[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my teaching practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter—which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work—in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, my practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
I’ve had two experiences recently that have me thinking about embodied experience, especially related to the power of looking and seeing.
I just recently returned to Provincetown after seven weeks away. It’s been a little less than two-years since I rented my little apartment here, and as much as I try to organize my time to be centered in Provincetown I routinely get pulled back to the city. Since I continue to have affection for Rhode Island, I can hardly complain about being called back there; yet I will admit when I’m away from Provincetown I miss both the place and my intentional errand here.
I’ve wanted to live in Provincetown since I was thirteen years old. It’s difficult to put into words any singular quality that draws me here. Perhaps my best explanation is that there is some confluence of landscape and human ecology that calls me here. Whenever I arrive in town, I feel a shift in my body and a deeper awareness of the world. It’s my place, whatever that means.
For all kinds of reasons, over the past thirty years, I was persuaded from pursuing my desire to live in Provincetown. It’s a seasonal town, and somewhat remote. It’s difficult to make a living outside of the tourist industry. The is no four-year college on Cape Cod; and the Community College, an hour’s drive from Provincetown, has the reputation of having a very competitive faculty—because so many accomplished people want to live on the Cape. When I became a full-time faculty member at Goddard a few years ago, it offered me the first real opportunity to pursue my childhood dream of being here in a meaningful, deep way. And I took it.
Like with so many things in my life, I wasn’t able to embrace my desire to move to Provincetown without justification; hence the errand to which I refer. I came here to learn to see again, or to learn to see in a new way. Maybe more plainly, I came there to be mindful of seeing—of seeing the world I inhabit, my relationships, and myself. Now that I’ve been here for a while, I can name this more plainly, and I can better articulate the shape of this process. My errand came into sharp focus this weekend during the conversations of the group study I’m facilitating, Critical Composition, when both sections of it began talking about writing and artmaking as processes of discovery.
Two winters ago, when asked, I told people that I came to Provincetown to write a book, that the book was about adoption, and that it was prompted by a recent revelation of my birthmother’s identity. The question about the book’s topic is always asked—or at least is always received by me—as making an assumption that I know my thesis, and that the process of completing the book is akin to the process of writing a grade school, three-paragraph essay. Yet, the truth of my process couldn’t be farther from that assumption.
In truth, the book’s never been about adoption, per se; rather it’s about following a line of inquiry related to my sense of displacement and my suspicion that the feeling is a result of the way that adoption unmoors individuals from the history of their people. Even that’s a bit of a ruse—initially aimed as much at myself as to anyone else. As I’ve listened to the thinking that’s emerged from my writing process, from allowing myself to be immersed in my experience—not to mention from the presence that the writing has required me to cultivate in relation to my environment—I’ve come to find that the project is really about what it means to live in a suspended state of grief. This is something that’s shadowed my life because of the primal loss—losing my birthmother—associated with adoption. As the past two years have unfolded, I’ve been confronted with subsequent waves of grieving. My intentional exploration into my experience of grief has enabled me to navigate this terrain as a meaningful process and inquiry, and not as one of indetermination and borderless sorrow.
Simply put, I came to Provincetown because I could not see the shape of my life while staying grounded in the everydayness of it. I had to shift perspective in order to see (and act) in new ways, and to be reminded of the power and pleasure of seeing. The process of writing has been a guide, but it hasn’t been my only guide. Since arriving, I’ve used an intentional walking practice and my camera as ways of conducting visual research. Like other psychogeographers, I wanted to explore a place through both repetitive and disruptive modes of navigation and acts of looking. I want to be able to see the complexity of the places in which I’m living; I want to be better equipped to tell their stories. In some ways, I feel like I’m succeeding in this.
My second reminder of embodied seeing occurred over the past weekend, when my friend, Bill, asked me to sit for a portrait. It’s not something I’d done since art school when, with other art students, I’d trade time modeling. I was quickly reminded of the strange sensation of intently being seen. I don’t mean to imply that it was unpleasant because it was a lovely afternoon—an agreeable combination of meditative time, professional exchange, and cordial conversation. At some point in the process, however, Bill commented: I’ve never been watched so intensely by the person I’m painting.
The comment took me by surprise, but within a moment or two I came to understand what he meant. In my meditative state I was actually engaged in a process of drawing—considering both about what Bill was doing and, as if I was the one behind the easel, figuring out the planes and lines on which I’d focus if I was making a portrait of him. Later in the day, walking on the beach, I noticed that I was engaged in a similar process as I watched the light shift over the water and onto the dunes. Some part of my brain, whenever I’m observing the world, is always mapping the composition of a painting, figuring out spatial relationships and the feelings related to my perception of space and beings. This mode of seeing, whether I’m conscious of it or not, is a habituated, an embodied part of how I perceive the world.
Several years ago, I became interested in the writing of Martin Gayford when I read his wonderful book, Man With a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud, which documents the experience of having his portrait painted over the course of a year. Quickly after finishing that book, I devoured his historical account of Van Gogh and Gauguin’s time together, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence. Recently, he’s published a new book, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney. I’ve been aware of Hockney’s work since I was a student, but haven’t followed his career particularly closely, and it’s Gayford’s writing that attracted me to the book. In their dialogue, Gayford and Hockney raise an interesting point about the variety of ways that people look at the world:
MG I suppose biologically the point of sight is strictly practical: it enables you to spot things you might eat, avoid creatures that might eat you. But art is to do with something else: impractical observation for its own sake—for enjoyment.
DH I’ve always had intense pleasure from looking. When I was young, as soon as I was old enough to go on buses on my own, I used to go straight upstairs, where it was blue with smoke in those days—I survived—and would go right to the front of the bus so I could see more. In a car, I always want to sit in the front for the same reason, because it is such a pleasure. Early on, I realized that not everyone gets that. Indeed, I’ve come to think that most people just scan the ground in front of them. As long as that’s clear and they can move forward, they don’t bother about anything more. Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately. Hearing is the same. If you concentrate on music, you’re going to hear more. Well you do if it’s reasonably complicated, if there are things to hear in it. That’s why, for example, Léo Delibes’s ballet music is lovely but you wouldn’t want to hear it that often, because you get it too easily. It’s not quite complicated enough.
In a sense, the kind of seeing (and hearing) to which Hockney refers, beyond being disciplined and analytical, is a form of mindfulness—a conscious, intentional, and deliberate effort toward presence. Being mindful doesn’t mean you need to spend hours a day meditating—it means learning to pay attention. Perhaps more specifically, it means learning to pay attention in alignment with both (1) your personal affinities, and (2) your holistic capacity as an embodied human being.
In the earlier book to which I referred, The Man With a Blue Scarf, writing about the experience of having his portrait painted by Lucian Freud, Gayford speaks to the historical novelty of the portrait, and supposes that having one’s portrait painted is an assertion of one’s existence. Experiencing the ubiquity of the photographic portrait the way we do, it’s easy to forget that less than 100 years ago the process of seeing one’s portrait was an experience reserved for those of extreme privilege. In days before the photograph, not to mention before the mass production of mirrors, most people understood the way they looked through murky, fleeting reflection (like in water), but more often via the embodied response and feedback of others. In further explicating these thoughts, as well as his feelings about being Freud’s subject, Gayford quotes the philosopher Derek Parfit: There is no such thing as a persisting individual identity; all that exists in our brains is connectedness.
I take from Gayford’s observation, as well as from my experience sitting for Bill, some questions that disorient many things I’ve been casually taught about my so-called inner self and identity: Is it possible to understand, beyond superficiality and with any complexity, one’s identity outside of a dialogue with other people and one’s environment? Do I possess an authentic self inside me that’s disconnected or transcendent from the body I navigate within my environment? Can my consciousness or body exist independent from the other? No matter the enormity of these questions and the many ways they can be unpacked, the direct answer I find to each one is no. Yet, so much of our culture seems intent on convincing me otherwise. And in relation to Gayford’s revelations about the novelty of portraiture, I’m also remind of the misconception that can arise when we confuse the superficiality of an image, in this case a portrait, with the meaning that arises from dialectical mindfulness. Taken further, it is, what I take Plato to have meant by his allegory about the cave.
In his book, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, Mark Johnson writes of the need for an aesthetics of human meaning: “People want their lives to be meaningful. This desire—this eros—for meaning is so strong in us that we are sometimes even willing to risk death in our pursuit of meaning and fulfillment.” (Johnson, p. ix) I take Johnson’s use of eros here to be connected to Gregory Orr’s idea that, “Eros is what connects the self to the inner world of its own feelings and to the outer world of objects, animals, and other people. Eros is the affirmation of the human spirit as life-force.” (Orr, p. 32)
I’m underscoring the use of eros in this context, because it doesn’t escape me that the regulation of the erotic facets of our being is one of the ways in which disembodiment is most powerfully impressed upon us. Eros is one of those places where we’re rhetorically bludgeoned—like when we’re implored to always separate head from heart—in ways that have no empirical or intuitive meaning in the experience of love (and lust). If the central tenet of embodiment is that all aspects of cognition are shaped by aspects of the body, our cognition is controlled and manipulated when our erotic lives—and in this sense I include things like sexual drive, but also our relationship to food and our appetites for other affective and sensory experience—are cut off from us or otherwise brought into crisis by our culture.
In his book, Johnson argues against the dualism that’s so prevalent in Western thought, and against the ways that dualism establishes a prejudice against aesthetic experience. By evoking Gadamer’s idea of the “subjectivism of the aesthetic”—e.g. the misconception that aesthetic experience is confined to the realm of feeling and not part of holistic human cognition or meaning making—he outlines the consequences of conceptually splitting mind from body:
Chief among these harmful misconceptions are that (1) the mind is disembodied, (2) thinking transcends feeling, (3) feelings are not part of meaning and knowledge, (4) aesthetics concern matters of mere subjective taste, and (5) the arts are a luxury (rather than being conditions of full human flourishing). (Johnson, p. xi)
He goes on to describe the difficulty in breaking from dualism and reclaiming embodied experience:
Coming to grips with your embodiment is one of the most profound philosophical tasks you will ever face. Acknowledging that every aspect of human being is grounded in specific forms of bodily engagement with an environment requires far-reaching rethinking of who and what we are, in a ways that is largely at odds with many of our inherited Western philosophical and religious traditions. (Johnson, p. 1)
Returning to the conversation that emerged this weekend in the Critical Composition group study, we wrestled with the nature of art and our role as artists. From this conversation emerged the idea that art is concerned with creating presence—or establishing the context in which human presence might be possible in unanticipated ways. Johnson might see this as creating aesthetic contexts, dynamic environments and experiences in which meaning is consummated through the senses, intuition, as well as through the mind:
An embodied view of meaning looks for the origins and structures of meaning in the organic activities of embodied creatures in interaction with their changing environments. It sees meaning and all our higher functioning as growing out of and shaped by our abilities to perceive things, manipulate objects, move our bodies in space, and evaluate our situation. Its principle of continuity is that the ‘higher’ develops from the ‘lower,’ without introducing from the outside any new metaphysical kinds. (Johnson, p. 11)
I started this letter with two stories from my experience, one about having my portrait painted and the other about intentionally putting myself in a context of creative renewal. These experiences are subtle disruptions of my life, yet in a sense, both of these experiences are extraordinary (literally, beyond the ordinary). They effectively disrupt the routine gestures and rituals that usually occupy or regulate my day, and both force me to reevaluate my bodily experience in relation to my environment (and in relation to others). Both are enabling me to see in new ways—visually and metaphorically.
I know that my experience of sitting for a portrait for several hours pales in comparison to Gayford’s experience of sitting more than 100 times over more than a year’s time. Yet, it reminds me that I rarely feel seen in my complexity, and too often I feel like I’m viewed (and summed up) superficially. I know I’m not alone in this, but it’s good to be reminded something else is possible—and that its manifestation is not outside the possibility of my daily life.
Similarly, my time in Provincetown has opened new perspective. Yes, I could have committed myself to a psychogeographic project in Rhode Island; yet answering the call of a place that shifts my affect has opened me to a different kind of observation and understanding of place and space—and self. Both experiences act as metaphors, too—allowing me to extend my experience into other spheres. And this, in a sense, this brings me back to the topic of my previous letter, connecting embodied experience with imagination. As Roger Scruton has written in his essay, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, “Metaphors make connections which are not contained in the fabric of reality but created by our own associative powers. The important question about a metaphor is not what property it stands for, but what experience it suggests.”
Connecting embodied experience with associative connection is a remarkable way to fill one’s days.