"How to see" in 2018's The Price of Everything

So there's this great documentary about the contemporary art market called The Price of Everything, directed by Nathaniel Kahn as an HBO Original. The whole film is definitely worth watching, but there's one piece that I always thought was interesting—a phrase that pops up without ever being directly examined, but feels so essential to other themes in the movie: "how to see".

It first appears in a question that Kahn poses to Larry Poons early on:

The question of "how do you learn how to see?" felt very insightful at its core—over time I've noticed more and more how different people will have different immediate reactions to the same experiences. People who work in the visual arts tend to have a much richer emotional reaction to a given picture or view than the average person, and I suspect that's probably a big reason those people get into producing visual art themselves. It reminds me of Ira Glass's coaching to emerging creatives that their taste is going to be a lot stronger at the start than their actual creative ability.

This idea also reminds me of one bit of dialog in the (also excellent!) book Simon: The Genius in My Basement by Alexander Masters. The author asks the titular Simon, a bona fide mathematical genius, what "beauty" is in mathematics. Simon's reply has always struck with me:

“All I can  say,” he barked, abruptly annoyed, “is that whatever nerve it was that  tingled when I saw Torghatten Mountain from the boat two nights ago, it is that same nerve that tingles when I see a piece of beautiful  mathematics!”

There's an intuitive feeling of "beauty" in mathematics for the people who have a certain predisposition for it. The same goes for code, incidentally—maybe even triply so. A lot of software engineers that I've worked with will sometimes have a hard time understanding why what they do is difficult for most other people, and I think it's just because they've built up such a strong intuitive understanding of code that they have a hard time remembering the journey that got them there. But they also have a strong immediate idea of what "beautiful" code is versus "ugly" code, and when I point to that it can be a helpful benchmark for them to guage the difference in their intuition versus other people's.

The second time this idea of "how to see" pops up in the documentary, it's from someone completely different (Amy Cappellazzo) which made me wonder about whether this discussion was shot before Kahn's interview with Poons or if it was just a happy coincidence:

Both Poons and Cappellazzo express this view that there are certain experiences of the world that we just either have or don't, and that we can't necessarily train ourselves into having them if we're not wired that way. In some sense that might feel kind of depressing or defeatist, but in another sense it's nice to just be aware of how rich and varied the human experience is and can be.

Understanding that variety of lived experiences is an important part of finding more richness in our own lives, I think. One of my favorite books—and definitely one of the ones I recommend to other people the most—is The Great Passage by Shion Miura, because I think it's particularly good about highlighting these differences in all kinds of ways. It's a novel about a group of people compiling a dictionary in Japan, and the narration jumps its focus from one primary character to another as it progresses; the differences between the various main characters is illuminating, but so is their task of compiling a dictionary. In order to make the dictionary as good as possible, they all have to think a lot about usages for words and how those words fit into people's lives, and it's a frequently poignant exercise:

“Well, it’s partly that.” Nishioka hesitated slightly. “Suppose an actual drifter is leafing through a dictionary at a library and comes across an entry for the word saigyo that says ‘a wanderer or pilgrim (after Saigyo, the itinerant priest-poet).’ Think how he’d feel. He’d tell himself, ‘So Saigyo was just like me! Even in the old days, there were people who never stayed put.’”

In the second clip from The Price of Everything that I embedded above, Peterson talks about apartments "on the sixth floor, the eighth floor, and the tenth floor of certain buildings". When she says that, she's moving the numbers by two floors at a time because she's talking about duplexes—ridiculously expensive two story apartments within even larger apartment buildings. She's so embedded in that environment that I expect she doesn't even think it might be a point that needs clarification, getting at Cappellazzo's early point that she's a rich person, even though she doesn't necessarily consider herself to be.

Working to keep a broad awareness of all of what's possible is something that tends to help me feel more grounded in life. The only thing I wonder about is if it's something I can give to other people, or if it's like trying to teach them "how to see".

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