Living Life With Opened Ears

One of the many lessons to be learned from Dr. Betty Edwards’s fascinating study Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is that the difference between the kind of person who can draw an anatomically realistic human face and the kind of person who can’t isn’t mainly one of creative ability, or of doing; the critical difference instead lies in the artists different way of seeing the world, and learning to see the world the way an artist does is perhaps the most important requisite for becoming a competent visual artist.

As Dr. Edwards’s book admirably documents, humans go through several stages in the way they tend to approach drawing, from abstract doodles through symbol-based representation (think of the childhood sun challenging the corner of the composition, replete with the obligatory ray-lines) to an ultimately more realistic style achieved at around 12 years of age. But this move to greater realism is hampered by a tendency for our minds to conflate objects with our childhood symbols for the same, and instead of actually looking at a human eye and seeing its precise shape and placement, most adults will fall back on their previously-learned symbol for the eye: a somewhat cartoonish construction of lines that represent the eyelids, lashes, iris, and pupil rather than anything approaching photorealism.

To overcome this tendency (of our rational, verbal left brain) we must trick ourselves into a rendezvous with our more intuitive, holistic right brain by specifically avoiding left-brain triggers: by doing blind contour drawings of plants or crumpled paper bags, which have no pre-ordained symbol; by copying portraits upside-down to avoid confusing a specific set of curves with a generic symbol (it’s how forgers copy signatures, for that matter); or by drawing the inverted “negative space” rather than the familiar positive space which we normally privilege by naming. But once we’ve learned to open our eyes and see the world, we rarely want to close them again.

This holiday I spent some time with my parents, who as good arts-abiding citizens are no strangers to the concert hall (or theatre, bookstore, or filmhaus, for that matter). They spend a great deal of time discussing the minute details of a book they have just read or a movie they’ve just enjoyed, both immediately following the experience and often well after. But while they are both to some degree musically inclined, they never, ever discuss music they’ve enjoyed in the same manner, and often have difficulty recalling what instruments are playing on their favorite songs. I mean this not as a criticism but perhaps as an invitation: just think how much more you’d enjoy your favorite music if you listened to it instead of just hearing it, and then imagine how much more you’d hear as a result. After experiencing life lived with opened ears, they might find this extremely prevalent bit of anti-intellectualism—that the artist’s way of seeing/hearing/experiencing is the privilege of the elect rather than the birthright of all human beings—just as quaint as I do.

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