In the face of a somewhat dysfunctional civilization, the biggest challenge facing us individually and collectively is figuring out how to think differently. The good news is that we know that the way we currently think is screwed up. We also know that people can change the way they think. Here we’ll explore a practice that leverages art (of course): learning to do a mental pivot.

As we express ourselves in art we are making decisions and manifesting our personalities, our emotions and our skill level. Art is inherently expressive and subjective. When we do art, we are not thinking ‘this is Truth’, as a theologian would when writing or interpreting the inspired word of God. There is no such pretention. When we look at what we’ve made, we expect it to tell us about our individual state of mind. The subject matter may tell us we like fantasy, or we take things very literally. The line quality can be clear – which speaks of precision – or fuzzy and poetic. The colors tell us if we’re subdued or loud, whether we like harmony or clashes. The choice of medium says something about our personality – do we want to be done quickly with water colors or do we have the patience for oils? Art gives us a picture of our state of mind in the most powerful way. It’s hard to get as much out of an essay, although poetry can tell us a lot.

Looking at my own art work recently, for example, I’m seeing muted colors and bad drawing. It takes an act of the will to pump up the chroma and get the perspective and proportions correct. Some of that is just refreshing skills – I know how to draw; I’m just a bit out of practice. Other aspects require digging a little deeper into an artistic vision – the colors are muted because I want subtle color harmonies, or because I’m not mixing them well? If the colors are muddy, applying good mixing practices will clear that up. Muted color harmonies may be my intention. Or I might be interested in a stronger impact, in which case I can invoke my artistic license to amp up colors more intensely than they appear in nature.

Both solid skills and artistic license are standard practices for artists. They help us gain control of our works and make them say what we intend – to manifest our world view. While this is valuable in and of itself, what if we need to shift that world view?  Let me give you an example: as an artist I believe in the moment, and I express what I see – the boats in the harbor, the country roads, the flowers, the humor in a person as I paint their smiling eyes in a portrait. I’m using my skill and will as an artist to create great paintings. In my world view representing the moment, that completing a painting, expressing myself in color are good things to do. Someone else’s world view might lead them to create angry abstract art, or just combine objects in jarring ways. A socialist artist may want to create murals to educate an ignorant population about the evils of capitalism.

In each of these examples, the artist is living their world view. If you asked me to create angry abstract art, I would say I don’t do that anymore – I don’t see the world that way; I’m not an angry young man. If you encouraged me to paint ideological murals, I would not be interested. That’s just not my vision, not my world view. Should it be? I can see alternates, and yet not agree. That’s nothing unusual. We all do that. We also can come to realization that how we think is somehow messed up. For example, creating art for individual consumption will never fundamentally change the world, although a changing world may change the content of such art. Instead of painting boats in a placid harbor, we may end up painting boats on top of buildings after another natural disaster.

We’re also accustomed to going to galleries and art shows and having our world view rattled by other artists. Good artists will do that. However, often there’s not much of a point beyond the rattling itself. When was the last time shock art left you with a better alternative? What I’d like to learn to do is use art to shift my view of the world, and that is not something that is very common. I want to rattle myself – and you – into a better state. This may feel a bit like what a chiropractor does – applies measured violence to leave you sorely well adjusted!

The exercise I have in mind I haven’t quite conceived of yet. Maybe we’ll discover it together. It has to do first and foremost with becoming aware of why we make certain artistic decisions, like the format of the art work, to the medium chosen, the subject matter, expressive language, and so on. We have to get to the underlying drivers for those decisions, our assumptions about the world and our role in it. We have to pinpoint the values that are good, and those that are not so good. Once we find something to change, we have to get an objective look at it, ‘pick it up with tweezers’ so to speak and put it in a jar for observation. We have to look at objectively to consider the alternative ‘healthy’ counterpoint. We have to train our minds to pivot.

Even if we don’t yet know what to pivot to – learning how to pivot has value in and of itself. I do this my my abstractscape paintings. I’ll be representing a tree and also allude to a cloud. Actually artists do a subtle form of this all the time. We find rhythms in forms, patterns that repeat and echo in things that are. Pivoting is taking this to the next level and jamming something that is into something that it is not. The negative spaces between branches in a tree become the animated extremities of an unseen spirit.  The rounded facets on a peach become the stage for tension between colors that set each other off. The regular intervals of palm trees on a coastal boulevard allude to the bars in cage that keeps tourists locked in. These are mental pivots, albeit not very transformative. They are useful exercises that get us mentally in shape to pivot to new values in a new view of the world. So next time you are painting, let your subconscious nudge you into pivoting into another world. Learn to think otherwise. Until we all do, we won’t have a successful transition.  

— Roy Zuniga
Carillon Point, WA


Copyright 2012 Roy Zuniga – All Rights Reserved