We use labels as a short cut to knowing what to think about things. But when we do this without conscious knowledge of what we are doing we blind ourselves to a lot of the world around us. It is probably one of the causes of social, racial, class, sexual biases today. Once we assign a label to someone or something, we cease to see them for what they are. They become what our label stereotypes them as. As artists, we severely limit ourselves if we allow labels to get in the way of actually seeing things.
Labels serve a function. They help us quickly sort through the barrage of information we get every day. They also help make the world around us more predictable. When I recognize something as a phishing email or a spam call I can quickly deal with it without having to analyze it or waste time. I get dozens of emails a day, but I can quickly label most of them as useless or useful and dispose of them.
We use labeling all the time as a prediction tool. I’m about to cross the street and a car is approaching the intersection. It is a fairly late model car and they seem to be obeying the law. I can mostly ignore them. They are not a threat.
Likewise, I’m walking at night and another person is approaching. They look like they share the same labels I apply to myself, so they are probably “safe”. Does this imply some bias? Of course. That is one of the functions of labels.
We can observe, and psychologists have researched and proven, that labels tend to become self-fulfilling. If a student is told he is smart, his effective IQ usually goes up. In the same way, if a student is told he is deficient, his IQ goes down. And teachers tend to treat them according to the labels.
Labels set boundaries on the thing we are labeling. To us, it is only this. It cannot be more. When we correctly label unimportant things, it helps us be more efficient. I can get through my emails more quickly. I may occasionally mislabel one and miss something I would have wanted to see, but, oh well. Usually I am right. And it is faster.
But labeling people is a dangerous thing. People are much harder to judge and the consequences of labeling them wrong can be high. People deserve to be given a lot more leeway in our “judgments”.
The great old story about the founding of Stanford University after being rebuffed by Harvard is probably not true, but this one probably is:
In July 1998, William Lindsay of Las Vegas said he contacted an unnamed Scottish institution of higher learning by telephone and told them he intended to give some money to a university in Scotland. Taking him for a crank, the person he spoke to rudely dismissed him. His next call to Glasgow University met with a warmer reception, and in March 2000 that school received a check for £1.2 million, enough to endow a professorship in Lindsay’s name.
I’m sure you have your own story about labeling a person and then later finding you were very wrong. Did you feel a little ashamed?
Danger for artists
Setting aside the moral problems with labeling, as artists we are severely limiting ourselves when we trust labels to tell us about the things around us. We are putting blinders on ourselves. Labels prevent us from really looking at things and seeing them for what they are.
As an artist, I need to be open and receptive. I need to be able to see things in fresh, creative ways. I can’t do that if I artificially put the things I am seeing into labeled boxes. Labels are fast and convenient, but I feel they get in my way of creativity. And they take away a lot of potential enjoyment we could get from seeing common things in new ways.
Guy Tal brought out interesting points related to this in his insightful book “More That A Rock“. (I get no compensation for the link; I just point it out to you because it is useful) The title is based on a famous quote by the great photographer Edward Weston:
This then: to photograph a rock, have it look like a rock, but be more than a rock.
Mr. Tal goes on to say in the preface to the book:
In the context of photography, therefore, representation is accomplished primarily through technology and skill, and a fortuitous convergence of “right” place and “right” time. Creativity requires something beyond objective qualities that are inherent in subject, tools, or circumstances – something subjective originating from the unique mind of the photographer that would not have existed had they not created it.
To use Mr. Tal’s terminology, I am constantly trying to get past representation and find creativity. I believe this type of subjective creativity is difficult, if not impossible, if the thing we are considering is hidden behind labels. Unless we learn to overcome the tricks our minds play.
This brings me around to a subject I keep coming back to more and more – mindfulness.
To be a creative person ,we have to learn to manage our mind and attitude. We have to train ourselves to stay aware and attuned to interesting things around us. One big part of this is to consciously decide to see beyond labels.
I don’t think there are any tricks or cheats. No shortcuts. We just have to be aware of being aware. Training and practice.
Try this sometime. It will be weird at first. Take a block of time to practice mindfulness. Go out walking (or whatever) and keep asking yourself “What is this I am seeing? Have I ever seen anything just like this? How would I make an interesting picture of this?” And do it. Stop and make a picture. Even of silly things: reflections is a window. A chalk drawing on a sidewalk. A flower in someone’s yard. Set your expectations low. You are not doing this to get wonderful pictures. You are training yourself to see and consider more things.
Give it an honest try a few times, then see if you are developing a new ability to see more and deeper. To see beyond labels. If not, write me. I would like to know why it is not working. And , even if it does work, feel free to write me and let me know what you discovered. I would like to share your experience. My email address is in the sidebar.
The image with this article is one of these. I was having lunch near my studio and noticed the way the corner windows were creating abstract reflections. I stopped eating and shot some intriguing juxtaposed scenes. This is one actual image, just found by chance. And because I was looking.