"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Saturday, July 30, 2011

How Drawing Leads to Epistemological Pessimism

To be fair, I have never claimed artistic ability. Painting, sketching, sculpting... all of those wonderful things have always delighted and eluded me.
Nevertheless, two summers ago I was seized by a random desire to try my hand at sketching. I made copies of multiple pictures which struck my fancy, and was actually rather pleased with my work. But my artistic ventures ended with the long, idle days of summer.
Until last night.
I was sitting on my bed, trying to conjure up some form of entertainment for an idle summer's evening, when I remembered the old kids' sketchbook buried beneath books and notebooks in my bedside drawer. On a whim, I procured the sketchbook and began to look through it (Wait...did I really do this two summers ago? I thought it was last summer! Time passes by much too quickly!).  Leafing through the old drawings inspired me to do a bit of drawing to pass the time.
For my first target I selected the fruit bowl which graces my kitchen table. Moderately satisfied with the result, I then decided to tackle the lovely porcelain doll who presides over my room. Within a matter of time I had a page containing a rather poor, but satisfactory rendition of the porcelain doll (I need to set reasonable standards for myself) alongside a decent (again, by Annette-standards) fruit bowl.
Gazing at my portrait of the lovely little doll, I began to consider how challenging it is to faithfully capture reality. 'Tis impossible! So many details to be accurately captured and conveyed!
It can be rather frustrating to be able to look at an object, to imagine it, and yet to be unable to transfer it onto the page (or whatever medium one works with). Or at least, it is for me.

Now this is somewhat interesting, isn't it? Art, broadly construed, toils patiently in pursuit of faithfulness to reality. Art seeks truth, doesn't it? (Does it?)
The very process of artistic creation seems to be an attempt to distill truth from life and enclose it within one's work.
But how curious that truth exists so sneakily- accessibly, yet slippery; elusive...

The problem of drawing- of accurately capturing reality or truth- parallels the problem of knowledge. (Enter skeptics.)
In seeking to transfer reality from the world to the page- do we ever manage to capture and present truth? Or is everything hopelessly distorted? Is our rendition causally linked to that which inspired it (therefore bearing a visible connection to it), but inevitably warped and morphed into a new being?

Take my porcelain doll. The girl on the page is clearly not the doll before me (sad, but true). Although I began by attempting to faithfully copy what I saw before me, the inaccuracies accumulated until the final product clearly differed from the original  (No, really. It's a totally different gal I have on the page before me). Although my drawing has its roots in reality, and although the girl in my sketch may be said to be descended from the doll, they are not one. Certainly there are key similarities as a result of the causal connection between them- but can I reliably use the sketch to arrive at certain truths about the doll? Can I know the doll by looking at the sketch?
Given my drawing... it would appear not.

Now, what if I want to protest this? My drawing is not great, but it's also not terrible. You could conclude the doll had curly hair, you could describe features of her dress...you could get some things right. And what if I made consistent errors in my sketching? Perhaps then you could look at the drawing, take into account the errors I regularly make (of course, this assumes a knowledge of those errors), and thus use the imperfect picture to arrive at precise, if not entirely accurate, conclusions. (Admittedly, the notion of "precise" qualitative conclusions is a bit fuzzy.)

Okay, so perhaps you already see my point, but if not, let me make the connection a bit clearer.

Suppose (granted, this is a bit of a strange supposition) you lost your ability to visually interact with your environment. Instead of actually being able to see the flowers in front of you, or your mother cooking dinner, or someone walking down the street, you could only see sketches that other people had made of these things. (Maybe we're dealing with some sort of weird eye device implanted by crazy government folk trying to take over your life. But that's beside the point.) The point is, how confident would you be that you actually know what's going on around you? How much do you trust those drawings to guide you through life? Do you actually know what's happening in your world?
Sure, it would depend on the quality of the artist. If you were given my drawings, you'd have a bit of a tough time... But perhaps with other people's work you'd do just fine. Sure, there will be some discrepancies, but they might be small enough that you don't quite care. But you- poor you with the uncomfortable chips in your eyes- have no idea how good those drawings are, and no means of accessing that information.
Perhaps you have enough accurate information to get around without too many mishaps- but would you be willing to say you know your world?

Now you may be thinking, Annette, we don't have chips in our eyes. This is stupid. Okay, maybe it's a bit silly, but think about how we get access to the world. How reliable are our senses? How much can we trust our mind to faithfully translate reality for us? Are there inevitable, undetectable errors which occur in the process?

I don't know. But sometimes it makes me wonder whether I really know anything.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Beginning

The beginning of what, exactly? Of this blog? What significance does this blog (yet empty and alone) hold?

Perhaps these blogs will give rise to epic poems, enchanting tales of fairy creatures, profound historical insights, psychological revolutions, or intricate philosophical conundrums.
Perhaps not.
Perhaps you will find little more than the scrambled thoughts and far-fetched dreams of a young girl-lady-woman. I warn you there is likely a great deal of folly to be found, and yet... and yet there may be something worthwhile unwittingly tucked between lines.

Expect sentiment, romance, confusion, insecurity, impatience, bitterness, hope, wonder... Expect everything and nothing. Your humble authoress is a small figure filled with jumbled thoughts, dark fears, and rose-tinted dreams; that is to say, she is a human being of the typical variety. So bear with me.

It seems silly, in a way, to hail a new beginning. One must acknowledge that the journey has already been underway. Time, space, life- all bleeds together, flows together... but we do our best to put up small signs marking beginnings and turning points.

Here is one such sign.

Happy travels.