrival, in any situation that strikes me (even, and perhaps especially on the cellular level) as unfamiliar or unsafe – like encountering something new.
I’m writing all this because to me the artwork presents a unique phenomena: uniquely unfamiliar and perhaps (at least from the instinctual point of view) unsafe — and yet I choose to engage it. Something in me, it seems, wants to engage the new and unfamiliar, is curious and open to what I don’t yet know and haven’t yet encountered. Then, yet again, this curious (can we suggest that it is un- or less-conditioned and more progressive?) part of me comes in conflict with the more conservative and instinctual parts, that want to know for sure – to feel secure in, and, ultimately, dominate their environment.
This is one reason I speculate we have such a hard time staying open and allowing in the encounter with art. When it rubs against the instinctual drive, we feel uncomfortable, insecure, and so we reach for something familiar and secure. Here’s where meaning comes in. If I can apply a handy meaning structure or bit of content (especially something I habitually use to bolster and reinforce my positions, likes and dislikes) to something as unfamiliar and wild as most art objects, then I can feel secure and stable, get my bearings, and re-engage the familiar self I take myself to be. For the instinctual drive for survival, this amounts to a reduction of the tension and anxiety I feel in the presence of the unfamiliar – a sense of safety. The problem is, this reduction of the encounter to what renders comfort in turn reduces the art object to its use value for my comfort, limiting the rich possibilities of the encounter, and ultimately rendering it as purely self-centered: only useful to me.
I believe artworks challenge all this – and I think that’s why we love them ultimately; they bring us beyond that familiar and instinct-driven self to an expanded sense of what the encounter can be, and also of who we are and what we can be. Allowing a real encounter with art seems to require a bit of resistance to my tendency to dominate, first, and a little more tolerance with the discomfort of hanging loose in the uncertainty, second.
It’s useful to remember that the drives to know and dominate and be in control help me survive perceived threats; I wouldn’t have made it through early humanhood without them. But, however useful in my past life on the savannah 15,000 years ago, or as the underdeveloped and vulnerable infant and toddler I was, their influence is limiting, at best, from a mature, evolved perspective, and at worst keeps me small and hidden and defended, unavailable to anything in the encounter that doesn’t reinforce the need for safety and security.
Now, I am not saying I should (or could) give up thinking or meaning with respect to art, and I am not saying art can’t or shouldn’t authentically engage rich philosophical or political ideas. But from my point of view, the approach that wants to dominate and subordinate the richness and vulnerability of the encounter to a caption, is the one often participating most energetically, subtly, and effectively in the politics of domination. In fact art engaging politics and conceptual advancement needs the chance to authentically and freely engage in the space of the encounter, to allow itself to reverberate more openly and wildly there.
Then again, the conceptual naming that allows a collective gathering or rallying point around especially oppositional stances is important as well. And this text, too, employs reason and a hierarchical array of concepts, relying on familiarity and a relatively ‘safe’ space of discourse, to make its points. So don’t mistake this as a call for perfection and purity in the encounter – no such luck. We arrive at this moment with the conditioning we have, the linguistic norms we have, with our drives intact. Part of my real is my acceptance of the limitations of my freedom from my conditioning, and a recognition of the development of that freedom with respect to a more open and allowing approach to life’s threats – real and fancied.
In my view, the typical approach to art – what I call the conceptual regime of thinking, that asks in the first place ‘what does it mean’, prior to any encounter – needs to be balanced by open engagement with an intuitive, unfolding, uncertain encounter with the object – an encounter that, for me, leads to a richer, more powerful and, ultimately, far more meaningful relationship. The point is to confront and challenge the need to know, that in turn sets up the encounter to be a one-way affair (what can I get out of this?) and to open a path for less discursive, more open and felt and intuitive forms of text and meaning.
So what does thank you have to do with this? As corny and unweighty as it sounds, it’s a simple technique to make this kind of progress in how I relate. For when I begin with thank you in the face of what I don’t know, I am more open and sustained in my sensing into what the artwork really is and is really offering as the encounter unfolds from moment to moment, in my capacity to withstand and hold the uncertainty and perceived threat there, in my ability to perceive the perceived threat for what it is (a shadow form or trace of instinct), and in my availability to the wildness and richness the encounter offers.
So that when I speak, and name, and am forced by linguistic protocol to nail something down, it may itself include some aspect of that wildness – of the nature not just of the object, but also of the encounter itself. And I begin to enter a real encounter – an encounter centered in exchange, negotiation, and collaboration, rather than in my will to know or dominate. If serious artworks are anything, they are teachers who instruct from beyond the familiar and secure self, in a language that initiates me into the wildness and realness there in the encounter.
Image: RW164 (Swarm), 2013, 42 x 39 inches, oil on linen.