Look at something long enough and you start seeing it everywhere.
Look at something long enough and you start seeing it everywhere.
With all the lofty nonsense that gets spoken about art, it’s so easy to forget its simplest purpose: To change the way we see.
So, you watch an Andy Goldsworthy documentary, and pretty soon you’re finding beauty in the cracks in the sidewalk. (Above.)
Or, you see the stone mosaics of your friend John T. Unger and, once again, you find beauty on the sidewalk. (Below.)
Or, you remember Rauschenberg when you spot a tire track in the street. (Below.)
Claes Oldenberg said he was for art that helped old ladies across the street. I’m for art that helps them look down and notice stuff while they’re crossing!
This excerpt from Aaron Rose’s documentary Become A Microscope shows Corita Kent with her students, using what she called “finders” to learn how to see with fresh eyes. “You have to look at the world [in] small pieces at a time,” she said. “Look at it. Just a small part of the world.”
The Finders are described in the wonderful book based on her teachings, Learning By Heart:
[The finder] is a device, which does the same things as the camera lens or viewfinder. It helps us take things out of context, allows us to see for the sake of seeing, and enhances our quick-looking and decision-making skills.
An instant finder is an empty 35mm slide holder. Or you can make your own by cutting a rectangular hole out of a heavy piece of paper or cardboard—heavy enough so that it won’t bend with constant use. You can then view life without being distracted by content. You can make visual decisions—in fact, they are made for you.
When I visited the Corita Art Center yesterday, I was delighted to find out that they use Finders as their business cards:
…those sevens looked like ray guns to me!
And later Waters showed off his piece “308 Days,” which is a 3.5 x 9 feet long piece showing about 10 months worth of his crossed-out to-do lists on index cards:
Looking at the scribbles I thought, “Hey, wait a minute that reminds me of…”
Twombly! Waters is a collector, and says he owns over 80 of his books. He keeps the catalog for Letters of Resignation beside his bed. (His housekeeper once told him, “They have the nerve to put this in a book!”) Waters says he loves Twombly because he makes people mad. “This kind of contemporary art hates you too, and you deserve it.”
He explained on Newshour:
I even have a piece that says, “Contemporary Art Hates You.” Because it does, if you hate it first. It’s a thin line. You can’t have contempt about it and go in, but you have to learn, you have to study a little. You have to figure it out. Why these things happen and then suddenly this whole world up– opens up to you. You can see it in a completely different way. It’s like, you were blind before.
The minute you start looking, the world will keep showing you pictures.
PS. Here’s Waters showing off the joke with the sevens:
I lost my voice this week, so my 3-year-old has been
reading reciting his books to me at bedtime. Something about being read to distances me from pages I’ve read hundreds of times. (Literally — the book is in his hands, so I’m further away.) Tonight this page from Little Fur Family caught my eye:
then he reached in the river
and pulled out a fish
and looked at it
He threw it back in the river.
“Look at your fish!” I thought.
Then I remembered Kio Stark telling me that back in 2012 Robin Sloan (author of Sourdough) published an app/essay called “Fish,” a “manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet.” So after the 3-year-old was down for bed, I downloaded the essay and read it.
Robin notes that he returns to his absolute favorite books, music, and movies, over and over again: he re-reads, re-listens, re-watches. But on the internet, he “likes” something and moves on. It’s the act of returning, he suspects, that separates love from like:
And then he gets to the main point of the essay:
That’s right! Robin tells the story of Louis Agassiz’s “Look at your fish” lesson, which I read about in David McCullough’s Paris Review interview, but which is also in McCullough’s 1992 book, Brave Companions.
“We don’t look at our fishes,” Robin writes. “We catch and release.”
Here’s a page from Show Your Work!:
That’s exactly what the Little Fur Child in the story is doing on the page that caught my eye: catching and releasing.
So now I’m thinking about this metaphor of fishing and being on the internet, and it’s falling apart in my head, because catch and release means the fish stays alive — you take a look, then you throw it back into the river and somebody else downstream can catch it later and take a look for themselves. If you hoard the fish, or you eat the fish, nobody else gets to enjoy it. What you really have to do, if you want to really look at your fish is make a copy of the fish — clone the fish! — and then throw it back in the river.
(Ah, but now I might’ve spoiled the surprise (updated) ending of the essay!)
But, for writers, maybe it’s not just returning to the things we love… maybe it’s embedding the things we love in new things that we write that keeps those fish alive. Like what McCullough did with the Louis Agassiz story — he caught the fish, but he released it back into the wild in his book. And then Robin caught the fish and released it in his essay. And I caught it and released it… in this blog post?
Footnotes Stray thoughts
1. Little Fur Family comes right before Goodnight Moon, both of which have to be two of the weirdest picture books ever written, both written, of course, by Margaret Wise Brown, who was pretty weird herself…
2. I probably noticed the page in Little Fur Family because I’ve been obsessed with the way of seeing shown in Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises. It occurs to me, only now, duh, that the fish story, too, is all about Agassiz’s “way of seeing.” (Those are the exact words McCullough uses in Brave Companions.)
3. We haven’t even talked about David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water
I become a little possessed when I read Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. Weschler finds threads between images and shows those images in juxtaposition. Once you start looking this way, you start seeing convergences everywhere.
Books — especially hardcovers that lie flat on a table — are the perfect medium to show such juxtapositions. The pages face each other, like a showdown. The gutter in the middle is a natural break that makes the argument. When you close the book, the images press up against each other.
These are just three random books I happen to have read this week. But after reading them, I’ve noticed a change in my noticing. Some detector has been tripped.
In just the past 24 hours, I took these 3 photos with my cameraphone:
Some juxtapositions are uncanny, some a little farfetched. It’s easy to get carried away. “Sometimes I think I may be getting a little ahead of myself,” Weschler writes, “but the world does keep showing me these pictures.”
“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”
In his Paris Review interview, David McCullough talks about how important seeing is to the writer and historian, and how much his training in drawing and painting has been of great benefit to him in his work. “Drawing is learning to see and so is writing.”
He has a motto tacked above his desk: LOOK AT YOUR FISH.
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
He tells that story in all of his writing classes, and then emphasizes that looking more closely helps you discover new things in old or ordinary material that other people have not:
The chances of finding a new piece [of the puzzle] are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.
Filed under: looking
After I wrote about looking at things upside down, a reader relayed what his daughter was learning in army cadet training: “In the field, troops are told to scan from right to left. As we generally read left to right, doing the opposite aids in detecting anomalies in the landscape and potential threats to safety.”
Here’s photographer Dale Wilson (emphasis mine):
One of the first tricks I learned many years ago had nothing to do with photography, but was drilled into me by an army sergeant. It only took a few smacks up the back of my head to learn how to look from right-to-left when scanning a landscape in an effort to see the hidden “enemy” in our mock battles. This process of reverse reading forced me to slow down and read each tree as if it were a syllable I was seeing for the first time. Even today, about thirty years after I called that sergeant every adjective not found in a descent dictionary, I still find myself scanning a landscape from right-to-left.
More on reading right-to-left here.
“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.”
—Henry David Thoreau, journal, July 2, 1857