As an undergrad, I would go visit a specific painting in the Yale University Art Galleries every time I needed to go somewhere to think. It was a piece by Kandinsky called The Waterfall. It used to be hidden on a little wall panel in a corner of the second floor gallery. There was a bench for me to sit on and wait, sorting through thoughts, until I was either kicked out because the gallery was closing or I had finished sorting for the day.
This isn’t my favorite piece by Kandinsky, but his pieces have always helped me make sense of my most tangled thoughts. In his paintings, I see all the vibrance and pain and absolute ecstasy of life. Their abstraction helped me find ways to live with my questions.
When I first moved to New York, I was very skeptical of the psychic on the corner of my street in Chelsea. I saw her there every day, sometimes she would beckon me to come in from the sidewalk when I was walking home from work. And then, I started to notice lots of psychics spread out across the city… including one in the West Village on my walk to work that often had expensive black cars waiting outside of it for women in sunglasses to disappear into after their “appointments.”
There are enough psychics spread across the city… a city with exceptionally high rents and overhead costs for businesses… that you can find one easily on a basic google maps search. Which means… people are going to see them regularly enough that being a “psychic” is a viable career option for a handful of people.
I learned, from Kandinsky then and from the psychics now how valuable it is to find ways that help you live with your questions. And, more importantly, learn to ask better questions of yourself. When the answers cannot be answered with Yes or No, we have to turn to other tools that help us cope with and make sense of truth.
We turn to abstraction.
First, Rainer Maria Rilke was quoted to me, on a Friday, in a way that has haunted me ever since: Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, liked locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
At a certain point, with many things, we realize how little we can approximate, predict… or even guess. I’ve noticed, from working around investment analysts, labor organizers, artists, and teachers… we all seek tools to help give us direction and ways to cope with “living the question.”
I visit modern and contemporary art collections to let myself feel. In the same way I experience an instinctual reaction to the answer I receive while flipping a coin when I need to make a decision that I feel largely conflicted on, I can find roots of an emotional response through art. How often have you flipped a coin to get an “external answer, reacted to the draw and made your own decision independently from this information?
Art helps me ask questions. Better questions than I often start with. For example: What should I do next? Is a broad question that feels like an aimless sea in a fog. When forced to pick directions, especially those that scare me, like dive into the deep! I find responses within myself that force me to think through the reasons I am reacting that way. Therein, I begin to find some truth.
But for others, psychics and tarot cards, their symbols and metaphors, provide important insight. In my travels, I’ve met successful investors (even, billionaires) who rely on astrology to pick their trades, economists who discuss network structures in communities in geometric terms to make sense of their personal identity questions, and introverts who rely on the symbology of Tarot cards to have conversations with their closest friends about their personal fears and questions.
If nothing else, the vagueness of symbols forces us to communicate better. When answering, what this artwork means to me, I have to begin my providing tools to explain the framework of my thinking. I introduce my questions. Without finding these questions & defining this framework… my friend cannot engage with me. And I’ve grown most recently from these shared experiences.