Throughout all of human history we’ve struggled to define “good”. What is “good”? What is “right”? Who will decide? Can it be achieved? By all? What happens if not? You get the idea. I want to talk about a variation on this theme which has been bugging me for a while: perspective.
A limited perspective is necessary in creating artworks such as those by the amazing Bernard Pras or Stefan Pabst (below) or Tim Nobel and Sue Webster (initial image), where the viewpoint is forced upon the viewer in order for the trick to work. The truth of the art from another viewpoint shows something altogether different.
Someone named Winston Churchill is revered by many in the Commonwealth for his influence and leadership, in particular during the Second World War. Great. Go him. Clearly a “good” man. By a strange coincidence, someone named Winston Churchill is also credited (perhaps not the right word) with starving nations in order that Britain could have its “finest hour” by implementing the denial policies of rice and transport in Burma; of “supply[ing] the Army’s needs and let[ing] the Indian people starve if necessary”. And starve they did, in their millions. Right. OK. Someone – again, also named Winston Churchill (weird how this keeps happening) – was known for his opposition to universal women’s suffrage. He wanted only those women who were rich landowners (and therefore most likely to vote for his own Conservative party) to be included (scroll down to letter to Herbert Asquith in link). Gosh, what a bloke. It’s just as well we’re able to separate out these three different Winston Churchills, otherwise things could get a little complicated.
I think if an idea is good, then it must be good from all sides. When I decided to move from my hometown of Auckland to Canada for a post-doc, I thought it was a good idea. It would be good for my career to get out of the university where I’d done both my undergraduate study and my PhD, and would give me a broader experience of the research world. It would be good to go somewhere new with snow, maple syrup, lakes, rocks and trees. It would be good for me to have an adventure. But there’s a but. It would also be good for my friends and family in Auckland to have me gone for a couple of years. It would be good for my orchestra to be without me in the back row for a while. Hmm. Good ideas may have parts which are hard to accept, some will have parts which disqualify them from being good, and, like everything else, are analysed differently depending on where you’re standing.
So testing the goodness of our ideas depends on what we’re able to see. During my first post-doc in Canada I didn’t drive, and relied on friendly flatmates and a trusty bicycle to get around. I didn’t realise how poor my eyesight had grown during this time, as the only time you really notice the accuracy (or otherwise) of your long-distance vision is while driving and trying to read street signs. So I was tested and prescribed with some glasses. Fine. Cue next post-doc in Oxford where I got contact lenses. I will never forget the day I saw my own face clearly for the first time in five years. With glasses on, I could see my face clearly, but of course that face had glasses on it. With glasses off, the small, fine lines of age were smoothed over and erased. Contacts meant I could see my face without frames covering my eyes, and I was shocked at how old I’d become in the space of five minutes. Of course, the aging took five years, but I was not able to see it.
Our analyses must also depend on what we’re willing to see. These days ignorance seems to be the most highly valued and defensible position from which to view the world. Phrases like “I’m entitled to my opinion” and “that’s just your point of view” manage somehow to disregard the responsibility which (in my opinion, from my point of view) must accompany that entitlement. We are not entitled to willfully pursue ignorance in order to justify a stance which is dangerous, damaging, or just plain dishonest. Beginning a sentence with “I don’t see why I should have to do xyz …” is not a valid reason for not engaging with xyz, rather it’s a statement of ignorance which must be addressed as well as moving on with xyz. But we don’t use it like that – it’s easier to stay ignorant, especially if it gets us out of actually doing something. Good ideas also depend on what we’re willing to learn; of ourselves, of others, of the world in general.
But is a genuine attempt to understand a situation enough to make us get it? Will we not always be hampered by one thing which we simply cannot change? We are ourselves, after all. I am me and you are you, so won’t our perspectives necessarily always be different? Hold that thought.
The works of art in the videos are fueled by a simple concept: limitation, isolation, restriction, containment. Ignorance. Look, for example at 1:13 in the second video, when the white paper is cut down, limiting the frame and forcing us to accept the three-dimensionality of the snake. Or the effect that the viewing glass in the first video has on our perception of the image. The limitations are what define the artwork and enable the illusion. But here’s the thing.
If only one viewpoint can see the trick working, then all other viewpoints must see the trick for what it is – a trick. Even if I am deceived by the illusion, my friends, my colleagues, the others with whom I share this planet will not be. By being willing to accept information, ideas, feelings and situations of others, I get a little closer to the truth.
Without that empathy, that willful frame-breaking, that deliberate suspension of disbelief, we are destined to continue celebrating bad ideas by calling them good, and repeat and perpetuate the terrible mistakes of our history.