Art or product? Sometimes context makes all the difference. Artenol photo illustration

Piece in the Shape of a '?'

How much do you need to know to really know, and does it matter?

By Stan Harrison


Thirty years ago, on the nondescript evening of an average, uneventful and therefore unmemorable spring day, I, without purpose or intent and without having heard any warning to somehow change course, suddenly and unexpectedly up and vanished. Poof. Gone. It was as if a magician had waved his wand over me, his unwitting subject, and, with a wry smile, announced to the gobsmacked spectators, “nothing up my sleeve …” You could see me, but I wasn’t there. You could hear me speak, but I wasn’t there. You could touch me. But I just wasn’t there.

After having hurriedly finished the second of my two daily meditation sessions, I left my college dorm, walked to a huge lecture hall, took a seat among the murmuring crowd of students, slogged through a Spanish exam, stood up to leave and, after a few short steps, disappeared. From myself. Something switched on, or possibly off, and in one instant I lost all connection to who I was. Slowly, as if I were floating, I headed back to my room, becoming more disoriented with every pace, all the while listening to a shaky, internal monologue:

“I have no idea how I’m doing this. I am not moving my legs, but I am walking. I am not directing myself, but I am turning. What is happening? Why is this happening? What is making this happen?” I had no answers.

Abruptly and without notice the word, “I,” from that moment on, had no referent. I didn’t know who “I” was. It was an alarming, almost unbearable experience that continued without a break for nearly two years. During that period everything felt strange. Nothing was familiar. I performed my workaday duties as if I were facing them for the first time. In a letter to a close friend, one of the only times I had divulged what I was going through, I wrote,  “… I have no idea if any one sentence I’m writing makes sense coming after or before any other one.” Every action, thought, and desire was individualized; every moment was discrete and had no connection to anything else. My past was a blur. The present made no sense. It is not a stretch to say that I was decontextualized.

Context. Did someone say, context?

Nothing exists on its own. You’ve heard that before. No man is an island. You’ve heard that one, too. All things do relate to all other things, but some connections are more immediate, more apparent and more meaningful than others. When speaking about an object’s context – my examples will primarily relate to the arts – I am referring to those things which, in some manner, surround, affect or reflect on the work in question and which help explain, clarify, enhance or provide a foundation for understanding it. One thing may exist simultaneously in a variety of contexts, but it is crucial to distinguish between a work’s context(s) and its backstory.

The term “context” relates to the work itself; “backstory,” at its best, relates to the artist and, at its worst, provides an amusing anecdotal sidebar containing no significant information. Knowing an artist’s life story should have little to no bearing on the understanding or appreciation of his creations, but being conscious of a work’s context can lead to a multifaceted experience otherwise unattainable.

Read the rest of this story in the Winter 2015 issue of Artenol. Order yours today

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