You See What You Want to See and You Hear What You Want to Hear
There were significant movements in all of the arts during the 20th century that involved subverting intent. In addition, there are tons of viable examples of found art, found poetry, found music, etc. whose aesthetic value we might never have been able to fathom were we not liberated to pay attention to such things as art as a result of intentionality losing its exclusive imprimatur on the creative process.
One of the first things Oblio and Arrow noticed about the Pointless Forest was that all the leaves on all the trees had points, and all the trees had points. In fact, even the branches of all the trees pointed in different directions, which seemed a little strange for a pointless forest. […] Oblio told the Rock Man that they were banished and asked him whether or not this was the Pointless Forest.
The Rock Man said, “Say, babe, there ain’t nothing pointless about this gig. The thing is you see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear. You dig? Did you ever see Paris?”
“Did you ever see New Delhi?”
“Well, that’s it. You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”
—Nilsson, The Point (1971)
On my birthday last month I spent the entire day wandering through galleries in different neighborhoods. I always try to pay attention to what’s going on in the art world whenever I have to time to do so—and it usually takes a lot less time to look at visual art than it does to listen to a piece of music, read a book, or to see dance, theatre, or film. Overall, it was an extremely rewarding day. I always find that looking at paintings, in particular, helps inspire me to think about my own musical compositions. Sometimes the fact that it is a different medium actually serves as an even more influential prod than music.
I was particularly smitten with a group exhibition called Unpainted Paintings on view at the Luxembourg and Dayan Gallery. The exhibition really called into question the language we use to describe what we experience. Although none of the art objects on display therein were created using paint, most of them were based on the same basic principles as paintings—e.g. most were hung on the wall and involved a surface that was meant to be looked at straight on, most explored variance through color contrast and were compositionally two-dimensional (they were not sculptures). Some of them, in my opinion, did not seem too far away from this…
I showed the above photo to a friend and asked her what she thought about it. She commented that it seemed influenced by Jackson Pollock. So then I showed her this…
Perhaps I should have cropped the image I took with the camera on my blackberry (as I’ve done for the presentation herein) because she immediately figured out that the two images I had shown her were photographs I had taken of the residue that remains when an advertisement is taken down in the subway. “This is definitely not art,” she exclaimed. To which my immediate retort was, “But just a minute ago, before you knew what it was, you said it was influenced by Pollock. Therefore might it not be possible to have the same aesthetic appreciation for these objects that viewers have with paintings by Pollock and other abstract expressionists?”
Here’s another one…
“But there was no intent behind it,” she countered. Of course, there were significant movements in all of the arts during the 20th century that involved subverting intent. In addition, there are tons of viable examples of found art, found poetry, found music, etc. whose aesthetic value we might never have been able to fathom were we not liberated to pay attention to such things as art as a result of intentionality losing its exclusive imprimatur on the creative process. On these pages and elsewhere in my life, I often use John Cage’s final definition of music—sounds heard—as an argument for all of us learning to be more attentive (and less judgmental) listeners. But this extends far beyond music and into all aspects of life. Indeed, a world that we can experience as always aesthetically satisfying, or at least always aesthetically thought-provoking, is a much more interesting world to live in.
This brings us back to the gallery of unpainted paintings. What is the sound of music-less music?