Who Decides What is Ugly?
The way I go about my work has changed significantly over the past few years. When I think back to 2010, my work could best be described as mechanistic and routine. I worked in ‘health and safety’ and that mostly meant developing, and then assessing systems and processes which, when I reflect on honestly, were designed mainly as an attempt to control how people behaved. That’s what ‘safety’ is mostly about, and it’s why I’m just not into safety anymore.
When life, and work, is focused on systems and process (control), people are not ‘free’. Not free to think, not free to make choice, and not free to be creative. That is not how a system works, a system has little flex, it is structured and rigid, that’s how control is achieved. In a world focused on control there is no time and space to admire the beauty of what is being created, instead, control is about efficiency. When we focus on control we miss out on so much because our view of the world is limited, as it is governed by the boundaries of a ‘system’.
So why have I titled this piece Who Decides What is Ugly, and what has this got to do with ‘health and safety’, control and systems?
The answer lays in a great experience that I shared with my wife, good friend Max Geyer and his wife last week when we visited our local art gallery. We saw the latest exhibition by Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini which is called Like Us.
The visit was my wife’s idea; she loves art and takes any opportunity to see an exhibition. Me on the other hand, historically I didn’t mind attending exhibitions but I was ‘give or take’. I think this is because I didn’t allow myself to fully see and feel the beauty that is art. I suspect my thinking, and hence view of the world, and art, was governed in many ways by the social construct of the environment that I worked in. I could see the great colours and detail in art, and I could admire the work that went into it, but I didn’t always see and feel the beauty. I look back now and realize I was missing out on so much.
When I viewed art as just paint on a canvas, I could not see and feel what the artist was trying to portray. I liken this to how we can often ‘look’ and ‘observe’ in risk and safety. When we only look through the lens of a checklist or legislation, we also don’t ‘see and feel’ what is happening. We simply can’t because ‘safety’ is not about ‘feeling’, it’s about right and wrong, that’s what the system dictates.
So you may still be wondering what ‘ugly’ has to do with things?
One of the things I enjoyed about our visit was walking around and chatting with Max. We are both studying social psychology together, and you should have heard the conversation we had and the questions we asked. We asked each other things like “why do you think the artist used leather next to that image?”, “what do you think was the significance of the peacock next to the child?” and “what is this all doing to us, how do we feel?”. These were great conversations that had us both thinking a lot. These conversations could not have been prompted with a checklist or process, they happened because Max and I have a relationship, we have shared interest and we enjoy discovering, because we know that is how we learn. The conversations weren’t part of a system, they were about feelings and emotion, something systems are not interested in.
But still I hear you ask, what’s ugly got to do with things?
One of the beautiful things about Piccinni’s work (see – Piccinni Website) is her mix of animal, nature and people molded together into various different sculptures and pieces. The sculptures could be described as unusual, they are not simply recreations of animals or people from real life. They are the creation on Piccinni’s worldview and the key theme of the Like Us exhibition which is empathy and connection. To achieve this, she has pieces where animals nurture a child like figure (Big Mother), where animals protect people (Undivided) and one piece called Bottom feeder. For some people, I imagine these pieces could be ‘weird’, ‘strange’, ‘odd’ ‘confronting’, or perhaps ‘ugly’. I understand this, because if I looked at these pieces four years ago through the lens of my ‘checklist thinking’, I may have appreciated the detail and workmanship, but I know I wouldn’t have interrogated the work by asking questions like the ones that Max and I asked each other.
As Max and I continued looking at one particular piece where animal and human were as one, we noticed that mounted on a wall next to it was something that looked like a bassinet that was made of leather. We noticed this and discussed it with the gallery Guide, sharing our thoughts and questions. The Guide explained a little about the unusual looking sculpture (perhaps ‘ugly’) and told us that this contrasts with the beauty of leather.
The Guide then asked us a very poignant question, Who Decides What is Ugly? This made us stop and think. Max and I looked at each other and had a real ‘aha moment’. We had a great discussion about this and explored the question. We wondered why some people might look at the sculptures and think that they are ugly. How could a person who has animals coming out of part of its body be considered beautiful? How could an oversized animal nurturing a child feeding on a breast be gorgeous? The answer, when you think through the lens of ‘checklist’ thinking, is that you cannot. When it is your ‘system’ describes what you should and need to see, how can you possibly see beauty in things?
I’ve thought on many occasions recently that I wish that I had come into risk and safety through either (or preferably both!) art and/or education. Both of these professions encourage creativity and imagination. Both of these professions would have taught me to look at art with an open agenda, to see the beauty and not the process or technique.
For anyone in risk and safety who wants to view the world outside of the proverbial ‘checklist lens’, I can recommend a visit to an art gallery and ask the question, who decides what’s ugly? You may just enjoy what you discover and open your mind to a different way of looking at things.
Author: Robert Sams
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