I was cleaning out some files and came upon an article/blog that I thought I had posted from back in 2015. After rereading and making some edits I am want to share these 6 year old thoughts. The catalyst for this blog was from the writer/blogger Rod Dreher. He was writing about how reading Dante had saved him and shared insights into Learning to See. I am including an excerpt from the blog and if you are interested in reading the entire post please find it here.
Drehers’ post started me thinking on why we need to learn to see and how we may have arrived at our creative situation. But first the post –
From the philosopher Josef Pieper, in his great little book Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation , a gift to me from The Covenant School:
Man’s ability to see is in decline. Those who nowadays concern themselves with culture and education will experience this fact again and again. We do not mean here, of course, the physiological sensitivity of the human eye. We mean the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.
To be sure, no human being has ever really seen everything that lies visibly in front of his eyes. The world, including its tangible side, is unfathomable. Who would ever have perfectly perceived the countless shapes and shades of just one wave swelling and ebbing in the ocean! And yet, there are degrees of perception. Going below a certain bottom line quite obviously will endanger the integrity of man as a spiritual being. It seems that nowadays we have arrived at this bottom line.
To see things is the first step toward that primordial and basic mental grasping of reality, which constitutes the essence of man as a spiritual being.
In a short meditation on Pieper’s insights , Daniel McInerny writes:
So, in order to recover our moral sight Pieper urges us to become, in whatever small way, artists; Haldane proposes that we at least partake of the fruit of literary and artistic imagination. The artists, indeed, have anticipated our cultural problem. To take just one example, the critic Hugh Kenner characterizes James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) as “the voice of the machine.” We may think of it as “stream of consciousness,” but the thoughts that swirl through the mind of Joyce’s hero, Leopold Bloom, make up not so much a stream but a whirring mechanism of stimulus and response. As Kenner suggests, Bloom’s thoughts parody the image of the mind as supercomputer” that is, the mind as the processor of ways and means, but utterly blind to the perception of ends.
Joyce, nearly one hundred years ago, saw something about how Western European culture was misperceiving the human being, as did, after him, Eliot and Waugh and Greene and O’Connor and Percy. But then something happened. To be sure, it was already happening. Writers and artists began to lose the ability to see the human person aright, and the institutions devoted to forming young artists also became like the blind leading the blind.
It is time for those in our culture still blessed with the eyes to see to pay heed to the Platonic insight that moral, intellectual, and political formation depend upon the right cultivation of the arts. To the ancient Athenians, the theatron , the “seeing place,” was the chief source both of entertainment and moral enlightenment. For us today, the traditional theater has (unfortunately) only a marginal impact. Our public seeing places are, instead, television and music, the cinema and the popular novel. We cannot afford to abandon these sectors of culture. We cannot castrate, as C.S. Lewis advises, and then bid the geldings be fruitful.
We need new “seeing places” to help us perceive “the visible reality as it truly is.”
Man’s ability to see is in decline. This struck a chord from the standpoint that as a mass marketed consumer-oriented society and world, are in a continuous loop of waiting for the next morsel to be shoved down our throats. Much the same way a mother bird ingests and regurgitates food for its young directly into their mouths, so we too seem to look to the latest electronic feeding. We are waiting at the table of the TV, Cable, Internet, cell phone, or other electronic or social media with the myriad of apps and social networks to force feed us the latest on what someone else wants us to know, how to think, how to act, who to be.
We have lost touch with taking the time to look at the world around us. Think for a moment of the literal deluge of images that are posted on the internet each day. Most are the self-indulgent images of individuals showing the latest happening, family event they want to brag about, or the narcissistic selfie. These images are reminiscent of the early days of film photography with the Brownie camera, then the Polaroid and the instamatic and so on. I can remember working in a photo finishing shop in Provo Utah and the majority of what we processed were images from families and their social activities. Oh, there were a few “artists” and local commercial photographers, but the bulk of the business was supported by the families and the need to record their transcendent familial events.
Looking or seeing is fast becoming a lost art in life. Reality has become “reality” shows, events or contrived happenings to lead us to think life is indeed one big drama filled event about who did what to whom and why and when is the revenge going to be coming back around and on and on. Or we are inundated with the grisly and horrific images of the aftermath of tragic accidents, wars, civil unrest, with body parts and gore laid out like a “reality” horror show.
Man as a spiritual being seems like a stretch based on the direction we seem to be headed in our depiction and ingestion of so-called art. I am not talking about religion or any religious tenet here, but our innate connection to the rest of the creations on this planet and the tugging of the universe at the peripheral of our consciousness. We each have a creative and spiritual aspect to our lives and some choose to accept and nurture it while others suppress and squash it. Why? A good question. Perhaps fear, environment, religious underpinnings, society, culture, connotation, peer pressure, and so on. I guess you could really pick your poison so to speak.
Interestingly enough, the comments in the blog above reveal much about where we are headed, have been headed and maybe how we can stave off the flood of creative and spiritual blindness. As is mentioned above, we have indeed become the blind leading the blind. It used to be there was a need for the transmission of art techniques through the master and apprentice method. We have since moved to the attend class and really now you can get what you need from online classes or even Skype/Zoom critiques. You used to have to spend years being an apprentice before you could really call yourself a master and move out on your own.
I remember spending time as an apprentice to a friend of mine in his commercial photo business while I was in college. He despised doing portraits or bridal shoots as he felt the time was not well spent photographing providing a poor return. Instead, he literally inundated me with one commercial project after another, showing how to not just create the photo but to also work with the art director, the client, and all the other details involved in making the project a positive business venture. And while I was at it, to insert my own artistic vision into the finished print. Could it work for a portrait photographer? Certainly, but I was working here with him and since I was his assistant and apprentice, it was important I learn all I could and excel.
Once liberated from my time with my “master teacher” I was free explore and to determine my own path and follow my own vision. This is not always easy as I have noticed as I have been exposed to other photographic artists their work lingers in my mind and while some may think it is a distraction from one’s personal vision, they are actually a catalyst for refining and defining the inner voice. Workshops are a wonderful time to spend with teachers, instructors, other students and cram a visual feast into a fast-food time frame! I always come out with information overload and my creative juices and passions receive a wonderful kickstart! And the added benefit of being exposed to so many other creative photographers’ vision of life and the experiences they have garnered on their artistic path.
So where do we go and where do we send our children to go to open their creative eyes and learn to see? Where is the “seeing place” for us? As stated above, they are television, music, cinema, the novel, and the internet, social media and other forms of electronic communication used to pass on information. Are they like the museums or places of higher learning? No. Are they like the Master & Apprentice system of instruction? No. Are they like any method of teaching from our past? No. But it is what we have to work with and we need to be willing to show others what we can do with the media and the information we have now. We cannot lament the loss of the past and its apparent richness. We like all who have gone before us, must find the best way to transmit the spirit of creation, the spirit of art, the spirit of humanity. It is not lost and is just waiting for us to screw up our courage and be willing to lead others to see, to really see again.
Robert Henri said “It is harder to see than it is to express.” He goes on to tell us it is the artists ability to see well “into what is before him”. We have to see more than what is there on the surface. We must see color, for example, beautifully and constructively as one of many factors in making something, of creating something and then communicating that something to others. Seeing is more than looking. We must master seeing of all kinds and then re-externalize our vision in our chosen art form.
Again, Henri states, “The difficulty for us is to know what, or how we see material things, when we are seeing beyond material things. If we could only know what we see, and paint (or photograph) what we see!” And that should be the underlying purpose in teaching others to see again. We must see beyond what is there in the medium we are immersed in and bring to the surface the inner spirit of a universal creation.
So where do we go or where do we send others to go to learn to see or to gain a respite from the onslaught that is our modern times? There is no easy answer and certainly not just one way to gain the insight. In our modern world we have at our fingertips so many means to gain insight into how to see. I can see it taking a lifetime in some instances and moments in others. Dreher points out,
“You cannot see clearly until and unless you are convinced that there is something to be seen — that is, that there is a reality independent of yourself that must be discovered.”
Artists have been responsible by and large in taking us to the realms of the “unseen” through paintings, photographs, writing, poetry, sculpture, music, and other works. They have opened our inner eyes when we have been ready to see and sometimes unwilling to see. They have brought us back into balance with the rest of the Universe and creation here on our shared planet. How do you decide to gain that sight is really a matter of choice and deciding if you want to see again.