Front St. Arts
Hunt for Steel
At the Pond
Keep It Moving
Preface & Reader Response
The duty is to stop looking and see – to stop stopping at seeing and record in a personal way before extinction.
by Jerry Murley
The following are reflections on a visit to the Museum of Modern Art on 17 May 2009, featuring an exhibit entitled "Tangled Alphabets: León Ferrari and Mira Schendel" and a photographic collage of road signs by David Hockney in an exhibit entitled "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West" – and on having published "The Seduction of Letters" on 28 April 2009.
I have two superficially contradictory notions about looking: One argues not looking (and not reading) too much of popular, artistic and intellectual product so as not to be discouraged from thinking for myself, pursuing ideas independently and expressing myself in my own way just because some acknowledged "great one" previously conceived and developed a similar idea. The other says that despite so many barriers – self-protection, decency, privacy, social strictures in an anonymous public against looking – looking and hearing are essentials of experience, the way we learn about, empathize with, and celebrate man and his society – and his moments apart from society.
Over a decade ago I was dismissive of the New York City subway system because of it's worn, dingy, seedy corridors, terminals and trains full of the press of all manner of graffiti, people and dress. Today I embrace what once I rejected – for the very same reasons. The subway is half of the journey to the heart of the big city. All are subject to the same dependencies, risks, indignities and joys in the subways. All must face the crowd – and not face it. The cacophony of languages – even amid the purposely withdrawn and muted murmurings while in the gut of the subway – the variations of dress (and many tennis shoe styles) and the vast differences in faces and interactions – all are a greater spectacle than that of the greatest theatrical stages and sports arenas of the world. Those faces, every frame of which would be a riveting photograph – should one dare to violate the reality and thinnest veil of personal space of each setting – would deserve an honored place in any respectable modern museum in the world.
The blend of the contradictions comes in this: The great beauty of this life throughout the ages is right before our faces daily. To often we are so busy referencing the words, opinions and works of others that we cannot take the time to see, reflect and note it for ourselves. For some of the learned, it is the height of arrogance for us to do so. But the beauty is fleeting, held only in the camera of memory for the briefest of time. Should one pause looking for the visions of others and pretend, instead, to act the thoughtful artist, looking, as decency allows, at the offering of the moment and day that passes the observer, one would add actively to the moment. Absent only the knowledge, skill and resources of real artists to capture the moment of man for the time of man, should one nonetheless join the party rather than simply watch it, the meaning of the moment would be magnified in memory. I have no doubt about the right action: as an educator of sorts I know one needs training and practice to learn – one cannot learn from the masters until one puts down the book, leaves the museum and attempts to capture something of the moment for the hours and generations to come.
For myself, the paradox of looking is resolved by moving the issue into the realm of seeing. There is a cellophane-thin threshold between looking and seeing. I am not the first to distinguish between the two – nor anywhere near it (Ways of Seeing, Berger, 1972).
Staring is rude. Just looking can be rude, passive, and distractive. Seeing is not rude; it is active and it can be productive. Seeing is understanding in a particular context, but it can grow beyond the confines of one's default perspective to broaden understanding and appreciation – and to aid the seeing of others by speaking of itself. It can and should seek and accept some received wisdom, but for me, it must go beyond mere receptivity. To me, one must relax and work to see and preserve the beauty surrounding one every day – to quietly seize the picture – the face, the composition – before it flees.
Seeing is not only believing, it is also awesome unbelieving. Seeing is living and reliving – a learning how to live like the storied lives of epics and simple folk as well, without bypassing the genuine obligations, pleasures, discomforts and pains of a personal journey. The duty is to stop looking and see – to stop stopping at seeing and record in a personal way before extinction.