Don’t hate the artist, hate the artifice

 

The sense of the self
is only a shadow cast by grammar. 


Ludwig Wiggenstein

A close friend had portraits done of each member of my family. The artist is very well known and we were asked to go to his studio for a photo session. As we stood in his beautiful garden the artist put his camera in my face and took dozens of photos at point blank range. It was really unnerving. He gave me instructions which were super challenging. “Don’t smile. Just be you. Relax and just be.” We all know that smiling, saying “cheese”, is so phony. Our zillions of smiley photos of ourselves never represent what we were experiencing at that moment. This artist explained he has done many hundreds of these portraits and his goal is to capture an authentic perspective of what he sees. 

When this portrait was completed and prominently hung in my friend’s house, I was quietly disappointed. My ego took the reins and rode roughshod over the wonderful opportunity to learn how to separate the sense of self from reality. This is what this highly accomplished artist had seen. If I am honest, I see myself in the bold strokes of the oils. Every time I see this painting I am reminded of this duality.

Another dear friend, who is an amateur ceramicist, created busts of my entire family. When he revealed them to us, I of course focused on mine. I was instantly converted into an expert critic of ceramic busts. All of the ways he failed to capture my good looks became evident. 😊  But my friend is one of the most perceptive, kindest, and most generous people I know. He truly knows and cares about me. And this is how he sees me. And this is what he created as a version of that perception. 

I slid down this bumpy road of selfish expectations and landed in a pool of gratitude for these gifts and friendships.

Don’t hate the artist, hate the artifice.

Seeing what you really look like is an illusion. It is a conceptualization. The forces of what we want overpower what is reality.

Why do people still use biography photos from 20 years ago?

These experiences literally and figuratively taught me that what I look like is not a thing. Not an object but a concept floating between and amongst perceivers. Like all truths and experiences, no one owns or knows the full reality. Perception, like life, is a process.

Yes, art is an interpretation of reality. And reality influences the art. Like life it is this dance, a pas deux between the thing and the thought.

The thing is not the word. The thought is not a thing. You are not a thing.

You’re a process.

We experience indescribale states of self. And how we feel about ourselves seems to vary remarkably, depending on the context. 

I have been honored to have many important jobs and lofty titles, not always at the same time. I often forgot I was the “CEO” and how that influenced how I was treated or seen. Then when I went home and I was “just” a Dad or a husband. We all have to code switch. We all have different personas that are seen differently.

How others see you impacts how you see yourself.

We all have encounters with people, with family, with co-workers, which set our behavior and our roles. Situations that energize, regress or destabilize us. They can alter our full capacities as human beings, our abilities to be our best selves.

Right now, as you look through your eye holes looking at the screen, you can only imagine what you look like. You imagine who you are. You rely on some image, some historic notion of your appearance. Even though we have changed, are changing. Our imaginary looks are just a fictional snapshot. We know our looks are just temporary representations of a process. What our appearance signifies, conveys, and means is a super complicated interpretation based on context, mood, mindset, bias, attention etc.

You could look in the mirror and again you see what you want to see. You can be Narcissus and fall in love with yourself or focus on your bad hair day or that mole that bugs the shit out of you.

You want to really see yourself? Look into the face of the person you are having a conversation with. Watch their face, follow their eyes, try to see what they are seeing. Not to make you feel more self-conscious but to sense how they feel and see you. You know you can. And then notice how you are looking at them following your eyes, your facial expressions, trying to understand the inflection of the tone of your voice and your body language. Are you trying to be funny or serious? Are you giving them your full attention? Like you, they are distracted, self-absorbed with their own thoughts. Worried about the schedule, how they look, so many strange thoughts are arising. And they can’t see themselves either!

And as the improv group of your mind takes turns performing and paying attention, you feel confident and in control, but you have only an inkling of what is exactly happening and how you appear to be.

Increasing our self-awareness, our presence, and our mindfulness  are the most important skills that we need to develop. It is not just being more self-conscious or even more compassionate to oneself. Of course, those are good things. But more awareness how we are living and being in the world.

When we’re looking at the Zoom screen, or face to face, we’re looking at the eyes of the person talking to us, focusing on what they look like and how they are receiving our words and how we look. It takes a lot of energy and focus to interrupt or not get derailed by our constant self-loathing and thinking about me over we.

You can find amazing islands of reality in the ocean of distraction.

You begin to appreciate what is happening. Right now. Moments outside of your head, precious, joyful and incredible moments of the present.

You can’t see your face, the only face you see belongs to some other person. And if you focus on that face, you might suddenly become conscious of where you are and what you are doing. You become aware that you only exist because of the other person in that moment, you will find that the entire universe is in this exchange.

So seeing oneself is reflected in how we interact, treat, engage with others. How we make others feel. How we reduce our mutual suffering. We help others see themselves! Our understanding of empathy and compassion is defined. The power of love is revealed. Where our identities are forged. How we understand who we are. What we look like is formed and cast.

In the end our true self hides in the shadows between the art and the artifice. Between seeing and being seen.

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