When an artist sketches, they are often trying to suggest the objects they are drawing, rather than faithfully reproduce every detail. A few vertical lines and cross-hatching can stand in for trees, a smudge may imply a cabin on a hill. A sketch invites the viewer to make up missing details and fill in the image with their imagination. A fully-rendered drawing, with details supplied and coloured in, however, transfers the responsibility of interpretation to the artist.
Okay, so this shower thought did not technically occur to me in the shower, but rather, it happened today as I was drawing. I had sketched out a picture of Harry Potter’s Professor Snape and was feeling pretty good about creating a little of the essence of actor Alan Rickman in my pencil lines. But I observed that I was afraid to move on to finish and colour in the drawing. I feared that if I went past suggestion and into specifics, I would ruin it. I was convinced that while I could hint at Rickman, it was beyond my vastly-limited artistic skill to really capture the man. If I coloured in the drawing, my shortcomings would be writ large.
As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the hesitation to draw in detail is a metaphor for how we humans too often interact, for how I interact. Talking to one another in broad strokes is effortless and comforting. We can pretend to know more than we do, to understand how things work. We imagine that we are communicating when we speak in generalities, but really we are not bridging understanding between the speaker and listener and, importantly, we are not inviting the listener to become the speaker– unless it is to echo our own bland generalisations. We stay sufficiently superficial, detached from the unpleasant details, assuming we all see the same picture— that we agree. But too often we are only engaging in a tacit arrangement of fictitious accord. If we never define terms, how can we know?
It’s so temptingly easy to assume that the world sees things the way I do rather than to confront the fact that for every conviction I hold absolute, there are thousands of people who hold the opposite position. I have always considered myself to possess an open mind (who doesn’t?) and I really do believe that diversity of opinion is a marvellous thing. But of course, I blithely assumed, we mostly all agree on some basics, right? Human rights, a moral code?
But these last couple of years have brought with them the plainness of the fact that the person standing next to me could well be someone who wants all immigrants to “go home”, or who thinks it’s okay to sexually assault a woman and even to brag about it. It could be a person who believes we shouldn’t bother with humane protections in slaughterhouses, or social services for developmentally disabled adults, or medical and meal programs for our senior citizens, all while funding a wall to keep people out, so they can grab more for themselves. I’ve always known these people exist, it’s just that I didn’t realise how pervasive their positions are. I can’t go back to my old naïveté. Before I was disabused of my comfortable assumptions and polite smiles, I cherished thinking that the world was mostly safe, except for some inevitable crazies. I am embarrassed that I clung to my misapprehensions for as long as I did, protected by my own unsophisticated assumptions, or, more likely, a barely-subconscious denial mechanism.
But now, in the age of the rise of the cult of selfishness, I am forced to confront that I have been sketching when I should have been painting.