Two Men Climb Down a Chimney

This is another transfer from my old blog. Enjoy!

Art...this way?

Art…this way?

I’ll begin with an old story, from Jewish tradition – a parable or a joke, depending on how you see it. I immediately saw that it had relevance to art appreciation, especially appreciation of contemporary art, so for me it’s a parable. This is my own version (absit oman) and I hope you enjoy it at least:

A young man, freshly graduated from college, went to see the wisest rabbi in the city. When the rabbi answered his knock, the young man said, “Rabbi, I want you to teach me. I want to learn the wisdom of our people.”

The rabbi smiled and said, “You’re much too young for that. Come back in ten years and maybe then we can begin.”
But the young man was not about to wait. He said, “Give me a chance. I’ve studied hermeneutics and semiotics, deconstructionism, and symbolic logic. I can do this. Test me.”

“All right, all right,” said the rabbi, who grudgingly admired the youth’s determination. “Come in and sit down, and I’ll ask you a question.” The young man did, and this is the question he was asked:

Two men climb down a chimney. At the bottom one man has soot on his face, the other doesn’t; one man washes his face, the other doesn’t. Tell me, which man washes his face?

The young man’s face brightened, and he said at once, “The man with the soot on his face!”

The rabbi shook his head. “No, no. It was the man without the soot on his face. He saw the soot on his friend’s face, assumed that he must be dirty also, so he went and washed. Now run along and come back in ten years.”

“You can’t send me away after just one question,” said the young man. “I was just warming up. Ask me another.”
“Very well,” said the rabbi, and this is the second question he asked the youth:

Two men climb down a chimney. At the bottom one man has soot on his face, the other doesn’t; one man washes his face, the other doesn’t. Tell me, which man washes his face?

The young man paused a moment, then said, “The man without the soot on his face.”

The rabbi frowned a bit. “Don’t try to be clever. No, it was the man with the soot on his face. He could taste it on his lips, and feel it in his eyes, so he went and washed.”

“Okay, okay,” said the young man, putting up a brave front, “I got the hang of this now. Just one more question, please.”
The rabbi sighed. “As you wish. Here’s your third question:”

Two men climb down a chimney. At the bottom one man has soot on his face, the other doesn’t; one man washes his face, the other doesn’t. Tell me, which man washes his face?

There was a long pause, while the youth furrowed his brow and made inarticulate sounds of frustration. Finally, in a voice robbed of all its former confidence, he said, “The man without the soot on his face…but for some other reason…?”

The rabbi strode to the door and opened it. “Go away, go away, will you? No, they both washed their face. How can you climb down a chimney and not get soot on your face?”

So how does this relate to contemporary art?

The first two iterations of the question remind us that in art, and perhaps elsewhere, there can be more than one right answer. Each answer makes sense in its own context, and it would be possible for both to be true in answer to the third question.
The third iteration reminds us that sometimes the ideas we start with are wrong. Authoritative sources might tell us that only one man washed his face, but then we go into a gallery or museum to be confronted with an artist who says “No, they both did.” And that answer either negates the previous accepted wisdom, or is added to it as another option. Logic has a tenuous grip on art, as it should be.

In this example we see that to appreciate contemporary art we should be prepared – no, we have to – embrace uncertainty. Each artist is teaching us from a distinct context, and we have to be willing to move with it. Questions and answers interrelate, and the artist shows us how that works. If we go into it knowing we could get soot on our face, that’s half the battle won. Certainty within uncertainty, nesting like kachina dolls, the whole made up of many layers.

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