Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Eye of the Story


I used to think eyes were good for keeping one from bumping into telephone poles and that the “art part” was all in your head.  I used to joke about art causing “eyegasms”.  I am a lot less sure that’s a joke now.  I am not sure why this is a surprise, but it is.

Don't bump into the telephone poles!

I once saw a film of my very own hands working…and “wow! I thought…who’s that person with mad hand skills?”  I never think of myself as technically skilled especially as I was pretty terrible when I began years ago.  Seeing that film amazed me because I could see that my hands were possessed of knowledge—of intelligence even. With no thought at all, my hand placed the tools right where they needed to be and proceeded to work the glass with complete confidence? Faith? Knowledge that what I was doing was accurate and precise. And believe me, they were going all over the place really fast! So, I understood my hands were intelligent, independent of my brain (which if anything, overthinks, doubts and therefore hesitates and jerks around like the jerk it can be!) Why wouldn’t I understand that of my eyes?


I can’t do that coordinated eye/hand stuff easily at all right now (I have to make a real effort to find the surface of the glass and to put a tool on it in the right place), although I hope after my eye fully heals (from surgery to remove an epi-retinal membrane which was causing distortions in my right eye) I will get back to it.


Perhaps even more bizarrely, I can’t tell if my work looks good.  WHY SHOULD THIS BE???  My left eye is working just fine!  My work is not particularly 3-dimensional either, so it’s not that.  But, no: I cannot assess my work visually like I usually can.  Can I shut the bad eye and see it?  No, I cannot.  I mean I can, but it feels worthless and unreliable.  So, apparently my vision is proactive.  I know my work looks OK in my eye, not my head and part of that is the right eye.


If you had asked me before my retina issues “do you find the act of seeing pleasurable” I would have agreed in principle, but perhaps without any understanding of the depth of this truth.  Also, when my eye doctor referred to me as a “visual person”—despite my complete obsession with image, design, art and even staring endlessly out of car windows at anything no matter how dull, I would have denied it.  To me, a visual person sees kaleidoscopes and fireworks, every day another aurora borealis haloing objects in a supernatural colored glow. I imagined a visual person is someone who saw pictures in their heads instead of words. I imagined visionaries…those who presumably are seeing things before they make them.  And I don’t see things (pictures) before I make them, au contraire.  Just to be a dick, I also suspect most artists don’t.  I mean, they think they do, but really?  They don’t.  Just like a dream—there’s no actual capturable image.  That image we had imagined to be an image must be created from scratch, eye wide open, and awake.  Dreams and visions are imagined vision, not actual vision and as such, must be redesigned in order to be made material.  Thoughts only think they are material! Silly thoughts!


I mean, sign me up—but frankly, I think too much in words to qualify as a visionary.  And when I say “think in words” I am hearing them, not seeing them.  And when I want to make an art project I literally (ha!  Get it?) have to draw it, pull it by force out of its hidey hole, which I assumed to be in my brain alone.  But it turns out, I can’t SEE what I want to make until I make it, until I see-see it, in the flesh, looking back up at me!


Imagine my surprise, then when I discovered, by dint of one epi-retinal membrane, how much pleasure I get from seeing.  And here I realized that I had fallen sucker to the belief that pleasure itself was solely a brain thing!  HA!  I am sure the brain is supplying part of the experience here, but the eye…. oh my…how active is the eye in this pleasure.  How active?  Very active.  I currently am very compromised in my right eye temporarily.  Post-surgery, I am to expect not to have decent vision for up to three to six months.  I can technically see…the brain is definitely receiving input from that eye…but it’s impossible to interpret—it’s a lacuna or a cloud or both. When the information is unreliable, it’s a form of blindness. Trust me, I am currently effectively blind in one eye. Before the surgery wasn’t all that much better, which is why I elected to have it in the first place.  I could see…but I couldn’t SEE.

And seeing, when I managed it, was suddenly a lot of effort, a lot of work and no fun at all.  Plus, I think I can claim to have some sort of visual equivalent to perfect pitch.  Needless to say, that was GONE!  POOF!  FMW!


The way my eye created pleasure goes like this: my eye is hungry.  My eyes are insatiably curious. Maybe yours too?  They have appetites, in my case, big appetites.  I see the world just like everyone else, but I think now that I also saw it differently.  My eye and brain were inextricably linked in a process; not just interpreting and avoiding telephone poles but of amplification and exaggeration.  I see beauty and inspiration in everything!  Or close to it.  I am obsessed with looking.  I love the act of seeing!  I can look at the same thing a billion times and every time it suggests entire new worlds. I am the person in the passenger seat who can stare out the window at a cornfield for eight hours and still be titillated with delight.  I am the person who bullies their way to the window seat on Amtrak…even at night.  I am sorry (not sorry) if I did that to you!

And I desperately want to share this with others because what’s the point of having all that good stuff locked up in me?  The door to the attic storage will burst from the pressure! Maybe I don’t see haloes and fireworks and kaleidoscopes…but yeah, now that I think about it…maybe I do!  I can make them happen and although that sounds very much like a brain thing, it requires the PRO-active participation of the eye itself.  And sorry, people, but I can’t explain that at all. I believe a neurologist or ophthalmologist (with philosophical leanings) might be able to.  But all I can say is that eyeballs are absolutely much more than just sensory inputs.  They are directing the brain, not vice versa.


One thing from above I wish to elaborate on: Visual pleasure is a relay between the eye, the brain and ultimately with another person’s eyes and brain.


As for visual pleasure:  pleasure itself is often divided on Cartesian mind/body lines.  Pleasure of the mind are given preferential treatment and pleasures of the body are delegated to being shameful or embarrassing, worth skepticism and denial lest we indulge our animal natures, get addicted, yadda yadda, insert Judeo-Christian dogma here.  When I have rattled on about beauty in the past, I have begged people to consider any philosophy that divided mind from body to be scientifically false as well as nihilistic and frankly silly.  Oh, come ON!  I love candy!  And I refuse to apologize for any love, no matter how unhealthy it can be potentially.  (Addiction is another matter, because that’s when pleasure becomes a huge physical and mental liability. But to abstain from pleasure in some misguided preemptive strike is to throw the baby out with the bathwater.)

Love, pleasure and beauty (and therefore ultimately meaningfulness, inspiration and truth) are inextricably linked and to remain abstinent of one is to affect them all.  Beware.


And as I said above, there is much evidence that our inputs—functions of our body’s fabulous sensory equipment are inextricably in dialogue with the brain which, in turn in inextricably in dialogue with the environment.  If you think you can exist as a brain in a vat or that you can upload your brain to a hard drive, you are incorrect.  It will not be a brain anymore unless it is interacting via a body and that body is interacting with an environment.  To separate mind from body is scientifically inaccurate; cut it out.  Physical pleasure is not your brain being naughty or indulgent.  Similarly, mental pleasure is not evidence you are a superior being to another person or an animal.  It is not even mental—it’s a loophole by which we are fooled into a convenient untruth so that we can allow ourselves the biological necessity of pleasure, without which we will surely die.


The pleasure of vision is specifically the pleasure of optical beauty, in which I would include sights we might delectate in such as prettiness as well as ugliness, cuteness and weirdness.  I would say, the artist tweaks these in order that they be more keenly or directly experienced; and specifically experienced as meaningful.  I am keen on inspiration. Let’s called inspiration “life force”—it’s supposed to be part of seeing and making art.  If you deny that then I think art is not different than anything else in life, so what’s the point? OK, I will assume that airtight sentence totally convinced you the value of “inspiration” and go further and say: if you don’t feel life is meaningful or inspiring you will literally want to be dead. So, this stuff is important; mind/body important.  Inspiration and meaning can be gotten to via many paths: the eyes are but one way…there’s also the hands, the nose, the ears and the tongue.  And other senses like balance, direction etc.  But key here is senses…those physical things that are why our brains even exist in the first place.

When an artist is inspired, they share it. And it’s not because they are being particularly generous in nature.  Because inspiration, coming from the word breath is just like breathing.  You can’t hold an inhale forever.  I love museums: places where I can go to have the inspiration, the life force, of the original artist (possibly long deceased) huffed into my eyeballs so I can in turn spit out something new.  Life force must be encoded somehow into a work of art or its just regular ol’ stuff.  Off to the landfill!


This is far, far, far away from ideas of beauty as a social construct, which indeed it can be, but really, don’t let others construct beauty for you when you are perfectly capable of creating it yourself. Thank you.)  To be visually attracted, to be visually curious, to be able to construct a ne plus ultra of what the visual world provides as raw material is a wonderful thing.  And to share it is important as this teaches others by example how to do this and thus life is that much more worth living. What could be more beautiful than that?


So, I can only conclude that the reason I can’t tell if my art looks good right now is because my eyes make decisions in dynamic conversation with my hands and my brain.  And that how can I tell if my art gives pleasure if I can’t be pleasured by my eyes right now?  I can’t.  Six months….


As for “eyegasms” …we all know where life comes from and we all know that’s wonderful even when actual human babies aren’t the goal. Anything that creates any kind of life; real, metaphorical, animal, vegetable, mineral…it’s all good.  More love for everybody!  Creativity is fundamentally erotic[1].  Perhaps that’s what Bataille was getting at in “The Story of the Eye”.  I read that 40 years ago and all I remember thinking is “ew.”  But maybe I get it now.


Eyes: not passive.  Eyes are creative.  Or they can be.



[1] Soon to be another essay, I promise.