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Taking the Red Pill of Art

I don’t know exactly when I took the red pill.(1)Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance. It’s much easier to talk about a time when I’d taken the red pill and was talking to someone who hadn’t. I was at the Whitney Museum of Art with my friend. We saw the exhibit fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad.

My friend is a pretty smart guy and not afraid of adventure. He’s the type of guy who visited dying American cities just to see what they were like. He looked at the exhibition and said, “This is shit. I can’t believe that they put this in a museum of this caliber.”

I looked at him in disbelief and said, “This is amazing.”

I tried to explain to him why it was amazing. I explained that the world is a set of beautiful pictures (whatever that meant). I blurted out that he should learn how to really see the fruit and vegetables better (reading this, it does sound absurd). I ranted and raved and tripped over my words. I tried to explain to him that… I didn’t know what I was trying to explain. This was a few months ago, and it stuck in my head. The rest of this essay is a more full response to why it’s amazing.

Great art is always a collaboration between the artist and the audience. Any great artist needs inspiration from nature or imagination because that’s all we have. When you look at a bowl of fruit by Paul Cezanne it looks beautiful but still resembles the fruit on your table, but hopefully, after you see Cezanne’s take on the apples you’ll look at your own fruit bowl a bit differently.

Putting the fruit and vegetables on display in fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad takes the actual fruit and vegetables off your table and makes you look at them as art. It’s like Cezanne’s fruit but leaves more of the art as an exercise to the audience. Of course, it’s more difficult for the audience this way. Neil Gaiman writes about this author/audience relationship in his book, The View from the Cheap Seats:

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

“Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013” Gaiman, Neil. The View from the Cheap Seats (p. 5).

I tried to analyze fruits, vegetables; fruit and vegetable salad more deeply. It’s conceptual art so there’s an underlying set of instructions that the museum purchased from the artist. I talked to the docent and why they weren’t on display with the art. He told me, “Then it wouldn’t seem so special. You would lose part of the magic of the art.” It felt like that old adage about comedy: Dissecting comedy is like dissecting a frog, no one has any fun and the frog dies.

It’s tempting to imagine that an artist as a fundamentally different human being with special powers. We’re tempted to believe that the artist is like the Oracle at Delphi(2)In the article No One Knows What’s Going to Happen, the author writes: The most highly revered oracles in the ancient Greek world were the high priestesses at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. When it came time to respond to a petitioner who had placed a question before her, the priestess would enter the inner sanctum and seat herself on a tripod erected over a crevice in the ground, out of which inebriating gases were thought to rise. These fumes paralyzed her rational faculties and put her in a trance of receptivity that allowed the god Apollo to speak through her in cryptic remarks and riddles. These would be interpreted by a second figure, the prophet, who answered the grateful petitioner in poetry or prose. It was a very successful start-up and made Delphi a wealthy town. with magical powers who can see the truth, but she’s not.

I always find it fascinating talking to Abigail’s Aunt Margaret. She’s an Artist if there ever was one. She sells her paintings for a living and has important artist friends. If you took a French bon vivant from a coffeehouse from the early 20th century and stuck her in an organic garden today you’ll probably end up with someone that looked a lot like Aunt Margaret. When I ask Margaret about art in general, she has wonderful ideas and stories. She talks all about different artists and how they can bring things together in a beautiful and profound way. In her own art, she creates little miracles with paint and watercolor. However, when I ask her where her art comes from, she looks at me, smiles a little bit, and says, “This is the art. This is just the way I see the world.” There’s no analytical answer. There’s no reason that it is this way. It’s just art.

I feel like there’s an understanding among artists. It’s impossible to explain where the art comes from. My friend Shana is a poet. She wrote about the frustration about trying to explain the inexplicable—when you as a poet should have the word for something but that word doesn’t exist. She called it sparkleponyfarts (That may not be what Shana originally meant by sparkleponyfarts but that’s how I want to use the word).(3)Technically, I think sparkeponyfarts refers to any time an author can’t find the word for something. In this case, I feel comfortable using it to mean a word that can never be found. And even if she didn’t mean it in that way, Shana let’s me use it that way. She accepts that I can extend her work and build on it, even if it’s not what she initially intended.

Back in high school, I was dating a girl who copied out the entire poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock and sent it to me in a letter. When somebody copies out 140 lines by hand, you have to save it and read it and try and understand it. I liked the poem. I imagined it was written by a rebel. Lines like “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be” called out to me as an impatient teen. The narrator wanted to do something different from Hamlet—to be better than Hamlet in his own way. I later learned that TS Eliot wrote this poem at the end of his life as a melancholy swan song.(4)The girl I was dating was incredibly melancholy and saw this poem differently than I did. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out between us. And I know this because we now have YouTube recordings of Eliot reading this poem and it sounds nothing like it does in my head. And I’m thankful that I never heard the “right” interpretation of the poem until much later, because I like my version of the poem so much more.

Because art is a collaboration between artist and audience, there is never a single meaning for a piece of art. Two people can both look at the same object and see two entirely different things. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, describes how people can see two different things in something much more straightforward, a physics equation.

It’s natural to explain an idea in terms of what you already have in your head. Concepts are piled on top of tech other: this idea is taught in terms of that idea… When I see equations, I see the letters in colors—I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character (p. 59).

When you see a pattern of letters or numbers together that have a meaning, they jump off the page because they make sense. We know that this happens with words. The word “word” means more to you than the characters “gsdc.” But it works with other things, like numbers. Take the numbers 1203, 171, 1776, and 2001. Did you see the way the last two numbers meant more to you than the first two? They jump off the page with a power that goes well beyond the numerals themself.

I didn’t realize this when I was at the Whitney. When I tried to explain the art to my friend, I didn’t have the right words (I thought I did), and I didn’t see the chasm of understanding. My explanations probably came out more like insults and pandering and that didn’t help. “How can you not see this?! And more importantly, why don’t you want to say this? Why don’t you want to put the effort into your side of the art?” I was looking at art. I was looking at this beautiful installation and could sit there and investigate these fruits and vegetables for hours. He felt that he was looking at this fruit and vegetable stand that got stuck in an art museum. He didn’t see the pattern.

I first tasted the red pill in high school. I remember going with my grandfather to the Museum of Modern of Art and seeing an exhibit on Picasso. We got the audio guide. The guide explained that Picasso’s paintings weren’t a bunch of garbage that was thrown together. He was trying to take the best vantage points or certain emotions and stick them together in a kind of collage.(5)I later learned that this isn’t so different from the way Egyptians made their art. So you look at each of the pieces of the painting separately and then merge them together into a whole. And that’s art. It’s about using a medium to assemble these pieces of life and imagination, putting them together and turning them into something that inspires others.

I swallowed the red pill in London in the summer of 1997. I was taking a course online art and architecture of English country houses. The professors were fantastic and I learned so much about how art and architecture work, but the thing I remember most is a book. I asked the professors what book I should read to really understand art. They turned me onto The Story of the Art. The introduction of the book was my red pill. I keep my favorite pieces in my digital library. It begins:

There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists. Once these were men who took colored earth and roughed out the forms of a bison on the wall of a cave; today they buy their paints, and design posters for the Underground; they did many things in between. There is no harm in calling all these activities art as long as we keep in mind that such a word may mean very different things in different times and places, and as long as we realize that Art with a capital A has no existence. For Art with a capital A has come to be something of a bogey and a fetish. You may crush an artist by telling him that what he has just done may be quite good in its own way, only it is not ‘Art’. And you may confound anyone enjoying a picture by declaring that what he liked in it was not the Art but something different.

Introduction to E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.

The Story of Art has a strange pedigree—especially in America. It’s clear and straightforward (which is weird for an art book). It summarizes the whole history of western art. It turned me onto art in a way that no other book has. It’s a book that I want my children to read. So why does no one know about this book? Actually, it’s one of the best selling art books in the world having sold over 7 million copies but hasn’t taken off in America. Most art books take a viewpoint of looking at capital “A” Art and the importance of it and how it fits into a larger climate. The Story of Art tells the story of the artists and art, but it also tells the story of how the viewer is part of this process. The purpose of art is to be appreciated.

Taking the red pill has its negatives. When Neo took the red pill in the Matrix he learned that once you take it you can never go back. So now I find myself at the Whitney Museum yelling at my friend about the profundity of the fruit and vegetable stand that’s being put on display. I find myself walking through a nature trail, dragging behind the group and not paying attention to the other people because the picture of a waterfall in real life is so beautiful.(6)After writing that piece I realized that there’s a coy pond nearby, complete with a waterfall. I started going there in the morning to meditate. The first day I looked up, “How do you use a coy pond to meditate?” on Google but didn’t find anything. So I just sat in silence in front of the coy pond. I realized that a coy pond is the perfect model for just watching and experiencing nature. Whether you call it art or meditation or nature appreciation, it’s so wonderful to see the beauty of the world laid out in front of you. And it’s laid out in a personal way, just for me, and just in that one time. And not finding the answer in Google is so right! You just have to experience it! If I look deeply enough I can see the beauty of the pastoral landscapes of Claude Lorainne. And I’m sitting there and realizing that the amount of beauty in this nature trail is so much more awesome and fantastic than what I see every day in the man-made world. And the rest of the group just didn’t get it and didn’t see the beautiful patterns that I did—Feynman’s colored equations jumping off the page.

This hit me hard the other day. It was at the end of April and the cherry blossoms had come out. They were starting to come off of the trees. At the same time there was an enormous wind that was coming. “It’s snowing!” I shouted, probably not out loud. But it was a fantastic event. We were in the middle of this fake snowstorm in the middle of April. I had my son take a video of it. He did a pretty good job capturing a factual copy of the moment but he didn’t capture its essence. At least I have a picture that I can use to remember that moment and hold it close. The professional artists and painters can capture this moment and share it with others. I’m not so great so my efforts may come across as amateurish and ham-fisted, especially if I co-opt my 10-year-old in these endeavors. He thinks he’s just making a short video clip and doesn’t understand that he’s making art.

Riding my bike through the “snowstorm” of cherry blossoms.

Then I’m walking down the street and I see these little cherry blossom petals that have come off the tree and are running down the street. And I just wanted to stare at them because it was just so beautiful. I mean, you never see snow flurries in the middle of April even if they’re not really real snow flurries.

The “snowflakes” running down the street.

“Dad where are you? What’s taking you so long?!” And my kids pull me back into the real world.

It’s amazing to take the red pill and see all of this beauty in the world even with the frustrations. It’s frustrating because other people don’t see the beauty that I see, and it’s even more frustrating when they don’t even try. But there’s something to learn in that frustration. I’ve realized that the end goal of a conversation isn’t to get people to agree with me, it’s to collaboratively build something better than we had before. I want to talk with people so that we’re both artists who can create something new together. This frustration makes me realize that other people have ideas in their heads that I don’t see, and it makes me more humble and open to all the other artists in the world—whether they know they’re artists or not.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Red pill and blue pill: I’m referring to the red pill in the movie The Matrix. Neo takes the red pill to see the world for what it really is. He had a choice to take the red pill or the blue pill, which would have left him in blissful ignorance.
2. In the article No One Knows What’s Going to Happen, the author writes: The most highly revered oracles in the ancient Greek world were the high priestesses at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. When it came time to respond to a petitioner who had placed a question before her, the priestess would enter the inner sanctum and seat herself on a tripod erected over a crevice in the ground, out of which inebriating gases were thought to rise. These fumes paralyzed her rational faculties and put her in a trance of receptivity that allowed the god Apollo to speak through her in cryptic remarks and riddles. These would be interpreted by a second figure, the prophet, who answered the grateful petitioner in poetry or prose. It was a very successful start-up and made Delphi a wealthy town.
3. Technically, I think sparkeponyfarts refers to any time an author can’t find the word for something. In this case, I feel comfortable using it to mean a word that can never be found.
4. The girl I was dating was incredibly melancholy and saw this poem differently than I did. Maybe that’s why it didn’t work out between us.
5. I later learned that this isn’t so different from the way Egyptians made their art.
6. After writing that piece I realized that there’s a coy pond nearby, complete with a waterfall. I started going there in the morning to meditate. The first day I looked up, “How do you use a coy pond to meditate?” on Google but didn’t find anything. So I just sat in silence in front of the coy pond. I realized that a coy pond is the perfect model for just watching and experiencing nature. Whether you call it art or meditation or nature appreciation, it’s so wonderful to see the beauty of the world laid out in front of you. And it’s laid out in a personal way, just for me, and just in that one time. And not finding the answer in Google is so right! You just have to experience it!