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February 8, 2010

I Saw It That Way Too

When you first learn to draw objects or figures, you engage in training your mind, not your eye. A goal is to see the parts of everything before you. Gradually, your brain allows for a way of seeing that reveals some essential elements in the process of constructing an image -- that all objects are held in space, are shaped and bisected or transected by light, and are impacted by color.

The other day one of my students was drawing a bowl that was turned on its side, so the opening of the bowl was facing her. And she kept moving her pencil in a circle, over and over again, because she saw the bowl (and all bowls) as round. She paid no attention to the fact that the bowl was lit from the side, so half of the bowl was in shadow; she did not see that what she was transcribing from the real world, the world of 3-d wholes, was actually two curved halves of a bowl, one in darkness, the other lit. Her eyes were fine, but her mind could not yet see the whole object before her as component parts, divided by light.

Another student was working on a sketch copy of a painting of a farmhouse in which the artist had presented the house and the space around it geometrically; the structure, outlined in tones of brown, was intersected by trapezoids and parallelograms of light, and organic objects (like a tree and vines) were presented as vibrating circular masses of color. This student approached the sketch by seeing only the whole, without the geometric parts, and fixated to a point of anxiety on the "rightness" of the colors of the leaves.

Now I am sure I am stretching a point here, but reflecting on learning to draw makes me think about nihilism and all its philosophical cohorts -- including the idea that there are no complete objects, only parts, outside of us. But real nihilism (at least in my interpretation) really contains three ideas: that all there is is in your own mind, that there is no metaphysical frame for any human values, and that the destruction of an untenable or undesirable social order is ok, on occasion, as it will be ideally replaced by a newer, more effective, entirely human-constructed order.

I suspect the philosophical giants who wrote about and struggled with nihilism could not draw.

If they could, I doubt there would have been such furious debate about the existence of objects and component parts outside of the self...for if their minds had been trained to draw, they would have begun to see everything around them as parts, combining to wholes, held by light and space. Held by shared light and space. This sounds simplistic, I know, and I do also know that philosophy is about language use, not the physical realm, but I think there is something to be said about the limitations of vision (of all kinds) resulting in limitations in philosophical pronouncements.

I've written before about the false reality created by scientists and theologians alike in the era before eyeglasses were in use; the limits of sight resulted in severely limited readings of the state of the universe and our place in it. The same occurred before the advent of photography. Generations ago nihilists justified their stance about the unseen as unknowable when the idea that we could actually see atoms was completely unimaginable -- but now we can even "see" down to the molecular level, our essential component parts.

Traditional nihilism was a reaction to the decline of religious belief, presented as a stark and frightening contrast to life without a metaphysical root. Modern nihilism seems a bit different, more about the promotion of the individual as an inviolate and pure ideal, more about self-aggrandizement as a social good. As if the only alternative to not having an innate, spirit-generated set of human values was to have no belief in or even sense of the importance of shared human values at all. And as if existence itself is not just an isolated but a static state, instead of a process of mutual engagement and retreat, a process of changing and reforming, a process of emerging from seeing only the wholes for years and years and then learning to see anew.