What do you see when you look up to the stars? Make sure it’s not the sun on August 21, 2017, unless you’re wearing protective eye wear. This solar eclipse, dubbed the Great American Eclipse, will travel from coast to coast across the U.S., darkening the sky and revealing the stars as it startles animals and nature.
Even though people in North America and parts of South America, Africa and Europe will see at least a partial solar eclipse, this eclipse feels different.
This is strange because solar eclipses are nothing new. There are more than 3 billion eclipses on record, with the last total eclipse in America occurring in 1918. So maybe it’s a confluence of stresses and anxiety around the globe that makes this eclipse feel like a metaphorical doomsday prophecy?
Could it be America’s daily newsreel of White House tensions and the growing chasm of racial and socio-economic divisions are driving us crazy?
European countries are struggling with issues like immigration and millions of displaced citizens, not to mention economic uncertainties from the growing dissolution of the European Union. As if that’s not enough, we are constantly bombarded by escalating tensions in North Korea, border control disputes in India and China, and war and food scarcity in the Middle East and Africa seems to be spiraling out of control.
No wonder we are afraid. The world is mad. The eclipse will pass but the fear over the state of the world lingers. Fear is powerful enough to eclipse hope, purpose and meaning, unless we have the courage and wisdom to reframe our understanding. When we turn our eyes and our attention to the sky, we look to higher values and existential questions about why we are here. This is where the image of the eye gets really interesting.
A 1958 sketch called The Eyes by Jay DeFeo hangs in the Whitney Museum in New York City. The large drawing was inspired by the artist’s own physical eyes, and she uses her canvas to question what it means to see. It’s appropriate to zoom in on DeFeo’s work given her study of art as its relationship to the cosmos. A large group of people stood around DeFeo’s work, studying the lines on the canvas and differences in each eye. The right eye appears hollow and white like a full moon, reminding me of television characters like Bran Stark, from HBO’s Game of Thrones. Bran has the gift of prophecy despite his crippled body.
DeFeo’s eye on the left side is noticeably different, with cracks in the pupil and a complex series of geometric lines. The eye seems to have more movement and unrest, and I imagined the wrinkles around this eye to be string-like tentacles that looked like a series of hydro poles. The effect is mesmerizing and you are drawn in, hoping to discover hidden pictures and patterns.
The wall plaque next to the sketch mentions an inscription on the back of DeFeo’s work. It’s written by her but taken from a poem by Philip Lamantia that says, “Tell him I have eyes only for Heaven, as I look to you Queen Mirror of the Heavenly Court.” This surprised me even though I could feel the spiritual longing in the layered shades of black. Critics suggest that DeFeo used her art to examine a growing interest in themes surrounding symbolic versus physical vision. The dichotomy of heaven and earth and a thirst for God’s mercy are certainly obvious in DeFeo’s work when you consider the inscription.
DeFeo’s work is visually beautiful. It carries me back to the paradox of our world and the struggle between the intuitive and rational processes we all possess. DeFeo took eight years to complete this later work (pictured to the left), The Rose, which weighs a whopping 1,850 pounds. Here, DeFeo is both seer and realist, looking for comfort in the future while trying to understand the present. Her message is her art, and it is both beautiful and comforting. It feels divinely inspired but grounded in earthly materials as it leaps off the canvas and asserts her transcendental power.
I remember seeing this three-dimensional canvas at the Whitney in 2015, thinking it looked like an exploding flower rising from the ground. Critics describe it as the place “where linearity and circularity, precision and coarseness, stasis and movement, and other such dualities coexist in harmony and with force.”
History is filled with centuries of curious art created with a view to the eyes and perspectives that have evolved across cultures, religions, ideologies and geography.
The Egyptians and Ancient Greeks were especially interested in the eye, believing it able to cast a curse.
The evil eye was a glare that could cause misfortune or injury. It could be stopped with the help of a protective talisman or careful preparations of the heart. Hanging a chain of small blue beads or wearing an amulet with the eye of Horus (the sky god and son of the sun god, Re) warded off evil. The eye makeup photo below by artist KelleyOnTheBeat illustrates a modern take on the eye of Horus symbol.
This notion of the evil eye is widespread in many Mediterranean countries, including the Arabic culture. Someone with envy or jealousy in their heart (described in the Arab world as having hassad or hasid) has an evil eye. The evil is believed to be like an arrow shot from the soul and if the intended victim is prepared, the hassad will have no effect. Reading a certain chapter from the Quran each day offers protection.
Many people remain superstitious and believe crystals like agate and gemstones like black onyx ward off evil spirits and negative energy. It’s no surprise some of the terms linking bad events with the eye are still used; for example, the worst part of a hurricane is the eye of the storm or the biblical justice of “an eye for an eye.”
In contrast to the evil eye, people who are Third Eye Blind have clairvoyant abilities and can see the future. Having this extra or third eye is a powerful gift. My Irish father used to tease me about his all-seeing-eye in the back of his head. Of course, I knew as a child this was a lark, seeing no evidence of a gift on the back of his smooth bald head. To the contrary, I understood his teasing way of suggesting he was a father with all-seeing power.
Yogis and mystics believe we all have a third eye centered between our eyebrows. The colorful graphic below, is one of many artistic versions of this all-seeing-eye. Its mystic origin has been studied for more than 5,000 years years in the ancient world, with modern-day doctors and philosophers like René Descartes (1596–1650) explaining its powerful energy. Our chakra describes the place of wisdom and divine intuition where the third eye resides and can be awakened. Ancient Indians called this eye the atman and the Greeks, and the Romans said it was our psyche and the place of our human soul.
In today’s world, the custom of looking a person in the eye when you shake their hand provides a glimpse inside “these eyes to the soul” . It suggests a measure of the person’s character or their level of honesty is somehow manifest in their eyes. In this same way, we know a person from their smile and we know the eyes can forgive without the use of words.
Remember the WomanScape story of performance artist Marina Abramovic? She sat across from her ex-husband and thousands of adoring fans at the Modern Museum of Art, speaking only with her eyes and the tears that rolled down them.
There’s great comfort in knowing artists will continue to challenge the way we see the world, stimulating dialogue and pricking our conscience. Ellsworth Kelly, a Abstract artist whose work spanned seven decades, continued to dialogue about his American experience and view of our political system.
His Red, White and Blue painting (1961) hanging in the Whitney gives us a bird’s eye view of his political reality. In 2017, this painting on the right might be fracture into more pieces, with even more white white space dividing the Democrats and Republicans.
But what remains constant in this abstract work is the considered reflection of our party politics and our relation to them in the universe. Thankfully, artists continue to push and even protest, using and sharing their voices to wake up the world. The photo at the end of this article illustrates some of this art hanging as a retrospective exhibit in the Whitney Museum.
How we see this placement is very personal and we have the power to frame it under the banner of fear or enlightenment. As the shadow of the eclipse races across the earth, I will not be looking up at the sky. I didn’t buy protective eyewear and will instead play British singer Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 hit song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” on Pandora.
Bonnie is scheduled to be on the Royal Caribbean cruise in the Atlantic and will perform her song during the exact time of the eclipse alongside Joe Jonus. While I’ll sing Bonnie’s catchy tune, which speaks of love lost and the eclipse of darkness in her heart, I’ll rest on ancient words from the bible remind us that faith is the evidence of what we cannot see.
(Last stanza of Eclipse of the Heart)
Once upon a time I was falling in love
But now I’m only falling apart
There’s nothing I can do
A total eclipse of the heart
Once upon a time there was light in my life
But now there’s only love in the dark
Nothing I can say
A total eclipse of the heart