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Paradox Regained

– Posted in: Aesthetics Articles Collage & Montage Surrealism Tips & Techniques Wood Engravings

How does one see the impossible? Sometimes by means of the paradoxical.

A previous post asserted that wood engravings reproduce well in high contrast, and yet are capable of showing a wide range of mid-tone grays. This broad tonal range arises from the areas of line and/or dot systems in a wood engraving. The lines and dots of a black and white engraving are all printed with the same color and shade of ink as any of its areas of solid black, yet one views them as having the light intensities of different shades of gray.

Somehow, during centuries of viewing drawings and prints, people have become accustomed to seeing the artificial conventions of grouped lines and dots as representing relative degrees of shading in pictures. But our eyes do not normally see shadows and shading as groups of lines or dots, which don’t seem to exist outside of drawings and prints. This paradox is strangely central to the use of wood engravings in surrealistic collages: if a collage evokes an impossible or paradoxical world, it is quite fitting that a paradox of vision creates the elements from which that world is composed.

Certain schools of philosophy assert that we are incapable of knowing or seeing the world and the objects in it as they truly are; we can only construct approximations of them from the data fed us by our senses. If this is so — if we can never know things as they are in themselves — it follows that each of us constructs his or her own picture of the world in the best way possible. And there never has been — and never will be — a way to determine whose world is the “true” one, the world corresponding most closely to the unknowable reality outside of us. Finally, there is no way to determine whether this outside reality remains eternally the same.

So who is to say that one person’s world vision is truer than another’s? If  we all construct our own worlds, which world is real? What makes one person’s vision of the world an insane hallucination, and another’s vision logical, rational, and true? For that matter, can any of us ever truly know what his own world vision looks like, let alone the visions of others? Being objects that reside in the outside, unknowable, “real” world, the pictures or collages that each of us makes are only approximations of one person’s world vision, unknowable and unseeable as they truly are by that person or anyone else.

For collage in general (and surrealist collage in particular), the implications of this philosophy are: that there are at least as many valid world views and worlds as there are people to construct them; that precisely communicating one’s view of the world to another person is impossible; and that truly viewing one’s own or another’s artwork is also impossible.

If the best one can achieve in envisioning the world (and the artwork picturing it) is a rough idea of its (unknowable) appearance, what is left? In part, we must assume on faith that our world visions correspond at least approximately to the unknowable outside world, and that there are enough similarities among different world views that all may see and share their essentials, discerning some portion of the truth in each view. If another’s collage is not the world picture I would have constructed myself, its discovery can at least broaden and change my view of the world in unexpectedly marvelous ways.

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