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Do artists "see" differently than other people?

A good friend wrote recently: “Seriously. I believe artist are savants. The true artists see the world, the colors, the sounds, feel the heartbeat and the emotions in a different way than most of us do. They can paint, write, hear things that we can’t. It is a perspective, a dimension we can only glimpse at and say we understand. But, not really. It’s ok. That’s why they are here. To help us, if we care, see the depth of many, many dimensions. So, to the Beatles – you may have just saved my life, again. Thank you for seeing the world differently than others, people like Dan Patrick." Townes Van Zandt, the songwriter who wrote Pancho and Lefty, said: “I am not sure I can take responsibility for writing Poncho and Lefty, that just came through me one day, and I don’t know where it came from, and I have been trying to understand what that song is about ever since then.”

I often know that feeling, and it goes to the heart of what artists do: All the voices and images they produce by connecting with some sort of other realities that seem to be out there. So the question here is whether artists “see” the world differently than non-artists? I can say with certainty that at a minimum, the artist's brain works in a different way than other people's brains.

I am the happy owner of a brain that seems to have very little in the way of left lobe abilities, and is heavily weighted toward the “right” hemisphere. That's not a great thing sometimes, when you need to balance a checkbook or do your taxes! But the trade-off is that you get to conjure art out of the tangled mess that often is the creative right brain.

Now, you really can’t say exactly what other people see when they look out at the world, but generally speaking, I would guess they see pretty much the same thing, but just process it a bit differently. An artist sees a beautiful forest that would be suitable for a painting or a song. An industrialist sees board feet of lumber he can make a buck on by chopping it all down. But they see the same thing when they look - a collection of trees. So people do “see” things differently.

One of the big disappointments in my life was finally realizing that most people do not see art in the same way that I do. It took decades for me to understand that while I could lose myself looking at paintings for long periods of time that were only swirls of color and pattern and had no real representation in them, my left brain friends could only glance at such a painting for a moment, decide it had no literal meaning that could be recognized in a logical fashion (“Yes, that looks exactly like a guy on a horse, and he is doing...”) and so would just move on. That's just the way their minds are wired. Mine is wired differently. Not better, or worse. You need engineers, doctors, and accountants. But, you need artists and musicians and poets, too.

The logical left brain regards itself quite highly, but it needs the illogical right brain

as well, to sing it songs and write it poetry and paint paintings, even if it finds some of it confusing, it speaks to a different level.

What exactly art is, and who exactly an artist is, is a thorny subject. It's not possible to address that one here, but there are, at a minimum, different types of artists, doing different sorts of things. Some just paint pretty flowers, and some try to paint the blood-smeared walls of hell. Most fall somewhere between. In my mind, in my art, I openly seek to portray a different reality. A camera will do just fine for representing the reality on this side. For me, an artist is similar to a shaman, reaching into different realms and coming back to portray what they discover there. And some days, as Townes Van Zandt described above, something indeed takes over. Something moves through you in some way, and virtually paints the painting for you, just using your willing hands to do so. After a feverish hour or two, you realize you somehow did something way beyond your usual abilities and you are not even sure how you did it. And in some cases, you are never able to replicate that painting ever again. My painting of this dark and gloomy bird is an example. It came out of nowhere (I had no idea I was about to paint a bird when I picked up my tools). And it is comprised, if you look closely, of seeming nuts and bolts along with feathers. I was never again able to duplicate the effect.

And like Townes Van Zandt, I have no idea “ what it means." Which brings me to another difference in left/right brain people. Left brain people have a need to “understand” art and be able to put what they see into words to explain it, as I mentioned above, but as an artist, I distrust taking a nonverbal piece of art and insisting that it has a meaning, or that it “states" something. It's not necessary to try to wrap an explanation around it. I dislike artist “statements” for that reason. I usually find them a ridiculous, pompous mess that instead should say, “Just stare a while at the damn painting - it will tell you all you need to know! Someone once said, maybe it was Laurie Anderson, “Talking about Art is like dancing about Architecture." I will agree. Art should be, and should remain, a mystery. At least for me. So, to answer my friend who wrote the passage that started this essay: Yes, artists do interpret the world differently, and then they invite you to step into that world through their songs, poems, and paintings and films. But I think they do this from their own need to explore those worlds that lie just beyond the regions of logical thought. They then hope others can enter and appreciate those worlds, but the true artists would do their work anyway, even if no one paid attention. And for most artists, the world, indeed, pays no attention at all. Yes, art can uplift, as was needed in my friend's case. It can also just as easily be disturbing, curious, depressing, joyous or hilarious. It's all out there. It can also, as I stated, open the door to different worlds. As an example, I will end here with a poem by W.S. Merman. Take a moment and enter a world where nothing is the way it is in this one. It's an interesting, short vacation from the logical mind and this predictable reality. Bon Voyage.... “The calling under the breath” by W.S. Merman Through the evening The mountains approach Over the desert Sails from a windless kingdom Silence runs through the birds Their shadows freeze Where are you Where are you, where are you I have set sail on a fast mountain Whose shadow is everywhere.


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