Looking at the indescribable

One of the most interesting thinkers to explore seeing is John Berger who’s been doing it for decades now in books like About Looking and Ways of Seeing. In the April issue of Harpers (not available on-line yet) he describes the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who tried to see “through the lies (visual, verbal and acoustic) that are imposed on us every minute.” He used the condition of blindness to explain what he meant. The blind, he writes,

negotiate their way by asking questions and receiving answers with all the senses except that of sight. They receive information and perspectives offered by sounds, by the air and its drafts and temperatures, by the touch of their probing sticks, their feet and hands. Each sense has for them its own language with which it recognizes and defines the world. What distinguishes the blind, however, from those who have sight is that the blind accept that a larger part of what exists is indescribable. Familiar, sustaining, hateful or lovable, essential, but nevertheless indescribable because, to them, invisible.

The painter Basquiat understood that a large part of the world was indescribable and that was what he wanted to tune into because the invisible, being invisible, cannot be described and therefore cannot be lied about. Which, of course, implies that a great deal of what is visible is also a lie—in commercials and advertisements, in photographs both off-and-on-line—even, or perhaps especially, in art.

I don’t usually look at the world around me that way, as if it were true or false. I guess I usually judge truth or falsity of an image from its context—the commercial and its claims, the photograph with its message, the art work that claims profundity but has none. If I think of images themselves as true or false, I find I’m overwhelmed by the numbers of lies in our day-to-day looking. What must that do to us?

 And then, I think, this may make the looking at art even more important. Slow looking. To cleanse our eyes, to tune into the invisible and indescribable which is all around us.

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