What American or artist would fail to take umbrage if described as derivative or old-fashioned? We pride ourselves on self-determination, yet our use of that freedom is paradoxically dependent on the developmental duality of nature and nurture. In common parlance paradoxes are mere contradictions, but their charm and challenge come from the fact that they are also true (from less obvious points of view). I often describe my artworks in terms of feminism or faith, but the deeper link between them all is the tragicomic paradox of confronting tradition from within.
A plethora of perspectives concerning ambivalence
Every field has a different way to describe this important mental game. Feminists speak of consciousness raising. In describing the effect of consciousness raising on an individual’s mind, Sandra Lee Bartky pointed out that:
…feminists suffer what might be called a ‘double ontological shock’: first, the realization that what is really happening is quite different from what appears to be happening, and, second, the frequent inability to tell what is really happening at all. (35)
This uncertainty about reality resembles some definitions of mental illness. It is more meaningfully regarded as a microcosm of the way the scientific philosopher Thomas Kuhn described paradigm shifts within scientific fields.
As Kuhn explained, “Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has come to recognize as acute” (24). Paradigms do not achieve dominance because they are right, but because they are useful. The feminists Bartky described have acute problems, but they have not yet determined which subjective truth is most useful. At that stage, a person is plagued by ambivalence.
Philosophers are not the only authorities on the awkward experience of paradoxes. Literature and folktales have doppelgängers, whose twinning is sometimes ill-fated but always revelatory. Optical illusions and ambiguous figure-ground illustrations often introduce concepts from gestalt psychology. Folktales and visual games are often dismissed as entertainment or juvenile, but that faultiness is necessary. Consider the comparative anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s observation in The Power of Myth that “It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words” (206). The visual arts are equally allusive.
The Jewish theologian Abraham J. Heschel wrote many profound truths about intuition, persuasion, and social activism in his discourse on Biblical prophets, but an observation particularly applicable to the arts is that: “[Insight] entails genuine perception, seeing anew. He who thinks we can see the same object twice has never seen. Paradoxically, insight is knowledge at first sight” (xxv). Art’s metaphorical quality respects the fact that there is more to truth than surface appearances.
The nineteenth-century transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson highlighted the difference between truthfulness and truth when he advised readers to “Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day” (265). Transcendence is an unusual term in secular contexts, but it has a particular authority describing the borders of ineffability.
Putting theories to good use
A commonality between these concepts from philosophy, literature, psychology, and theology is that all address the subjectivity of experience and ontology, or the world as it is understood and explained by individuals. Art can be a means of communication, catharsis, documentation, or decoration, but it also functions as a strategy for finding patterns and meaning in the world. As an artist who happens to be a woman with religious and academic leanings, the canons of art and the Bible present a troublesome set of issues to practice reconciling. How can a person technically excluded from these canons relate to them?