From Personal Myth to Beyond: Louise Nevelson

Ways of Worldmaking: Louise Nevelson

 

Seeing, rather than looking, cultivates the intelligence of our perceptions, and ultimately our minds.  Vision is invested with a latent intelligence.  When we utilize language to articulate our thoughts and feelings about what we see, words become the vehicle to represent new insights, experiences and new worlds. 

 

Louise Nevelon’s Mrs. N’s Place, 1964-77, takes us to a world, which for Nevelson was always secretive.  But she invites her spectators into her vastly expansive realms, most often painted in black, white, or sometimes gold.

 

How are we to engage?  How are we to see the reality behind the visage of obscurity?  Nevelson seems to say that by offering you a glimpse into her own secretive enigmatic cosmos, you can also discover your own.

 

I thought about what I learned in graduate school at Columbia about the denotative and connotative functions of representation in semiotics (Roland Barthes) and thought to myself that the way to the enigma in these sculptures is through that murky and subjective place, the connotative sphere.  That is the “how” something is represented and not the literal what. 

 

When I write about art, I like to explore language and often use a dictionary and thesaurus merely to make verbal associations and connections between words to start a chain of thoughts and new insights.  That process is exactly what I would do with this sculpture given the fact its bleak but at the same time rife with the busyness of a very creative mind. 

 

Metaphors are in particular an excellent medium to explore a domain of experience external to yourself and that which is within.  Metaphors are expressions of our internal schemata, those mental constructs that make up our personal psychology and the way we look at the world.

 

The worlds we construct are myths.  Language, and especially metaphor, is an expression of that myth.  So, when looking at art, our emotional and intellectual reaction to it is a dynamic process of evaluation and reassessment between ourselves and the world, of myth. 

 

Now to break down our own myths, the schemata of those myths that we impose upon our perceptions, Roland Barthes recommends deciphering the signifying functions of a myth.  Mythical representations have a surfeit of signifying functions that assume a message that need not be supplemented, is already there, and have a history and past.  A myth postulates some kind of knowledge. 

 

It’s actually best to observe Nevelson’s sculptures without knowing anything about the artist or the artwork at all first.  Explore for yourself first what you see, then play with metaphors, and learn about the artist.  Find those Ways of Worldmaking that Nelson Goodman describes, where the words and pictures create the worlds. 

 

“But although language and art both become emancipated, in this fashion, from their native soul of mythical thinking, the ideal, spiritual unity of the two is reasserted upon a higher level…But there is one intellectual realm in which the word not only preserves its original creative power, but is ever renewing it; in which it undergoes a sort of constant palingenesis, at once a sensuous and a spiritual reincarnation.  This regeneration is achieved as language becomes an avenue of artistic expression.”  Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth. 

 

Louise Nevelson, Mrs N's Place, 1964-77.jpg

What is Perceptual Intelligence?

 

What is Perceptual Intelligence?

Our abilities at perception affect everyone and how we interpret the world around us.  Perceptual skills are an asset to most everyone in every profession because perception involves thinking and problem solving.  Seeing is a form of thinking.

Drawing upon the ideas of the first philosophers in the 17th century who contemplated perception, the indirect theories of cognitive psychologists have concluded that all of our perceptions are ambiguous.  This famous drawing is an example of how we can see one of two different things:

Perception Picture.jpg

A person can either see a rabbit or a duck.  What we see first entirely depends upon our preferences either seeing something from the left to the right or the right to the left.  We need to teach ourselves how to look at things from different ways.  The “top down” theory of perception in cognitive psychology argues we construct meaning from our perceptions through our own filters.  Those filters are our experiences and future expectations, which make up the core of our own personal psychology.  Once we recognize what our filters are, we are able to adjust them by looking at things in new ways. .

I came to this recognition as an art historian and then eventually with my pursuits as a trainer and coach for The Art Trainer.  What is that fundamental talent that makes the best art historians stand out?  What is that basic talent we have that translates into other professions?  The best art historians are original in their thinking.  They see what other people have neglected to see.  This talent amounts to using our skills in observation to analyze what we see and then think outside of the box.  This talent is also crucial for people in business, law, science, and technology, to name a few. 

When we look at a work of art, people often fail to recognize how much there is to see and how much information there is in it.  Our eyes need to scan the work of art to see everything.  We need to ask ourselves all of the questions.  Because a work of art has so much information in it, different people can always see new and different things.  We are misled to believe that there is a single, correct way to look at a work of art such as textbooks incline us to believe.  Art historians are always finding new competing perspectives, which offer fresh insights into our old friends.

So how does a person acquire this talent?  Through art, an art historian such as myself can teach you simply how to look and then also teach you about yourself.  Once you know yourself, you can go beyond your filters and learn how to see the unseen.  Everyone is really an artist, or we can learn how to be an artist, because artists are the ones who see the unusual.  Through tapping into the right side of your brain and be like an artist, you can be the better thinker and problem solver that you need to be.  

 

What does it take to embrace risk?

Most every person encounters risk in their life.  What does it take for people to embrace risk and succeed?  Psychologically, embracing risk propels us to overcome fear.  The construction men who built the Empire State Building in 1931 knew their lives were at stake but somehow managed to acquire the courage to do their jobs.  Then and today, this building is one of the most important landmarks in New York City that represents the strength and power of the American economy.  The men who helped build it are today our heroes. 

 

In business, risk management teaches us that we know we are confronting obstacles and there’s a possibility of failure.  Succeeding at something risky, they tell us, requires increasing the odds of success.  In our contemporary day business landscape, it is more and more difficult to predict the odds of success because of rapid and unforeseen changes.  We try to use logic to make the best predictions about favorable outcomes, but often reason fails us.

 

While scientists are very logical, some of the most famous have claimed that their discoveries did not come from a rational place in their mind.  The most notable scientist who made this observation, Albert Einstein, concluded that his discoveries came from an intuitive part of his brain and even happened by chance.

 

Embarking upon a bold and ambitious endeavor, such as being an entrepreneur, then entails tapping into the most creative and resourceful part of ourselves.  The famous Romantic painter, Joseph Mallord William Turner, claimed that he could not create until he overcame fear.  Not surprisingly, his best and most famous art depicts the sublime, which philosophers defined as something that evokes awe and wonder but also terror, such as his paintings of whaling in turbulent seas or Hannibal crossing the stormy Alps.  These adventures required bravery and facing threatening external circumstances that by sheer will and determination they had to overcome.  In order to overcome fear, he learned how to embrace it as the inspirational force behind his work.  In fact, he would not have been able to create if he had not had that emotion.  Embracing risk also requires knowing how to navigate the chaos of the unknown.  Turner’s canvases are chaotic, but at the same time they unveil visionary miracles. 

 

It seems then that embracing risk requires some sort of existential faith.  The convictions within ourselves that set us upon this course tell us that we simply must try.  Artists in particular, as well as the religiously devout, for whom their passion was also their faith, also admit that they felt they were left with no choice but to pursue their passions.  What proves to make these people successful in embarking upon very risky endeavors is that they are able to tap into the most authentic part of themselves.  They recognize their own uniqueness and inherent value and are able to simply go with what is inside of themselves fearlessly and relentlessly.  The ancients said “Know Thyself,” and the reason why they said that was because they recognized the innate potential of human beings and every individual’s unique self-worth.