It is commonly suggested to young people to find mentors, both local and external, who guide our lives and learning, whether directly or indirectly. I have a couple of practically unreachable (read: either dead or too famous for me to meet) mentors, but my primary personal one is Mr Victor Butler. I’ve written about him before.
Here’s an overview of who he is, not exhaustive: a genius, awesome person, artist, programmer, engineer, writer and a thinker. (I’ll explain that last one shortly.)
Recently, I paid him a visit, for no reason in particular, because one simply needs awesomeness exposure in one’s life from time to time. During my hours of stay in his house, we had discussions centred on his current (art) collection, called Ethos Revisited. I’ll talk about that later as well. What you should probably know before you read this is that the conversation that ensued was rather philosophical, as conversations with him tend to be, which brings me to the subject of what he describes himself as.
I took the opportunity to ask him if he considered himself a philosopher, and the response he gave me was, “No, I’m a thinker.” The reason for this is that philosophy, as its own system of thought, has its own parameters. It’s strange to think that something that appears so free also has its own strict rules. Some of what Victor Butler does is philosophical, but he calls himself a thinker because there is no reason to restrict himself to what only philosophers consider philosophy. Being an in-depth thinker is freedom to analyse, question, evaluate and conclude for oneself as one pleases. He manages to project all of this through his art and his writing.
Mr Butler’s art is actually the most meaningful I have ever been directly exposed to. I’ll say he’s succeeded very well in keeping his name, works and personal information off the internet, and he has his reasons for that. I also think he’s one of those people that are going to become global, phenomenal sensations after they die. Why is that, you ask? The answer is simple: because he’s a relevant artist.
Relevance was one of our main themes for discussion that day. When Mr Butler was eight, he simply believed he existed and would exist as he was. No projections, no evaluations. Then, at twelve, he believed he was a very important person. By the time he was fourteen, he knew he was going to be an important person. He began to have the idea to be a ‘relevant’ artist, for when he finally did become an artist.
He posed to me a task, to think of a book that perhaps, my grandfather had read, passed on to my dad, who in turn, passed it down to me. My answer was almost immediate: Animal Farm. He asked me who the author was, and, admittedly, I had to think a while before I remembered: George Orwell. Then came the third question: “What other books has he written?” And for that, I was lost, at least until I strained my brain to remember the title of a book by him that my dad had implored me to read: Down and Out in Paris and London. This is probably disputable, but I would conclude that Animal Farm is the one work George Orwell is [most] famous for. Consider, for example, One Hit Wonders. This is when Mr Butler introduced me to another thematic question of relevance: Which should be the more relevant: the artist or his art?
To understand the entire concept of the relevance that we’re talking about here, we must first understand the relationship between past, present and future. For this purpose, I will fast forward a little bit and talk about one of Mr Butler’s artworks. It is a drawing, if I remember correctly, in charcoal, and perhaps, watercolour, with the face of an old man, and underlying that is the face of a little girl, distinguishable if you pay close attention. The meaning this artwork was portraying is that sometimes, aspects of families – maybe similarities in features, interests or behavioural characteristics – may skip a generation, such that a child is closer to his/her grandparent than to his/her parent. What this simply means is that whatever this grandparent has holds more relevance to this child’s present being than his parent does.
Then there’s the slight paradox of relative time in terms of people. Take, for instance, a grandfather and his grandson. They both exist in the present. However, if we look at each of them as an era, the grandson is the grandfather’s future, and the grandfather is the grandson’s past. It doesn’t even matter if this doesn’t make sense to you.
I’m sure we all know what the present is: ‘now’. The past, of course, is ‘then’, which can also be a reference point from the present. The present, in turn, is the reference point for the future. But what is the future? It would be hard to give a definite or even finite definition for it. Mr Butler described it, with equal aptness and ambiguity as “a conceptual space.”
The relationships between past, present and future that we just established are easily applicable to our world as a while. Using the past as a reference point from the present, the world has become much smaller. As far as I know, of course, there has been no decrease in planet Earth’s diameter (let’s ask the physicists), but in a sense more important than that, the world has shrunk. Many years ago, the world was “flat,” at least to us humans, who didn’t know any better. If one were to keep walking forward without obstacles. We supposed one would eventually tumble off the edge of the earth. All of a sudden, humans discovered that the world was, in fact, spherical. There’s a psychological aspect to this. You see, before, earth was one long strip that nobody knew the length or end of. Then, when it was discovered that it was a sphere, and you could travel all around it and end up at point one, Earth became something contained – where all was within one’s reach. It’s natural to think that contained things, or enclosed things are smaller than plane strips. Imagine how much longer a cylinder looks like when unrolled from the side or cross-section.
Ever since then, the world has shrunk again, especially with the emergence of technology, machines and other modes of transportation. Whereas China was once a three month sea journey from Ghana, it is now a click of the “Send Email” button away. Vous comprenez?
Another thing about this relation is that not only has it affected the concept of space, it also seems to be allowing eras to run together. Of course, many of these middle-aged to ancient people will disagree with all their hearts that this is not so, and that “Teenagers are so…so…” and then they can’t even complete their sentence. Mr Butler says that from all the times he has asked, the most common response he has gotten for the definition of teenagers is: “Very different these days,” which I think is absolutely hilarious, although I would say the definition I have heard most often is: “Something else kraa.” The bottom line is that most people don’t seem to be able to figure out just which planet teenagers came from. But you see, despite the world having gotten smaller, there now seems to be more ‘space’ to comfortably express oneself. We are now hardly restricted by tradition or strict practices. There are jobs now that didn’t exist twenty years ago. Mr Butler even gave this example: seeing a quinquagenarian walking around with his pants “a little low” isn’t so strange, because he feels like this is the era he lives in, and this is his space. Here’s another Butler definition: Personal space is one’s domains of influence. Quite frankly, with all these things teenagers adopt from the media, have we considered that not all of the celebrities we copy from are seventeen as well? There are legit forty-year-olds in there.
So now, the questions are: what are the things that survive despite the evolution of the world? How does a community define itself? What is relevant to a group of people, and why? To answer questions like these and others, we studied the ethos of a community. (As I mentioned earlier, the name of Mr Butler’s collection is “Ethos Revisited.”)
Dictionary.com defined ethos as: “The fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs or practices of a group or society.”
Generally, when we talk about communities, we are thinking of different groups of people, distinct from each other. One community is not the same as another community. What separates humans from each other, whether physically or metaphorically, are boundaries. I say boundaries and not barriers, because I am not specifying whether these boundaries keep things in or prevent others from entering.
One of the questions Mr Butler asked was “Is the concept of boundaries a measure of our scope?” There’s a lot to consider here. Do we barricade ourselves according to the limit of what we know or are familiar with? Or do they simply restrict and regulate the things we are ‘meant’ to be familiar with? A lot of the artworks in this collection have boundaries of different kinds.
The thing about boundaries is that they can usually be stepped over very easily. But how often does that happen, if we are made to believe that our boundaries are for protection and that our safety is not guaranteed once we cross over? Maybe boundaries also demarcate how far we can go to protect our identity. Identity is another thing that is relative to another. In defining your identity, you are defining the things that make you yourself as compared to someone or something else, sort of like height (tall, short or average).
We could break the essence of the community down into three parts, which is what Mr Butler did:
The mind of the community
The soul of the culture
The spirit of the community
Different communities, separated by different boundaries, could be said to be distinct from each other because of their views on morality and their values. Every community has a definition of what is right and wrong; these are morals, and they cannot exist without values, for that is what they are based on. As Mr Butler put it, “Values are the soul of our culture.”
Previously, I mentioned that an author can turn out to be less relevant than his story or ideas. The same, according to Mr Butler, can happen to a community. Its values et cetera may live in, but nobody will know who or where they came from. As time progresses, some things carry forward, and some do not. But in order to keep up with modern things or widen our scope, sometimes, communities need to stretch their boundaries.
Stretching one’s boundaries is similar to widening one’s comfort zone, so that it does not stay as is, but grows. Stretching our comfort zones means that we are still able to accept new things without feeling like we don’t belong, or panic out of discomfort. What needs to be remembered is that widening your scope does not always mean questioning your values, although sometimes, I believe that is also necessary.
Traditions evolve because life evolves. Our traditions are what we base our identity on. Of course, as Mrs Tonya Butler contributed to our conversation, some things have forced their way into our traditions borne out of the wrong ideas. For instance, some things could have been introduced for the purpose of keeping certain people in subjugation, like these gender control practices. You may consider things like female genital mutilation in this case.
A community’s customs are practices that simply reflect said community’s traditional stance. Customs have come to be the things you have to do to be accepted into a certain people’s space, like at the airport. Mr Butler defines intervention as something that enters another’s space, trying to effect a change.
The spirit of a community is kept alive through established channels of communication, in whatever form they may be. Humans naturally elect leaders among groups, who make decisions and serve as a particular group’s voice. But good communication between people means that one party does not believe that they are better than the other.
When it comes to evolution, there should be a structure that defines the change of our traditions, help us to blend our traditions with our culture, and at the same time, makes sure the symbiosis is beneficial to mankind. As we choose to stretch our boundaries, we tend to adopt. Mr Butler defines adoption as: “redefining the original boundaries of what was inside.” Of course, stretching isn’t always easy. In Butler’s words, “The conflict is created when, in our quest to master the elements, we come u[ against structures that remind us of the enormity of the world outside our frame.”
So, from all that I’ve said, the challenge I pose to you as a reader, but even more, to myself: when you think about the relationships between the past, the present and the future, the space we have and take up in the world, the concept of communities and boundaries, change and culture, communication, and the problem of being beneficial to mankind, what are you going to do to be relevant? Where? When? To whom?
Some Lessons I Learned from Artworks
It is true that descriptions of paintings don’t hold as much power as the paintings themselves, but I simply can’t release an artist’s pictures before they are exhibited, so bear with me. What I have written is more about what I learnt than the aesthetics, anyway.
1. There’s a painting of writer, but when you look closely, you see that the entire picture is mathematical, and you can sort of see a pyramid or a cone. It all depends on where you locate the apex. The lesson in here is that writers should be able to change their perspective. Writing has a lot to do with the ideas that one puts out, but it also reflects who the writer is and his stance, and through his words, he portrays something about himself as well. It is like a pyramid which may look like a cone when you see it up front, but you only know how many sides it has when you’re looking down from the apex. In the same way, a reader may only get what lies beneath the surface of the written words if they bother to look at it from the other perspective.
2. There was another painting with two women, one who looked rather sinister in the front, and another woman who looked kind of confused in the back. Or have I confused who was in front or behind? The point is that one looked smaller and less significant than the other. However, if you measured, you would realise that both women, who were versions of the same person, took up the exact same amount of space, though one looked more prominent. The lesson here is that everybody has their own truth in most situations, and though your own truth may appear insignificant or lesser, it holds the same amount of power.
3. “Delayed Response” is another painting, where there is a girl thinking about an answer to an apparent question a guy has asked. When such a thing happens in any smoothly-flowing conversation, the response is delayed, not because the question as unexpected, but because they believe the question is coming from somewhere else. If you looked closely at the guy too, he appeared either to have two faces, or like one eye was focused somewhere else.
4. The difference between a visitor and a guest. There were two paintings, one called “The Visitor” and the other one called “The Guest.” I only saw the former. It depicted a woman sitting rigidly upright at a doorway that led into a more open space. Mr Butler showed me that the difference between a visitor and a guest is that a visitor is not always expected or welcomed. A guest, however, is respected and received warmly.
5. I already described the painting with the grandfather and the grandchild. The lesson in there is that the past and the future can exist in the same domain.