When I get mixed up in my head, tarot becomes a kind of meditation. I don’t use the cards to tell the future because I don’t want to know the future, and anyway, I don’t think tarot cards have any mystical power. Maybe for some people they do, but not for me. For me, reading tarot is about examining my thoughts in a different light, like discussing a problem with a friend. The tarot does not function in certainty or absolutes—often, I find the advice I get was something I knew all along.
What I like about it though, what I find most fascinating, is the way it relies on the millions of ways we read images to glean meaning. More than astrology with the planets, or numerology with numbers, the way you interpret a tarot card changes not just from question to question, or from deck to deck, but from the time you look at a card to the next, images working with your brain to build on experiences, connecting one thing to another thing to another thing, until the picture’s meaning is an endless web of possibility.
When you see an image, a tarot card, a face, a painting; when you bite an apple, read a sentence, listen to music, your synapses start firing; you begin the process of processing, making connections between memories, experiences, feelings, behaviors, combining it with all this sensory input, to create a narrative—that is, a story. Not necessarily with a protagonist or a moral, but recording experience as a sequence of events happening unconsciously throughout infinite time, by which I mean, happening in the way that experiences change us and keep changing us, and so ripple infinitely.
I don’t actually know how brains work. But I know a story when I see one, as do you, Reader, though we don’t categorize all stories the same way. Some stories we call “tarot,” some we call “history,” some we call “religion,” others we call “memory.” But they’re all stories—they are all ways we organize information to make sense of the world. A guest blog from the Scientific American posited that humans are hard-wired to create stories to deal with the enormous quantities of information our brains process every day. They educate our emotions, give a sense of right and wrong, inform our reasoning and morality.
Doctor of Psychology Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Righteous Mind, says “the human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” It’s the reason, he says, we bathe our children in stories—it make things easier to understand. For instance, 70-90% of participants pass the Wason Selection Task, a well-known logic puzzle, when the information is presented as a social-rule dilemma, as opposed to the average 10% or less who pass when the task is presented as a logic puzzle.
Some of the most important stories we have are stories about ourselves, stories about our lives and the people in them. Connecting to other people is a big part of being human, even to those humans who would much rather stay home alone than be out in the world. But even during alone time, most of our diversions—books, film, television, music—are just transmissions that connect us to other humans. And when you think about our relationship with art, it’s a story about mutual exchange, where art is the middleman between the narrative the artist tells in their influences, dialogue, aesthetic choices and the narrative we create when we experience those choices visually, tactically, audibly, etc.
The dilemma faced by art critics, journalists, and historians is how to translate the magnitude of a work and what it means, a largely intuitive, visceral experience, into explicit language. Which makes you wonder, how do you write about art objectively, without influencing the experience of the reader?
But also begs the question, how do you write about art without writing about yourself?
I don’t think you can. I don’t think anyone can. I don’t think anyone ever has, ever. Art exists almost entirely within the subjective; anything could be “art” if we experience it that way but we must acknowledge it first, and I think part of what really fascinates us isn’t the object itself but the feelings it evokes, the ideologies, memories, politics and context that give it meaning. An art object in and of itself does not move us. What moves us is what’s been inside us all along. Good art brings that to the surface.
And in the way good art is profound and evocative, good art writing identifies the wellspring of these interior feelings and shapes it, not with paint or clay or movement (traditionally speaking), but with words; it gives significance that is simultaneously personal and universal. Good art writing is a lot like art, a derivation of cultural and historical associations, feelings, manifested experiences, and aesthetic choices that create meaning in the first place.
So let me ask you again, dear Reader:
How do you write about art without writing about yourself?
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This is part of “Radical Storytelling,” originally submitted to the SAIC Collections on 14 Dec 2013.