When beholding a toilet enshrined upon a plinth, it might seem unrealistic to think that its role as a very ordinary object could inspire quiet confidence; but, it should.
Duchamp teaches us with this urinal, that it is not what an object is, nor is it what an object looks like, which gives it importance. It is where you dare to put it.
If we apply that to ourselves, we can learn that it is not what or who you are, nor your appearance that will ultimately determine how people see you, but the unreserved way in which you carry these things, that will help the world sit up and pay attention. If you remain thinking, ‘I’m just ordinary, performing a daily routine, unglamorous, but functioning’, then that is all you will allow yourself to become.
Proudly, the piss-pot perches, unashamed of its bog-standard appearance, bold enough to call itself a ‘fountain’ – to call itself important. And it is this confidence that we can emulate; should you not feel your best-self one day, there is a lot to be said here for the old adage: fake it till you make it.
It is not just because it is a urinal that this work is famous; it is because it is a urinal in an art gallery. So, even if you view yourself as a toilet, turn up to that job interview, that party, that date with trust in who you are and the value you hold, and the people who behold you will likely recognise your value – because you’re you.
This work reminds us that all confidence is – is a performance. It is through this performance that people will see your most valuable assets because you have walked in as if they have belonged there this entire time. The emphasis of your worries, therefore, should not rest on what you are (which is, by default uniquely you and more than enough). You should concern yourself instead with who you will boldly present yourself to be. It is this that will affect how people perceive you, and how they perceive your ‘ordinariness’, because you know that it too deserves to be enshrined upon a plinth in a nice space.
Imagine each dot is a moment in your life. Place the first few moments that come to mind on the top line, those that are within closest reach.
What moments come to mind? What are they showing you about your world? If these were the only moments you could show a stranger, what kind of assumptions might they make about your life?
As you begin to move from dot to dot, for as long as is comfortable, you might note which moments feel far away and distant. Which memories would you place in the specs at the bottom.
How strange that, in recalling the moments that preoccupy us the most, we do not always give space to the ones in which we are most content.
The dots are all the same size; we just arrange them as if they aren’t. We choose to give importance to what feels familiar, and therefore what is ‘closer’ to how we view our life to be. Often, this is in place of moments that bring us peace; they might not fit the narrative to which we are most accustomed to living. How strange it is that the mind is wired in this way.
Jaray’s work invites us to observe how we choose to find order in chaos, how we make an illusion of meaning and sense out of life. The painting shows that, where ‘order’ means that with which we are familiar – it can also mean contentedness, depending on our perspective.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, built for Pharaoh Khufu, teaches us to be careful of admiring symbols of success. As we see it, success is incredibly impressive; visually striking, this majestic structure erupts from the ground, and basks in the light of the sun, illuminating how we come to idolise ‘success’, without truly seeing what it might entail.
What the pyramid could be seen to symbolise are the superficial, but very human, trappings of success: wealth and power. We are only looking at a final product; we see the golden glitz and glam, without the (at times morally dubious) methods that require blood and sweat. We end up admiring but feeling hopeless, incapable of seeing this success for ourselves and hypnotised by these grandiose symbols, in tears.
We have actually been warned, for around 4,500 years, to bow to this kind of success; perhaps now is the time to rebuild this understanding by:
1. Recognising that the success we see is a finished product (the real work is hidden), and 2. Understanding exactly how the product came to be.
For most people, hopefully, we wouldn’t want to achieve the kind of success we see in this glorious structure, which may have been built through slavery. Even if it wasn’t, alternative and plausible theories suggest this symbol of success is the handiwork of 20,000 workers over 20 years.
True success, for an individual, cannot be defined by its final product, yet the world will dupe you into believing that it should be. Instead, we should recognise the Pyramids for what they are: a version of someone else’s success and power which took extensive teamwork and time.
With this in mind, if we are inspired by anything about the pyramids, it should be the process that led to them. Once attention is on this process we can better shape or evaluate the integrity of the result. We can ensure that we build upon a foundation of fairness, or we can see with clarity that what we have previously admired, was not worth admiring at all. For instance, slavery, worker exploitation, and colonisation have been used as a means to achieve success in many forms, but have left a legacy of pain, suffering, and systematic oppression that laid the foundation for much of the inequality in existence today; these processes were not imbued with good intentions.
In the same way, we can apply this thinking to individual, even our own, paths to success: How are we going about achieving success? What values drive it? Are we working in alignment with our own, or someone else’s ideal? If it is the latter, is what they’ve achieved underpinned by the same values as our own, or something that prioritises the end products of wealth and power over the beneficial effects of the process?
The brutal realities of these processes, and paths to wealth and power, are clouded by our preoccupation with the final result. It looks impressive – surely that is all that matters? Does it matter how it came to be when what now exists appears to be so phenomenal? Yes, the methods weren’t well intentioned, but now are we not ‘better positioned’ to go ‘good’? Such questions are precisely why something like this great pyramid can be so dangerous – what it has truly taken to achieve success is unclear, it is hidden.
We should remember our own power to reconstruct what success is for ourselves. What we see before us is unlikely the kind of success that will leave us feeling fulfilled- that will leave us wealthy; imagine if the essence of success lay entirely in how something was achieved and not in what the final product might look like. The potential for creative and beneficial change that becomes possible could be infinite – even when it seems at odds with how a wonder of the world came to exist.
Have you ever felt this way? It is as if time has ceased to act as a barrier to the barrage of memories, thoughts, and moments that flood your mind. Perhaps it’s so paralysing, you don’t know what decision to make next; perhaps you’re so saturated by anxiety that the film between what is real and what is imagined has been eroded almost completely. With each scene that unfolds, before the previous one has even come to an end, it can feel impossible to escape.
An uncomfortable truth is that no matter which staircase you decide to go down, you have chosen this route. You will always end up in the same place: you can’t outthink over-thinking by thinking. Escher captures this essence in his etching, the aptly named, Relativity, from M.C. Escher: Reality and Illusion.
Why apt? Thinking can only offer us a reality that is defined in relation to what it is possible to think, in relation to thoughts we’ve already had. When we think, each thought is attached to what we already know the world to be – be it the dinner with the family, the storming off to our room in an argument with a lover, the carrying a heavy shopping bag up the stairs, or peering down over the balustrade, craning to hear what your parents are arguing about. Each of these events are things we already know; to be free of them we must be free of our current way of seeing the world. The solution cannot, at least at first, be found in thought.
The reality Escher creates for us, reminds us that with great thinking comes great responsibility. We are the architects of each step in our future. But by using thought alone, we become walled-in by using our reality to climb out of our reality. And, the dynamism of your thinking, nor your thinking prowess, will be able to free you – by using thinking alone, we build a surreal prison made from our uniquely subjective experience of the world.
If looking at this work reminds you, even in part, of your mind, then that’s normal; but it’s also serves to remind you of your agency in creating this reality. To create a future we want, we must rise above thinking and become attuned with what is before the layers of thought begin to stifle your agency.
So, meditate, eat something delicious, read, dance, sing, breathe – and feel. Once you’re free from these mind-forged manacles (William Blake was also attuned with this aspect of being human), you will be far better placed to access thought that can help blueprint, rather than obscure, each step towards your future. We are the architects of our own experience – look again in the top left – the stairs lead right outside. Should you accept that your thoughts do not have to be your reality, you can choose how to navigate through this waking dreamscape, you can walk right out into the open air of possibility; give yourself enough quiet to observe where to go, for it’s been there the whole time.
In the distance, troubled figures from the past and the longing for a future free from pain commingle into a gloomy landscape. As lonely as this feels, when we observe what was once familiar as it is gradually marred by thought, we actually have an opportunity to get to know the true subject in this portrait of monolithic melancholy: you.
Munch spent many a summer on Asgardstrand’s beach, the setting of this painting. But now, it seems to have become a source of sorrow. He teaches us that our inner world can easily bleed into our outer world, distorting it until our perception is punctuated by desolate thoughts that are strung together by sadness. Such rumination often offers the dominant narrative during the arrival of this quiet despair.
By capturing this moment, Munch’s Melancholy should be seen as comforting; any feeling, from misery to mania, will pass. The protagonist is lost in profound thought, but, despite being lost, he sits in the foreground. He is alone, yet we’re so close to him. Where the protagonist melancholy himself, we’d be able to touch him. Our mood too often sits in the foreground of our mind. One moment, we are fine, and the next, we are blindsided, inviting in the uninvited and unwittingly trying to accommodate melancholy out of the deferential politeness we have for all our moods.
Instead, we could cast our mind back to the last time melancholy stepped in unannounced and recall the last time he left. Try to remember the texture of that farewell, and you’ll likely realise there wasn’t one.
When you last felt like this protagonist, when you were melancholy, what eventually usurped your attention? Was it anger? Was it tranquility? Was it laughter? Or was it something else entirely? Maybe it was simply a walk towards the emerald hills, or you imagining yourself and another holding hands for the first time and walking with jollity towards the horizon (this could be thought from the past or near future, of course). It is here where rumination should remain.
During melancholy’s stay, however, we shouldn’t be too rude; we could briefly sit with him and chat. When we observe him and what he says carefully, although his words might overflow with anxiety and he may paint life in muted colours, we can remind him that things are perhaps not as bleak as they seem. Gently refute his ramblings with some questions. Is it not true that, as you overlook the landscape, you can still see what brings you joy, but it isn’t just now? So too can you recognise, with an albeit heavy clarity, what life should feel like for you, because you can still see it in the life of others? The happiness that you see, even though it’s not yours just now, is not separate from melancholy; it is the remnants of your joy, hiding in distorted view, waiting to shine on you again.
Munch’s work prompts us to observe melancholy in its entirety, from beginning to end, from sky to sea, and everything in-between. Melancholy may roll in, an unstoppable force, just as the lines of Munch’s painting swirl, disrespecting the rules of reality, but it is in these moments that we should take particular care to observe: what is he here to show us about our happiness? And, who will the next visit be from?
It takes immense strength to carry this weight when walking across the beach towards those distant figures, to wade through the moonlit lilac waves as, lapping at your feet, the water gradually returns to teal with the rising sun. As you walk, what you feel will be carried away in the swell, along with the sand and silt. You might then, as the clouds part, and as the sky begins to reflect the sea again, trust that the sun will always return to bathe you in light one more. Having looked through the monochromatic lens of melancholy, hopefully you’ll know better than ever to decide how you would like this scene to be illuminated. We can then walk, one step at a time, towards the figures in the distance – towards our future – breathing deeply as clear rays beat down on the ever-changing ebb and flow of our emotions.
TL;DR – looking at art is an experience; experiencing anything involves you. This is followed by questions that help incorporate you and your worldview into the art.
Looking at art can be a daunting task, it requires some thought, at least, about what art is; but in looking the very purpose of the art, and the intention of the artist, must be defined. As an Art Healer, the purpose is to self-actualise in some way through acquiring a balance of visual (that is to say, experiential) and contextual knowledge.
Going through this process, is not an action of solely looking. When done effectively, it is a carefully curated experience that can shed some light on humanness and humaning.
By exploring the world in this way, what you can gain (that can help you human better) is a deeper understanding of the granularity of the human condition: looking as an Art Healer is an appreciation, understanding, and application of what is. It asks more of us than do I like this or not, but pushes towards what can this moment teach me?
Too often this kind of looking is intercepted, even prevented, by art being presented in an inaccessible way.
Such presentation prompts many questions: what is important, or great, about this image? Is it who did it? Why is this in this art gallery? is it worth as much as that urinal? How did this ridiculous object become enshrined upon a plinth here, when it is nothing but a bog?
This is a totally rational, intelligent, and important questions to ask. Being ‘turned off’ art is not as much to do with the (often deemed ‘uncultured’) viewer as we are led to feel; instead, it is how we are led to interact with the art that shapes its significance for us.
We understand that art occupies a space in society that feels cut off from ‘real life’ and is reserved for a certain, elite, few. Counterintuitively, many museums were actually built on the premise that their collections should be accessible for everyone.
Why, then, does it oftentimes feel like we can’t all get a good look (that is if we are even inclined to look in the first place)? Museums sometimes separate art from ‘real life’ by decontextualising what they display.
An artwork or object is placed in a room surrounded by other equally obscured pieces, frequently arranged by ‘era’ which does nothing meaningful for our understanding of what the art is. What is there is written by experts who know too much to condense their knowledge onto a small square.
The irony is biting because often in an attempt to display art for what it actually does (depict and celebrate the realities of life), these textured experiences of human artistry, and the valuable knowledge they hold, are sealed behind an iron curtain of sorts.
Museums, by virtue of existing, and in their purported values, do have the intention to make what seems out of reach, available. But this irony is precisely why looking at art must be painted in a different light.
After all, a museum visit comes too late in life to address inaccessibility; such inaccessibility is a symptom of the inequality that exists in our educational and schooling system.
By learning to look at art as an Art Healer, we step in to acknowledge that, yes, looking art is an academic discipline, but this can be deconstructed, and then enriched, by including the viewer more. We see art is not just for you – it is about you. It is in your power to decide the meaning and value of art; for our purpose, art is nothing without you.
Looking at art can also be intensely boring. And if you find it so, that’s no surprise. There is no need to labour under the delusion that art, artworks, or artists are inherently interesting. They aren’t.
If the art does not resonate with your experience, then it is fine to discard it into a ‘this does nothing for me’ mental archive, or even the gentler ‘this does nothing for me now, but might be powerful in the future’ folder.
Still, there are plenty of so-called ‘masterpieces’ that will turn you off, and plenty of ‘geniuses’ who will seem absurd. We recognise that this is part of the looking at art experience; the things people do can be repulsive, and often those who are deemed important can seem outrageous.
The pinnacle of culture is not finding meaning where there is none; it is not attributing greatness to anything or anyone, when greatness is a subjective matter. To find meaning where there is none and say one kind of greatness is more valid than another is the masterful practice of the bullshitter.
To find enjoyment and meaning in looking at art, however, is to find what matters to you, and that, by default, won’t include everything. It could be something that captures your personal experience and clarifies a previously unarticulated feeling in a singular work, or something that explains humanity outside of your lived experience, but presents it in a way you can now understand a bit better simply because you can see it before you. This is part of healing through art – which is but one of its many purposes.
There is no ‘correct’ way to look at art; it is a deeply personal experience. But this very same point is used in a way that can make people feel apart from art, like there’s some secret skill that you have never been able to acquire which leaves you, consequently, excluded from the conversation and experience.
But, with learning about what it means to be human, there is no conversation that can happen without acknowledging yourself as the looker (what your brain does, what your eyes do, what your mind does). Without you, we cannot ask the questions that might help give art meaning that could be beneficial to you.
With this in mind, our overarching question of art can become a little more ‘precise’: what is the best way to look at art to help you human better?
– Step one: using your brain to notice what is –
Cast your mind back to infancy; did you know how to look? How to interpret that the light bulb in your room, for example, was rounded, made of glass? Could you identify that the glass omitted a muted yellow glow and so must not be completely translucent like most lightbulbs?
From your brain to your eye and back again, images must pass through the optic nerve, right after photoreceptors have translated them into electric signals to be carried brain. This means our eyes don’t really see, our brains do.
Considering our brains process everything about our existence alongside what we see, our role as the viewer in ‘simply looking’ at art is far more important, and far more individually experiential, than we might be led to believe in making the process meaningful.
Looking at anything is experiencing. Looking at art should be seen as a purposeful experience; it should take a moment – we can too readily say what we are looking at it, before we look at it properly.
We are gazing upon unique combination of materials, colours, or whatever it is, may have never been placed in exactly this way before. Notice that first, and just look and marvel at what some other human has made.
Before scrolling as far as the caption, take a moment to really look at Mark Quinn’s, Self. Notice the colour, texture, shape, expression, and such – see them all not for their labels, but for what they really are.
On this note, going to a gallery in your home country or abroad and just enjoying the experience of being in the space and what the objects look like is enough.
Soaking in the experience, the shapes, the nice lighting, or magnificent building can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience that should not be tarnished by a pressure to appear knowledgeable or even educate yourself.
In many ways experience is the most valuable form of education; all you need to do is turn up. Going to a museum should be seen a relaxing and pleasant experience; it is valid to treat it the same as a leisurely stroll: quietly contemplative and/or somewhat meditative.
– Step two: using your eyes to define –
Once time has been spent with what’s before us, we should mindfully allow in some definitions and labels, perhaps we’re able to recognise things such as the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, or maybe we’re able to not recognise things as being any more meaningful than Kandinsky’s using shapes and that these shapes are circles. It is important to see what we look at, in order to learn why what we look at is how it is.
The labelling process can be synthesised, but not limited to, questions such as these:
What materials have been used?
How has this work been constructed?
Is what is depicted clear or ambiguous?
What choices have been made?
How is what you can sense being manipulated?
Is the work more traditional or abstract?
– Step three: using your mind to deconstruct meaning –
Your mind, with the help of your eyes and brain, will begin to transform what you see into meaning. This meaning is yours, and can only be yours alone, because the meaning your mind makes will be tied – unavoidably – to your current understanding and experience of the world.
What happens next is a conversation with oneself or, if you’re lucky enough to have company, someone else.
The question now shifts from ‘what do you see?’ to ‘what does what you see mean?’
Here are a few questions that are by no means exhaustive, but powerful, in deciphering what a work of art could mean to you:
What might this work seek to express?
Are we meant to simply enjoy this work or feel it?
Does the work tell a story or is it just a moment of being human captured?
Is it both a moment and a story?
Why might the artist have made these choices?
Why might the curator have displayed it in this way?
Is there an effort to help the viewer understand or obscure the message?
If this art had a different title, what could it be called?
Once these have been asked, you might venture to ask some more personal ones:
What does this artwork make me feel (if anything)?
Where else can I identify feeling this way in my life?
If this art represented a moment in my life, which would it be? Why?
Does this art explore something I can understand, but know I haven’t experienced?
How could this art influence a choice I make in my life?
– Final thoughts –
Upon reflection, this could have been called how to have a conversation about a piece of art. If looking is experiencing, and art is human, then effective communication is often how we develop meaningful relationships with one another.
For an Art Healer, looking at art means they should have enjoyed their time with it, and maybe learnt something about themselves or someone else through the art. That’s it. While this may seem simple, it is actually a courageous and creative pursuit.
Any of the lessons on this blog serve as examples of how these questions have been used to eke out an interpretation related to a granular moment of the human condition.