You Are What You See

In his essay “Art and Friendship,” Noël Carroll uses Yasmina Reza’s play Art to explore the correlation between art and societal bonds. The essay grapples with the question: To what extent do we need our friends to validate the choices we make? In the play, the long standing friendship between Marc and Serge is nearly decimated when one buys a painting that the other despises, yet, they cannot agree to disagree because there is risk in difference: Carroll reveals that one’s sense of self is threatened when there is a quality in one friend that the other does not possess. A friendship is like a mirror, and a difference in values threatens Serge and Marc’s friendship as they realize that their reflections are different.

One of Carroll’s main points is that we can only truly learn about ourselves through the validation of others. Carroll writes, “Genuine self-knowledge requires an outside viewpoint to validate it,” for affirmation then informs our opinions (200). Human nature is like a sponge: we soak up and digest from our surroundings, squeezing out the irrelevant or unworthy human qualities. Carroll writes, “…you will find out who you are by looking at who [your friends] are,” for we take in what we see, hear, and learn (201). Validation confirms what we cannot consciously know: our own self.

Contrast this with the essay “The Secrets in Your Photographs,” in which the author Nuar Alsadir analyzes a group of pictures taken by her new boyfriend of her and his friends at a New Year’s Eve party. In reviewing the photos, Alsadir realizes that she’s out of focus; seeing herself as nothing more than a blurred body forces her to realize that she’s not in the center of her boyfriend’s eye.  Alsadir writes, “When looking at a photograph, you can learn a lot by focusing not on the subject of the picture…but the representation of the subject and what it tells you about the emotions and psychology of the person doing the representing” (4). What does the person behind the camera think of their subject? How does art affect their relationship?

Carroll’s idea of personality osmosis, “If…I am who I am because you’re who you are, and if you’re who you are because I’m who I am, then I’m not who I am and you’re not who you are…” (201) is contradicted by Alsadir’s realization that an artist’s representation of their subject can distort the subject’s true nature. Alsadir’s focus in her essay is to determine why a photographic representation of us may not reflect who we are,  but it does control how we are perceived.  By placing a judgement on the subject, the photographer or artist in question is able to  control  how viewers regard the subject. Although we understandably crave control over how others perceive us, we cannot “expect the world to adjust to [our] distortion” (Alsadir, 9). If our self-awareness is built solely upon other people’s opinions, self-deprecation arises as a result of prejudiced, ill-informed judgements; by contrast, Carroll tells us that a social bond that forms between friends, between equals, contributes to a strong sense of self, as the friends recognize commonalities. According to Carroll, “friendship […] is vital to our conception of ourselves;” friends are, as Aristotle says, our “other selves” (Carroll, 201).

Can friendship manifest itself in art? Is it possible for art to represent a friendship, removing the judgement the artist places on the subject? Fair representation, even if subjective, is absolutely attainable in art. The chromogenic print Untitled (Myriad) by Leslie Hewitt displays a great deal of blank space, as almost the entirety of the work consists of a white wall and wooden floorboards. There is a vague shadow on the left side of the wall, an ombre of sepia that seeps into the objects in the work. At the Whitney Museum, Untitled (Myriad) is propped up on the floor, so that the wooden panels and the white wall actually blend into museum space. Beyond that structural format, the only details are two books, a fallen postcard of what looks to be trees, and a Polaroid tacked from the bottom to the wall. This photo hangs about three feet above the books, one of which is entitled …of Protests. The other book displays its backside, showing illegible words to describe its story. While the postcard on the floor is dark, filled with an amalgam of black and harsh, sunset pastels, the slightly crooked photograph tacked on the wall is bright, either from yellowed age or raw underdevelopment. This photo has three people, the only sign of human life in this work. The light blocks out their faces so the viewer cannot read their expression, but their body language is stiff.

Simple and realistic, Untitled (Myriad) evokes the tangible depiction of either a rising clan or a dead union, for the painting doesn’t provide the context for which these particular items are displayed. The choice of including a substantial amount of white wall feels deliberate, perhaps symbolizing the potential growth of the group, or perhaps, in a cynical twist, it presumes the erasure of a failing relationship. Either way, the contrast in size between the small photo and big wall indicate how small the past is in comparison to the future. The two books and the postcard on the ground indicate knowledge and travel, a chapter of someone’s life that has been lived, discarded, and almost forgotten. The yellow-tinted paged books are of a different era than the owner’s life and time, and the handdrawn-like postcard evokes something of the past, as most postcards today are of photographs. The placement of these objects seemingly suggests insignificance and indifference from the owner, but artist Hewitt made a deliberate choice in including the floor in her painting. This whole portion of life has faded away, and the presence of the white wall indicates a representation of a friendship that is forming or the end of bitter tensions.

We understand the world from our own selfish perspective, for our mind is the only clear, accessible lens through which we can see and judge our surroundings. Everything around us is unknown, like the wall in comparison to the tacked up photo, for we cannot comprehend what has nothing to do with ourselves. This intrinsic self-centeredness can be linked to Carroll’s point about the human need for affirmation, for that validation teaches us how to be liked and how to act. How then, do we develop a shared sensibility that bridges the chasm between us?

In the print, the presence of books and photography illustrate examples of the owner’s likes; we are able to learn about them because of the selected literature choices and inclusion of art. We can learn about our friends through dialogues about art, such as how Serge and Marc discover their contradicting attitudes over a white painting in Art. Though Serge appreciates the abstract, modern aspects of the painting, Marc finds value only once it can be seen as a representation. The two men reconcile when Serge offers to let Marc draw on the painting, re-creating a foundational sensibility: the shared appreciation for the painting. Carroll concludes his essay by summarizing art’s significance in ordinary life: “[Art] limns the importance of art to friendship, certainly one of the most overlooked facets of the importance of art to human life in general” (206). Carroll brings to light the recognition that we are malleable yet shape others simultaneously.

It is, perhaps, no accident that the particular pieces of art discussed in these two essays by Carroll and Alsadir, the painted white canvas and the blurry photographs, resonate in Untitled (Myriad).  Like Serge’s prized painting in Art, the print in Untitled (Myriad) consists of a great deal of white space, upon which the viewers can project their own reality. It is only when Serge allows Marc to draw on the painting, that they are able to find their way back to each other. Meanwhile, the aged and faded photograph in Untitled (Myriad) calls to mind Alsadir’s blurred photograph and the representation of a relationship between the artist and its subjects.

Though the role of art within friendship changes case by case, the effects of art on friendship and friendship on art are long-lasting. Art demonstrates a specific moment in or period of time, a relic of someone’s point of view; friendships change from moment to moment, evolving with the parties’ perspectives on each other, their surroundings, etc. The relationship between art and friendship is then centered on subjectivity, as we cannot predict the moment nor use one point of view as an objective. This lack of standard, then, shapes our art based on our relationships, changing the ways in which we create and relate.

 

Works Cited

Carroll, Noël. “Art and Friendship.” Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002): 199-206. Project MUSE. John Hopkins University Press. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

Alsadir, Nuar. “The Secrets in Your Photographs.” Psychology Today. [https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-examined-life/201002/the-secrets-in-your-photographs].

Hewitt, Leslie. Untitled (Myriad). Series Blue Skies, Warm Sunlight. 2011. Chromogenic paint on aluminum, wooden frame. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

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