We seem to be-artists and everyone else in the world-in the business of knowing. There’s a desperation to know. The more we know, the better we are. The more we know, the safer we are. The more we know, the smarter we are. Forget trusting; we need to know!
In fact we think we need to know because the more we know, the righter we are. Too often our need to be right rules us. But grasping at what we think we know, in order to prove ourselves right isn’t knowing at all. Thinking you know and discovering you know are two very different things.
Artists are actually in the business of not knowing. Only when we suspend our need to know are we capable of discovering. Without discovery, there is nothing new to express. Without discovery, you miss all the ah-ha moments. Without discovery, there is no art.
Andy Warhol, icon of the Pop Art movement discovered a new way to look at our culture through his silkscreens of Campbell’s Soup cans as well as his diptych of Marilyn Monroe. He is likely the first artist to express what he saw as our proclivity toward what would soon become an obsession with brands and celebrity.
Twyla Tharp, who famously choreographed ;;Little Deuce Coupe” by The Beach Boys for the Joffrey Ballet created the first ;;crossover ballet”-a mix of ballet modern dance, and pop music. No one had seen dancers move like that before.
John Cage, one of the most influential composers of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the postwar avant garde movement-turned music on its ear when he pioneered electroacoustic music and nonstandard use of musical instruments. He was known to have said, ;;I can’t understand why people are frightened by new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
These artists broke form. They intended to discover and express new things. In fact this is what artists sign up for: advancing civilization by seeking new forms, new ideas, new possibilities. To do so, an artist must embrace the discomfort of not knowing.
Letting Go of Our #1 Obsession: Knowing
Not knowing is inherently terrifying. It feels like you might die. The idea that one would seek out that state of mind for any reason feels counterintuitive. Because of the discomfort, we tend to latch on to early conclusions just to escape the lost feeling of not knowing. Letting go of knowing is like letting go of an addiction—difficult, but immensely liberating.
When an artist decides to open up, trust, and suspend what they know—in order to explore what they don’t—they discover new choices. When a person embraces this journey, they discover possibilities they never dreamed of before.
I tell my students “Don’t be in such a rush to know! Once you think you know, you’re done learning. Once you think you know, there is no more discovery. Ask yourselves what else could it be? And again—what else? Keep asking until something arrives in you that makes your heart beat faster.”
Once you file something away under “Oh, I know that,” a space closes—you stop looking. You pass by a tree you’ve passed by every day for the last year, and you don’t even see her. You don’t see her summon the breeze to lift her leaves and wave hello. You don’t see her changing color every day or the family of sparrows she’s housing at the very top of her branches. You don’t see her dispatch one perfect leaf your way—a gift she has presented just for you.
All that space available to open between you and that magnificent tree is left closed when you walk by without seeing her—thinking about all the stuff you know!