Permission to not know, and feel anyway: Thoughts from a Sculpture Park

This week has been up and down. Rest and work have fluctuated, but not in a rhythm that has made either feel productive. But on Wednesday, I got to press pause. I got to learn and admire and breathe as my lovely friend took me for a day trip around the Hepworth Art Gallery and Yorkshire Sculpture Park for a belated birthday treat.

As an artist, she had a wealth of knowledge about so many of the painters, sculptors, and makers whose names we encountered on tiny placards throughout the day. And at first, instead of feeling a sense of enjoyment, I felt a heaviness. I felt a weight-- a pressure to know names, to understand the meaning and context and depth of each surrealist piece. I felt out of my depth and frustrated when I looked at a piece and thought "I just don't get it."

This feeling isn't unfamiliar to me: I had it all throughout uni. I couldn't enjoy something until I felt that I'd mastered it. I couldn't appreciate someone's work until I knew all about it. I couldn't enjoy the fragments. I couldn't engage with the content. I couldn't access my own feelings. Because everything was blocked by a sense of "not-knowing-ness."

Instead of humbly and freely enjoying the beauty and knowledge around me, I felt that I had to respond to it with a depth of insight and understanding. Essentially, I have, for many years, choked myself out of simply enjoying art for art's sake because I have imagined some fictitious quiz-master who is lingering behind my shoulder, ready to pounce and remind me of my ignorance and my inability to participate in the grand discussion that is art.

This arrogance disguised as depreciation has, for many years, prevented me from taking another step forward. From listening to podcasts or reading blogs or generally appreciating the work that flows from others. It's a trait I'm not proud of because it has paralysed me and isolated me. It's inhibited my own making because I cut myself off from the lifeline of inspiration. But the feelings of paralysis have been sincere; I literally would walk into a gallery and feel a tugging sorrow, a voice that said "Just leave. You don't belong here. You know nothing."

But then, as my friend and I were staring out the gallery window at the rushing water-- God's artwork at play-- she said something that set me free.

"I knew a professor of music at Princeton once..."

(can I just take a second to point out how cool that is?)

"...and I got to attend the opening night of one of his compositions being performed. He was siting in the audience, and an old woman a few rows in front of us started to laugh. 'Good, at least I've made one person laugh,' he said. 'I thought it would probably be an older person who got it. The piece has done its job.'"

Turns out, the piece was inspired by an artwork that the professor had seen in a gallery. Apparently, it was horrible. The epitome of bad taste. And yet, he loved it. He didn't understand it and he didn't know why he responded to it with such joy, but he bought the piece on the spot because it made him happy and that was enough. He then went and wrote a piece of music that captured the essence of "not-knowing-ness."

"Sometimes, you don't need to understand a piece. You just need to let yourself feel whatever you feel. Respond to it however you will. And let that be enough," she said.

The laughter from the lady a few rows up was proof that someone had understood that the point of the piece was to let go, to be free to feel what you feel, and to not take yourself and your art so seriously. To appreciate art as a fluid, emotive, pool of intriguing "not-knowing-ness." To, put simply, laugh about it.

So the rest of the day, I walked through the sculpture park. I looked at things. I loved some. I hated some. I was uncomfortable by some. I was frightened by some. I read the placards of ones that interested me, and I ignored others. And I gave myself permission to ignore the quiz master on my shoulder. I engaged with whatever I didn't know-- with whatever I felt-- and it was all okay.

And as the sculptures blended into the tree roots that stretched out like veins, I felt that I'd understood more than I ever had about art. About the realness of how I am part of a species that was made in the image of a creative God: a God of depth and variety and endless creativity. How every piece of artwork, whether I understand it or not, is a fingerprint of how each and every one of us bear the image of a Creative Maker who flows out of us differently. And the vastness of that truth consumed me and comforted me and inspired me. And suddenly, the "not-knowing-ness" brought me a greater sense of pride and mystery and belonging and enthusiasm than "knowing" ever had.

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