The power of oblique

I enjoy working with my 2 visual artist colleagues precisely because they push me out from the comfortably rational into other ways of doing and knowing.

Together, we’ve been exploring the concept of Universal Basic Income (UBI). We generated a list of ‘rational’ questions which underpin the concept of UBI, e.g. “what is a citizen of the UK worth?“, “ what would you do you if you had an independent income?” , “is it one’s social duty to get a job?”, “is art a worthwhile activity?” As the three of us have been working remotely together during lockdowns, we’ve been experimenting with ways to address these questions through drawing.

Much of the power of art is the surprising insight it gives into a familiar topic through its very indirection or obliqueness. For example, “The poet” (writes Rowan Williams) ” is under the discipline of routinely trying to see one thing through another, the language is marked as poetic by such obliqueness“. Similarly, the visual artist Robert Irwin talked about the role of art as “the placing of your attention on the periphery of knowing” .This requires stepping out from (beyond even?) our more familiar rational lines of enquiry.

The technique we’ve developed is to select one of our UBI questions and then blindly pick an everyday object lying around the house. We then each spend some time examining the object – looking at it, feeling it, sometimes tasting or smelling it and then drawing it at the same time as holding the UBI question somewhere in mind. It can feel crazy (especially if someone asks what you are doing!) but the result is always surprising, often entertaining and a great stimulant for further discussion.

Here are a couple of examples of what I (the ‘irrational psychologist’ in the team) generated…….

The question “ what would you do you if you had an independent income?” happened to be twinned with a sellotape dispenser. As I studied and drew the sellotape, I found myself wondering how I’d view what I’d do if I was actually a sellotape dispenser with the financial freedom to explore and use my individual ‘sellotapeness’ in any way I enjoyed, or added value.

A second question “is it one’s social duty to get a job?” happened to be twinned with a tube of allergenic face cream. Again (the rational part of me wondering what the hell I was doing!), I looked at, squeezed and drew the skin cream tube in relation to the question of whether it felt my duty to get a job. I ended up writing new descriptions on the tube.

As someone with life long troubleseome skin, I was really struck by how skin creams are offered again and again as a panacea but they never actual fix the underlying problem but they have to be sold as if they do and you have to act as if you believed it. Is that like bullshit jobs which might provide a wage to live on but leave you spotty, unfulfilled and itchy!

As a psychologist, I’m interested in our own irrational thinking and behaviour (which we rarely recognise) . This exercise turns that on its head – forcing one to approach a rational question in a deliberately irrational or oblique way and finding what that uncovers that you maybe hadn’t thought about before.

My take-away advice – if you are stuck in your thinking, find an irrational artist!

About Alison Kidd

Research Psychologist
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