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  • Andrew Field

Why Are People, Art Forms, and the World Invisible to Us?



This morning, and in the last few days as well, I've been brooding about invisibility. What do I mean?


There is a way in which we live our lives, and are only aware of certain things, and not aware of other things. It's like we pull a helmet over our heads - the glass globe of Mysterio from Spiderman, say - and then, through the hazy foggy globe, made opaque by our breath, say, we can only make out dim outlines, we cannot see what is around us.


Another way of saying this is that, in a very strange way, the world is invisible to most of us. We don't see the world so much as we see our own fears, and the world behind those fears is like a tired, thin, sad carbon copy of the actual world, let's say, a world of color, of the bright vividness of cartoons, of fresh air, or clouds and the sense that anything is possible. The Mysterio globe turns into a sailor helmet with a cool latch, and you can pull it back and actually look at things: the neon green fish swimming past some remarkably weird blue-green algae, maybe even a shipwreck and a compass, skeletons, and a sailor hat.


I started thinking more about this because of two things: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and the art of album covers. Ellison is one of our greatest American and African-American novelists of all time, and Invisible Man is his masterpiece. The book is a meditation on the way in which being Black in American makes you weirdly invisible. Why? Because people do not see you, they see their fears. Black then becomes white, in the sense of bleached out. The very humanness of people, of human beings, is blotted out because of this veil of fear.


Ellison could probably have written more than that one masterpiece, but he didn't. Why? The pressures, I think, were probably too much. One can stand being invisible for only too long - then there is an eruption, like Invisible Man, but afterwards there is a different form of invisibility, what Bob Dylan called "the dust of rumors," or what, on Blood on the Tracks, what he called "big ideas, images, and distorted facts." You are invisible for a long time, you become visible, and then you become invisible in a different way: Walt Whitman as the "good gray poet," rather than the terrifyingly original father of us all; Emily Dickinson as the quaint New England woman in the attic, as opposed to a poet who I don't have words for describe her to be honest, she is that original; even Robert Frost, the avuncular old poet guy reading at the inauguration, rather than the poet who wrote "Directive."


People do not see people. They see their insecurities. That's why art is helpful - it can help us confront our insecurities in a safe way. This is why Nietzsche said that we need art in order to not perish from the truth.


Invisibility happens because of fears. Fears are formed in large part by assumptions. This is also why things like album covers are not considered art or very written about. Album covers are enormously important for how we experience and think about and imagine music, but they are mostly invisible. In the same way in which we read a cartoon, usually reading only the words and subconsciously or unconsciously absorbing the picture, we do the same with album covers. We register the image in a blip, just to move on to the music. What we don't realize is that the blip shapes how we think about the music, its meaning, the feeling of its semantics, and therefore our own self-image, our own, let's say, album cover.


What if we look at the album cover first? What do we see? What would we guess about the musicians, the band, the music? If we stop and look, and guess, and then listen, does our guess corroborate the music? If yes, what does that mean? If no, what does that mean?


(Similarly, what if we read cartoons by looking at the images first, and then the words. Can we read the images and imagine what they are saying? If we then read what they're saying, and it corroborates our guess, does that mean we are feeling the meaning of the panels in a better way? What if what the language says is different, completely different? How do we know if we are feeling right, or reading right?)


These are important questions, because of the importance of visual literacy, but also because life and the world are more fun when you see it, when you learn how to look without assumptions. How do we do this?


The main thing is the feeling in our heart, if we feel happy, or at peace. If we are very angry, we will probably not be able to read with any equanimity, and our rage will distort the picture. If we just let our rage simmer, and don't find people to talk to, art forms to pour it into, therapy, a vocabulary for our trauma, then we don't wind up seeing other people because we can't see ourselves.


How we feel is always a good place to start. Thing about that Sufjan Stevens line from "Jacksonville" on Illinois - "if feeling is right, then look where you're at."

That could be a good place to start. Learning how to read cartoons, or see album covers, like other forms of literature - poems, short stories, plays, essays - is a matter of feeling, of awareness of how the heart is doing and feeling. That then leads to a greater sensitivity, subtlety and discernment when it comes to tone. And then we can see the invisible.


An enjoyable paradox is that the invisible has more control on us than the visible. Meaning, we rush past the cover album for the music, but don't realize that, in its very invisibility, its framing the music. In other words, images can be more absorbing than words or music, depending on the artist.


If we would perish from the truth without art, we would also be unable to see the invisible. Art makes us more aware, and when it does, the curtain is pushed back a little bit, and we can see aspects of reality - even in the same room we sat in a day ago - differently. Reality changes because we change, as Owen Barfield argued in Saving the Appearances. This is why Richard Rorty argued that there is no intrinsic nature to human beings. When we think there is some intrinsic nature - benevolence, malevolence, and everything outside and in-between - we wind up choosing to continue to keeping the invisible unvisible.

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