on art, interpretation, and context

the emperor's new clothes

Many years ago, I recall walking around the SF Museum of Modern Art, and I remember just 2 things from that evening. One, the photo stories they had as a special exhibit - amazing photos of Yosemite. And two, a canvas. With yellow duct tape, brown duct tape, and transparent duct tape concentrically - just inside the edge of the canvas. And nothing else. Seriously - a massive rectangular canvas with 3 concentric rectangles made of duct tape inside it. With massive emptiness in the middle.

Photo by Robert Bye / Unsplash

I remember looking at it and going "WHAT?!?". I had two reactions to it. One, I just don't get it. But then, am not the artsy type and I don't get much. The second reaction was akin to the kid in The Emperor's New Clothes. I mean - it is duct tape. On a canvas. 10+ years later, I still don't know what to make of that one.

what is the artist trying to say?

There are obviously many forms of art that make me go Woah! even though I have no idea why. But for many other forms of art, including books, poems, photos, music etc, why do some make more of an impression, and some not so much?

Most interpretations and meaning occurs when I can relate to it, by associating it with some context. What does it mean for me, or in my environment? My lens is limited, and I can certainly work on expanding my lens with which to view the world. But taking the time to understand why something resonates makes for interesting self-learning too.

I had both forms of reactions to art when I went to visit Maddy's exhibit a few years ago (top 10 things I did that year!). The

Woah! I don't know what's going on but this is stunning

and the

I don't know what the artist is trying to say but this is what it means for me

I went with a friend whose interpretations were just so orthogonal to mine and she made it a great experience. For the longest time, I thought I needed to get it only in the way the artist meant. Maddy was kind enough to explain that I can make whatever I want out of it (and that I could ask him the answers too).

the cactus

A particular piece that I recall (and who knows if my memory is true. But this is the version in my head now) was a small canvas. A cactus, in all its thorny glory, in sunlight. And directly opposite it, on the other side of the exhibit, the same(?) cactus in the night, with no thorns.

I didn't know why but that piece stayed with me. There were many other remarkable exhibits but this has still stayed with me. It has taken me only a few years for it to come back and help me create context for myself.

Photo by Giorgio Trovato / Unsplash

We make too much ado about certain fears. We over-think taking on a task. We imagine hundreds of ways we might fail, of how it might be hard. We imagine how we will get hurt if we fail. That's the cactus in daylight. An illusion we've created and made worse with our imagination.

But when we actually stop over-thinking, and break it down into one task at a time and just get on with the job at hand, we conquer things. From not being able to run 500 metres to running 20+ kilometres, as an example. Most of the thorns do not exist - they exist only when we see them and imagine them. Some of them do possibly exist but they are not insurmountable.

my insight, for myself

I realise the obvious now. One of the main points is to not spell it out, and not make the point. Lead the horse to water and leave it there. Not stuff its throat with water. Similarly, allowing my brain to spark its own insight, and fit in my context, and thus make it a lot more meaningful for me - that's how some things make a huge impact.

When there's no amalgamation (if that's the word I want) of my context with that art to make meaning, it just is not the same.

Now, I need to think what it means for me as a coach, and how I can use this insight to help me coach better.

Let me leave you with one part of Maddy's awesome poems.

once a man
took a plant and made it
into paper.
another one into
a forest.
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