Blue and black, white and gold? The parable of the elephant, witness testimony, and the relationship of artist and critic.

Jardim Zoológico de Brasília, Brasília, Brazil. Source: Daderot via Wikimedia Commons
Jardim Zoológico de Brasília, Brasília, Brazil. Source: Daderot via Wikimedia Commons

One summer in my childhood I was forced to attend a Buddhist camp at a monastery where we woke up at the crack of dawn to do shaolin and meditate, ate vegetarian, prayed our gratitude to everyone we knew and ever met before we could eat said vegetarian food, and had to sit in uncomfortable cross-legged positions while listening to lectures.

There was one lecture I remember when a monk told us the parable of four blind men who came upon an elephant, felt it, and were describing the elephant based on what they were perceiving. I’m totally paraphrasing the details here, based on memory, but the point remains the same. One blind man came upon the elephant’s trunk, another the belly, another the leg, and another the tail, and each one concluded matter-of-factly about the whole character of the elephant based on that one part they were feeling. The elephant is long and cylindrical… No, are you crazy? The elephant is flat and wide… No, no, the elephant is like a column or pillar…

I recall some of my first years at a law firm in private practice and listening to the depositions of different witnesses who saw the same event. If you didn’t know, you would think the witnesses were describing entirely different events. It was rainy, gray, clouds covering the sky… It was a bright, sunny day, blue skies, not a cloud to be seen… The car was definitely blue… No, no, the car was definitely red. If Martha tells you it’s blue, she’s wrong. I had a clear view of it, no visual obstructions, bright daylight, it was red… Bob is a liar, that or he cannot see straight. The car was blue.

Zoe Shenton, “White and gold? Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian latest stars to wade into bizarre dress debate,” Mirror Online (February 27, 2015) (retrieved March 5, 2015), www.mirror.co.uk
Zoe Shenton, “White and gold? Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian latest stars to wade into bizarre dress debate,” Mirror Online (February 27, 2015) (retrieved March 5, 2015), http://www.mirror.co.uk

Now you have this dress thing that’s gone viral, whether you see it as black and blue or white and gold, and before people realized what was going on, folks would fight each other about the color of that goddamn dress.

When I first came across the dress image in question, I was scrolling through my phone quickly, without my glasses (or contacts) on. I saw a white and gold dress. Later, with corrective lenses on, the dress became firmly blue and black and I couldn’t see it any other way. That first glimpse, though, endowed me with the privilege and insight of being able to see both sides.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that two people are going to read something you wrote, the same passage, and leave with two different interpretations. For the same text, one will say you sound like a dry academic, only focused on the analytical aspects of tarot while another will read the same lines and remark about how warm, casual, and personable your tone is, and the spiritual insights you bring. One will say you’re judgmental and condescending, trying to indoctrinate readers with your own approach only, while others will read the same and exclaim that you’re open-minded, clearly conveying to the reader to find his or her own interpretive approach.

I have learned that you can be described as both “steady, consistent, always on point” and “hypocritical, contradictory, and flip-floppy.” One will say that what you’ve written has put a blanket generalization on the whole while another will say that what you’ve written is clearly addressing only a small segment of the whole. And, of course, one will love you for what you’ve written and one will hate you for it, while you, at home, blinking perplexed, feel like you’re just you doing you, and how can this simple, simple “you” elicit such extreme responses.

Even if all I can see now is a blue and black dress, I did catch a quick impression of it being white and gold, and that’s what I have to remember. Even if all I can see is blue and black, I don’t just congregate with others on Team Blue-and-Black. Team White-and-Gold are right, too, and if they show any hostility toward my perspective, it’s only because they aren’t seeing any blue-and-black action, and that’s okay.

No matter what the final adjudication is of the dress color (so they’re now saying the dress was definitely intended to be blue and black), even something like fact is still a matter of perspective. Even when different witnesses are trying to recount facts of a situation– not even opinion– the witnesses, testifying honestly, will still contradict one another. In other instances, it’s hard for us to intellectualize the notion that there’s a lot more to the world than what’s right in front of us, as it was with the blind men and the elephant. We can’t help but generalize the whole based on the limited and little part we touch.

poetrybooks

I don’t care what is claimed or touted, every writer writes acknowledging on a superficial, conscious level that he won’t be loved by everyone, but writes at the subconscious level of hoping everyone will love him for what he’s created. The whole point of creating and expressing is a desperate desire to be liked, to be welcomed, to be acknowledged. Artists are notorious for their pursuit of validation. See, most professionals feel validated by how much money they make, and while that certainly applies to artists, too, the overwhelming majority of artists don’t become artists in pursuit of validation by money. They seek validation by way of how many people like them (i.e., how well received their creative work is).

So it is often a painful and challenging task for an artist or writer to really come to terms with the fact two people can read the same book and come away with two opposing, contradictory interpretations of that book. Your book. You can’t please everyone. You are tempted to shout, “you don’t know me!” but don’t. There is nothing more stupid than to say something like that.

Moreover, the mere fact that you spoke up and your voice was heard in public and some segment of that public has acknowledged your voice positively– that mere fact is going to piss some people off. You have to remember that the only reason they’re pissed is because it was your voice that the public heard, not theirs, and that discrepancy drives them mad. So sometimes, it’s not even about what color the dress is; it’s about who gets to talk about the dress, who gets to stand on the soapbox to talk about what color they think the goddamn dress is.

These truisms are trite and cliché, and yet they are some of the most difficult lessons to learn, and almost always must be learned the hard way. Over, and over, and over again.

3 thoughts on “Blue and black, white and gold? The parable of the elephant, witness testimony, and the relationship of artist and critic.

  1. Yes, artists and most people do wish to be validated and valued for who they are and what they contribute. It’s a painful, yet growth-dictated lesson to learn that so often others act contrary to what we expect or hope.

    As D.W. Winnicott put it, “Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.”

    Hang in there and be well!

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  2. Well said. First off let me say I love your book, it has brought together all the aspects I have hoped to find in a book on Tarot and which approaches Tarot in this way. As far as us creative types go, it is hard to send out a creation which has taken much love and care and when I find negativity I remember the reason why I created it and the joy it brought. I also know that everyone has an opinion but sometimes it’s the way the opinion is delivered that is a reflection of the person, not your work.

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