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  • Andrew Field

Why Do We See Bulls When We Look at Clouds?

Franz Marc, The Large Blue Horses, 1911

I like taking walks, because often I get to, or try to, see different facets of the world in new ways. I like thinking of Wallace Stevens, composing poems on his way to work, and I think the only way an artist can survive is by never stopping to replenish his or her store of perceptions, which is another way of saying never stopping to see things in new ways, from different angles and perspectives, in different colorings etc. Perception ossifies if it doesn't get stretched; and when that happens, thought and feeling harden, too. I think a certain kind of looseness is so important to create and stay fresh and inspired.

Today I was thinking about symbols in art and writing. In writing, this would mean a word, like "chair" or "purse of money" or "her long black hair" or "necklace" that reappears throughout a play, or short story, or novel, and as it does, its meaning changes, or its emotional valences deepen or become more complex. Learning how to be good at this is one of the main meanings of an aesthetic education, since that term seems to mean, in a major way, the sharpening of one's perceptions, or being more sensitive to the various nuances of the feeling life, whether that be in shape, color and line in a drawing or painting or what have you - think about the joy one can experience looking at a Matisse, or the wonderful cartoonish weirdness of a cubist Picasso - or the inner life of a character - Madame Bovary, say, leaning out on a balcony in the cold dawn, with a light rain falling. But learning how to read these symbols - learning how to feel and think - is fundamentally a matter of perception, which is another word, I think, for interpretation.

We normally think of the latter in the context of reading, and the former in the context of looking, but there really is no difference. We read works of art just as much as we read works of literature. To read is to interpret is to perceive, and we read the world around us just as much as we read a text, and how we read to a great deal shapes our experience. But I don't think this last sentence gets at it deep enough - our experience, rather, is how we read. By this I don't mean some glib, "oh, to stop feeling depressed, you just have to think differently." I do mean that there is no reading without psychology, and how we read is inseparably connected to our own biographies, or autobiographies, and the manner in which we have learned to interpret these narratives. In the condescending comment above "oh, just think differently, etc." there is a lack of awareness about how hard it is to learn to accept and forgive. That's why it's condescending. But those things, which are psychological, and take long periods of time, lead to, or are a product of, being more flexible in our seeing, thinking, feeling, perception and interpretation.

I think this is why, for me, poetry has always been a mainstay as a reader. Poetry is an art form that takes very seriously the fact that one may see bulls when one looks at clouds. Why, or how? If you asked a scientist what a cloud is, he or she would tell you something about vapor, or condensation (not my specialty). That might not be how he or she actually experiences the cloud, but through the lens of that discipline, that's what it would be. With poetry, one may look at a cloud and see an infinite variety of things, just as one may see an infinite amount of faces in the moon. Is there an actual face in the moon? Is the cloud actually a bull? No, of course not. But in another way, yes, very very yes. How so? Because seeing the cloud as a bull is a perception, and therefore an interpretation, and therefore connected to how one sees the world. And oftentimes we do not even realize that there are other ways to see the world than the way we currently see. If we recognize that we do see the cloud as a bull, we might then wonder what it is about a bull, or why that particular image? It's no different from Freud's recognition of the crucial importance of association for understanding one's psychic life. In that sense, good artists, to my mind, are attuned to how they see the world.

For that reason, I think it's fair to say that good art is a matter of the richness of its meaning, or its inexhaustibility. Art lasts for a long time because it never stops compelling new interpretations, new perceptions. In one age, or one moment, the cloud is a bull; in another moment, it's a girl dancing, or a tower, or a plain. Therefore, in good art, the meaning, by which I mean the active form and content of an interpretation or perception, is diachronic, or labyrinthine, or bottomless, or ever-expanding, choose your metaphor. It unrolls, unfurls, opens various doors and window, but it is never dried up. I think an aesthetic education means learning how to take this unfixedness seriously. It also means that one of the best criteria for evaluating a work of art is whether or not one finds new meanings in it after a second viewing or reading.

In the best poetry - I"m thinking of Emily Dickinson right now - words themselves, individual words, are almost frighteningly polysemous. The same is true of a painting by Picasso or Matisse. One day you will look at it, and it will mean something, and another day you will at it, and it will mean something different. Why? We've grown in the time between the first reading and the second. Yes, but what else? In a very strange way, so have Dickinson, Picasso and Matisse. In other words, the best artists are always a step ahead of us, like riding a horse to different posts to catch up to another rider, but at each post there is a note attached. We read it, and it's a new clue, and we read to the next post. But it is all clues. The rider itself cannot approached; and if it is, we find a rider that is more appropriate for our quest. But that seems to me today what it means to interpret - following a line towards an ever receding circle, or what is called in Jewish mysticism "ein sof," a term for God denoting and connoting a kind of unyawn-inducing endlessness, like a horse with no rider, or a trail of tracks in the snow.

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