Da Vinci said that sight is the king of the senses, and well it is. Freedom of expression gets all the attention, but expression is well down the line in the creation of a thought. By the time we have something to say, we have already gone thorough an elaborate process of interpreting worldly information through the unique wiring of our personality, intellect, emotions, and experience.
It all starts with that biology—and very likely with some Jungian form of the foundational interpretative material with which we are all born (the “collective unconscious” as our evolutionary heritage of symbols for making sense of the world).
But getting past the biology and into the daily grind of creativity, it really begins with sight. Seeing is the source of a vast chaos of information from which thought forms—colors, shapes, textures, movement, all provide meaning over distance. By its very nature sight is immediately and grossly judgmental—we study that which interests us, and look away from that which bores or disgusts us. In the middle, we keep watch to see how things will go. As the visual information dynamically pours in, thoughts and ideas are created.
We are prisoners of the process: although our conscious attention may wander, we can’t not see. Nor can we not respond to what we see, because response is as much “seeing” as is the perception of light.
A girl came in the café and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin, and her hair was black as a crow’s wing and cut sharply and diagonally across her cheek.
I looked at her and she disturbed me and made me very excited. I wished I could put her in the story, or anywhere, but she had placed herself so she could watch the street and the entry and I knew she was waiting for someone. So I went on writing.
The story was writing itself and I was having a hard time keeping up with it. I ordered another rum St. James and I watched the girl whenever I looked up, or when I sharpened the pencil with a pencil sharpener with the shavings curling into the saucer under my drink.
I’ve seen you, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.
Hemingway had it right: it’s an ouroboros. All the world’s a stage, and we are each in someone else’s drama, however caught up in the moment of our own thoughts we may be. Whatever Hemingway’s thoughts of the potential new character who walked into the café, his words would soon enough be seen by someone else and his work would play a role in another’s world, and around it goes. This is how our psychology works: we observe the behaviors of others in order to understand ourselves and the choices we make are informed and influenced by those observations. This is not a conscious effort. It is the result of all our senses influencing the myriad systems which make us human.
And just so, the threat to creative thought starts not with restraining expression. Restraints on expression are a lagging indicator that the damage to thought itself has already taken place. The rise of belief in “micro aggressions” and “implicit biases” (of every type) is based on an assumption that every individual’s thoughts are not only high-level, but filled with venom and hatred. The existential dilemma is that our individual thoughts are trapped in our individual heads. So how to determine what evil lurks in our fellow citizens? By what they look at, of course. Restraining sight itself, then, becomes a cause for social change.
The recent case of the “distracted boyfriend meme” would be absurd if it weren’t so serious. Sweden’s advertising regulator, Reklamombudsmannen, decreed the image “sexist” and “said the image objectified women by showing the man's ‘appreciative reaction.’ It was also ‘sexually discriminatory’ towards men by ‘imparting a stereotype picture of men looking at women as being interchangeable.’”
This kind of twisted thinking has reached its inevitable conclusion in Uganda, where model Judith Heard has been prosecuted under the country’s pornography laws for taking nude images of herself. The Uganda Pornography Control Committee chair, Annette Kezaabu, stated that a “woman can be both a victim and perpetrator at the same time.” Thus, even looking at yourself is pornography if you do not engage in approved thinking. And maybe even if you do.
Underlying these legal and moral judgments are tyrannical assumptions about the inevitability of socially unwanted action based upon thoughts taking place within the minds not only of the subjects in the image, but in the minds of the spectators of the image. And so the gaze itself becomes attacked.
If that seems like too far a logical jump, consider the projections and assumptions that Bill Clinton was recently subjected to based upon guesses as to where his eyes were looking at Aretha Franklin’s funeral.
Or consider a CNN anchor attributing racist thoughts to Donald Trump based upon Trump’s looking at Kanye West.
The attack against seeing has been steadily ramping up for many years and, like all totalitarian efforts, its appetite is limitless. Societies have taken what they most fear and attributed it to eye position, without any consideration of the individual or indeed any acknowledgment of the difference between thought and action.
And so the gaze itself becomes attacked not because it causes any positive harm in the world, but because the keepers of the politically correct code have decided which thoughts are approved and which are not, justifying their dictates by equating ideas and actions. This conflation of biological processes and physical action leads to the very “thought police” Orwell described in 1984. If it were just fiction, that would be one thing. But Orwell’s ideas were based on actual Soviet policies which were put into practice in the early 1900’s and continue today.
As can be seen from history itself, the stifling of thought is not just a political aberration—it undermines a free society. Artists are on the front line of a free and intellectually active society, and their ability to fulfill their social role has already been greatly undermined.
Akin to a lecture, the purpose of art is to present ideas which the audience has not yet considered and to present views of the world which haven’t yet been articulated. Good art—like a good lecture—appeals to that which we in the audience know, but haven’t, or can’t, articulate. By its very nature, art confronts the status quo.
Artists are disruptive because their role is not just to observe the individual conduct of others, but to draw out underlying patterns of behavior in order to illustrate archetypal truths through fiction. Hemingway’s “girl in a café” wasn’t a girl in a cafe: she was a distillation of all the girls who sat alone in all the cafés Hemingway ever sat in so that through fiction he could illustrate what it meant to him when he saw a girl like that in a café. If Hemingway’s observations illustrate a broad pattern of human behavior and experience, then his story will resonate with readers who will make use of his observations as they engage in their own. Psychologically, this connection between author and reader is as social as any direct connection between two people and has equivalent potential to lead to an evolution in one’s observations of the world.
To the totalitarian mind, however, this disruption is unnecessary because all the answers are already known and the only thing left is for people to think about it in the correct—and mandated—way and to behave accordingly. That’s why totalitarian regimes suppress the arts and provide only state-approved propaganda. Art is a threat, because the visual is the source of new ideas and visual exposure must be controlled to channel how people think.
That control is being imposed in a variety of ways. For example, because of newly imagined “privacy” concerns, commercial images must be model released even when background subjects are in a public space. As a result, many professionals no longer document faces even in released images, opting instead to cut off the head of a person. Similarly, the race, status, weight, sexual orientation, gender, and age of models has been politicized, along with the materials used to create a garment or product or even a plate of food. Hashtag boycott culture exerts constant pressure on what can be presented and how, derailing creative expression before it even begins. Our moments are being sanitized, neutered, and dehumanized, and a whole generation of people is going unrecorded by the very professionals with the skills to document them.
These suppressive efforts are some of the most frightening and the most likely to destroy fundamental freedoms, as they limit what people will even look at. Art seeks to provoke thought—not direct or contain it. Limiting what we look at diminishes critical thinking, while creative thought is deprived of the very material upon which it subsists. Worse, the cost achieves no goal: as any politician or philosopher or lawyer or advertiser knows, there is no causal connection between exposing a person to an idea (much less an image) and any direct action. The only achievement of censorship is to give power to the censor.
With little notice and no fanfare, we are rapidly sliding into a social dark ages where we are no longer able to learn by observing others, and we are deprived of creative artists who are able to help distill usable order from the visual chaos. History provides plenty of clues as to where this will wind up.
As with any of the Dark Ages in our past, however, the solution lies not in the broad, but in the narrow. Our individual ability to affect large social trends may be minimal, but as to ourselves the powers are limitless. Moreover, the uncomfortable truth is that it is we have brought on the oppression, and only we can reverse it.
Hope starts where it always does: with the individual. It is the individual’s fears and insecurities which lead to judgment. It is our individual desire to avoid being upset, disturbed, or challenged which leads us to seek to eliminate from our lives anything which might “trigger” us. Writ large, it is these fears which lead to censorship.
However destructive such a path is for society, it is suicide for an artist. Creativity comes from confrontation—from wrestling with that which is the most difficult so as to tame it into something meaningful. Art becomes great when it reveals genuine lessons for us all, and those lessons are only discovered by an artist who is willing to confront discomfort, pain, and chaos, and draw out what is good.
Through no choice of our own, we suffer the times and circumstance in which we find ourselves. But we each can choose what kind of individual to be. To be a creative, to make art, is first to see. Seeing is the fuel and inspiration, whether we like what we see or not.
And that’s the trick to gaining an artist’s eye: before we can start seeing, we must be free from the fear of being upset, of being disturbed, of being trigged. Censorship of self poisons seeing. Judgment poisons seeing. Fear poisons seeing. If the world can’t be seen as it is, then there’s nothing for an artist to do with it.
So the next time you hear about a #resistance effort to ban an advertisement, shame “cultural appropriation,” or otherwise punish the gaze, consider what it does to thought itself when we are deprived of sight itself.