“The unknown is the largest need of the intellect.” –Emily Dickinson, 1876
I remember when I was a brand new undergraduate, at Cornell University, in the 1980s. I was painfully shy and overwhelmed by the whole college experience, but I was also an avid reader, so I quickly took refuge in the main library. Built in 1891, with a prominent bell tower, its main door opened into a large sun-splashed basilica, called the Dean Room, its center filled with tables and study carrels and its walls lined with books and portraits of historians and philosophers. There was a reverent hush about the whole place, and people seemed to be seriously engaged in scholarship. In fact, for about a week, I assumed that this room was the library. It was about the same size as my entire public library back home and, while it didn’t have quite as many novels, it more than made up for that with its complete sets of encyclopedias and authoritative-looking reference books. For me, it was enough to conclude, “This is college.”
One day, while sitting in this main room, I noticed a door to the left of the circulation desk. Every once in a while, a person would disappear through the door and not return. This seemed a little odd to me; at first, I figured it was some kind of shortcut for staff. But I became curious. Maybe it was an alternative exit? Or maybe it connected to a study room of some kind? I resolved several times to walk over and investigate, but it was too embarrassing. It was right next to the circulation desk, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the door was for students. I didn’t want to get into trouble.
But, again and again, my eye was drawn to it, as I lingered over reference volumes. Eventually, after a couple of weeks, I took a deep breath, walked to the door, and, nodding confidently to the circulation staff, went through. I was hot and sweaty with anxiety, but all I found was that it led to a set of ordinary concrete stairs that went down underground, pausing at a series of landings, each with a door, marked B, 2B, 3B, etc. I stood in that stairway for a while, thinking about what to do. (Could I go back up? What if I couldn’t get back?) Finally, I decided to open one of the doors.
What I saw left me unable to breathe. As the door swung open, and I stood there in the threshold, I found, extending out before me, rows and rows of bookshelves as far as I could see. There were thousands of books of every size and color—maybe hundreds of thousands. I had never in my life seen so many volumes in one place before—it was a like an ocean of human knowledge, where one could be immersed in print for a lifetime.
Of course, I immediately panicked. What were these books doing, here, rather than upstairs in the library? Why was it so dimly lit? Where would one sit to read anything? Why were the floors concrete–had I stumbled on some kind of secret warehouse under the campus? Who did all this? Wait–did the other doors in the stairwell have the same sea of books?
As I pondered all this, another student came in. He politely walked past me, turned on one of the timer-lights at the end of a shelf a few yards away, and disappeared into the row. A minute later, he walked past me again with a book, and left.
Three things dawned on me. First, this is where people had been going. Second, this was the college library. Third—which defeated me a bit—I had much to learn.
I’ve thought a lot about that moment, because my discovery of the library stacks, and of my own halting courage, really came to shape me. Such moments are interesting—you can’t really predict them, but they can have enormous significance as we look back at our own paths through life, how we have learned, how we have grown.
“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston, 1942
There are many words that we use to talk about learning, but discovery seems to me the most potent. To discover means not simply to uncover something but to dramatically realize it. In fact, when the word first came into use in France in the 1300s, it referred to a betrayal, a divulging of something which had remained secret. Overall, there is supposed to be a slight shock or jolt to obtaining “first knowledge or sight of what was before not known.”
Discovery is commonly understood in terms of a scientific breakthrough, a realization after many months of profound concentration, experiment, failure, and redos. Some of you may know, for example, the story of Greek mathematician Archimedes, who, vexed by the problem of determining whether a crown was truly made of gold, noticed while in the bath, that he could use measurement of water rise as a means for determining the crown’s density. He was so excited by this discovery, that he forgot to dress and ran out into the street naked, crying eureka! (or “I have found it!).
Scientific breakthrough is deeply related to religious epiphany, where sudden revelation is not of an idea but of the divine. There are many examples, from the conversion of St. Paul to the Zen understanding of kensho, or “seeing one’s own true nature.” St. Augustine’s conversion to Christianity is one of the most famous. As a Berber youth he lived a hedonistic lifestyle in several cities of northern Africa and Europe, but felt miserable and lost. One day, weeping in a garden, he heard a child nearby saying over and over again, “Pick it up, read it; Pick it up, read it.” He picked up a nearby Bible, read a random passage–and as he said, “There was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.”
The expression “Ah ha” actually emerged in late 14th century Europe as a popular expression of these profound moments of conversion and insight. Today, we talk about “A-ha moments” in terms of getting hit in the head with an apple, having a light bulb appear above us, or connecting dots. Then there’s “Bingo!,” or when things “click,” “fall into place,” or come from “out of the blue”–all interesting in their own right. These expressions try to get at the surprise that often accompanies insight, as if it happened to us from without, and we were not fully in control of the change.
One never knows what one is going to do. One starts a painting and then it becomes something quite else. – Pablo Picasso
Interestingly, the surprise of insight often occurs after a prolonged period of frustration, confusion, or despair. Nineteenth-century philosopher William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, argued that evangelical religious conversion hinges on a period of “crisis” in which someone doesn’t know what to do or where to turn, before a realization of faith.
This is not dissimilar to the trials and failures that precede a scientific breakthrough.
Art does not necessarily involve “crisis,” but it often does involve an extended period of exploration, where one has a yearning to move into the work but doesn’t really know what will happen, trying different techniques, materials, and models before things start to come together.
While you cannot predict the outcome of not knowing, you can definitely develop a comfort with it. Work in the studio is often based in a willingness to suspend the certainty of our own expertise and to dwell in not knowing. As critic John Berger has said, “A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see.”
Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has said that “stories cultivate our ability to see and care for particulars…to respond vigorously with senses and emotions before the new; to care deeply about chance happenings in the world, rather than to fortify ourselves against them; to wait for the outcome, and to be bewildered—to wait and float and be actively passive.”
Writer Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, defined open-ended play with juxtaposition as a key to creativity in humor, science, and visual arts. Pointing out that the Latin verb cogito, ‘to think,’ originally meant ‘to shake together,’ he talked about how copying, transforming, and combining different paradigms of experience, ideas, or materials shakes our understanding by combining the irreconcilable, forcing us to be “multi-level headed.”
In the literature on artistic research, this is described as a capacity to continuously engage in novel, unexpected epistemological relations, what Henk Slager has called a nameless science, “directed towards generating novel connections, flexible constructions, multiplicities, and new reflexive zones.”
“Most new discoveries are suddenly seen things that were always there.” —Susanne K. Langer, 1942
Of course, how we discover is deeply shaped by contexts and circumstances, as well as our own practices and attitudes. We tend to treat discovery as an intensely personal phenomenon, and it can feel that way, but of course, it always takes place in social systems and structures that give it meaning. It helps to be attentive to the broader power dynamics at work in personal realizations. When discovery brings new insight into the world, we have to always ask, “New for whom? Which world?”
Archeologists, using laser scanning technology, recently found a vast Mayan urban network–over 60,000 previously unknown structures, including pyramids, palaces, and embankments, hidden deep beneath the dense rainforest of northern Guatemala. This discovery of the extent of ancient Mayan urbanization, which was abandoned in the 8th century, has led to further discoveries—of Western assumptions about ancient Greece and China being the most sophisticated examples of ancient society. As Tulane archeologist Marcello Canuto notes: “We’ve had this western conceit that complex civilizations can’t flourish in the tropics, that the tropics are where civilization goes to die… But with the new [laser-based] evidence from Central America and [Cambodia’s] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there.”
The Mayans also produced a vivid and durable blue pigment, which was made from mixing a local indigo plant and a rare clay at high heat. This indigenous blue was still being used to great effect in the 1600s by Spanish and Mexican colonial artists like Juan Gerson, Cristóbal de Villalpando, and Baltasar de Echavé Ibía. As Devon Van Houten Maldonado has explained, because the color blue in European art was mined from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, which was expensive and used by only the most accomplished artists–and because Gerson, Villalpando, and Ibía were considered minor, derivative artists –no one in the European and North American art world gave a second thought about the lasting vivid blue that fills their works. Only in the 1960s did scientists begin rediscovering the chemical composition of the pigment and the process of making it. And it has only been in the last couple of decades that European and American art institutions, rethinking the canon, have rediscovered Mexican art and held major exhibitions to celebrate it.
While we need to understand systems of power that enable and disable cultural recognition, this should still not diminish the profundity of one’s personal sense of learning something new, which remains at the very heart of education and growth. In fact, discovery and re-discovery that happens across and around existing boundaries and experiences, can be key to social change.
Historian Cheryl Finley, in a recent book called Committed to Memory talks about a widely-known 18th-century illustration of a slave ship created by British abolitionists in 1788. She writes, “Its creators recognized that it was a brutal, painful, and political image, a calculated outrage, even an obscenity,” but adds that its circulation directly enabled increasing numbers of whites at the time to see and begin to understand the horrors of the African slave trade.
And since its publication, it has been intentionally reused and reshaped by artists to enable continual re-discovery of slavery’s history and to enable diasporic Africans to reassert common identity, from stained glass at Chicago’s New Mount Pilgrim Baptist Church to the work of Beninise artist Romuald Hazoumé.
The slave ship icon has become a means to catalyze what literary critic Marianne Hirsch has termed postmemory—how “the memories of traumatic events live on to mark the lives of those who were not there to experience them.” In this, of course, are lots of questions, about ethics, responsibility, and about the limits of empathy in what Hirsch calls the “transgenerational transmission of trauma.” How, she asks, in our present, do we regard and recall the pain of others in the past? How can we best carry their stories forward without appropriating them, without unduly calling attention to ourselves, and without, in turn, having our own stories, in the present, displaced?
There are not definitive answers to those questions, but in a diverse community, where we necessarily must interact with each other as individuals, but also where lines of history and power shape all of our behaviors, we need to live and work together with heightened sensitivity and a collective generosity of purpose, to allow vulnerability, to comprehend, and, through that process, to become.
“Roads, trails, and paths unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens or reads.” —Rebecca Solnit
One of the interesting things about the literature of discovery is the constant use of travel metaphors. In all the major religions, for example, discovery is described in terms of finding a path, making a pilgrimage, or journeying in some way toward God or enlightenment. Likewise, in business, science, and government, we value those who blaze trails, engage in ground-breaking research, follow the unbeaten path, etc.
Despite this rhetoric of individual travel, paths are rarely ever created by one person—in fact, they are lasting traces of repeated and mutual thought and effort. Robert Moor, who wrote On Trails, has written about how paths are created in the snow, something that has challenged everyone from the Inuit in Alaska to European explorers of Antarctica to Russian prisoners in Siberia. Basically, it entails, for one person, the exhaustingly hard work of first tramping out a lasting line (fighting against the depth of the loose snow, the lack of orienting features, and the wind constantly covering over your progress), then others, coming after, straightening, widening, and improving the line with their own unique footsteps.
Weirdly, this is very similar to how ants move food. Physicist Richard Feynman, curious about an ant infestation in his house, used to tell the story of how he put some sugar on the far end of his bathtub and waited for the ants to find it. He then used a color pencil to draw a line behind where each ant went, so he could follow the trail. The first ant went slowly, wandering a little bit to get back to the drain, so the line was quite wiggly. The second ant followed the first ant’s return trail, but at a faster pace which made him coast through some of the wiggles. Overall, the second ant’s return was slightly straighter. With successive ants, the same straightening of the trail occurred. Feynman claimed that the traced trails of eight or ten ants started to create a neat line along the bathtub.
Good paths don’t have to be straight, of course! When the first toll roads were created in the United States between 1812 and 1825, they represented the height of technology and were a great contrast to trails of mud or felled logs. But while hard-surfaced roads were great for more wealthy travelers and freight companies, few could afford the fees. Some waited until after sundown to use the road when toll collectors went off duty. Other innovators started to go around toll booth stations in various ways, one-by-one, eventually locating a new, cheaper route, a curve what was known as a “shunpike”–which still accounts for some of the curves you find on highways today.
Of course, these examples only point to the creation of single paths. As Moor has pointed out, our world is filled with multiple paths, new and old, built by people with different purposes and senses of urgency, yielding different arcs, throughways, and shapes. He says, “Overlapping and crisscrossing trails, created by countless living beings pursuing their own ends, form the planet’s warp and woof.”
A few of you may actually find yourself in the role of that exhausted first trailblazer; others will be refiners, straightening the weird curves or creating more advantageous shortcuts. Together, though, you will create new ways to traverse the arts.
So: get moving.