Art as a Rorschach Test

by Karen Wills

We’ve all heard of, if not taken, Rorschach tests. They require a subject to tell how she perceives a set of inkblots. What picture does each form? One subject might describe a bat, while another sees a butterfly. A visual artist friend and I were talking. I said my novel, Remarkable Silence, the story of an archaeological discovery that upends the core history of the world’s three major religions, has been a Rorschach for readers. Some see sacrilege, some a way to save the world, and some unpredictable plot twists. My friend countered that all art is really a Rorschach.
Is that true? I think it is for art with enough ambiguity or complexity for viewers and readers to differ in their perceptions of it. We sometimes see differently from each other, sometimes from our younger selves. I loved the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s when I was young. Now I see it as racist. I tried to get into Proust’s, Remembrance of Things Past, in my twenties, but finally put it back on the shelf unread. Now that I have decades of personal past, and realize how fragile and beautiful a thing memory is, I count the book as one of the great works of literature.
I taught Hemingway’s Hills like White Elephants to a college class. Two characters, a man and woman, sit in a train station determining whether the woman will have an abortion. It was a memorable discussion, not because of an inflexible stance on anyone’s part, but because there was debate, complete with sketches, about which train the couple actually boarded in the end. Was it the train back the way they’d come, or the one to the city where she would have the abortion? People literally read the story with different conclusions.
I think I agree with my friend. If there’s enough to it, the work, like a Rorschach, says as much about the psychology of the viewer/reader as it does of the work…or its creator. I wouldn’t write the same novel now that I would have at twenty.

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