Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Viewpoints 1: elements and motifs

We are taught to read at a young age and soon become familiar with such terms as "vocabulary" and "grammar". If and when we gain an intellectual interest in art, we tend to look for similar structures in its understanding because, although stressing literacy, no one has ever taught us how to look.

Yet words are nothing more than a map of a viewpoint; a description of a reality as seen or imagined. Someone had to be looking at some part of the process. Sight, of course, is just one of the senses, and we experience reality through all of them. Evolution tends to favor people who do not block out ambient sounds with headphones while crossing road and railroad tracks. Even if you are distracted and looking the other way, you can at least hear the train.

As our survival depends on something similar, we have a tendency to prefer situations that we can sum up in a glance and make decisions based on the whole picture. Whenever we experience this sort of survival kick in, we describe it as "being in the zone". In this state, all of the complex calculations are unconscious, learned, and automated. This works just fine for my dog: he likes routines; he dislikes novelty and anything sitting on the sidewalk that was not always there is to be distrusted. For humans, it is a rare experience as we have to do so many different things and it becomes impossible to do many of them so well as to experience "being in the zone". For everything else, we have to pin down facts with words like butterflies pinned to a board.

So we start with an ABC approach as if learning to read, and even use letters, just for the familiarity. A motif is a design bearing a meaning. Imagine that each letter in the word "motif" is one of those plastic fridge magnets, and they are all lying in a box at different angles and in random order. This is an easy puzzle: we already know our letters and which side is up, and there is no other word that they can spell but "motif".

In using letters as design elements we have already adopted an entire classification system for these design elements. In this case, it is the English language. The problem in interpretation in prehistoric examples of motifs is that they and the elements they are constructed from are following a classification system very different from the English language but yet broadly-related to the structures of written language itself. You might say that they are the antecedents of written language that can contain other qualities which have never been adopted into written languages.

The trick to understanding is to first reveal the underlying system.

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