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Searching for the Unknown but Knowable
There is an old joke about the individual on hands and knees searching for something under a lamppost. When asked, “Did you lose something here?,” the answer comes back, “No, I lost it down the street but the light is better here.” We all search for answers in the light of what we know, have been schooled in and are comfortable with. It is human nature to do it that way. But how do we search for something in the dark. Maybe we take someone with us who is blind and has experience in the dark. This is a problem when we search with 20th century vision for lost things in the 21st century.
When I was faced with this dilemma, I went to sources who had experience in the dark: Picasso, gestalt psychologists and children (who have this problem as they gain knowledge). Mostly, when we are blind to an answer we search out individuals who, at least, have found some things. This was also a time of the Dadaists, who believed that the unconscious was the key to the conscious world.
Picasso, who had been trained by his Barcelona drawing master father in the ways of Renaissance drawing (it is said that Picasso could draw like Raphael when he was 14), wanted a new direction for his art in Paris. His partners in this journey of discovery were primitive art of the Basques in Spain and African art. Two exhibitions from African collections, 1904 and 1905, were opened in Paris. Picasso and other young artists attended. His competitor and artist friend, Matisse, had also had the same unrest and saw African art as a place to start their thinking. One letter by Cezanne, where he stated “all the world can be formed with cones, cubes and cylinders,” was also used. (It was an overstatement but it hit some creative nerve in Picasso and Matisse.) Also the idea was not new, the Pantheon in Rome was created from these simple forms (in fact, architecture had been using Cubism as long as man had created habitats, long before the term was “new” in the early 20th century).
In the 1970s, I was to teach art appreciation at a university and I felt that a working, gut knowledge of “gestalt” thinking in the early 20th century was critical before moving on to other forms of thought, such as “collage-thinking” in the late part of that century. I don’t know exactly why but I thought, “Let’s create a gestalt game, like Wheel of Fortune,” (which mirrored Buddhism and the “wheel of changes”- whether Merv Griffin knew that or not), and play it in class.” I told the students that the rules were simple, “One: No one talked out loud. You have to whisper your guess or enlightened answer to one of the helpers. Two: I would write something on the board and you had to guess what it was. Three: If no one guesses, you can say: “Do you need information?” (and your hand goes up without moving). If you think that you know the answer, the hand goes up waving. Four: If you guess what it is, I quit being the teacher and you take over, using the same rules until all the class sees the answer. When a new student whispers the answer, the previous student can also quit being the teacher.” I made elemental marks on the board:
“By the way,” I told them, “Second graders had this answer long ago. They had less information to sort through and when I play this with corporate executives, they take longer than you since they have more information to sort.” “Your and the corporate executive query to me is: “It was too simple for me to see.” “No,” I say, “you had too many possible answers for only little information.”
I did the same exercise again but this time I added marks so that the first unit was a 2 and the third a 3 and the last a 6. As a chorus, the class said: “No, that is wrong: 2 plus 3 equals 5.” At that point, I made another mark, crossing a line over the equals sign. “You did not let me give you all the information: 2 plus 3 does not equal 6. Shall we play another game? But this time, I want all of you to be polite with each other. If you guess the answer, my assistant will say, ‘Thank you,’ and you will say, ‘You’re welcome.’ Try it! I want my students to learn politeness.”
We did the same, marks on the board, ending with a period. “Do you need more information” was asked after each mark, until I came to the key, which was a ? at the end. “As you can see now, we are in a new system.” It was some time before the student saw that the marks spelled out, “Thank you?” We discussed for a time how periods at the end of sentences were a marvelous stop for the eye. A question mark makes us see back into the sentence. Periods mirror the top of pyramids, corporate ladders, perspective and stars in a night sky. In fact, mankind has always connected the disjointed, isolated stars into patterns, like the “big dipper” in the West and the “emperor’s chariot” in the Orient. That way of seeing is called “gestalt”. They observed that I had given them the answer before the game began but they were in a polite system and I was in a “give-the-answer” system. When a commercial says, “Nine out of ten doctors recommend…..” We never ask, “Doctors of what?” We play in their system.
I took the whole alphabet in pieces, leaving some that could be added later, and played the game again. When someone got it this time, I erased most of the board and asked them to complete a specific letter. It was interesting to watch them sing the Sesame Street song of the alphabet to find the letter, starting at A and proceeding to where their letter was (even when most of the board was still blank except for two or three marks around their destination). Their schooling had been linear: start at the beginning and work your way to the end. I pointed out that the Chinese leave holes for the imagination in their hanging scrolls and the Middle East thinks in circles of the present-past-future being on that curved line. Linear thinking leads to evolution sometimes. Circular thinking leads to continuity most of the time and revolutions when we least expect it (definition: a revolution is a closed circle that begins and ends in the same place.). In class, I asked the students if they began searching the web on their computers with all the information that was possible (the alphabet concept) and worked their way through it all or did they start at some place in the middle and work out from there?
“OK,” I said, “now take your own name. Break up the letters into their parts so that you have a lot of marks to use. The alphabet only has a few directions for a line and a dot for a period. Now, take those marks and draw your face and body.” I always get the question from one student, “Can I use my last and middle name?” “Who is the artist,” I ask, “you or me? Who is the teacher of what you are making?”
Once the drawing is finished, they start to add color (emotional content) and collage (bits of reality). At some point, they are given the history of Cubism and told that Braque when he first saw Picasso’s Cubist women said: “Seeing that painting was like drinking gasoline and breathing fire.” Within a year, Braque was a co-leader in Cubism. From there, it is not a big jump to add advertising, Pop Art, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg; to take the line and move them in space, a video, speeding up and slowing down the process. I pointed out to the students that with computers and modern thinking all we need to make an alphabet or an image is a dot in motion (motion pictures).
In elementary school, the kids write secret messages to their teacher using only bits and pieces of letters but they also learn to form letters for the alphabet and begin to picture final completion of letters before the pencil or pen makes a mark. Reading and writing comes easier when the process of seeing is a part of their education. And it is not just outward sight, but insight and enlightenment.
“Do we need more information or not?” The answer is, “Yes.” First you narrow the possible answers and then be the teacher of yourself to decide which might fit the situation and you. The answer to most ambiguous questions in the 21st century is “Yes.”
There are some who are better at adding collage to make something feel “real”, there are some whose strength is color to make the experience feel right or not (“emotional content”), there are some who like to play with the mind and add something that does not fit to make the event something to remember (“intellectual content”), and there are some who ask the important question, “How do we use this?” (“practical content”). To solve anything that is really complex or seemingly simple today, we need a mixture of these skills, a team of complimentary talents.
For instance, war is an easy solution to a problem before the war actually begins. In the 21st century we fight it at first from the sky. Peace is harder to solve. It is always shrouded in the dark. It takes a team of talents to bring a community peace. In fact, it even takes a team to bring an individual peace- a teacher and a willing receptacle who may trade roles on the journey.
|RGHF peace historian Joseph L. Kagle, Jr.,
20 June 2006