Descending the stairs at a parking garage yesterday, I was captivated by the sight of honey locust leaves outlined by dew on a flat black roof. What does it say about me that this is my first successful picture of autumn leaves this year?
Imperfection, even shabbiness, is far more attractive to me than some idealized view of nature. On a trip to upstate New York last week, I took a number of pictures of the spectacular Taughannock Falls, but the only one that struck me as worth saving (and I still don’t think it’s all that great) features the mist rather than the waterfall.
The trouble is simply that I’ve seen too many photos of waterfalls, too many depictions of hillsides blazing with autumn colors. It becomes very, very difficult to escape the gravitational pull of the clichéd shot and see these kinds of scenes anew. The particularity of the scene becomes lost in translation into our ready-made vocabularies of perception.
Yesterday morning, I was led to ponder the process of translating visual art into tactile experience by an exhibit on the interpretation of art for the blind at Pattee Library, University Park, Penn State. (In addition to being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, October is also Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month.)
Each of a number of famous works of art was reproduced and described in the manner of this bronze head from Benin: a full-color reproduction at the top, paired with a description for the sighted, then below it, a black-and-white reproduction, giving a sense of what is lost when colors are translated into contrasting textures in the adjacent tactile version — durable paper “printed” with varying kinds of embossed surfaces. A detailed interpretive description in Braille rounds out the display.
For works of sculpture, I can’t help thinking that direct contact with the object itself would be far simpler (aside from the obvious fact that the sculpture in question may be located in Lagos). I wonder if there are any art museums that allow people with sight loss to handle more durable pieces of sculpture?
In any case, the “look but don’t touch” mentality of art museums really gets to me sometimes. It is perhaps an inescapable necessity for the public display of artworks that they be placed behind velvet ropes, but with this comes a strong sense that art is something apart from ordinary life. The work of art, we in the West have been led to believe, is as changeless and immortal as a Platonic form. This is of course pure fantasy, enabled in part by the ability of the sighted to gather information at a distance and to preserve it in a static form (as opposed to a sound recording, which cannot be divorced from the time required to listen to it). Those who rely on touch, taste, smell and hearing for their knowledge of the world have no choice but to immerse themselves in the ever-changing flow.
I wonder if someone blind from birth can even form a conception of the transcendental, predicated as it is upon the possibility of apartness? Does the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity even make sense for such a person? Imagine a world without visual media. Would it be as easy to destroy?
I’m going to West Virginia this weekend. See you on Monday.