What Do You Really See?

This was originally written as aletter to a friend who was being criticized for their art work in college. But I think a lot of it applies to all of us every day. I have also updated some of my earlier language on gender that may be seen in earlier versions. There are always things to learn.

In college you see a lot of people in a natural state of emotional development. They see something that bothers them and decide what is wrong about the thing that creates that emotion or anxiety. As people mature, hopefully they see something that bothers them and search within for the part of them that creates that emotion. Unfortunately while in the former state they say some pretty judgemental things. In some ways we are always fighting to grow out of this stage or habit.

I used to do a lecture for university classes on erotic art. The first half was about the democratization of what is an erotic image since the internet. The second half was about what we each saw in some actual erotic art.

On topic 2 I would throw up this slide. Invariably most of the students were not happy about a nude woman in cuffs serving a man. In the ensuing discussion I would allow them to get madder and madder as I asked open ended questions about what they saw. Usually they were getting mad at me for being part of a patriarchal media establishment and presenting such an image. It occurred to them the emotions they were having were caused by me. The image and my publishing it on the wall was doing something to them.

Sooner or later one of them always mentioned that the two models looked so similar. Then I would explain what was actually happening in the picture. This image was shot as the model was beginning to transition into a man. He was commemorating the gift he had to give up to the man inside him, to become on the outside the person he actually was on the inside. We shot it with a green screen and both models were the same person. He is now fully transitioned and living a life as a very handsome young man. I am proud to know him and to have been a small part of his journey.

Suddenly in that context the image completely changes. It goes from being this example of the patriarchy, to one of sensitivity to a very under represented class. In one moment they are seeing a victim who must have been desperate to subjugate herself to such a horrible and degrading image, to seeing the beginning of a victory of self actualization. The emotional flip in the room is so tangible you can feel it.

Then I switch to my real point. When you see something, especially art, that stirs a deep emotion in you, that emotion is yours. It was already in you. No person made you have it. They did not do anything to you. All they did was allow you to see something in yourself. Treat these moments as moments of self discovery. You have no idea what is really going on in the image for the people in it. All you can actually KNOW is what you feel and think about it. Examine that and you will always be learning about the most important person in your life.

I have people react strongly to my art all the time. I enjoy it and hope they can always learn something about themselves what these reactions happen.