Untitled #4 (Surfers) Catherine Opie, 2003.
I’m sitting on a blank page… Trying to think of the best way to articulate yet another metaphor for the mindful experience… of a wakeful life. I’ve tried cakes. I want something better. Then suddenly a familiar ding reverberates through the blue sky of possibilities in which my head is floating. An email has arrived. I silently ignore it as I continue my search. But little do I know that this innocuous and ethereal epistle contains the answer I’m looking for. It has been delivered directly into my inbox, courtesy of the The New Yorker. Is this what Jung called synchronicity?
Later that evening I open the message… a delightful survey of Catherine Opie’s bold and magnificent work… in words almost as refreshing. But one piece leaps out at me over all others. It is Surfers. A picture really does say a thousand words.
A brief caption above an unassuming title simply says that Opie’s work subverts expectations… that “… surfers don’t surf: they wait for waves.” Is this what Opie intended for it to mean?
Of course, real artists never disclose exactly what their art means. Well, the prudent ones, anyway. To do so is to stymie their patrons’ imagination. But more importantly, from an unabashedly utilitarian perspective, an artist always imagines her work to be bigger than herself… Bigger than her creation even… And forever bigger than what it is at that moment. Therein lies the possibility of growth given new eyes. Why settle for one meaning when several could be had for no extra cost? So here goes my own take on Surfers.
Why is it relevant to me? Is it the fact that, as the caption says, the work subverts expectations? A silent depiction of rebellion at its root? The stark Zen-like portrayal of dissonance between the ought and the is? A statement of the Stroop-like conflict between the soft semantics of the inner world and the harsh syntax of the outer?
It’s probably all of the above… but no. For me at this moment, it’s none of those. To be sure, those are all fertile interpretations. But they aren’t what make my epiphany. Mine’s much simpler… Directly related to what I’ve been trying to say in this blog… Or Lennon in his song about life and plans.
Far too often we spend too much time planning for a great experience. But when it finally arrives, rather than savor it, we immediately reset to plan for the next great experience. We live to live, but we end up planning to live. Why? Are we so abhorrent of a life devoid of experience that it’s more important to ensure an unending supply rather than live a little now and thereby risk a future stutter in the stream?
I realize that’s exactly what I want to say. And here’s the picture that captures in one intuitive flash what would otherwise need the unrefined vulgarity of text – Actions and words are gross. They belong in the world of things. Thoughts and plans are subtler. They belong in the world of ideas. Feeling and awareness are subtlest and belong in the world of intuition. The body acts. The discriminative mind plans. The feeling mind experiences.
Surfers points out poignantly that rather than surf this life of experiences, we’re forever waiting… Still… For the next rush…. The next wave. We lose sight of what can be had now because we fear the possibility that tomorrow may be dry! Is the prospect really that likely? Or that bad?
I think back to when I first arrived in the West. Everywhere I could sense unspoken judgments about an inherent pessimism supposed to characterize Eastern spirituality… That it took no pleasure in life… That it denied us happy moments which were our birthright as humans. But now I think that if we start with the assumption of normalcy – that nobody in their right mind wants to suffer or wants to forego a pleasure willingly – then the tables are turned. If the mystic chooses to deny himself a material happiness, it’s only because he has tasted of something better and prefers that instead. His is not the life of a pessimist. It’s the life of an eternal optimist who has seen the source of an unending stream of all positive experiences. It is of calm reassurance that this stream could never run out… And of all the concomitant luxuries that can only be bought with such a realization… Of experiencing each moment for what it is truly worth, rather than taint it with worry about the unlikely possibility of an empty tomorrow. From this vantage point then, isn’t a non-spiritual life the pessimistic one? It’s pessimistic because it expects a dry future… Especially when it isn’t. It’s an outlook that says “Instead of living to maximize our gains, we live to minimize our loss!” How much bleaker can the prospect get?
As I’m ruminating on all this it dawns on me that despite the epiphanic moment into which the photo has jolted me, there really is nothing in the piece itself that ignites the visceral rapture one gets from transcendent art. It’s just a still shot of still waters and even stiller humans set against a sea an unremarkable shade of powder blue, dissolving into a boring sky that doesn’t dare to differ.
This picture doesn’t talk to my feeling mind. It’s a cerebral piece, not an intuitive one. I normally dislike cerebral art. I believe that the best art cleverly cuts a bypass straight to the heart to reach the feeling mind before the discriminative mind has a chance to hack it to pieces with its steely scimitars of cold logic.
Yet, here is Surfers… Clearly intended for the discriminative mind and yet making a strong statement for what lies beyond… As if to awaken it. I think of art like that as a virus designed to infect and pervade the discriminative mind with guilt. Guilt that screams “See what you’ve reduced your master to. Once mighty lord of the castle, but now a beggar king within your prison palace!”
I then realize that’s where the real subversion in the piece is… In the fact that Surfers talks to the discriminative mind only to tell it to shut down and let the feeling mind have the life it’s been unfairly denied.
That’s what is uniquely Zen about Opie’s Surfers.