Tolerating Ambiguity

| March 4, 2014

One of the things I cherish about working in remote corners of the West is the quiet time behind the wheel on long empty roads among some of the wildest and most remote places in America. I keep a fairly slow pace, delegating the mechanics of operating the vehicle to the automated pilot living in my subconscious mind, and freeing my conscious self to contemplate ideas, to listen to insightful speakers and relate to their thoughts, to decipher epic stories written in the geology around me, to be attuned to the natural cycles of life and weather and to easily come to a stop when something interesting presents itself, or when the time seems proper to brew a cup of coffee or to prepare a meal on the tailgate.

Among the more difficult adjustments I made after leaving the corporate world to pursue this life was to adopt a slower and deeper mode of appreciation for my surrounding – what some call mindfulness. After many years of rushing to complete a given task, or trying to juggle several of them at once, focusing my mind onto a singular thread – something I did quite regularly as a child and young adult – proved more difficult than I expected. And yet, once accomplished, its rewards are undeniable. I realize that among the most regrettable losses many experience with age is the ability to be immersed in an experience with a sense of absolute fascination. I feel fortunate to have re-discovered it.

Ice FlowersI spent several days in Death Valley, some with a workshop, some on the trail with good friend Michael Gordon and some by myself. I left home on a chilly 24-degree morning, with the world still trying to wrest itself free of winter’s frosty talons. I returned to find robins and chickadees and new buds on the cottonwood trees. The beautiful cycle of seasons had shifted in recent years yet remains unbroken. The harbingers of spring announce its early arrival, and even though winter had been mild this year, the subtle sense of collective relief is palpable.

Wherever I go, I am surrounded by beauty. I am surrounded by many other things, to be sure, but over the decades I conditioned myself to pay more attention to beautiful things, interesting stories and meaningful experiences, and to suppress – both deliberately and instinctively – those things that are less conducive to curiosity, happiness and useful knowledge. And yet, I struggle knowing that as my public persona may appear entirely positive to most, the world is also rife with wrongdoings, cruelty, prejudice and hatred. These are not abstract concepts to me. At one point or another I encountered them all in direct and visceral ways. Alas, no matter how enlightened we may believe ourselves to be, cognitive dissonance and even willful ignorance are all too human qualities.

We each believe to know the way things “should be,” and often defend such notions with great passion, labeling those who disagree as evil or lacking in intelligence. And yet, such dichotomies are what drive us and make our existence interesting. I recall chuckling while listening to an interview with famed biologist E.O. Wilson who suggested that if we evolve by kin selection, altruistically protecting those close to us over others, we’d ultimately become a species of “angelic robots.” Nietzsche wasn’t quite so succinct when he said: “The strongest and most evil spirits have so far done the most to advance humanity: again and again they relumed the passions that were going to sleep – all ordered society puts the passions to sleep – and they reawakened again and again the sense of comparison, of contradiction, of the pleasure in what is new, daring, untried; they compelled men to pit opinion against opinion, model against model. … The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit – the farmers of the spirit. But eventually all land is exploited, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again.” It is with some reluctance that I agree, though I also take some pride in preferring the ethos of the “farmers of the spirit” when it comes to living my own life. I confess I likely will not thrive in a society devoid of choice, freedom and noble causes.

I practice my art and my life in the ideal – ideal beauty, compassion and reverence – fully aware of the wretchedness in the world and choosing deliberately to exclude it from my work. To dwell on such things one needs only to read a newspaper or turn on the television. Art, in my opinion, should exist not to dwell on the repugnant, but to elevate the spirit and the experience of conscious living; not by ignoring the many problems in the world, but by shielding a bastion where they may not trespass.

Amor Fati

What may not immediately be apparent is that such attitude toward life may well be related to artistic temperament. More specifically, it may have to do with the division of labor between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. To be sure, much pop-science about left- or right-brained people is quite nonsensical; however a recent study titled “The Master and His Emissary” by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist offers some stunning insight into the way the different parts of the brain reconcile different types of attention into a holistic perception of reality. In particular, the left hemisphere is geared toward providing very specific, unambiguous and narrow-focused answers to some problems; while the right hemisphere is more tolerant of ambiguity, and generates holistic perceptions (not unlike Gestalt Theory) rather than specific answers. Where such right-brain traits are dominant, ambiguity may persist without conflict and a world view is constructed in terms of holistic experience rather than definitive answers.

These two types of attention also somewhat correspond to the two-system analysis proposed by Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” where System-1 is the unconscious processing of the brain, providing instant and effortless answers to many problems, and System-2 makes the conscious labor-intensive thinking processes we each believe to be our self. System-2 is where careful study and consideration of acquired knowledge produce answers that may not be instinctive or intuitive. And, as Kahneman concludes, System-1 – our instinct and intuition about what is right or wrong, true or false, moral or reprehensible – while vital to existence, often gives us wrong answers and misplaced beliefs. Desert Passage

Relating these realizations back to photography and art, I believe that artists must tolerate ambiguity. Pursuit of definitive answers to creative challenges is like seeking the best apple in an orchard. You may find one that you believe to be it, but it is unlikely that you will be correct, or that such a thing even exists; and even if it did exist, it likely will change with the passage of time. It is far better, instead, to appreciate the beauty in every apple, the subtleties of taste and color that make each one unique at a point in time.

Taken a step further, these thoughts also lead me to conclude that art and competition are inherently incompatible; that unambiguous representations, no matter how useful or beautiful, are not creative art, and that personal experience is by far a greater reward for my work than any tangible image I may produce.

These were the thoughts that ushered me into a peaceful sleep in a beautiful, remote and nameless rocky outcrop somewhere in Nevada, and were still on my mind as I woke up to a blissful morning among the many wonders of the Great Basin. Art begins not in the learning of skill, but in the decision to live artfully; to be a farmer of the spirit rather than an agent of turmoil; to accept ambiguity; to not ignore but to acknowledge the many problems in the world, and to uphold one’s capacity for awe and compassion in defiance of them.

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About the Author ()

Guy Tal is an author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau—a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (5)

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  1. Excellent! Here’s to living artfully, being a farmer of the spirit and tolerating ambiguity along the way.

  2. Jeff Ross says:

    “…… but over the decades I conditioned myself to pay more attention to beautiful things, interesting stories and meaningful experiences, and to suppress – both deliberately and instinctively – those things that are less conducive to curiosity, happiness and useful knowledge.”

    Wise words and something I’m trying to do in my own life. Thanks Guy.

  3. Jamey Pyles says:

    Your words resonate with me, Guy.

    It seems like the natural world is singing, crying out hymns of the unseen mystery of beauty. I want my work to shine with this inaudible resonance, the essence of the profound nature of the wilderness.. I have a passion for this journey.

    But at the same time, I enjoy science and learning, and I continually am more aware of the immorality of humans, especially against the natural world. I’ve found myself deeper and deeper involved in conservation to the point that I have a passion in this work as well. A passion to better my existence and that of humanity.

    I find these to be somewhat clashing.. How can I admire the mystery and truly capture that beauty when a huge part of me desires to unravel all the mystery and take action. But I think your words above to bring some peace to that. In some far off woods I wrote in my journal “knowledge corrupts beauty”.

    In the end, I have not lost my tolerance for ambiguity. I accept that this is a tension in my life, but I think that through having these two passions I have gained what is truly more important – cognitive, meaningful, visceral experiences – communing with the elements of nature.

  4. Rafael Rojas says:

    Thanks Guy for the wonderful minutes this article offered to me.

  5. Nick Oman says:

    Guy, beautifully written! If we dwell on the bad, we can’t really enjoy all the good that nature has to offer.
    Thank you.