In Lewis Caroll’s book Alice in Wonderland, Alice falls down a rabbit hole. She winds up in a strange world of fantasy, an existential threat to her mental well-being. In the end she finds herself questioning reality and ultimately herself. That’s how I would describe the book to my neighbor’s kids who come to our house a couple of times a week. Of course, I would omit the word existential, they being six and nine years old. I would omit the word only because I would have to explain what might give them nightmares; I mean, they should be more concerned about their new horse. The story itself is now synonymous with people who lose all sense of reality by falling down a hole they have trouble clawing their way out of. What’s true, what’s false, becomes meaningless.
Besides six and nine year olds, we have friends here in Ireland who, by all accounts, are to be considered adults (most of the time). One in particular, Jacques (not his real name) an artist from the Continent living and working here, fell into the above-mentioned hole. To say he fell into the hole would imply he stumbled into it by accident. This was not the case: Jacques knowingly threw himself in head-first and we all took note.
We would occasionally have coffee together at his house. He made very strong coffee and rolled thin cigarettes, while we talked about life. As time went by, he became agitated over little everyday things and believed external forces were controlling other people’s thoughts. He was convinced of this and began to tell anyone who would listen. Needless to say, dinner invites dried up. One day we got on to the subject of the Egyptian pyramids and how all those slaves got those big blocks up and in place. For this he had a theory. He claimed that the blocks were not rolled and dragged up big ramps, but that they were formed by casting them in place, using an early kind of mechanical cement mixer. He claimed the technology was given to the Egyptians by an alien civilization they were in contact with. Now . . . I’m not an armchair Egyptologist, nor do I know anything about alien civilizations, so trying to be a good conversationalist, I listened. Eventually I nodded my head politely and looked at my watch and said, “I’m late for a very important date.”
All of this affected Jacques. He stopped producing the art he was known for, the art he was so good at. He eventually left Ireland and moved back to the Continent. He told no one, just disappeared after twenty years of life here. Word has it that he is making magic wands somewhere in France. I hope they will produce the truth he searches for.
After reading a recent issue of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly (Winter 2020) the theme of which examined how the political spectrum can affect art and its makers, I realized that we easily pick and choose our beliefs—what’s true, what’s false—based on our unconscious biases.
Last year I was chosen to participate in a control group attached to Ireland’s Basic Income for the Arts Program.* I was given the opportunity to do a short online program about unconscious biases. When meeting someone new for the first time, or being confronted by a challenging situation, our rational brain processes about fifty bits of information per second, while our unconscious is attempting to process in the vicinity of eleven million bits per second! What it all means is this: we make decisions as to how we are going to like this person or respond to a situation based on our past biases, how we were raised as kids, and what events we might have been exposed to. As a result, what we believe as truth and how we view something as false gets pretty confusing.
From the same winter 2020 UMVA MAJ, artist Lin Lisberger spoke of her then-recent work, Who’s the Victim?: “There is not necessarily right or wrong, but relative perceptions by different individuals.” Those “relative perceptions” are formed by unconscious biases, what’s real, or not. Lisberger goes on to say: “In this divided and angry time I have come to realize that everyone feels victimized even when their ‘opponents’ don’t view it that way.” This very division our world is confronting today is nothing more than one person’s truth colliding with someone else’s falsehoods. Or perhaps the other way round?
During the creative process, more likely than not, the artist finds themselves slipping down that rabbit hole, into the unknown, and the outcome can be unpredictable. So it is a fundamental goal in any good piece of art to find something honest, to find something true. To make art that confronts itself. To make one mark on a canvas, or a piece of work so informative and powerful, that if removed, everything falls apart. That seems to be as true as it gets.
All the Best, from the West of Ireland.
*The Basic Income for the Arts is a scheme initiated by the Irish government in 2022. It was developed to financially support 2000 Irish artists (chosen by lottery) over a three-year period.
Image at top: Lin Lisberger, Who’s the Victim? (photo: Luc Demers).