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Eyes Wide Open - Eyes Wide Shut

Even in popular culture, it is generally accepted that artists see the world a little differently.

From the most kitsch, conspiracy theory schlock, to the most Hi-Brow, Hi-Culture (from the Tomb Raider films, to Marshall McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage). That we (all) tend not to see what is 'hidden' right before our eyes, is neatly encapsulating the following:

"It seems that poor Human nature could only open one eye at a time"
— Elizabeth Cookson*

This, of course, is the concept behind Marshall McLuhan's 'invisible environment,' but the idea is also alluded to in many works of popular culture – old and new. We live, as Kubrick famously put it, with our Eyes Wide Shut; or, as that 'iconic' image below (cheekily appropriated) suggests, with just one eye open. In most cases, sadly, the eye that is open (metaphorically speaking) is the wrong eye. . .


Iconic indeed. That baleful, 'all seeing' eye that sits atop the pyramid of the Great Seal (and elsewhere) represents the eye of God, we are told; although the connotation is often seen as something more sinister. Good or bad, this is an ancient image that has come to represent esoteric knowledge... either that of an omnipotent God, or of a human elite that understands something most of us don't. No symbol is accidental though; so we might ask, what can this representations of a single (disembodied) eye tell us?

The first thing we might notice is that this is the left eye; not that mystical third, middle-eye, that implies a higher state of consciousness entirely - linked to mystery of the universe, and the mind of God. No, this is a human eye, and the association that could be made is that the left eye is connected to the right-side of the brain (In reality, optic nerves from each eye connect to both hemispheres; although the fields of view are linked with the opposite hemisphere). The expression, 'out of left field' may cast light on this subject. The musculature of the left side of the body, also, is connected to the right side of the brain; so this association persists, quite legitimately.

The right side of the brain is associated with a big picture view of the world - the gestalt that is - the kind of picture one might enjoy from the commanding heights (atop a pyramid, for instance). This hemisphere of the brain sees parts in relation to the whole, contextualized, dynamic – nuanced, rich, natural, flowing, living, interconnected – to name a few of the ways the right-brain perceives the world.'

The left-brain, by comparisons, deconstructs in an attempt to make sense of the world. In the left brain's way of seeing, the whole is not 'greater than the sum of its parts'; it is simply a collection of parts that must be disassembled to be understood. The left brain, sees living things as machines, and perceives itself this way too. The left-brain regards itself as a computer and the body (in extreme cases), a robotic appendage. "I want to be a machine" Andy Warhol famously stated; a comment that may illuminate a very relevant neurosis of our times. The left, abstracts and conceptualizes; it sees only one side of this dualistic world, in binary terms (like a computer): yes or nor no; right or wrong; black or white - there is no nuance in the left-brain's world. The left hemisphere creates systems and processes to function (in the world) and has a desperate need for control: surveillance, rules, bureaucratic regulation, the hierarchical structure of our society, are all products of the left brain's need to control.

Big picture, 'outside the box', thinking is not even possible for the left brain; because that metaphorical 'box' represents the parameters of a system that has been constructed to make sense of the world (given the left-brain's understanding of things). Anything that does not fit into this system will be either dismissed, or rationalized to fit - made to conform (that is) - to the rules of this system. (Logic and rationality, incidentally, are a left-brain function; while reason is an attribute of the right). In extreme cases, those things that do not fit the left brain's 'world view' are not merely dismissed, they do not even register - they are simply not seen.

This left vs. right view of reality has deep, mythic connotations, represented (since we're going back to the age of pyramids) in the ancient symbol of the Eye of Horus - the 'Wedjet'. This very familiar image is presented (interestingly, though perhaps not surprisingly) in two ways: as either a left eye or a right eye.


The right eye (left-brain)


Symbolizes the sun (represented by an aspect of the God Set) under the influence of which, everything is presented clearly; in the full light of day as it were. Everything is seen in light or shadow, black or white, with absolutely no ambiguity. The word 'set' (though probably there is no direct connection) serves to illustrate the point. Meaning: 'solidified', 'contained within', 'ordered', 'put in place' (its place). The term may also imply rigid and unchanging; unchanging in a way that is detrimental – as in, 'set in ones ways'. An inability to change and adapt will, as the story of Set shows, ultimately lead to disorder and chaos.

The left eye (right-brain)

Symbolizes the moon (which is represented by Thoth, the scribe and record-keeper, the one who has the long view – a recollection of the past, memory – engaged in time, and yet not moved by the day to day). This deity, traditionally, is associated with writing; this eye – healing, restoration, protection and magic (because the big picture perspective of the right-brain is beyond the prosaic, narrowly-focused understanding of the left-brain). The right-brain's perspective is intuitive and nuanced and is comfortable with that which is not fully resolved; that which has yet to come into being – into the full light of consciousness that is. The association with creativity here, is inescapable (more on this later).

Returning to the right eye (and left-brain), fascinating studies exist on these so-called 'blind spots' in the 'left field' – Things the right-brain perceives, that a dominant left-brain (having stopped accepting input from the right-side of the brain) simply cannot acknowledge or register. The expression, 'out of left field' – speaking of something "unexpected", "odd" or "strange" – refers to that which appears (as if) from no where – like magic (because there was little or no conscious awareness in this area until the subject could no longer be ignored). The existence of these 'blind spots' explains how a magician's slight of hand appears like magic; the left-brain has no concept of what might exist outside its limited understanding of the world.

In Popular Culture

Charlie Wilson's War

"As long as the press sees sex and drugs behind the left hand you can park a battle carrier behind the right hand and no one's gonna fucking notice."


The Big Short

"A few outsiders and weirdos saw what no one else could...
These outsiders saw the giant lie at the heart of the economy and they saw it by doing something the rest of the suckers never thought to do. They looked."


The Matrix


"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth. . ."



Land Of The Blind


"Have you ever heard the story of the five blind men who came upon an elephant? One felt the legs and said "Ah! Elephants are very much like a tree." The next felt the trunk and said "An elephant is much like a snake." The third man felt the tusks and said "An elephant is very much like a spear." You know what I'm trying to get at?"



Close Encounters of the Third Kind


"You ever look at something crazy, and then see it another way and it's not?"

In The Medium Is The Massage, of course, Marshall McLuhan tells the story of The Emperor's New Clothes, in which spectators at the parade are oblivious to the fact their Emperor is actually wearing no clothes. The fable seems unbelievable (as fables often do of course) but the story is told to illustrate a deeper truth; that people are very often blind to what is right in front of their eyes (for many different reasons). The happy ending to this story is that the little boy who sees the reality of things, eventually manages to convey this to spectators at the parade. McLuhan makes a comparison between artists and poets, and this 'ant-social brat' (McLuhan's words); 'anti-social' because what those who see differently show the world is often not something the world is ready to see.

This idea, that artists somehow perceive reality differently, and occasional see something important (that others do not) is certainly a 'Romantic' notion; but an understanding persists that this, in fact, is the artist's role in society.

The film quotations included here all speak to this idea, but Marshal McLuhan is said to be the last thinker to believe artists could change the world
(in the postmodern era); could it be that Steven Spielberg was the last filmmaker to believe that artists could perceive things the population as a whole could not?

"Mr. Neary, are you an artist or a painter?"

         —  Close Encounters of the Third Kind




†  Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (NEW HAVEN AND LONDON: Yale University Press, 2009).

The Shock Of The New.  BBC Documentary series by Robert Hughes. 1980

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