Seeing is Believing is a New Way of Looking

Monet's London, Houses of Parliament. The Sun Shining through the Fog

Some of the best art has emerged from of a failure of the senses. Think of Monet, his eyesight going, cataracts opaquing and softening his world–and the beauty he created out of that perpetual blur. I always think of that gorgeous poem by Lisel Mueller, “Monet Refuses the Operation:”

Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Read the whole thing if you get a chance–it’s one of those wholly life-affirming poems, not to be corny or anything but really, it is. An examination of a new way of seeing.
Another example is Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day,the title of which came out of a mishearing.  I performed part of this play as part of a larger Holocaust theatre project years ago and I’ve always loved Kushner’s story of its genesis:
One day in December, nearing the end of this unhappy time, I was looking an an exhibition of De Mille memorabilia (Cecil B. and Agnes’s) at Lincoln Center. A videotape was on display, showing Agnes de Mille at work on a new dance she was choreographing, at a very advanced age, for the Joffrey Ballet. I was standing at the opposite end of the room, far from the tape, but I thought I heard the venerable Ms. de Mille tell her interviewer that the title of the new dance was “A Bright Room Called Day.” This sounded like fun and solace so I went over to watch the videotape, only to discover that the title of the piece was actually “A Bridegroom Called Death.” From a bright room called day to a bridegroom called death: The metamorphosis was emblematic of the times.
My mishearing stayed with me, and eventually it came to sound like the right/wrong title of a play I had decided to write, a play about Germans, refugee and otherwise, caught on the cusp of the historic catastrophe about to engulf them.
What about you? What are your favorite examples of the senses failing and the result being a new way of re-making the world through art?
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14 thoughts on “Seeing is Believing is a New Way of Looking

  1. Hi Amber,

    Nice post. El Greco comes to mind–the theory is (& I have no idea whether this is generally accepted among art historians, or if this is the renaissance version of an urban legend) that he had some sort of astigmatism that possibly led to the elongated forms in his work.

    Just checked the Wikipedia page, and found this: The physicians August Goldschmidt and Germán Beritens argued that El Greco painted such elongated human figures because he had vision problems (possibly progressive astigmatism or strabismus) that made him see bodies longer than they were, and at an angle to the perpendicular;[l] the physician Arturo Perera, however, attributed this style to the use of marijuana.[78]

    So astigmatism or pot, maybe?

    • Ha! That’s really interesting. I’d never heard that about him. Explains a lot if it’s true. Maybe I should stop wearing my contacts and let the astigmatism take over. I definitely never saw any elongated figures when I was high, but…everyone’s high is different, right?

    • Hey, I’m glad you liked it Matt–isn’t it great? It sounds dorky, but it’s one of those poems that just makes me feel really happy about life, and art, and human beings.

      Sent from my iPhone

  2. Gary Lutz has described being well into elementary school before his poor eyesight was diagnosed, leading him to assume the world was just a blurry place – ties not only into worldview, but also his ear for acoustics and that nose-to-the-page focus on the sentence as a unit.

  3. The look of Derek Jarman’s penultimate film Wittgenstein (1993) owes much to its director’s then-worsening blindness (caused by AIDS). Only by brightly lighting simply-colored actors and props on stark black soundstages could Jarman see what he was filming:


    (The whole film is up.)

    Jarman soon went completely blind, and so the visual track of his final film, Blue (1994) consists entirely of a totally blue screen; meanwhile, Tilda Swinton and Nigel Terry read portions of Jarman’s diary, accompanied by music provided by Simon Fisher-Turner, Momus, and John Balance and Peter Christoperson (Coil):


    (The whole film is also up, but the subtitles, alas, ruin much of its effect.)

    Momus has, since 1997, been blind in his right eye.

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