Art for Thought

Conversations about ‘what is art?’ bore me. Conversations about ‘what is art for?’ on the other hand, I find arresting. I have a simple answer that works for me: in the ‘food for thought’ metaphor, art is the vitamin A. It is what enables your mind to see. This is not an original take on art — there is a beautiful little book by John Berger called Ways of Seeing that explores this attitude. Let me develop this theme by way of an extended riff on three pieces from the art of Amy Lin (all images used with permission. You can see more of Amy’s art at her Website).

Amy Lin Affinity Space Unknown

Left to right: `Affinity 4.1′, `Space’ and `Unknown’

(odd thought it might seem, this is actually the first piece in what I hope will evolve into a series on managing information overload. I hope I piqued your curiosity enough to encourage you to subscribe to my RSS feed.).

I am perhaps an extremist about art-as-seeing, since I believe that without art, you eventually go mentally blind. To the extent that you remain mentally alive without engaging formal art of the museum variety, there is art in everyday life that you just aren’t consciously noticing. And I don’t mean the deservedly much-parodied plastic bag of American beauty. I mean art as a fundamental presence in the world, much like gravity.

Amy Lin’s art, which I recently saw at the always-stimulating Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, comprises patterns of dots created with colored pencil, occasionally with dissonant non-dot elements thrown in. The drawings shimmer on the edge between metaphoric and representational. There is abstraction too, but abstraction of a warm, inviting and engaging sort. Not the cool mathematical-referential abstractions of Escher, or the self-important abstractions of the abstract expressionists.

Where does Amy’s art fit, within an art-as-seeing stance? It is what I call look-through art. It gently amplifies my tendencies to look at the world in particular ways. It equally gently subdues my tendencies to look in other ways. It does not grab me by the scruff of the neck and force me to look at the world a certain way. It does not seduce me into look-at mode for too long. It also does not imperatively summon me to her point of view (that’s something I call look-as art, exemplified by Dali, in my evolving rough taxonomy of art-as-seeing that I’ll write more about later).

Let me illustrate.

Affinity 4.1

Amy Lin Affinity

When I looked at the world before Affinity 4.1, I never thought about broad negative-positive spatial heterogeneities. The prototypes that come to my mind are interstitial negative space, and negative-positive reversal, as in the case of slices of swiss cheese. But consider the beach. The shoreline represents a different sort of relation between figure (land) and ground (sea), if you will pardon the mixed metaphor there. Would Affinity 4.1 work for me if it were not made up of dots, but were simply constructed as two intersecting translucent triangles? No. The interstitial spaces gently bring traditional figure-ground ways of seeing just enough into my mind for me to remember to not see that way. But seeing the beach through Affinity 4.1 is unsatisfying, since the Earth is a sphere, and ultimately, organizes land-water in interstitial ways. Even the universe at large appears to have an interstitial spatial organization to it, with galaxies scattered like chocolate chips in the vacuum cookie. Affinity is a way the universe could be, but isn’t (as far as Stephen Hawking knows). I can see an odd, conceptually-possible universe now that I couldn’t before.

The increasing density of dots towards the edge and the emergent intersection lines within the dotted create other ways of seeing. I could stare at this for hours.

But let’s try another one.



At first, this is look-at art for me. I see a simple exercise in dissonance. But again, the key is in the gentleness. There is just enough of a suggestion of dissonance to encourage you to abandon that way of seeing. Where Affinity leans towards the abstract, Space is closer to the edge of representation, and definitely metaphoric. This makes me think about the Grand Canyon. As you peer over the edge of the canyon, space organizes itself around you in three ways. There is the edge dimension, there is the descent dimension, and there is the contour dimension. I have been to the Grand Canyon thrice, and each time I have seen it somewhat differently, but not very differently. This is the first time I am seeing it this way. As I stare at Space, my memories start to unpack themselves more richly than I can recall storing them.

Besides the three-dimensionality of canyon space that I see here, I also see dimensions of motion here. There is the busyness of the proceduralist what’s the next viewing point tourist in the red line going southeast. There is, in the blue dots pouring over the edge, the tentativeness and mild fear of the suddenly stimulated tourist, unused to the sort of extreme spatiality the canyon presents. The blue dots, unlike the red ones, are paths not taken. And finally, there is the spiraling near-timelessness of the hiker’s light blue path down and back up.

Perhaps the title of the piece suggested this way of seeing my Grand Canyon memories. Perhaps the way of seeing is in the piece, or perhaps it is in my head. I don’t know.



This one is an opaque lens for me for a while. I neither look-at or look-through. The memories of the Grand Canyon train of thought are fresh enough in my mind that I resist seeing that, though downward trails suggests itself.

Resist the Sun is the next thought. Eye and ego are also not interesting. As with all of Amy’s pieces (for me), I suppress some dimensions of seeing relatively quickly. It is the amplification of other dimensions that takes time and meditative visual listening. Note that resisting orange-dot-as-sun is not a matter of resisting a `superficial’ use of the lens and looking for a use that is somehow `deeper.’ It is simply a matter of letting the various dimensions of seeing subside or amplify as they will. There are no shallow or deep ways of seeing. There are just ways of seeing.

I try to see through the blue tendrils by themselves next. Whimsy does not hold my attention (octopus with its head on the left). A thought teases me. Three gossiping women on the lower right. Three newcomers uncertainly waiting for entree into the group on the upper right. A monk carefully cradling a ladybug on the left.

Why did I read personalities and social situations into straggling strings of dots? I reflect on my way of seeing people. I suppose I sometimes consciously or unconsciously read specific interpretable gestures, like crossed arms or strutting gaits. But Unknown foregrounds a more raw dimension of body-language-reading. Perhaps much of my body language processing is at a non-symbolic, non-representational and uninterpreted level. A level where emotion is just geometry. Perhaps I process body language that way. Perhaps that is why I project it on straggling dot-lines. Or perhaps there is a fundamental truth about information here that has nothing to do with me.
Stay tuned for more in this series on managing information overload. If somebody wants to buy me an Amy Lin piece, I’ll take it.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Venkat!

    If I had the money to buy you a Lin piece I certainly would. Your article has been a wonderful exercise in thought for me this morning and the ticket price would be worth it’s weight just to have that experience again. Very interesting.

    And by the way, I kind of like that octopus. ;-)


  2. Hi, Im from Melbourne Australia.

    Please check out these references which point out that Art is THE great subject.


  3. art is a medium through which you can catch glimpses of the subconscious, much like the vitamin that does not teach you how or what to see, but gives you enhanced ability to do so.