Two stories: The first takes place in the Los Angeles Police Department, the other within the rarified art world of New York.
A rookie cop on the Los Angeles police force reported for duty on a vice squad, and found out that his new precinct held an unusual lottery. It turned out that this precinct included a really terrible beat, in a dangerous section of the city. None of the vice cops ever wanted to patrol this area—so after years of fielding objections, the precinct captain had finally come up with a solution he thought was fair.
Every night, as the shift started, the captain held up a bag of marbles. Every marble in the bag was black, except for one. Filing slowly to the front of the room, each cop pulled a marble from the bag and from the marble learned his fate.
Whichever cop drew the single odd-colored marble had to brace himself for a descent into the neighborhood they dreaded. The atmosphere was stressed and miserable—moments of happy camaraderie were rare. The rookie soon found himself dragging his feet about going to work. Twice he pulled the odd-colored marble and discovered the beat to be every bit as unsavory as everyone had said. But he managed to survive it.
One night the rookie walked to the front of the marble line, dumped out the marbles, and deliberately chose the odd-colored marble. The next night he did it again. Night after night, he specifically requested that one marble. He no longer worried about losing the marble lottery. Now, for better or worse, his fate was in his own hands.1 What he had experienced as enormously stressful, he chose to transform. Through his actions and example, the mood and morale in the precinct began to shift.
Across the continent, in New York City, a curator of the Museum of Modern Art spoke of the impact the advent of modern art had on the traditional art world. He said that “modern art, from Picasso’s scrambled faces to Andy Warhol’s soup cans—acts of imagination with no supporting consensus and only the tiniest circle of initial understanding—produced [enormous] changes [in the way we look not only at art, but] at the world. It ignored traditional texts, sidestepped familiar standards, and required people to make judgments without the comfort of stable rules and categories, and to navigate in seas of uncertainty, even absurdity, without a map.”2 Critics have said of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” that it is “a deliberate throw of the gauntlet to the entire history of art. You can see it again and again and still be struck dumb by its audacity, its freshness and its courage.”3 And, “It changed art more than any other. Before it, paintings at least had to pretend to be decorative and cogent. Afterward anything went.”4
Both the realities that existed in the L.A. precinct and the art circles of New York had amassed years of agreement. One fostered a reality of anxiety, stress, and low morale. The other set the standard for purchase price, reputation, and the au courant. In each situation, longstanding realities of the way it was were altered by a new conversation.
What was “real” in each of these cases?
Most of us think of language as describing a reality that’s out there—other people, things, the universe, even ourselves. We talk about ourselves and we say things like, “I am this way or that, I am outgoing/I am cautious.” We talk about ourselves and others almost as if we were objects to be described. That’s not an inappropriate or incorrect use of language. It is, though, just one use of language. Language can and does describe; language also has the power to create. It can bring new worlds into being—worlds that may start off not as real. Possibility is not real at its origin—it’s something we create as real, and then stand for as a reality.
Richard Rorty, contemporary philosopher, makes this point: “We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there—that it is not our creation—is to say that most things are the effects of causes and do not include [us]. Truth, however, cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of [us].”
“The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by [language] of human beings—cannot. [If] we could ever become reconciled to the idea that most of reality is indifferent to our descriptions of it and that [we are] created by [language], then we should at last [know] that truth is made rather than found. The world does not speak. Only we do.”
In Landmark we say that the reality, conditions, and circumstances of the future do not yet exist as facts; they only exist as a product of the conversations we’re in, we’re having, and in fact are. Both in the case of the rookie cop and the modern artists, the introduction of and standing for a new conversation shifted the existing reality—life’s possibilities and actualities were altered.
People who act out of inspired action do so by creating a possibility—articulating a future in such a way that it alters the way the present occurs. And because the present is now different, people act differently. Because people act in a way that is consistent with a new future, that future can then become possible.… But of course, as with any uncharted territory, there are inevitably gaps, stops and starts, missing bits. At these times, when there are gaps or something is or seems missing, it’s missing not like an invalidation, but like a possibility.
An example of something missing, but like a possibility comes up in Picasso’s juxtaposition of classic western art with African art as he created “Les Demoiselles.” He wasn’t all that confident about what he had done. The more he identified the abstracting quality of tribal art, the more he floundered and kept modifying the painting, sensing something was missing. Adding tribal masks, for him, was “a calculated risk, taken very late in the game.” For many years—until the painting was recognized as a modernist triumph—Picasso insisted something was missing. “‘Les Demoiselles’ holds within it a touching doubt, the angst of modern art as well as its trail to the future.”5
Living in the face of a possibility often can carry with it that doubt or angst and can sometimes be difficult—difficult in the ways poetry, music, or a deep intimacy can be difficult, because it doesn’t explain, it doesn’t rationalize, it doesn’t describe, and it doesn’t define. Even at its earliest stages, possibility leaves us with power and freedom, and once fulfilled, is no longer a possibility—it is a reality that now allows for whole new futures.
1“Rookie cop” story adapted from Harper’s article “In Defiance of Gravity” by Tom Robbins (September, 2004).
2 Kirk Varnedoe, “Entering the Software Century,” ARTnews, September 1992, pp. 57, 58, and 142.
3 Thomas Hoving, “Nothing Like This Picasso,” Los Angeles Times, 5/8/07.
4 Michael Kimmelman, “Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon,” New York Times, 5/6/07.
5 Jackie Wullschlager, “The day modern art was invented: Picasso’s Demoiselles,” Financial Times, 1/5/07.