On Looking and Seeing

COVID pandemic boring.That’s the ungrammatical three-word sentence that’s been pounding through my brain for a few months now, and after my therapist advised me to “do something different,” (meaning something other than sitting at my computer all day “working” and watch television all evening), I ordered a couple of jigsaw puzzles on Amazon. Artsy ones, because I’m fancy.

I hadn’t done a puzzle in years, and in the age of internet trolling and political unrest, it was a delightfully innocent way to spend a few hours. Quaint, even.

But I bit off more than I could chew, as it were, and the puzzle, “The Grand Canal of Venice” by Edouard Manet, was freaking hard. In the picture above I’m almost finished, but let me tell you, that shit took weeks. I had to squint at each piece and match it up the picture on the box to figure out where it went. And, as the subtitle of the painting (“Blue Venice”) suggests, there’s a lot of fucking blue in the image. Also, you may not be able to tell from my crap picture-taking, but Manet’s agitated, broken Impressionist brush strokes are short and fierce, full of mixing colors that build a sui generis gestalt of a moment in time on a canal in Venice.

Well, it got me thinking.

Writing and Drawing

As a primarily word-based person (I’m a fictioneer, a novelist, a poet, a copywriter, a content marketer, a human thesaurus, and so on), I have always found visual aesthetics to play second fiddle to linguistical ones. Many important people in my life are visual artists, however, and I kind of always held them in awe: anyone who can draw, or decorate a room, or match colors, I think, how the hell do you do that?

I suppose it’s mostly practice, just like anything else. An artist knows how to draw shapes just like I know how to write snappy dialogue; an interior decorator builds their repertoire like I build my vocabulary. Basketball players shoot millions of free throws over their lives. I’ve read hundreds of books and written hundreds of stories.

If you really want to know a work of art, do a puzzle.

But as I studied each of the 1,000 pieces in this puzzle, I felt like I was getting to know this work of in a way I had never done with any other painting. Sure, I’ve strolled through tons of museums and drank wine at hip galleries, but at the former, I was usually trying to “better myself” in some mysterious way, hoping to absorb through osmosis some level of sophistication and artistry as if it leaked off the paint, and at the latter, I was usually trying to impress uninterested women with droll witticisms, or get drunk for free.

But here, now, during COVID, while doing this blasted puzzle, I was studying fucking art. Indeed. I got to know every brush stroke in the damn painting, and I gained an entirely new appreciation of how color can be utilized. If I had tried to paint a canal, I’d probably only use blue. But Manet not only used all shades of blue, but green, black, red, orange, white, yellow… I mean, I don’t care what anyone else says, he was a good painter. Except I never noticed any of that, until I really looked.

And then I wondered, what do we see when we look? Do we see only the finished product, or do we see the elements that make up the total? The ramifications are myriad and maddening, and have been discussed for thousands of years, from Platonic ideals to Tolstoy’s What is Art? to Magritte’s treacheries to the red pill and the blue pill in The Matrix to the red pill and the blue pill in today’s political nightmare. There is ample evidence that “eyewitness” testimony is not all that trustworthy. It would seem that “seeing” and “reality” are not, in fact, related.

I have on my bookshelf a brilliant and unique exploration of reading called What We See When We Read, by Peter Mendelsund, which takes on this philosophical question when someone builds a picture of a world, or person (for example, Anna Karenina), in their mind. These are the considerations I think about when I’m writing, and I take pains to either “paint a picture” of a character or scene carefully, or not at all — because in many cases, I know my reader will bring their own image of my characters and settings to my work.

In any case, I unfortunately don’t really have a good answer to the question that titles this essay. Only the knowledge that it’s a good thing to keep in mind when moving about the world, especially when, in these shitty days, it is so easy to be distracted by the infinite feed and the terrible news and the impending climate apocalypse. It almost makes you wonder why you should even bother. Ironically, that is the reason itself: why it is important and edifying to stop and look closely at something — life itself — rather than let it pass by, hardly noticed.