Monday, March 01, 2021

"What Is It?"

I heard her mother saying, "What is it?" Her daughter, a two-year-old, was scribbling on a piece of paper with a marker creating a spiky purple tangle made from the kind of thick lines that indicate she was exerting excessive pressure. The girl paused briefly in response to the question, then resumed her work.

Her mother said, "It looks like a butterfly. Is it a butterfly?" 

I would have preferred that the mother wasn't questioning her child about her work. I would have preferred that she limit her comments to useful things like "You're using a purple marker" or "That's a spiky tangle of thick lines," informative statements that, should the girl choose to attend, might be used or not used to support her creative journey. Even better, this mother would not have been saying anything at all, leaving her child to her pursuit without interruption.

Adults are forever asking young children, "What is it?" Older preschoolers know the drill. They often have an answer on the tip of their tongue. They've learned that when they sit down in front of a piece of paper at the "art table," they should be ready for this question. Others clearly make something up on the spot, quickly studying what they see before them for inspiration, "Uh . . . It's a . . . chair with a hat on it!" speaking like one might upon making a discovery even if it has nothing to do with their process. Many reply glumly, "It's not anything," seeming somewhat embarrassed to disappoint or annoyed at the interruption. 

Once a girl who was so excited by her drawing that she began to carry it around the room, showing it to adults, "Look what I made!" One by one, the adults cheered her with words of exaggerated praise, then invariably asked, "What is it?" Before long, she was on the verge of tears, shouting her answer, "It's nothing!" I suggested she show her picture to other kids. That went much better for her. Most of them just looked at it blankly. A few said, "Pretty" or "Good," while others squinted in confusion or judgement. A few were even critical, "Ugly" or "I could draw that." She found this experience much more satisfying. I suspect it's because she was more interested in the impact her art had on other people than empty praise or being quizzed by them about her intent.

Lately, I've been watching old videos of historic figures being interviewed, such as Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, James Baldwin, and Bette Davis. The other night I watched Dick Cavett interview the surrealist painter Salvador Dali. It is a fittingly surreal interview, barely comprehensible, as the great artist jumps around between languages and concepts, even seeming to invent words here and there. But he makes one thing quite clear, repeatedly, "My paintings mean nothing."

I guess we never stop asking artists, "What is it?" Many have armed themselves with answers, although I've noticed a good number avoid the question by talking instead about their process or inspiration. But Dali reminded me of that girl who shouted, "It's nothing!"

The questions "What is it?" or "What does it mean?" are requests to translate the artwork into words. Some things cannot be said in words. That's what art is all about, after all. No one ever asks, say, an Iron Chef, "What does this mean?" It's food: it's flavor and texture and temperature. We all know it doesn't mean anything other than itself. Like Dali's paintings, or the scribbling of a two-year-old, this delicious plate in front of us just is. Both Dali and a two-year-old are using the tools of art to express something that cannot be translated into words. That's why it could only be expressed as art.

The word, especially the written word, dominates in our culture and we have a tendency to be confused, even angered, by anything that can't be translated. Efforts to do so often result in someone saying, "Well, why didn't she just say that?" as if a dance or a song or a spiky purple tangle can't speak for itself. Our questions have their place, but sometimes, if we really want to understand, we must learn to leave words behind and "listen" with all of our senses, and hear beyond words with the fullness of our being. In that, we are sadly far less literate than most two-year-olds.

After being repeatedly ignored, the mother who was hovering over her daughters scribble fell silent as the girl made so many marks, so aggressively, that the paper began to disintegrate under her pen. Soon she was drawing directly on the table top, continuing her pursuit as her mother joined her on this journey into a place where things cannot be expressed in mere words.


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