Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Perception, Politics, and the Day the Sky Turned Green

In Paintings I Like, pt. 21, I quoted Barnett Newman on visual art's potential to affect political change, even (and perhaps especially) if the art in question has no political subject matter. I added that if people could be made to see form and space in a new way, in a way that was substantially different than they were accustomed to seeing, then other things in their lives which seemed permanent and intractable might also be viewed as fluid. The easiest target for this reevaluation, I reasoned, was the state, whose legitimacy often rests on the silliest and flimsiest of pretexts (i.e. "family values," and so on).

A close friend read the piece and questioned me on my logic, so I quickly came up with a metaphor to illustrate my point. It was hot and we were jogging, so the scenario I described was a little rough around the edges - I thought it might be worthwhile to try and flesh it out a little more fully. But first I need to backtrack a bit.

My larger point was about the profundity of seeing, which some say is the way we receive 90% of our information about the world, leaving linguistic information a distant second. I know the semioticians will disagree vehemently, but sign systems tend to break down when the specificity that coincides with concentrated looking emerges. What I mean is that generally people do not really look at the things they are confronted with in their day to day life - they quickly take in their surroundings and categorize things in terms of threat (mean dog), desirability (ice cream cone), utility (subway station), etc. People seldom really examine the specific contours, colors and textures of the dog, ice cream cone, or the architecture of the subway station. When one is able to really look at things in an aesthetic light, divorced from the objects' meanings, uses, or threats, the results are generally quite surprising; entire lists of attributes begin to appear that were before essentially invisible. When meaning is then reintegrated, it will necessarily be altered by the visual discoveries from the previous step. If you doubt this, look at an utterly familiar space (like your bedroom or living room) in a large mirror. Many of the things that had become virtually invisible due to their familiarity look suddenly alien and command a scrutiny you would generally never afford them. Then turn around and look at them again in real space, and, at least for a little while, you can see them anew.

Art is uniquely suited to the encouragement of this type of concentrated looking for an obvious reason: to be looked at is its primary reason for existence. You can't wear it, eat it, or use it to pick winning horses - all you can do is gaze upon it, and the very best art will reward that gaze with wholly new visual experiences, as well as new perspectives on the familiar, much like in the mirror experiment.

On to the metaphor:

Imagine if tomorrow morning the sun rose at the usual time, but instead of its usual yellow-orange, it was a brilliant emerald-green, and gave an emerald green cast to the sky, clouds and everything on the face of the earth.

The first reaction would be terror. But if the fear could somehow be allayed, and it could be made clear that it was simply a change in the color of the light and not a an eco-disaster or nuclear attack, then people would start seeing familiar things very differently, and looking at them harder than before; the entire world would command attention in a similar fashion to the objects in the mirror experiment. Grass would seem impossibly verdant, and stop signs oddly grey. Yellow cabs would turn yellow-green, and white shirts would turn the color of a lime popsicle. And people would be looking at the all these ordinary things with interest and wonder, inadvertently becoming aware of the number of buttons on the popsicle-colored shirt, or the shapes of the houses on their block, and a million other things that were right in front of them the day before but that they never saw. People would look at each other in an entirely different way, too, if everyone's skin and hair was tinted green; indeed, one of the most reliable indicators of ethnicity would be radically changed, and new classifications would need to be drawn by those who insist on drawing them (say, light green versus dark green). All the familiar things, things that seemed so fixed and permanent and ordinary would seem marvelously interesting and subject to flux, even though nothing had actually changed in terms their material or biological composition. They just looked different.

And let's say that after a period of time, a month, or maybe a year, the sun came up one day and it was back to its normal color. Things would look the way they used to look, the way that they looked in memory, but again would look new. And probably as profoundly new as they looked when they turned green. And at least for a while, and maybe for a long while, nothing regarding permanence or stability would be taken for granted. If everything in the whole world looked different for a time, even though it smelled, felt, sounded, and tasted the same, then it would seem that little is fixed and all is subject to change. This could be a cause for great anxiety, but could just as easily be viewed as an opening for the embrace of new possibilities. Either way, the experience would necessarily change people's world view.

So why do I think that an altered perception could lead to political change? Because political systems are by far the softest and most vulnerable target, even as they present themselves as massive, powerful, and permanent. Politicians obsessively read poll numbers, constantly taking the public's temperature for the slightest signs of unrest. Societal mood swings cause politicians much anxiety, but large scale changes in outlook cause hysteria. Why are they so nervous?

I recently read an interesting piece by the anthropologist David Graeber, in which he talks about the basis for and maintenance of political power. In the article, Graeber points out that "if you could convince everyone in the entire world that you were the King of France, then you would actually be the King of France." He goes on:

"This is the essence of politics. Politics is that dimension of social life in which things really do become true if enough people believe them. The problem is that in order to play the game effectively, one can never acknowledge its essence. No king would openly admit he is king just because people think he is. Political power has to be constantly recreated by persuading others to recognize one’s power; to do so, one pretty much invariably has to convince them that one’s power has some basis other than their recognition. That basis may be almost anything— divine grace, character, genealogy, national destiny. But 'make me your leader because if you do, I will be your leader' is not in itself a particularly compelling argument."

Graeber's point is that political power's main basis is perception. If the general public's perception became dynamic instead of complacent; if people expected and sought and welcomed meaningful change, then the smoke and mirrors game that Graeber outlines above would be difficult if not impossible to maintain. Art, it seems to me, tirelessy aspires to the expansion and alteration of perception, and does so via the medium of seeing - the sense through which we do the vast majority of our perceiving. Art needs no political subject matter, or any subject matter at all, to excite and influence perception. Stalin (who imprisoned Malevich) and Hitler (who hung the "Degenerate Art" exhibition) squelched early modernist painting, even though, on its face, the work generally had no subversive content. It simply presented a new way of seeing, which is anathema to entrenched power.

When I was very small, I would naively question my family about why some people had so much and others so little, or why there was war. The adults repeatedly told me: "that's the way of the world," and would look at one another with knowing, sad smiles. These injustices were put in the same category as the weather, instead of their actual category, which is a set of priorities imposed upon the many by the few. But the many are, by tacit agreement, allowing the few to perpetuate these things, and the few are trying desperately to present these things as natural and necessary occurrences, when they are in reality a matter of perception. Articulating new and open pictorial spaces might not have the same life-altering power to change perception that a green sky would. But within the metaphor, the entire environment took on the character of art, and the inhabitants had no choice but to look at it. If people could be made to really look at art with the same intensity, then some measure of those changes in perception, and hence in outlook, would obtain. And then anything would be possible.