On "looking" vs. "seeing" and the works of master painters...
It is perhaps not well known that Edgar Degas painted some of his most influential and successful works of art while nearly blind from macular degeneration. As early as in his mid-40s, he had been writing to family and friends about the fear and suffering he faced as a painter with failing vision — this well before the heighth of his career.
How can an artist such as Degas, deeply trained in and devoted to working with his faculties of visual perception, though working with severely compromised sight, play such an instrumental role in shaping the history of visual arts?
Macular degeneration is unique in the spectrum of visual pathologies in that it obstructs and obscures vision in a myriad of ways, but rarely precludes the retention of at least some degree of what we might consider normal vision. Vision that had been is left in fragments — scattered, warped, altered, centrally occluded and pushed to the periphery. Where macular degeneration leaves partial vision, cataracts on the other hand imparts an undifferentiated and yellowed spectrum to all that is seen. Macular degeneration is unique in this way, that it renders reality to be reassembled in the mind's eye, and as such it offers us an opportunity to explore the visual experience in ways equally unique, in ways we likely otherwise would not. Artists who continue to paint with macular degeneration are not only sharing in the experience of others who struggle with partial vision loss, but by virtue of the paintings and sculpture they create, they are sharing their experience with the rest of us as well. Their works of art embody the narrative inherent to adaptation in the face of loss, the commingling of what had been with what must be.
At the surface, the ability to see can seem like a self-evident and universal human experience. We point our eyes and behold. What does it mean for a work of art to be “well seen,” though, especially that which is created by a painter who is nearly blind? Great artists are always teaching us that the ability to see can be chimerical, more complicated than we might sometimes assume. We all know that it is easy to look at something or someone and not to see them, or to look at something and see only what we know to look for, or only what we want to see, or only what we remember. In other words, to look is not necessarily the same as it is to see. Nor is vision limited to the image that hits the retina of the eye. Vision is also desire and memory and the mysterious workings of our inner and completely personal reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in paintings and drawings created outside our spectrum of normal vision.
Great artists who continue to paint with macular degeneration, who see the world differently than they once did, who adopt new working practices, who take on new subjects, who offer up new visions of reality for us to share and contemplate, remind us of the beauties and mysteries of vision. In sharing their work, they invite us to take in the world around us anew. A cup, or sunlight on the kitchen floor becomes disembodied color and shape, or it becomes a visual experience altogether outside our ability to understand or describe with language. What was once the familiar turn of a handle on a tea cup becomes a strange and unique form that carries with it an emotional charge, a sheen, a curvature, a texture unlike anything else, or perhaps precisely like something else. What we thought we knew gives way and makes room for something altogether new.
Art is a vast subject, but it can be like this. Liberating and challenging, enlightening, frustrating, reassuring, eye opening. Artists, particularly visual artists who press on in the making of their work through partial or complete loss of vision, are stewards of an entirely different kind of vision that is no less "well seen" — a complicated place where memory, insight, perseverance, creative problem solving, openness, force of will and surrender prevail and collaborate to make new and often inspiring things.