I just started reading a new book last night: a juvenile book called “The Calder Game,” by Blue Balliett. I’m only about a third of the way into it, but there is one theme that definitely stands out already: different people see the same things in different ways. The title character, Calder, sees the world as puzzles to be solved. His friend Petra sees things as word combinations. His other friend Tommy is an expert collector, and he sees the world in reference to his found objects. There is also the art of Alexander Calder, his colorful mobiles and stabiles–and how people see his art. Is it wondrous and amazing, crazy, too modern and bold? Does it remind them of animals, engineering, air? This book, at this point anyway, seems to be about ways of seeing and observing.
Whether or not I ultimately think the book is successful, I appreciate that it got me thinking on this theme. I was reminded of an experience I had the summer before I went to graduate school in art history. My BA was in the Humanities, with an emphasis in English literature. I was with a bunch of my friends enjoying an evening at a beach house. The sun had set and I was sitting looking at the ocean with a friend of mine who was a professional artist. I have always had a somewhat fearful respect of the ocean. It kind of scares me, but it’s beautiful too. When I looked at it that night, I thought of it in terms of its vastness, its power, its persistance. I saw it as a metaphor. I saw it in terms of words and emotion. Then I asked my artist friend what he saw when he looked at the ocean. I wondered if artists really did see the world differently and if my world view was going to change as I studied art. His answer was very telling. “I see light and shadow,” he said. (Wow. Revelation!) He saw the changing colors of greens and blues settle into darker tones muted with black as night came on more fully. I was amazed. My eyes were opened! I had never looked at the world with such visual awareness before.
Today, many years beyond graduate school and semesters of teaching college art history courses at various times, I do see the world differently. I am still a reader, so I still see things with the broader awareness that books bring. I still love words and see the world in terms of verbal description. But now I also love art with a deeper understanding, and I do see the world in terms of line, color and composition. I see contrast and texture, balance and shape. And, yes, light and shadow. I appreciate the fuller perspectives my life and education have given me. And I also appreciate that different people see the world differently. That’s what makes life so rich and interesting.