I ended Part I of this little series of posts on gevoelsmatig bewustzijn with the following questions: what is “aesthetic consciousness”?; what does Western philosophy have to say about it?; is it knowledge bearing?; is it comparable to gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (i.e. the feeling aspect of consciousness)?; if so, why or why not?

“Aesthetic consciousness” is a well recognised phenomenon within western philosophy. Besides a deep tradition stretching back to Plato there is a great deal of contemporary thought on the subject. However it’s not my purpose to dive into that current of thought here, other than to acknowledge that it exists philosophically – and in a vibrant way. As a discipline, it seeks to find explanations and theories to describe the experience a human being has in relation to a piece of art. These theories seek to explain: the experience of the artist in the act of creation; the experience of the perceiver in the act of perceiving; and the (self) knowledge bearing capacities inherent to either or both activities. Fundamentally, it concerns itself with art as an intelligent, yet distinctly non-rational mode of human communication.

However, the question I had posed, and that which is driving this particular post is whether aesthetic consciousness is just another way to speak about the feeling dimension of consciousness (i.e. gevoelsmatig bewustzijn). Are they interchangeable? Up front then, I would have to say: no. Since aesthetic consciousness, in the philosophical tradition, concerns itself specifically with art, it examines a very important subset of the feeling aspect of consciousness, while gevoelsmatig bewustzijn spreads its wings to cover a wider ground. Aesthetic consciousness does not seek to explain how a bird (instinctively) knows when it’s time to fly south, neither does it seek to explain how one instantly intuits the sadness of a friend who has suddenly entered the room. Nevertheless, since aesthetic consciousness does point in an important direction it deserves a deeper look. Let’s check out its semantic components.

Etymologically, the word “aesthetic” arises from the Greek term aisthesis (αἴσθησις), for the Greeks were the first philosophers to pose essential questions about human cognition. As such they theorised that sense perception (aisthesis) offered knowledge of external objects while mental cognition (noēsis) offered knowledge of mental objects (thoughts). Some philosophers theorised that aisthesis (αἴσθησις) existed alongside – or in contrast to – noēsis (νόησις). Noēsis (νόησις) and its cognates to noein (νοεῖν) and nous (νοῦς) referred to the thinking/mind capacity of the human being. Thus from the start Ancient Greek philosophers made a more-or-less firm distinction between these two methods-of-knowing. And due to the fact that the objects of sense perception were fleeting and unreliable the emphasis in philosophy rested increasingly upon the latter. The mind-body split noted here in the first post is testament to the enduring nature of this dualistic enterprise.

Aisthesis (αἴσθησις) then referred to the kind of perception that we experience through the (five) bodily senses. They were viewed as channels through which input flowed to inform the inner man about things and events in the outer world. This aisthesis could refer to the object of sensual perception as well as the ability to discern it. It could, on a subtler level, also refer to moral cognition or discernment. I do not know (from primary source readings) if internal bodily sensibilities, like an upset stomach, which lacked an exterior sensing mechanism (eyes or ears) were included under this umbrella term, but given that aisthesis included the moral dimension noted above, I presume they were. If so, the mechanism by which this operated lacked a precise accounting, for apparently, the Ancient Greek language did not possess a word for “consciousness”. How then were these sensations communicated? That is, if the two communication channels were conceived of as separate, how exactly did internal events of a sensory (or emotional) nature come to the attention of the thinking mind? 

This question brings us back (once again) to the hoary history of “consciousness”. From what I have been able to determine, besides its linguistic lack in Ancient Greek, the word (consciousness) did not exist in the English language until it was introduced in the seventeenth century by the philosopher, John Locke. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, philosophy during that time period was written in the French or Latin languages primarily by continental philosophers. Following the impetus of Rene Descartes, these philosophers began to create a distinction between conscience, as a moral kind of knowing (which had been well covered by the philosophical tradition for centuries), and consciousness, which was a “new” psychological shift to an aware knowing of internal, individual events. Since it was a slow semantic shift which occurred over the course of the century these philosophers had used the same word for both senses: the Latin word conscientia (or in French, conscience) could mean either “moral conscience” or “consciousness”. In English, the etymology for both meanings then follows from these semantic roots.

The modern psychological meaning of consciousness (“consciousness of”) began from philosophers such as these, Rene Descartes (Meditations), Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan) and John Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding). They started their epistemic theorising from what they supposed was a skeptically clean slate (“I am aware of my thoughts”, “I am aware of my sensations”, “I am aware of my feelings”, etc…), however they did not question the basic “I-am-the-body-idea” from which these judgments arose. They were experiencing consciousness from within their own bodily perspective, and proceeded to make judgments on that basis. The edges of the skin determined the “I” and the “other”. In this way, a tradition stretching back to the Ancient Greeks which had already distinguished between sensory events and mental events now received a new-comer to the block, conscious self-awareness: the Cartesian Ego had arrived.

This is a rough sketch of some of the shifts which have occurred over time within western philosophy in relation to the root words employed for “aesthetic consciousness”. I have tried to illustrate how a dualism developed early on for sense perception within Greek epistemology and then later how the introduction of consciousness entailed a further psychological dualism. Strangely enough though, the phenomenological impulse which drives the current philosophical investigations into aesthetic consciousness takes us in the opposite direction(!).

Aesthetic consciousness explores a more refined, ethereal sensibility, something between mind and matter and also something between “I” and “other”. It’s a space where an embodied, intelligent communication vibrates. Actually, it’s a practical, experiential doorway for diminishing the tyranny of the “I-am-the-body-idea”. However, even after an invigorating aesthetic experience, that ol’ Cartesian ego tends to bring one crashing back to the ground. Gevoelsmatig betustzijn takes this aesthetic opening one step further by pointing out that the feeling aspect of consciousness is always, already there – as our birthright. There is nowhere to go, nothing to do and no state to whip ourselves up into. Rather it’s about stepping back and noticing the blissful (ananda) intelligence (chit) of being (sat). Advaita Vedanta states that these three qualities (sat-chit-ananda) are immanent as the first qualities of embodied creation, ourselves as consciousness having a bodily experience instead of the other way around. We encounter it every moment of every day: ourselves and each other as living, blissful, aware intelligence(s); the children running in the street; the spider tending its web; the pigeons on the roost; the barking dogs; and the sirens howling (yes, even the sirens howling).

Is matter truly as dead as we imagine? Are we truly as separate from each other and the world as we imagine? Perhaps not.

I want to talk about something that Western Philosophy, for all its wisdom and logical acumen, has difficulty recognising. Yet for all that it’s an essential part of human being-existence. I’m using the Dutch phrase for it in the title above so that the English language speaker has the chance to recognise that they are not entirely sure what I am talking about. Imagine then, that this is something new, though in fact, it is something very old or rather, deeply innate to us all. “Gevoelsmatig”, refers to the feeling-sense capacity of a human being. And “bewustzijn” refers to consciousness. Joined together, as a phrase, it suggests that there is feeling-sense dimension to consciousness itself. How can that be so? It seems like a contradiction in terms.

For myself, as a native English speaker, it has taken me years to wrap my head around this phrase, to understand it, to relax into it and see examples of it in my own experience. At first it required a certain kind of linguistic de-programming. That is, language was a deterrent and then later an aid. There were a number of reasons for this, so I’ll try to explain. My difficulties may be helpful others?

Firstly, “gevoelsmatig” as a stand alone term does not have a one-to-one translation from Dutch to English. It requires a few words to define it. I currently use “feeling-sense”. A Dutch friend of mine (who is also fluent in English) suggested “feeling-wise”. Google translate uses “instinctively” or “emotionally” while VanDale (one of the main Dutch-English dictionaries) suggests “instinct” or “instinctively”.  Thus, gevoelsmatig can refer to the kind of knowing that a bird experiences when it “knows” it’s time to fly south. In the world of nature there are a multitude of examples. Animals “know” all kinds of things and this kind of knowing is not based on language. It is not rational, neither is it irrational; it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence.

But what about humans? How does this instinctive feeling-knowing manifest in human beings? As instinct? As intuition? As insight? A mixture of all three? Notice, in any case, that all three suggestions contain the prefix “in”. This refers to the internal, subject dimension of knowing. The objectifications of language are not its medium, nor its method of cognition, though the knowledge it acquires can later be expressed that way. Just as noted above in the animal world, it is not rational, neither is it irrational; for us too, it’s a certain kind of embodied intelligence. For example, a friend walks into the room and you immediately know they are sad. From one point of view, it’s very simple. Over thinking it (which philosophers love to do) just makes it more complicated. This explanation then is not a logical proof, basically, it’s about recognition.

Secondly, what about “consciousness”? As a stand alone term Merriam Webster defines it as “sentience or awareness of internal or external existence”. Problems quickly multiply when we try to define it any further. Thus, Western philosophy speaks of “consciousness” in terms of “consciousness of”. Consciousness then refers to that aspect of ourselves which knows internal events (which are often but not always objectifications of external objects) and because of that, this consciousness is inextricably tied to its object. Instead of the simple statement: “I am thinking” the modern philosopher states: “I am conscious of my thoughts”. Due to this division, it is not possible to speak of the subject dimension (the “I” part) of consciousness without reference to its internal mental object (the thought).

Additionally, in a world where the objective scientific method-of-knowing reigns supreme, western philosophers tend to contemplate the “hard problem of consciousness”. This involves the problem of explaining why any physical state is conscious rather than not. Thus, it begins from the assumption that matter itself is not conscious, is not intelligent in/or to some degree. To step outside of that problem would require a different method-of-knowing. Something other than the object oriented, language based scientific-method. Is there such a thing?

In some western languages the word consciousness translates to the compound word “bewustzijn” (such as in the Dutch or the German “bewustsein”): “bewust”, meaning aware, and “zijn” (or sein), meaning being. That is, being-awareness. If one were willing to take the meaning of the compound elements full stop, there might be a recognition of pure, objectless being-awareness. Being without fixing, fixating, on an object – any object, even ourselves. We rest in this sphere every night in deep sleep. We revert to it (absently or not) in-between thoughts. It forms the basis and goal of every meditative technique or inquiry. It is infinitely expansive, like space itself and provides a substrate for all our perceptions and mentations. Just as before with the term “gevoelsmatig”, this explanation is not a logical proof, it’s about a being-recognition.

A third reason for my difficulty in grasping the meaning behind the term “gevoulsmatig bewustzijn” is the strong mind-body dualism present within Western culture (and philosophy). For people (like myself) who have embraced religion and/or a spiritual path, there may be a strong impetus to encounter the more refined aspects of our subject-consciousness through meditation and prayer, free from the unrefined impulses of our material nature. This can lead to their suppression and/or repression (spiritual bypassing). The instinctive impulses of the body then might be placed in various shadowed categories. To suggest philosophically that the gevoelsmatig impulses of our nature are vitally important in order to progress spiritually might at first appear blasphemous or simply difficult to accept. Further, even though this (apparently) shadowed side of human nature cannot be denied, still, in the expanded sphere of social interaction it might sit outside the norms of accepted cultural behaviour, making its recognition difficult. In this, as in many things, we carry within us the catechisms and taboos of our elders – until one day we don’t.

Now at this point you might counter and say that this expanded feeling-sense capacity of consciousness is not at all unrecognised or absent from western philosophy. Of course not. Philosophers recognise that as human beings we joyfully expand in many non-rational and still deeply intelligent ways. One primary example is aesthetically in the world of art: the visual arts like painting (the subject-matter of this web blog), but also music, dance, film, literature, poetry etc…  Another is the overwhelming love we experience from allowing ourselves to fully open up to the beauty of the natural world, in all of its micro and macrocosmic majesty. But are these venues considered to be knowledge bearing? Are they included within a standard approach to Western Epistemology? Well, no, not really. Any self-respecting Epistemology 101 in any department of philosophy around the world concerns itself (primarily) with the truth bearing possibilities of propositional statements. (Young epistemologists there might hope to be clever enough so as to one day be the next Gettier.) Yet to be fair, there may be some toe dipping into radical skepticism, but if so, this is done without a recognition of the life enhancing properties of non-conceptual methods-of-knowing.

Nevertheless, to continue the conversation, we might think of gevoelsmatig bewustzijn as “aesthetic consciousness”? Is it comparable? And what does Western philosophy have to say about that? Is it knowledge bearing? And if so, what kind of knowledge?

See Gevoelsmatig Bewustzijn Part II.

On Photography

November 14, 2020

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with photography my whole artistic life.

OK. Confession over.

Here’s why.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel.

A Pice of Me #41, egg tempera on panel, 21 x 13.3 cm or 8 1/4 x 5 1/4 in.

I grew up with copies of Life Magazine on our family coffee table. Their black and white photographs were stellar. Later I became entranced by other coffee table discoveries: Matthew Brady’s (high contrast) photographs of the Civil War; Edward Steichen’s 1955 exposition called The Family of Man; Diane Arbus’s haunting, disturbing photographs, the list could go on, but I’ll stop. In short, I loved photographs.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

A Piece of Me #38, encaustic on panel. 21 x 13.3 cm or 5 1/4 x 8 1/4 in.

Later as a young artist I had no problem riffing off of photographs and commercial material. This is the the world; this is my reaction to it. It was a lot of fun. I loved playing with found images, basing my art upon them (not paying attention to those nasty copyright issues, but that is indeed another story). I was inspired by Photorealism and the work of Chuck Close. Over time, as I visited museums and my own artistic interests and capacities grew, I wondered how artists had been able to render external reality so precisely – in those pre-photographic days. And I realized the depth of my inexperience. Sure, I could draw. Sure, I could paint. Sure, I could play off of a photograph or some printed object. But so what? How in the world did those artists construct huge, I mean huge, canvases filled with evocative swirling figures? And all out of their own imagination? As an American raised in the era of television (where my visual imagination was continually fed by external commercial sources) I felt my poverty.

So I embarked on an internal and external exploration. I vowed to base my work only on renderings from life, from the external world around me. In this, my realistic temperament reigned. Such old school realism may now be considered anachronistic or reactionary (which it is): we already know that; you are not saying anything new. So be it. Nevertheless in this way and on this path I wanted to eschew photography, at least as a basis for image creation. Whenever I did consult a photograph (as a secondary visual resource) I realized a very important thing: a photograph is a two dimensional rendering of a three dimensional reality. Period. It can never, ever give you information that you yourself do not already possess. So I began to hate photographs, well not really, what I really hated was my own lack of formal training. Because in a traditional sense, much of what an artist does, in basing their image from life, is formal, it’s about perceiving with your own gevoelsmatig bewustzijn (aesthetic consciousness) a three dimensional form and rendering that onto a two dimensional surface. While a photograph is actually the reverse: it’s a two dimensional piece of paper that has mechanically captured a moment of life in space and time. Form doesn’t enter into it.

Then one day, to my surprise, I found myself basing a new painting project on a photograph(!). Relative to the aesthetic world that I had assigned to myself for these last decades, it was a kind of blasphemy. Because rule number one for artists seeking to do representational art is that the image should be based on a figural sitting or a study from real life (not a photograph). Well, apparently, my self-assigned apprenticeship was now over.

I cut up this photograph and started making panel paintings from the individual pieces. (I’ve included a few samples here, left and right) Compositionally, many, if not most, were abstractions or quasi-abstractions. Thus, rule number one for artists creating abstract art is that the image does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect. Most of the panels were abstract paintings first and foremost and (contributions to) a visual reality second. This whole project then would be something in-between. For want of a better term I began to call it Deconstructed Realism.

The only thing I have to say about it all now, as I near completion, is that my self-imposed formal training in drawing from life, as well as my self-imposed training in exploring an indirect painting technique during this time served me well. By paying a lot of attention to form I was (for the most part) able to avoid that lack-of-form-information-problem from my base photographic image. I happily strove to insure that the shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks in each panel would carry its own weight. And that the final assemblage (which really is half-painting and half-sculpture) would ultimately speak for itself. I hope to be able to post images of that final assemblage soon.

 

 

I think any artist functioning in the twentieth/twenty first century has had to (at least self-reflexively) address the apparent dichotomies of approach between abstraction and/or realism. Are they really as separated as they might at first appear? Personally, I don’t think so. If anything, it’s more of a sliding scale, a question of perspective.

About forty five years ago, during my art school days, while viewing a Rembrandt self portrait in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, I had a sudden flash of insight. I realised that if you took a square inch (or two) of that painting and expanded it exponentially you could have a modern piece of art. Place it on the wall and voila! Just like that. But that wouldn’t work for just any painter. It would only work for someone who was a master of their craft; someone whose play of light and shadow did not ignore visual interest or luminosity in any part of the image’s value range; someone whose sense of colour and texture appealed to the senses in a magical way; someone who left enough hints on the painting’s surface such that you, through your act of perceiving, could be left guessing, sure of your own experience, less sure of its conceptual meaning.

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

Nils, final full-sized assembled painting. 6‘ 02” x 3‘ 6” or 188 x 107 cm

I took that insight and dove directly into learning about the materials artists have traditionally used to create paintings. I figured then, as I do now, “it ain’t what you paint but the way how you paint it”. Thus, rather than create a number of paintings based on one particular image but interpreted in different techniques, I took one strong central image, cut it into identical parts and rendered each one separately. Each part was intended to function independently as a painting in its own right yet also to contribute to the unity of the whole. That, at least, was the theory, which worked out relatively well at the time (see image to the left and fuller description here). Yet of course becoming a master of one’s materials is not an overnight process, it’s much less dependent on a flash of insight than it is upon years of experimentation, dedication, hard work and synchronistic luck (can’t discount that!). Ultimately that means you guide the materials (including those happy accidents) but they – neither the materials nor the accidents – should control you. For in whatever you are creating there’s always a discriminatory selection process.

Fast forward forty five years and I can now say that I have learned a few things about what makes a painting, any painting, a good painting. One, it is not about the subject matter, it never is and never has been, that’s secondary. That’s not to say that the subject matter may inspire the artist. It can, but that doesn’t make it art. What makes it art is the ability of the artist to communicate his or her feeling-experience to you the perceiver in such a way so that you feel it too. Note, the emphasis on two words, “communication” and “feeling”. Which brings us to the second point about what art actually is. I would now say that art (including any good painting) is an aesthetic unity created by or through the feeling-intelligence of the artist in such way so that it can then be directly perceived by the feeling-intelligence of the perceiver. Full stop. Concepts may follow but they are entirely secondary. In that sense then, realism and/or abstraction present a false dichotomy.

One possible reason that such a definition has been lacking up until now is that Western philosophy has been slow to recognise that there is a universal feeling-intelligence which reveals itself subjectively in the inherent/inborn feeling-intelligence capacity of the human being. So, stay tuned for Aesthetics Part II: Gevoelsmatig-Bewustzijn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well…

April 27, 2012

Non-Duality the groundless openness Douwe TiemersmaIt took us two years – and steady collaboration with the author – to translate the nuts and bolts of Douwe Tiemersma’s book Non-Dualiteit, de grondeloze openheid into English. You know, we just wanted to understand what he was actually saying(!). It took another year of judicious editing to arrive at a manuscript that was attractive to a publisher.  Last November we were lucky enough to sign a contract with John Hunt Publishing. They plan to publish it soon under their Mantra imprint.

In these intervening months I have done another round or two of author editing after also reviewing the publisher’s copy editing. Now the manuscript has been finalized and real production begins. Though it is hard to predict when it might actually hit the streets, six months from now is a reasonable guess. Luckily the publisher will handle all the marketing and distribution (efforts and costs) – and yes, when the time comes for it, the book should be available on Amazon. Look for it, read it and write a review if you find yourself inspired to do so.

For more information about Douwe and groundless openness you can check out his English language blogsite: http://thegroundlessopenness.wordpress.com/

I’m in!

March 20, 2011

Yes, it’s true, it’s official.  I am now a published author!  Sure, writing to your own blog can be a form of self-mandated soap boxing, but now two different and independent online publications have each published one of my essays.

The first (chronologically) is PSYART, on online journal dedicated to a psychological study of the arts.  You can find the journal here.  I’m currently listed in the top left place on the home page, next to a short abstract on the right describing the contents of the essay.  You can click on the title, “The non-duality of self-expression” to read the full article.

The second publication is Non Duality Magazine, a non-profit online journal dedicated to an ongoing investigation into self-realization, awakening and consciousness itself.  My article has been included in the Art section of volume 4.  I find Non-Duality Magazine to be a very clean and clear representative of the the depth and breadth possibilities available within the realm of self-investigation.  I highly recommend surfing through the current issue as well as all three previous volumes.

My essay occurred in its original form as a blog post about a year ago, arising from a combination of at least two elements that I’m aware of: my translation activities on a  book about Non-Duality (we’re currently looking for a publisher for the completed manuscript so – hopefully – more to come on that soon) and a painting I was working on at that time.  That original post has now been updated to reflect the most recently revised version so that those who wish to comment on the article can easily do so.  All comments are welcome!

A few years ago I located a couple of carpenters who spoke enough English (and were pretty good at sign-language) to readily understand what I wanted them to create. A few weeks later they contacted me, “het is klaar” (it’s ready). My concept: I wanted to create a two sided painting (on a wooden panel) with a rotating inner core. The core needed to be extractable duing my creation process but afterwards could be fixed (permanently) in place.

But why create two paintings on one panel? It’s a ton of work. And what would be the reward? That’s very hard to say, except this: it’s a clear and definite way to demonstrate relation. Relation of what to what? You choose, but of course it offered the fundamental and very pregnant possibility of contrasting realism with abstraction in a direct and visceral way. For one side, I chose a landscape. A realistic, almost academic landscape based upon a value study of one of my favorite views of the Predijkherrenrij here in Bruges, Belgium.

And for the other side? Initially, and for a long time, I planned on an open blue field containing a text from Nisargadatta Maharaj, “I am, I am aware, I like it.” My thinking was simply this: if you have to use words to convery your intent, then these words from Maharaj summarize just about all that you ever really need to know. So, that’s what I created.

The Inside-Out

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated, it offered views as seen here left and right:

Thus, so far so good, kinda, but the text really bugged me. It took up way too much mental activity – thus creating a tendency to negate not only the unique mental-activity-bypass possibilities of the visual arts, but also the inner intent of the quotation itself! So last week, I painted over the text, to render a pure open field of blue. Ahhhhhh…

The Inside-Out revised

The Outside-In

When the inner core was rotated into “reality” I got this revised version as seen here left and right. Double ahhhhhhh……. Mucho bueno.

Self-expression as unitive consciousness

I recently completed the translation of a piece of text based upon the drig-drishya-viveka from the Indian Advaita Vedanta tradition. The thrust of that classical text is that the fundamental unity of being-awareness, previous to all conditions, is discovered by continually stepping backwards through each level of phenomenal conditioning to always discover the unifying quality of being-awareness on the preceding level. Its non-dual premise got me thinking about painting – and all the arts for that matter – as experiential examples of that unitive quality of consciousness manifesting itself through transparent action on varying levels of material existence.

To flesh that statement out, I can try to clarify what I now understand to be a main aesthetic principle. What makes a piece of art – art – is its own vibrant inner unity as the expression of an idea, feeling, sensation, movement or combination thereof. It’s not about – and never has been – a good, even excellent, depiction of some external reality. But rather it is about the consciousness-unity of the artist (subject) merging with his or her materials and subject matter (object) in such a way so as to reflect back a little piece of cohesive life to the consciousness-unity of his or her viewers. When it’s good, it’s magical. As viewer, or listener, we enter into the world of the artist, we recognize some aspect of ourselves and are transformed by the experience.

Additionally, and at this point in humanity’s knowledge of itself, it’s certainly not required that the final form of a piece of artwork be classically realistic.  Most contemporary artists prefer at least some level of abstraction. But modality aside, what makes a work of art eloquent is the unity of the intent expressed through the materials on into the final form. “Perfect”, we say, form = function, function = form, in an aesthetic sense. The only rule is that a piece of art must be true to itself, whatever that self is. Looking at artistic creation from this point of view frees both the artist and his or her audience from any formal constraint, allowing modality, medium and message to merge by simply remaining true to the original impulse.

Self-expression of the multi-dimensional Self

I’d guess that most artists in their creative act intend to hint at what they experience as ineffable. If they could say what they wanted to say with words, they would do it, but shapes and images, music or dance often speak more eloquently to and from a level that is non-verbal.  For the artist, in the visceral interplay between sensation, perception and action, a creative discipline is chosen which resonates with their sensibilities, whatever they may be. Additionally, to the extent that artistic expression can be seen as a response to the interaction of self and world, that response must be recognized as arising from the entire gamut of human experience.  So there is a response of and to the self/world experience of waking state consciousness, dream state consciousness and deep sleep or meditative consciousness.  Artists who attempt to explore and express their response to these different dimensions of human experience find themselves choosing a visual vocabulary which resonates accordingly, be it realistic, symbolic or abstract. Thus, at least within the visual arts, there seems to be a relationship between the experience of self-world and the choice of a particular creative modality.  What is that relationship?  Let’s take a look.

Realism

Realism offers the artist a visual vocabulary for exploring the objects which daily present themselves to the senses within the waking state of consciousness. It’s an exploration and discovery of the phenomenal world surrounding an individual who essentially considers himself/herself as separate from these external objects or forces.  For most people in the Western world, the contents of the waking state of consciousness constitutes their sense of “reality”. When realism is most successful, the artist is able to both intensely experience and viscerally convey a sense of inner unity with these external objects or forces, thereby offering others a chance to experience their own reality in an enhanced way.

Rembrandt self portrait

Take, for example, the high level of realism in a powerful work by Da Vinci, Rembrandt or even Van Gogh. A recognizable external reality is certainly depicted, but it’s charged with an inner unity, often radiating with great intensity. Much of the history of Western art – at least previous to the twentieth century – has spoken this language. Psychologically speaking, such work can reflect a personality in varying modes of relationship to the surrounding phenomenal world, a world furnished with the forms perceived within the waking state of consciousness. Its realistic depictions can range from polished, to symbolic, to naïvely abstract: the best works containing a mixture of all three.

Symbolism

In contrast, symbolism as a methodology offers the artist carte blanche for the exploration of his or her own dream-world consciousness.  Graphically speaking, there is usually a simplification or reduction of external objects to their inner essence.  For the artist, it’s a rediscovery and expression of personally significant images or forces arising from within their own consciousness.  The symbolist then, no longer sees themselves as completely distinct and separate from the formerly external objects of waking consciousness, but rather understands themselves to both contain and manipulate – or even be manipulated by – these projections.  The artist’s sense of self expands through exploration of this dimension, just as humanity’s knowledge of itself also expands through a recognition of archetypal myths and characters. This expansion carries with it a sense of inner veracity, a greater self knowledge, a knowledge that includes and expands upon the reality of the waking state. Thus, when this mode of creative expression is most successful, the artist is able to recognize this level of being-experience within themselves and viscerally convey its (often archetypal) contents to others, offering the viewer a chance to perceive themselves and so their own reality in a newly expanded way.

Odilon Redon

Consider, for example, the mythic gods and heroes of Jung’s Red Book, the dream world of lucid imagination à la Odilon Redon, the powerful haunting entities of Dali’s surrealistic almost shamanistic inner journeys, or Picasso’s African masks. These are powerful images evoking associations to sub-conscious human experience-memory. Psychologically speaking, such imagery resonates on the level of the unconscious mind – both individual and collective. The end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, in particular, celebrated this new kind of visual vocabulary in Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism, Primitivism, Surrealism and Expressionism, although, of course, the art of indigenous cultures has always contained such imagery.

Abstraction

Contrary to the two previous modes, abstraction opens the doorway towards that realm of being-experience which extends far beyond the sphere of a separately existing person within the world of external forms.  The artist uses this mode as an attempt to get to the absolute essence of experiential forms by questioning his or hers (and so also the viewer’s) own sense of reality. It delves into the expansively open space of the deep sleep or meditative consciousness where no “person” exists.  For subject matter, there is none, not really, but rather the structures of perception and/or the medium itself are explored or examined in an open, intimate and often playful manner.  When it’s successful, the artist is able to recognize this level of being-experience within themselves and reflect back its lack of phenomenal content with an economy of means.  Perhaps that is why abstraction as a form is both so difficult yet sublime, so condensed yet expansive, so negating yet fulfilling – and ultimately so unapproachable by the rational mind.

Mark Rothko

With Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, Minimalism, Hard Edge, Lyrical Abstraction, the demolition of graphically meaningful forms moved even further towards abstraction in the latter half of the twentieth century. The artist’s intent focused on a visual vocabulary speaking for and to the ineffable non-phenomenal world, always, already present within a human being, and assumed that by avoiding representational elements altogether, the artist could more effectively suggest the sub-symbolic level of being-existence. There have been a number of artists visually evoking this level, Mark Rothko being one of my own personal favorites. Pure abstraction, then, as a psychological projection of no-self portraiture, transcends traditional Western psychology and moves into the trans-personal spiritual world of Yoga psychology.  This expansion carries with it the potentiality of ever greater inner veracity, ever greater self knowledge, a knowledge which precedes and so both includes and expands upon the realities of the dream and waking states of consciousness.  It is exemplified by the deep, dreamless sleep state of consciousness (turiya) or the deep, peaceful calm of a meditative state.

Self-expression as self-projection and self-perception

An alternate way to approach (a non-dual) understanding of creativity is through exploring the subject/subject matter/medium dialectic of creative expression.  We can take the creative act as a dialectical exchange of these three existential entities. Accordingly, the subject matter of what an artist creates is often an intimate projection of their own self-image, whatever form that image may take at any particular time.  Who am I? is expressed on different levels of being-experience. Through the projective objectification of some aspect of themselves the artist turns around and says “Yes, that’s me”. Yet simultaneously, through that same act of creative objectification, it’s also abundantly clear “No, of course, that’s not me”.  A similar dialectic of self inquiry is documented within the drig-drishya-viveka: recognizing, aligning with, then finally negating, any particular objectified aspect of self-perception by affirming the pre-existing nature of the unifying awareness which perceives it.

Accordingly, the realistic painter feels themselves especially drawn to particular people, landscapes or objects and uses his or her tools to both explore and express the sense of intimacy or lack of separation he or she feels for these external forms. This self-projection tends to move towards symbolism when, through insight, the inner significance of these external forms becomes recognized. Then the subtler symbolic meanings acquire a stronger sense of reality than the external forms themselves, both including and expanding the artist’s (as well as the viewer’s) sense of self.

This process progresses as the artist attempts to discover the absolute essence of external forms and in so doing digs ever deeper into themselves, experiencing the accompanying  sense of inner veracity like a guidepost. This probing has a tendency to lead towards abstraction. When mind pursues this direction to its logical aesthetic conclusion it pronounces, “Form is dead”.  How true.  But what has actually happened is only this: mind has discovered its own limits, just as, through self inquiry the limiting constrictions of the “person” become fully recognized, allowing these relative structures to finally dissolve and die. Form is dead, but the one who recognizes that fact cannot be. Similarly, within artistic activity, the irreducible effervescence of creativity itself does not die and it never will.  Experience tells us so.

Unity consciousness as the creative act

The final answer is this: nothing is. All is a momentary appearance in the field of the universal consciousness. Continuity as name and form is a mental formation only, easy to dispel.
– Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj [pg. 415, I Am That]

Ah ha! The ultimate discovery, in art, as in life, there is no absolute object which can be pointed to, no thing which can be specified, no person to be delineated.  Rather there is a living, vibrant, ineffable consciousness which has the particular characteristic of spontaneously, joyfully, irreducibly, creating multiplicity from unity and – at least within human consciousness – of creating unity from multiplicity. Whether the style of that unified form is realistic, symbolic or abstract begs the question.

The 21st century art world has historians scrambling to find an “ism” for the art world of today. There is no definitive style. Anything goes. What’s up for the future is anyone’s guess. Yet for the 21st century artist, if, after tossing realism out the window as passé and spending decades analyzing the symbolic content of their own internal dream-world, or alternatively sitting on a mountain peak in meditative abstraction, if then there is not a humbled, yet enlightened return to the daily marketplace of non-dualistic realism, I’d personally be surprised. As human beings we exist in an integrated way within all three states of consciousness. As such, they inform and interpenetrate one another. Deprivation of any one for a length of time produces an unhealthy imbalance. So, I’m betting on an integrated approach to creativity, one in which the realistic, symbolic and abstract levels of the visual vocabulary will all be transparently operating. What will that look like? Who knows, but won’t it be fun to find out?  And isn’t that simply one way to look at what is already happening, swirling all around us?

With the advent of the digital revolution, the “giclée” or digitally produced ink-jet art print is an upscale and promising venue of digital imaging technology.  Images can be easily created, shared and printed the world over.  It is clear that inks, paper and techology will consistently improve to offer high resolution, archival prints which can qualitatively equal or even surpass traditional lithography for only a fraction of the cost.  As a new medium it promises to be an art in itself, because the tools are back in the hands of the artist.

But as a new medium, it is also important to distinguish a few basic elements of the larger printing world to which it belongs.  Printing, be it digital or lithographic, occurs in the world of CMYK, or subtractive light and refers to multiple identical reproductions.  It is to be differentiated from the world of painting which usually (but not always) occurs in the world of subtractive light and whose pallette is greatly expanded beyond four basic colors.  Additionally, the act of painting refers to a unique product.

What can be confusing for consumers/collectors is the term “limited edition print”.  Traditionally this term referred to a run of prints which were created from a means that became dissipated through the action of printing.  For example, etching plates whose fine lines grew softer after repeated use.  More often, the term “limited edition print” simply referred to the amount of prints generated at any one particular time for economic reasons, not necessarily technical.

In the current world of printing, whether lithographic or digital, the term “limited edition print” refers to economic factors and not physical dissipation, that is the number of copies generated at any one time is determined by how much the artist can spend to produce the images he/she hopes to sell rather than the dissipation of digital pixels (which is absurd) or lithographic plates, which do in fact dissipate in extremely large runs.

In this regard, the Giclée print is directly advantageous to the artist:  no huge lithographic print run to manage, pay for and inventory.  Artists can now “print on demand” and even sign their work, completely bypassing the “limited edition print” run event, potentially rendering the term altogether meaningless  (buyer beware).

Technically, the Giclée print may also be superior to traditional lithography since the ink jets do not require the intervention of tiny lithographic dots to hold the ink.  Finer gradations and subtler details can be rendered.  For example, the current top range digital printers includes two levels of jets for the cyan and magenta inks (one for the normal range of values and one particularly sensitized to reproduce highlight detail).   The archival qualities of the inks are consistently being improved (but still do not retain the longevity of a well executed oil painting) while the substrate is whatever quality technology or ecomomics allow.

The drawback of the Giclée print is the same as it ever was for lithography: CMYK cannot reproduce certain secondary colors, as well as even certain pigments of yellow, red and blue; what is visible on the LED monitor in RGB may not be reproducible in CMYK.  Additionally, importantly, and in contrast to painting, a print surface offers extremely little refraction of light through its micro millimetered surface-depth.  So the play of light through its surface remains predictably (mechanically) stable, unlike the subtle differences that can be experienced when viewing an original painting.  So although the Giclée or digiprint offers many possibilities, a print is still a print…

More Musings on Memory

July 27, 2009

Two important events occurred in mid-nineteenth century France: Louis Daguerre’s patent application to the French Academy of Sciences for his Daguerreotype and Horace Lecoq de Boisbaudran’s publication of a systematic way for the artist to develop visual memory. The former was destined to radically change the way humans communicate, while the latter would eventually become relegated to the now old fashioned practice of perceiving, conceiving and rendering external reality in terms of three dimensional forms. Additionally, the former could (after the additional technological advancements of more than a century) be used by anyone to communicate anything, while the latter took years of practice to master (by fewer and fewer artists). In Lecoq’s time, one could imagine him to be deeply aware of how the early stirrings of photography might impact both the world – and the artist. But also, the world of his time was still deeply embedded in Western Civilization’s long tradition of the representation of classical forms of beauty. If we fast forward more than one hundred and fifty years, we can see a remarkably different art world functioning now and understand why he has hardly been heard of. Still, back in the day, his methods had a strong influence on Fantin-Latour, Legros, Rodin, Lepère, Lhermitte, George Innes and James MacNeill Whistler, among others.

One additional factor – which also occurred in France around that same time period – could have been nail in Lecoq’s memorial coffin. One year after the 1862 publication of Lecoq’s revised edition of L’Education de la mémoire pittoresque was the famous 1863 Salon des Refusés. Art history books mark this as the beginnings of the Impressionistic movement. It’s readily acknowledged then that the advent of photography provided the impetus for Impressionism and the further deconstruction of the realistic picture space: Neo-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Surrealism, Da-Da, Expressionism, Pop-Art, Hard-Edge, Color Field, Minimalism, Symbolism, etc… . As they all continued to move away from a form oriented, realistic rendering of external reality they moved towards an abstract vision of an inner, subjective reality. This inner subjective experience of consciousness (on whatever level) then became objectified using whatever tools might be available to the artist – or to which they were attracted. Such expressions then need not have any relation to the external “objective” world rather, if successful, these expressions somehow depicted a universality (that is not subject to the subject-object dichotomy of both science and even language itself). So I wouldn’t  argue against any of these developments, as a young artist I was exposed to them all and truly appreciated most. Yet also as an artist I do question what has been lost in the interim. For example, my own artistic education included very little formal training, that is, training in the rendering of form and the use of the traditional materials to do so. So I’ve really had to teach myself.

At this point, and as a very generalised statement of the current artistic world, I humbly submit that by losing touch with the various tools and techniques which artists have used for centuries to render personally significant reactions to the external world in and around themselves, humanity has lost an essential relationship. An essential mirror. I certainly do not argue against abstraction, and conversely, I do not argue for realism. Both languages can be exceptionally powerful or exceptionally vapid, depending upon their practitioner/spokesperson. I’m just arguing for integration. The physical absorbed into the metaphysical; the metaphysical rendered meaningful through the physical. The Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism expresses it this way: Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.