Thursday, November 07, 2013

Reality Appears Only in the Interplay of Black and White

A Black Rhino is airlifted by helicopter as part of a conservation effort. (National Geographic)
The discovery of what appear to billions of earth-like planets this week barely registers, a side note to a social media stock offering.   It's a kind of wonder fatigue.  On the one Earth, the Western black rhino, subspecies of the extremely endangered black rhino is now extinct, one of thousands of species being snuffed out forever. 

We can't actually contain these full realities in our minds, only by metaphor and symbol; we cannot contain them any more than we can completely understand our own faces in the mirror.  But if you draw, by hand, in time, your face in full light and shadow, more understanding arises, more ability to render what is significant. 

If you were merely to lift a handful of sand, and pour it slowly on the beach, choosing to assign each grain as another earth, and each grain as a lost species, you would know a fraction more of the nearly unapproachable truth of nature.   If you wish, you could do this for deaths today across the world, and the marriages, and the births. The incomprehensibly vast tragedy and ever-renewing joy of of humanity, of Nature itself, appears to you, if only as a flash of green on a great indigo ocean.

This little act of art would force you to balance limitless wonder and bottomless grief.  It is that balance that gives you power to act, in whatever way that presents itself.  In drawing, reality appears only in the interplay of black and white, in the infinities of specificity created by increasingly nuanced, highly distinct grays. 

The often wonderful - and sometimes horrific- results of science depend on a neutrality that can make it socially neutered: in the global warming debates, climate science alone was not enough - facts can't carry social arguments without a culturally substantial embrace of the value of the meaning of those facts. Unless you care about things other than immediate economic rewards, the debate is hopeless; yet Art is very much a study of what is to be cared about.  Art is free enough to unite the full factual, emotional and intellectual significance of Nature and of human experience. But we better do a lot more of it, and all the other forms of teaching and cultivating empathy, an empathy that is balanced rather than crippling.  We're not getting to those other planets in a dozen lifetimes.