Here at Oxford Exchange we have a piece of art currently hanging in The Restaurant titled A Map of Days. It was created by Grayson Perry, a multitalented english artist based in London. On first inspection, the painting looks like a obtuse rendition of a 16th century map of an old european town. The map is made up of random parts without a clear, logistical connection. Rather it appears to be a hodgepodge of structures, streets and parks, pasted onto a canvas. Instantly, the most recognizable device of the piece is the ramparts of the city, which looks like a flattened, haywire rhombic prism replete with arrows and half circles. A river runs along the south side of the wall and continues northward past the eastern edge. Outside the wall, several orbs with descriptors like “Hubris”, “The Truth”, “Fear of the Unknown”, and "Who am I” sit without interference.
Too much is happening in the painting to form a conclusive interpretation. The eye keeps revolving around the map’s intricate details. Nothing is signified by color, and the text blurs into the landscape. What does the text say, and what does the map, with its river, farmlands, copses, houses, factories, and facial sketches signify? At it’s core, Grayson Perry describes it as a self-portrait:
“I’ve portrayed myself as a walled city. The wall, I suppose, in some ways represents my physical skin but at the same time it’s permeable. I absorb the influences and the ideas of the landscape I find myself in. I am as much my baggage as the person holding the baggage.”
Outside the wall we see the external stimuli, the experiences and maxims Perry has come face to face with over his life. A lot of it covers a set of motivations and emotions he believes wouldn’t affect the psyche innately. Here we find a patch of grass labeled, “obligations”, a small shack called “A Backstory”, a church called “Romantic Cliche”, a barren area labeled “Complacency”, and a factory named “Kith and Kin”. There is so much to explore along the outer rims of the map, that it’s difficult to quantify just where, in a liminal time-set, these doubts and feelings would be located. The outside world has altered the balance of Perry’s own consciousness. The city and the outskirts have been manipulated by these externalizations. But inside the ramparts, in the center of the city, there is a circular radiance cascading outwards. Next to it walks a man with his back turned from the middle. He is "a sense of self".
“I suppose I have a more fractured, layered, shifting, ambiguous idea of the self now. It’s a popularly held belief that in the middle of ourselves, our deepest, core-est identity is this sort of pearl, this immutable centre of who we are as individuals. I feel now that that’s a false belief. We perform ourselves over time. This is the thinking behind this self-portrait. If we peeled the onion layers of our experiences off, we’d be left with an empty space.”
This philosophy, the idea that our inner thoughts and beliefs have been formed by our situational experiences rather than some inveterate system, holds credence. But how is anyone supposed to pinpoint where certain traits stem from? The lens through which each and every one of us views the world has been constructed over time, and it’s completely personalized. It is a collage of where we have been and what we have done. No two people have the exact same set of interactions with the world. No two people have the same personality. Perry expresses this notion perfectly through the map's erratic nature.
Yet, there is a case to be made for the existence of natural, inherent traits. Humanity has proved that some people have predilections towards a viewpoint, but it can't always be attributed to experiences and the outside. I don’t think we can just deem some of the worst perpetrators of historic and cataclysmic atrocities, like genocide, as victims of external interaction. Perhaps, our interpretation of the world does have something to do with our genealogical makeup or intrinsic configuration. But when does one end and the other begin? And wouldn’t our initial interactions with the world already have been imbued with this innateness, thereby perpetrating a skewed view?
I cannot answer these questions. I think the self and our experiences are too conflated to interpret properly. I’m not entirely sure why Perry has included certain portions of his being inside the wall, and others outside of it. But I do know that these questions wouldn’t be breached without this piece of art. Like a signal post on a hiking trail, A Map of Days leads me to thoughts regarding my own interior and exterior accumulation. I believe it’s important to confront ourselves and ask why we may act a certain way, or a have a particular opinion about an issue. We have to be open. Art, in a basic definition, clears a quadrant of an obscured window. It illuminates feelings we’ve not been able to express or put into words. It helps us build intelligently upon the person we are; the person we used to be. Without art, we’d be lost.