“We want to transform ourselves”

I find language and art extremely similar.  Some say art is like language.  I say art is language.   How did I decide this?  Because of they both have similar barriers to entry; they cause their viewers, users, or listeners to have the same kinds of struggles.

Language.  You move to a new country, let’s take Italy (my favorite).  You are not a native speaker, but you can understand most things, say a few words, and read almost everything…slowly.  The plane lands, luggage in tow, you flag your cab to get to your apartment (or maybe you are really good and use the local public transport). 

Art.  You decide to go check out a new contemporary sculpture exhibition.  You have never been to this museum before, and you have certainly never done a sculpture yourself.  You think Michelangelo was a sculptor but Art History 101 was a long time ago.  You like paintings, and can appreciate a well-executed figure composition.  You can take being on your feet for a few hours.  You arrive to the museum, hang up your coat, and grab a map.

Language.  You try to get into your new apartment, the landlord has the keys waiting for you, but you can’t figure out the locks.  Five keys, funny shapes, and three locks.  Which goes where?  You are tired, and there is no one around to help.  You have to drop everything you are holding, simply hoping no one will take your bags that are scattered everywhere on the street by your door.  You just keep trying.  You finally open the door, and manage to get all your belongings in your room.  Exhausted, you barely kick off your shoes before leaving everything in disarray to get your head on that pillow.  It’s all you can do to just put one foot in front of the other.

Art.  The map isn’t helping too much.  You get lost trying to find the “most exhilarating, eye opening, forward thinking exhibition of sculpture in the city.”  Was it before or after the elevators, the first or second level?  Oh, what’s this work here?  That’s not the right one, you pass it by.  You don’t learn about it.  Eventually, you make it to the entrance with the big signs announcing you have made it to the show.  You are a little mentally fatigued by trying to figure out the different rooms, dodging tourist groups, and deciphering which works of art would be worth it to look at before your got to the big show for which you thought you were making a beeline. 

Language.  A few months after moving you begin to know some local spots, understand how the line works at the grocery store, and get your cell phone working with no problems.  But your social life is limited.  You feel like when you open your mouth to strike up new conversations with new friends, what comes out gives you no personality.  The words fit awkwardly with who you see yourself to be.  You can’t seem to make jokes, or ingratiate yourself.  You rely on the mercy of others to have patience with you.

Art.  You are in the third room of the sculptures.  You are starting to see some patterns in the work, but overall still find it weird and “like something a five year old could do.”  You are reading the labels, trying to understand what the artist was thinking.  You stare longer at some works, breeze pass others.  You cling to the audio guide as your resource to great understanding.  Maybe you like that work over there in the corner?

Language.  A few more months of feeling awkward and stuck.  Then it clicks.  Someone asks you for directions on the street in their native language.  You eventually blend in.  Your personality takes the form of your new language.  You think in that language, you dream in that language, you write in that language.  Your frame of reference is that culture.  You absorb and you have changed, transformed. 

Art.  Another half hour of wandering and looking, feeling aimless.  Then it clicks.  You eventually see one thing that makes you stop.  You think about it, you see something that makes you wonder.  You think about it as if you had a different set of eyes.  You change your perspective.  Your frame of reference adapts to that work of art.  You absorb and you have changed, transformed.    

Both language and art create walls.  Both language and art offer great rewards if you can find a way through.  Both language and art can eventually allow you to see outside of yourself.  It is rare to have moments in life that can actually, and completely uproot your frame of reference.   

Seen in this light, art can require a whole lot of patience to enjoy, and understand.  It is no wonder so many people feel like they aren’t “art” people.  But there is crucial good news, one difference between art and language that I haven’t mentioned.  In art, there is no set grammar, there is no wrong spelling, and there are no confused verb tenses.  There is simply exploration.  And, literally nothing is considered wrong when you are just exploring. 

Inspired by the article http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/12/07/teach-yourself-italian.   


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