"What does it mean?"
Those are common questions asked when one has a new, unfamiliar experience
of art, poetry, music, of religious symbolism. However, I do not hear those
question asked in a botanical garden or zoo. No-one asks: "What is the
meaning of that unusual flower or of that peculiar animal?" There is an
imaginary line between elements of everyday experience and elements of
symbolic metaphor. You don't usually inquire into the meaning of your loves
or of your son or daughter; you experience them, and if you foolishly
undertake to convert to analytic jargon, the essence of an experience, the
act serves to remove you from your goal.
"The gloomy Englishman, even in his loves, always wants to reason. We are more reasonable in France."
The psychologist Karl Jung suggested that 'religion is a defense against
religious experience.' Religion, as it is organized and behaves in society,
attempts to codify the essential steps of the pathway to religious
experience, the final state of which is a transcendence, an outward thrust
from the daily grind. Contemplation of religious symbols can lead to this
state. By intellectualizing, by structuring the process, the potential
pathway is directed away from the heart or soul to the intellect or brain.
I use the terms heart and soul in the sense most often employed, as sites
of spiritual, energetic experience. The brain, and its intellectual
activity, contrary to common belief, is just part of the whole being; it is
just one among many organs necessary to complete the desires of the being.
There is not in fact an agreed-upon word for that place we point to in our
chests, that reflects so many of our feelings.
Words, in themselves, are problems, too; for everyone. When they perform
their function, they are assigned by the user; they are chosen from the
user's own look-up table, each word compared with or matched to a feeling
state or image. They are like the mathematical asymptote: they approach,
but never achieve, the perfect end-point: congruency with intent. We do
this automatically, in present time, choosing our words as the images they
generate are compared with concurrent experience. That experience can be
sense-organ gathered–in the moment– or can be generated from within the
brain by memory or dream. Choice of words, the words vocalized, keyed, or
scribed, are dependent upon intellect, interest, education, native ability
and more. One's descriptive powers are thus notably relative and dependent.
I noticed that I do not think in words, certainly not in words
themselves–the combination of alphabetic letters. I carefully observed
myself in situations of thought and found images, feelings, or emotions;
later-on, words could be chosen from these. I do exactly what I proposed in
the former paragraph. I find that I am not alone in this. The
neuro-scientist, Antonio Damasio suggests ". . .images are the main content
of our thoughts," and he refers to the mathematician, Benoit Mandelbrot,
the physicist, Richard Feynman and to Albert Einstein, who reported they
thought in images. In a recent book "What Mathematics Means," Lakoff and
Nunez explore the origins of mathematics, refreshingly returning it, as
metaphor, to its proper origin within the brain of humankind, from where
common belief had isolated and idolized it.
Some students of language suggest that language developed for the purposes
of lying, to make things unclear, to place fogs over clear landscapes.
Surely, we know that wordless language, body language, as it is called,
gets the job done quite well. Certainly it does among animals and it works
very well for us human animals, too. It is not accidental that the raw
materials of lawyers and journalists are words, with which they skillfully
mislead, misdirect, or simply lie. Examine what is printed on your
toothpaste tube tomorrow morning, and you'll catch my drift.
In like fashion, the institutional pedagogy of art, poetry, dance and
music, rather than revealing their essence, erect an unnecessarily rigid,
commonly unsurmountable, barrier to the experience of these matters.
For example, I note a curious way most visitors to a museum approach a work
of art. Commonly, they lean towards the right lower corner or the painting
searching for a signature or examine the contents of the label, then,
having identified the name, adopt a posture of recognition, perhaps,
approval. When I notice this, I infer the influences of pedagogy, art
history or current events and I wonder what this visitor might do or feel
if deprived of these clues, or of the audio cassette guides rented at most
museums. Could this visitor cast-off in a boat without rudder, oars or
sail, simply experiencing what came up? I see the shadow of another's
authority, another's assessment, the "thou shalt" enemy of Nietzsche's
prolog to Thus Spake Zarathustra, as the cover over the potential of direct
experience. Even if the promise of exhaustive scholarship suggests the
possibility of mastery, of understanding, or promises to confer upon a
painting an unequivocal 'meaning,' deference to this dilutes direct
experience, and thereby lessens the potential for transcendency to which
the art experience can be a vehicle. The function of the artist in society
is as myth maker, to translate unconscious spirit into object or symbol.
The artist carries the torch. If Karl Jung's 'collective unconscious' has
spiritual or energetic structure, the artist can impart to it a formality,
symbolizing the spiritual elements which reside within it.
This is not, however, a call to avoid scholarship. It is possible to have
both the pure experience of the cave paintings at Lascaux, and to also ask
what could be the explanation for their existence. But, even in asking and
in proposing plausible explanations, one is removed, to some degree, from
the direct experience. Even if the scholarly explanation is correct, that
the caves and paintings were part of an initiation ritual, introducing the
young boys of the tribe to the hunt, such an intellectual substitution
would be pale, in fact meaningless in comparison to the child's own rite of
passage, that is, his undiluted experience.
In approaching images, (or sculpture/music/poetry) I simply make note of my
experience. Am I angered, stimulated, is an emotion kindled within me? The
eyes are the scouts of the heart, gathering objects, just as they function
in the experience of love, where we are moved literally, toward another
with a force of propulsion likened, by the French, to a lightening strike,
a coup de foudre! Scholars suggest love experiences are associated with
brain states, with a flood of neurochemicals; the experience of love
reflects an expectant "pre-wiring" with which we are born. Chagrining to
some, satisfying to others, our mates tend to resemble our mothers and
I have a kind of love reaction to examples of art, music and poetry. In
some way, I too am 'pre-wired' to respond emotionally to certain images and
not to others. At times, the response is like Eros, an erotic reaction
expressing uncontrollable organ love–it feels as if my brain envelopes and
merges with the image, with the poetical connotation or the musical phrase.
At other times, I react with a form of "agape," a sudden love for
everything, for humanity, a euphoria.
This reaction implies something about the nature of experience, mine, and,
presumably, yours. If the artist responds to her own inner states in
bringing a work of art into existence, then there can exist an authentic,
direct connection between action (i.e. painting, sculpture) and feeling or
emotion (i.e. energy). If then, I, the observer, respond, authentically,
via my experience, I complete a pathway originating in the artist. Thereby,
my own inner state directly communicates with the artist's inner state,
inner experiences, energy to energy, spirit to spirit. They often happen
over great periods of time or space. I play or listen to the composition of
father Bach, and I feel his spiritual presence within me and mine within
him. Or more: I listen to Glenn Gould play Bach, and all at once we three
are dancing together. These states of being are not usually amenable to
translation into words by either the artist or viewer/listener.
The word 'translation' is an apt choice for the process of converting
emotion to words. As in all translations, much is lost, much is imposed,
perfect congruence is not possible.
When artists are asked to explain their work, they are most often unable to
do so. Art historians, critics and other academics commonly explain an
artists work, a poem, or a symphonic work, and, in order to appear
reasonable, they offer their reasons. The explanations do not generally
match the intent of the artist, who common does not have a ready
explanation. Mark Rothko, the painter: "I am not interested in
relationships of color or form or anything else . . . I am interested in
only expressing the basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstacy, doom and so on
. . . And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships,
then you miss the point."
Rothko, of course, is an unusual case. Inquiry into an artist's own
motivation is not often reported. In an interview with Francis Bacon, the
journalist reminded Bacon of the wealth of explanations and imputed motives
for his images put-forth by critics and historians. Bacon simply denied all
of them. He stated he had no idea why he painted what he painted. Perhaps
he was not telling the truth. But if true, a revelation of this kind
suggests a two tier event occurring within the artist: the first is a
response to feeling, directly transmitted to the canvas or to clay. The
connection between these two is not accessible by the artist. The second
level is the intellectual or logical plane, accessible, but separate,
distinct from the first. Current research in cognitive neuroscience
supports this proposal: most of the activities that form our action and
mental states are not accessible to discovery.
The painter and art historian, James Elkins, observes that the artist who
sets-out in advance to paint a particular painting, is almost always
disappointed by the results. Rather, brush-stroke guides the next brush
stroke. The painting develops in the moment, urging itself along to
The scientific discoveries of brain function are startling and disarming,
particularly inasmuch as they fly in the face of cherished ideas about
self-control and self-mastery. The revelations separate conscious control
from action and behavior. On the other hand, observations such as these are
completely consonant with the teachings of Zen masters and with theories of
Meaning lives within the academic and intellectual sphere, where complex
games are played in an atmosphere of rules, logic and authority. Exchanging
meaning for direct experience deprives us of the essential liberating
function of the arts.