Whenever we experience a piece of art like a movie or hear a piece of music, there are two forms of meaning – the meaning that the art gives to you, and the meaning that you put into it.
“Projection” is when we take meaning from ourselves and project it on to what we experience.
Many pieces of art, such as the one here, have overt meanings about nature, a couple being together, and something that they share. But the attitudes of the characters aren’t clear. If we look at the picture for some time, we can feel what those attitudes might be, but in the end we are putting those meanings there. A French painter around the turn of the 20th century probably did not have the same things in mind as you do right now, and that’s OK.
The important point is that when you participate in art, rather than just receiving meaning from it. Art is the spot where this is easiest to see, because art can often be ambiguous, but it turns out to be true in almost all walks of life.
Typically, psychological projection is used in a negative way, to describe situations where people defend themselves against negative emotions by attributing them to other people. It does not have to be negative though. Projection can be any time there is some thought or emotion within ourselves that we put into an external source (a person, a piece of art, or an experience we had).
This could go well, or could go poorly. Our past experiences projected onto others are also a key element of what we would call intuition; your sense that you know how events might unfold. It seems to me that this process of projecting on to other things is entirely natural, and comes from the brain’s ongoing desire to make predictions about what a thing is like, and what the future might be, on the basis of previous experiences.
So we might think of the object that is being projected onto as the projection screen – a sort of white canvas that is there to absorb whatever we invest into it.
One of the best examples of this sort of thing are Rorschach test blots, which are basically random ink stains, done in a symmetric manner, which are given to test subjects to interpret.
When you look at this picture, what do you see?
This type of image is designed to be a “projection screen” – it does not have any inherent meaning at all, and no artistic creator to have guided an intended interpretation. 100% of what you would get out of this would be you projecting on to it. And so things like this may be used as interesting tools to see what kinds of thoughts and emotions might bubble up in us.
Symbols – Positive Projection
Symbolism, particularly in Freemasonry, is often used in a similar way. In the previous post A Mason’s Tool Chest for Career Change, an entire series of masonic symbols are presented and “projected on” for the purpose of investigating a particular question.
Sometimes when we feel lost and unsure about a situation. In these cases, symbols can be used as a form of positive projection. They do not solve the problem, but they provide a form of insight into the unseen forces knocking around inside of our own heads. If you were to stare at something as simple as a mason’s trowel for a while, and try to make sense of it – maybe it just simply doesn’t make sense at first, in the context of your troubles. But by investing effort, the brain makes it make sense – and thereby reveals something about how it functions.
The Work is the Payoff
When we do this kind of symbolic interpretation, it’s easy to get into territory quickly that other people can’t understand. Symbolic interpretation so quickly wanders into nonsense. If I were to explain to you what the trowel means to me in the context of my troubles, it simply wouldn’t make sense. But this is because the interpreted meaning isn’t the payoff. The work that you invested to get to the interpreted meaning is the payoff. When we project meaning on to art, symbols, and experiences – the result likely doesn’t mean anything to anyone else. But the process means something to us, and improved self-knowledge is the beginning of the ability to change.