“‘Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. This literally colors our vision.’” Although this observation comes from a fictional character in Don Delillo’s novel White Noise on how people react to a famous tourist attraction, it also supports my recent — and admittedly strange — obsession with how life may be a series of illusions created by society that hinders our ability to see things for what they really are. People have the power to shape what we see; the very reason behind the unseeing that occurs today.
And what do I mean by that? In Delillo’s novel, two friends, Jack and Murray, make a journey to see what is called “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” As soon as the men arrive at the site, they see dozens of tourists attempting to capture the famous attraction with their cameras. But Murray comments that no one really sees the barn. After they have read the signs indicating the the barn is the most photographed in America and observe the tourists taking pictures, they cannot see the barn for what it is anymore — they never have the chance to see it. They don’t know what the barn was like before it was photographed, what distinguishes it from other barns or how it became famous. They don’t know why they want to see it in the first place, yet continue to take pictures because everyone else who visits the site does so. They are merely capturing something that has been captured thousands of times before, creating an image that is detached from personal human experience. The photograph reinforces and maintains the image of what the most photographed barn is supposed to look like. But when people look at the barn, they don’t see it; they see what society and expectations have shaped them to see.
White Noise is a fictional piece, but its commentaries on the disillusionment of life are scarily relevant in today’s age. These commentaries followed me over fall break when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. MoMA is one of my favorite museums: it holds some of the most beautiful contemporary artworks by renowned artists as well as lesser known exhibitions by today’s artists. After seeing some new exhibits such as Teiji Furuhashi’s Lovers and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, I went back to the rooms that hold the Picasso’s, Matisse’s and Van Gogh’s; works of artists who make me feel comfortable and at ease. After the discomfort and unfamiliarity I felt with the new exhibitions I had viewed — the topics were heavy, and had evoked emotions I was not expecting — it was a breath of relief to find the same Gold Marilyn Monroe and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in their place. They were artworks rooted in history — expected, unchanged, familiar. But as I made my way through the rooms, I saw people I assumed were there for the first time taking pictures of the most “famous” paintings, most notably Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Matisse’s Dance.
These artworks are magnificent — without a doubt. But so are many of the other artworks in the museum that don’t get even half as much attention as the swirly whites, blues and yellows of the famous night sky. What are people really capturing when they take pictures of the artwork? Are they appreciating the colors, the textures, the composition? Do they know why they want to take the picture? Is the notion that something is popular the only reason behind the hundreds of clicks of cameras? Are they able to see the painting as it really is, removed from how society views it and devoid of expectations?
After walking the museum for a few hours, I found myself sitting in front of Chagall’s I and the Village, another “famous” painting. I sat there, taking in the magnitude of the artwork and allowing my eyes to roam. My exhausted legs kept me rooted to the bench, an unusual circumstance for someone who enjoys slowly passing through collections as opposed to sitting. But it gave me the time to observe and appreciate the painting I had studied in art history classes before. I had learned about it and heard about it so much. I had been to MoMA before and seen this very painting. But after seeing so many people take photos of other works of art without even first looking at the painting — their phones and cameras were whipped out before they had the chance to take in the masterpieces — I was conscious of how I viewed the bright colors in front of me. I knew that the painting was famous and taught frequently. I knew I had seen this very painting as an image printed in textbooks as well as here, hanging, already. But I didn’t allow any of that to distract me from what and how I saw in that moment. I viewed it as an artwork that was important, for a reason, in the history of art, taking in all the details and reveling in its beauty. I had the strangest sensation that I wasn’t just looking; I was seeing.
Do so many of us go through life unseeing, blinded by expectations and unable to capture the real meaning of what it is in front of us? Have we grown so accustomed to technology, media, society, consumer culture and the rest telling us what is important and what we must see that we lose connections to objects and experiences? It scares me how easily we think we see things when in fact we are looking at them through what Delillo’s character Murray calls “a collective perception.”
I want to know why the barn is so famous. I want to know why I even care that the barn is famous. I want to see the barn.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.