Tank of Guppies

At the pet store, there is a fish tank filled with hundreds of colorful guppies. Each one is different – a unique variation on a theme. If you want a specific individual fish… forget it. Let go. You will never be able to capture that one desired guppy without grabbing a few other ones too. The shopkeeper dips his net into the water and the tiny fish dash about. Most elude capture, but a few find themselves netted and dropped into a holding vessel. They are bagged, carried home and introduced into a new tank, with cozier dimensions, a few decorations, and perhaps a few co-occupants already in place. The guppies, which have hopefully made the transition intact and healthy (and undoubtedly they have – a guppy can thrive in gravy) will look different in their new home. And more importantly, the new grouping of fish as a whole will have its own character. No longer a swirling random mass of color and chaos, the home aquarium will have some order.

I recently read a series of essays in which the author juxtaposes historic events, observations on current affairs, personal anecdotes, and her own emotional state. A critic voiced displeasure at her writing, claiming that the author had drawn undue moral equivalency between historic wrongs and episodes from her personal life.

One of the key things that an artist does is to take ideas and put them together. The simple act of placing two ideas or images in the same frame sets up a relationship between the two. They look different than they do in isolation. A connection is made.

On a clear night, away from the city lights, take a look at all those random points of light. We are used to seeing them from our perspective. Our position in space, relative to theirs, aligns the points in certain ways that even a complete non-astronomer will recognize. Why do those stars seem to make a giant ladle in the sky? Because it’s what we do. Humans make connections, identify patterns, and find relationships even between objects that are light-years apart.

When an artists presents us with an array of ideas, that’s what we, the audience members, do. We find relationships between those ideas, even if the connections are not boldly delineated by the author. Communication requires two parties. The transmitter (writer, artist, speaker) delivers the content, and the receiver (reader, viewer, critic, listener) interprets. When an artists sets up a more complex set of relationships within a framework, with multiple nuanced images and ideas, the viewer/reader/listener becomes much more engaged, and a much more active participant in the conversation. The author can make efforts to steer the interpretation to a greater or lesser extent, but the connections are forged as much by the viewer’s mind as they are by the artist’s hand.

I particularly like when an artist puts the pieces in place, and takes a very light hand in drawing the connections between them. I prefer to discover the connections myself. Sometimes they are not specifically the ones the author had in mind. I prefer the tank of swimming guppies to the flow chart of rectangles and arrows.

When it comes to creating my own artwork, I find that the most interesting relationships between ideas are the ones that come about by accident. I have a hard time catching those fleeing guppies in my brain, and often it’s the unintended by-catch that ends up in the aquarium. My process is not so much the careful selection of thoughts, as it is the arrangement of the ones that I have managed to seize upon. Maybe this is disordered thinking. But then again, some of the most compelling artwork is that which has been created by disordered people.

The essayist who had been criticized for her juxtaposition of disparate episodes may have her own disordered thoughts and feelings to contend with. Who doesn’t? It does not really matter. The resulting work was such that the reader was invited – actually compelled – to participate in making connections, and seeing relationships. Whether or not the reader likes the conclusions is irrelevant, at least in terms of evaluating the art. If the artwork engages the mind, if it makes the reader/viewer see things in a different way… that’s good art.

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