Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The art of seeing- a draft

Once, while in the country with Mrs Hickory, I stopped, looked fixedly at something off to my left, took a few steps towards it, and then drew her attention to the curious structure of the distant sewage works, rather than plucking and presenting her with the rose growing beside the path, which is what she thought I was going to do, and which I hadn’t noticed. A certain friction ensured, even though it was a particularly interesting sewage works.

How often are you walking down the street and someone you’re with says ‘Wow, look at that,’ and then has to tell you all about it because ‘that’ has already disappeared. Or you hear lines like ‘it was just after we passed the car crash/Paul McCartney/the girl in the purple bikini/the pink elephant… what do you mean “what pink elephant?”’

It isn't easy to see things as they really are. Or even to see them at all. We tend to look at tiny details, missing their place in the whole, or to interpret a general impression as though it were both real and applicable to everything contained within it. Seeing is a skill, an art if you like, that can be developed with practice, but which some will always have to a higher degree than others. What does it consist of, and why does it matter?

One of the things that makes a good football referee or cricket umpire (add sport to taste) is the ability to see, in real time and from wherever it happens to catch him, the truth of an action, while the rest of us will have to wait for the third slow-motion replay to begin to get an idea. Not that they are always right, of course, and it doesn't stop us shouting with absolute conviction no matter how often we have been shown to be wrong. We tend not to learn that what we think we saw is not necessarily what we did see, and that we can, sometimes, be shown unequivocally to be wrong.

Politicians, by which I mean here those who govern in general, must have an ability to let details stand in for the overall truth. Of the information which they would need to be able to act properly, even if were just in their own interests, there is much that is invisible, much that is not just unknown, but whose importance or very existence is unknown, and there is in any case far too much of it to assimilate into a model for the construction of policy. They see a few things, persuade themselves and us that those are the significant facts, and proceed from there.

In the experimental sciences, it is very important to know what you are looking for, and how to recognise it. Policeman and journalists need to possess a certain degree of observational skill, to see things others might miss, and to see them as they are. Both are, presumably, trained in this.

Artists must have this skill. No amount of training can do more than enhance slightly the ability to observe that an artist must have. Seeing in this sense is much more than using the eyes; it is using the mind, the intelligence, some special instinct, the soul if you like, and experience, too, to see more of what is there, and more than what is there, to see it more clearly in relation to other things, to understand its place in the world, to perceive how it might be understood by others, to determine how to give it a form of expression, and a meaning that is worth expressing and makes sense within the world that an artist creates with each work.

I’m not suggesting that only some august body called ‘artists’, different from the philistine plebs, are blessed with this arcane gift. Some people make specific use of the art of seeing, others don’t seem to think it matters. But it does. A simple walk in the country is made much more enjoyable, much richer, if you are more aware of what’s around you, in the sky above you or on the horizon, circling, in the trees, hiding behind bushes or under stones or in the wheat, watching you or smelling you from a distance, waiting to see which way you go. As you move through the countryside you will always be seen by far more things than you can see yourself, probably far more than you can imagine, but it is worth trying to balance it up a bit.

In the office it pays to notice how people dress, how they are feeling, how things change, and whether it’s sudden, which gives you a clue as to why, and tells you a lot that may be useful. This is also true in marriage, it goes without saying.

As the title says, this is just a draft, but I post it now because otherwise I never will.

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