the art of inversion

I had a conversation with some friends last night about inversion–the idea of taking something and flipping it on its head.

Example: one of my college professors once gave a lecture on divorcing the signifier from the signified. He said the the class, “Green means…” and everyone replied “Go.”

“Red means…” the professor said.

“Stop,” the class replied.

“Yellow means…” the professor said.

“Slow down,” the rest of the class replied. But without even thinking about it, I shouted from the back of the room, “SPEED UP!”

Something powerful happens when we invert the accepted meaning behind a symbol. One of my favorite examples is the practice of kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with gold. Doing so honors the breakage as a part of the items history and as something precious, something to be valued and treasured.

If you’re the religious type, the same could be said for Jesus’s crucifixion. Jesus speaks truth to power, knowing full well power will kill him in the most grotesque was possible, “a death reserved for slaves,” as W.H. Auden puts it. And yet Jesus goes willingly, robbing power of its authority. The story of the crucifixion is a story of perhaps the greatest inversion in history–stripping a symbol of its power and reappropriating it.

There’s a perfection to imperfection. I once heard a story that Henry Flagler, the twentieth century industrialist and business titan, insisted on including minor design flaws in the decor of the Ponce de Leon Hotel as it was being built–things as simple as mixing up tiles of the mosaic on the floor of the entry hall or mismatching a single statue around a courtyard fountain. He felt these small flaws added a dimension of beauty and uniqueness of the hotel, yet another simple inversion.

Taking another page from Austin Kleon’s book, setting out to make something intentionally ugly can yield all kinds of beautiful results. The inverting of expectation allows a unique freedom. There’s no attempt to make something as good as possible when you’re trying to make it as bad as possible.

Magic happens when we invert what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, whether honoring the cracks in a broken bowl or setting out to make the ugliest art you can.