More Real than True: Grabbing Hold of the Very Slippery


            My previous blog posts have been, I think, about pretty concrete things, or at least inspired by pretty concrete things. Specifically, I’ve explored the ways in which Trisha Brown’s work is different from or similar to ballet, as well as how these differences and similarities make me feel as a dancer. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist at heart, but a lot of talk about feelings makes me uneasy. To me, feelings have always seemed slippery and confusing and seldom substantial enough to be worth writing about.

            Well, this project encourages us to step outside our comfort zones, so in this post, I’ll attempt to tackle something even slipperier. This post isn’t just about a set of feelings that I noticed I felt. Instead, it’s about how studying Trisha Brown fundamentally changed the way I feel.

            Some of my fellow YDTers may have heard me say this, but I don’t know when I developed so much patience for art. I guess most people would say it’s a college thing. For most of my life, my only response to modern art was “I don’t get it.” In fact, not understanding it and not liking it was almost a point of pride. To me, the scientist, the universe was unfathomable enough as is. We can try to puzzle out tiny pieces of it, but zooming out to the big picture always reveals a contradiction. Even “facts” are not really true; they’re just beliefs that haven’t yet been proven false. So why, I wondered, given all this maddening uncertainty, should I accept the validity of this thing called “interpretation?” Interpretation, the very existence of which posits that some beliefs don’t have to be true or false, that sometimes proof isn’t required or even possible, and that things with no intrinsic, universal purpose somehow still matter. Interpretation, the thing humans invented to make ourselves feel better, like we can really escape the binary nature of reality and somehow gain an advantage over the universe.

            I don’t believe any of the above anymore. Something bizarre happened to me over the past semester: I get art now. “Get” is the wrong word, because I think that part of “getting” it is acknowledging that nobody can ever “get” it. Art is un-gettable. I feel that reality now, and it’s a different feeling from the one I used to feel when I said, “I don’t get it.” Maybe I’m wrong and there really are people who do get art, but what I know for sure is that it doesn’t matter if I get it; you don’t have to get it for it to be important. And how do I know that? Feelings.

            I can look at a Rothko now and be legitimately interested. Entertained, even. If I saw a milk carton on display in a gallery, I’d know in my mind that it was just a stupid milk carton, but I would still say, “Oh, that’s really neat, because it’s in a gallery.” If the me from one year ago could hear me now, she’d think I was on drugs. I know it was definitely Trisha Brown’s work that trained me to experience this new level of meaning, but I doubt I can adequately explain how it happened. My best theory is that anytime someone is focused on the same small thing for long enough, the mind gets bored, and meaning is created. You see something new, because what else are you supposed to see? We crave novelty; the mind rebels at stagnation. Calling something “art” lends us patience, gives us a reason to focus on that thing until it becomes meaningful. I hesitated to write that, because implying that anything can be art might be taken as an insult to art. But if that’s not the definition of art, what is? Art doesn’t have to be effortful or deliberate. I think that Trisha Brown’s work happens to be extremely effortful and deliberate, but that’s not what makes it art. It’s art because it can make us feel a level of fascination we logically shouldn’t feel.

            Ah, but the idea that the brain arbitrarily creates meaning seems to trivialize the whole experience of art, says the scientist in me. But again, I’m convinced it’s not trivial because it doesn’t feel trivial. It affects me, and so it affects the universe. It matters. There’s a phrase we used in my English class, “more true than real.” A cursory summary of that discussion: sometimes authors bend the rules of their own universe, creating something that’s not “real,” in order to tell us something that rings “true.” My experience with Trisha Brown has been almost the reverse of this. Trisha Brown’s work is art, and so there’s nothing “true” or “false” about it. It wasn’t there until she created it. It didn’t matter until she said it did. I’ve worried several times that the fascination I feel with it isn’t grounded in anything, that I just made it up to feel like I did something worthwhile, that it’s not true. But what I absolutely cannot deny is that it’s real. To me, it’s become powerful and significant. In a very real way, it affects how I feel in the moment. And more than that, Trisha Brown’s work has affected the way I feel in general. For that, I guess I can only offer a general, “thank you.”