You See What You Want to See and You Hear What You Want to Hear

You See What You Want to See and You Hear What You Want to Hear

One of the first things Oblio and Arrow noticed about the Pointless Forest was that all the leaves on all the trees had points, and all the trees had points. In fact, even the branches of all the trees pointed in different directions, which seemed a little strange for a pointless forest. […] Oblio told the Rock Man that they were banished and asked him whether or not this was the Pointless Forest.

The Rock Man said, “Say, babe, there ain’t nothing pointless about this gig. The thing is you see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear. You dig? Did you ever see Paris?”


“Did you ever see New Delhi?”


“Well, that’s it. You see what you want to see and you hear what you want to hear.”

—Nilsson, The Point (1971)

On my birthday last month I spent the entire day wandering through galleries in different neighborhoods. I always try to pay attention to what’s going on in the art world whenever I have to time to do so—and it usually takes a lot less time to look at visual art than it does to listen to a piece of music, read a book, or to see dance, theatre, or film. Overall, it was an extremely rewarding day. I always find that looking at paintings, in particular, helps inspire me to think about my own musical compositions. Sometimes the fact that it is a different medium actually serves as an even more influential prod than music.

I was particularly smitten with a group exhibition called Unpainted Paintings on view at the Luxembourg and Dayan Gallery. The exhibition really called into question the language we use to describe what we experience. Although none of the art objects on display therein were created using paint, most of them were based on the same basic principles as paintings—e.g. most were hung on the wall and involved a surface that was meant to be looked at straight on, most explored variance through color contrast and were compositionally two-dimensional (they were not sculptures). Some of them, in my opinion, did not seem too far away from this…

The MTA's Abstract Expressionism (Number 1)

I showed the above photo to a friend and asked her what she thought about it. She commented that it seemed influenced by Jackson Pollock. So then I showed her this…

The MTA's Abstract Expressionism (Number 4)

Perhaps I should have cropped the image I took with the camera on my blackberry (as I’ve done for the presentation herein) because she immediately figured out that the two images I had shown her were photographs I had taken of the residue that remains when an advertisement is taken down in the subway. “This is definitely not art,” she exclaimed. To which my immediate retort was, “But just a minute ago, before you knew what it was, you said it was influenced by Pollock. Therefore might it not be possible to have the same aesthetic appreciation for these objects that viewers have with paintings by Pollock and other abstract expressionists?”

Here’s another one…

The MTA's Abstract Expressionism (Number 2)

“But there was no intent behind it,” she countered. Of course, there were significant movements in all of the arts during the 20th century that involved subverting intent. In addition, there are tons of viable examples of found art, found poetry, found music, etc. whose aesthetic value we might never have been able to fathom were we not liberated to pay attention to such things as art as a result of intentionality losing its exclusive imprimatur on the creative process. On these pages and elsewhere in my life, I often use John Cage’s final definition of music—sounds heard—as an argument for all of us learning to be more attentive (and less judgmental) listeners. But this extends far beyond music and into all aspects of life. Indeed, a world that we can experience as always aesthetically satisfying, or at least always aesthetically thought-provoking, is a much more interesting world to live in.

This brings us back to the gallery of unpainted paintings. What is the sound of music-less music?

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4 thoughts on “You See What You Want to See and You Hear What You Want to Hear

  1. David

    Check out the work of Jacques Villegle. There can be a lot to say about how one does or does not alter these multilayered advertisements. They reflect much about cities and public spaces. Beyond its striking visual character, there may be rather revealing connections between various layers that at times are fairly poignant. I had the chance to meet him and got permission to use and alter some of his most powerful works for a music/theatre work where I did the visuals, and it was extremely powerful in its many connections with text, politics, sound, etc.

  2. Warren Burt

    Hi Frank!

    Nice article on intentionality. It’s relevant because over the weekend I “found” a beautiful new piece, converting 2 photographs to sound – full details on my website – the blog post for June 26, 2011 called “The Joy of Found Objects: When Everything Clicks. Berries.” As someone who has been living in the continuum between intentionality and non-intentionality since 1968, it’s great to see that continuum acknowledged. Marcel Duchamp is relevant here, with his idea that the observer creates (or completes) the work of art. This led me, in 1977, to say “Art is a moment of perception.” To which Chris Mann replied, “Does that mean it’s Greek?”


    Warren Burt

  3. Marc Weidenbaum

    Regarding what is described here as “music-less music,” I would suggest attention be paid to phonography, the discipline of audio field recording.

    Also, given the chance Pollacks shown here, you might enjoy this website, which frames the world each day to show how it carries within it the formal beauty of a painting by Mark Rothko:

  4. Kerry A. Brown

    Those Harry Nilsson lyrics are about confirmation bias. People accept or reject information according to whether that information confirms or disputes their existing biases/beliefs. We hear and see what we want to hear and see and reject what we don’t want to hear and see – based on what we already believe. Confirmation bias is good because it allows for quick decisions. For instance, the belief that touching fire is always bad, is automatically accepted, you don’t even have to think about it. On the other hand, CB is not good because it leads to false beliefs like 4,000+ different religions. There is absolutely zero evidence of supernatural or ‘spiritual’ beings, yet people are willing to kill and die to defend or impose their irrational beliefs on others.


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