If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it, is the tree making a noise?
This is a playful question, simple and complicated, and if one goes on the Internet one finds a myriad comments of a scientific and philosophical nature. Important people like Berkeley, Einstein and Niels Bohr are referenced. Terms like infallible conjecture (that which cannot be either proved or disproved), things-in-themselves and things-as-they-appear, quantum theory, substance theory, bundle theory or local hidden variable theory (Tony Leggett) are encountered. They say Einstein and Bohr debated whether the moon exists if no one is looking at it. “To be is to be perceived,” postulated Berkeley.
In simple terms, there are two answers to this question: if one talks about the physical phenomenon, then the tree causes air to move and vibrate, which causes noise, whether perceived by a human or not, and the answer is yes. If one talks about the effect the sound has on our perception (senses) as human beings, than the answer is no.
I want to dance around these ideas and apply them to the topic of artistic creation. It seems clear to me that personal creativity is more on display today than ever. We have more time, more money, more platforms and more exposure. We admire and hold in high esteem creative work by painters, sculptors, photographers, musicians, poets and writers of fiction, for their ability to create beauty.
Often the unknown artist pursues such work in private, with various degrees of intensity and dedication. Instinctively, he or she will carefully lower their expectations for praise and recognition, as they understand full well that judging artistic work is subjective.
Like the tree that falls in the forest, what happens when the product of the artistic effort remains unheard, undiscovered? Should one stop creating when, despite the best efforts to break through, the competition is ‘deafening’?
Many times I went to the theater (small local theaters and larger ones in Baltimore and Washington, DC) and saw miraculous plays with extremely talented performers whose names were unknown to me and which I forgot promptly afterwards. One could say that I should pay more attention, stay more involved and make an effort to remember. Still, with a few exceptions, the creative endeavor of so many talented people is lost on us, the general public.
At Slayton House in Columbia, MD, there is now a group photography exhibition, which includes the work of a good friend of ours. A big crowd was expected on opening night. My wife and I missed the event and went to see the exhibit the other day. Nobody else was there. As we entered, a woman who worked in an adjacent office turned on the lights for us. The pictures were nicely displayed and of outstanding quality. There were images from remote places like Morocco, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. There was digital photography and macro photography, portraits of fishermen at the seashore, and pictures of urban architecture and old cars. I asked my wife what the difference was between what we had just seen and established work, say by Ansel Adams, who influenced generations of photographers. “Is this beautiful exhibition like the tree in the forest?” She didn’t respond, because there is no right and no wrong answer to my question.
I play tennis with a man who paints, mostly watercolors. He paints beautiful landscapes from places he visits. He held an open home to show his work that I could not attend — another tree that fell unobserved.
Art surrounds us in so many ways: my friend who masterfully sang an aria at a New Year’s Eve party and works as an architect, talented pianists who give recitals in churches and schools, poets who read to their loved ones, writers who hide manuscripts in shoeboxes and those who dare self-publish and whose readership stop at two hundred at best.
In the end, does it matter? Has it not always been like that? People create because they enjoy it. It is a part of them. Some do it for recognition and fame, but most do it for themselves. All this effort and talent, all this energy, all these dreams, all this beautiful work remains unnoticed — fallen trees in the middle of the forest for no one to hear or see.
Ultimately, the same is true with those who gain recognition and those who don’t— we are all trees falling in the forest.
“For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”
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