DUST FROM A COLLECTOR'S VAULT
An essay by J.C. Leissring
I notice that I do not think in words. I suspect this is true for everyone. However, we have been conditioned to believe that language and words are primarily involved in the processes of brain states. Most of us would reply, if asked: "I think in words."
I believe, rather, we sense images, feelings, emotions, vague but definite "wholes." To these states of mind or brain, we attach language, but the state precedes the word. I noticed this about myself at an early age and expended much effort to find if others understand perception and thinking in this way. On evolutionary grounds alone, it seems obvious. This sensing is apparently a manifestation of "Right Brain," or R-mode activity, a mode of processing that becomes masked by the usually dominant, verbal, logical, linear "Left Brain," or L-mode.
In retrospect I suspect that my perception of things caused some consternation for my family. I saw images of complete architectural transformations, constructions and of 3-dimensional objects, from early childhood. At age 12 or 13, in Milwaukee, WI, I completely-redecorated my bedroom-not early teenager modern, but spectacularly eclectic, unique, visually exciting and soul satisfying. To complete the creation, I engaged an artist to paint, in oil, two small images of carved African figures, and paid for them "on time" with money earned mowing lawns. These became my first art acquisitions.
Fifty-two years and approximately four thousand objects of art later, I feel the same excitement as I look at them. Feel, is, the operative word here. I experience something visceral, an event in time and space that bothers in the region of the chest, a curious inner sigh that suggests a completion.
What, then, can mean, this unusually robust interest in gathering signs of life from "out there?" I am an omnivore regarding explanations for the way things work. My curious eyes have roamed as far and wide as they have been allowed. The quest for art is a journey. On the way, a number of side trips clarified my seeing. I need to know how I see things. Each Christmas, you will hear a song that asks: "Do you see what I see?" As I listen, I wonder: "Do you?"
Art, music and poetry occupy a special place in the world, a different place, of the animal, but not only animal, shared by no other species as far as is known. We do share with animal relatives skill with body language, but in comparison with domesticated and wild animals, our skill is meager. The naturalist Wilson, suggests that the nature of humanity is solitary, even universally "distrust"-an intrinsic quality. Not a dark side of our natures, but rather one that has gotten us where we are. Survival skill. The poets, however, sing to us of desire, the desire, as Roethke puts it: 'to be in another person.' This is real to those who feel it. Possibly we all feel it, but we will never know for sure. I suspect it strongly, and I have gained most of my evidence for this from artists, musicians and poets.
Machado, I believe it was, when explaining why he wrote poetry , described the process as a message he was sending from his soul at the moment of the poem to some "other, out there" in time and space. He imagined this other being vibrating in consonance. That is a lovely idea. Itis one that describes what happens when I find the message in the bottle. I vibrate in consonance with the artist, the composer or author.
Study of that phenomenon, in modem psychological terms, a gestalt, is avoided by the academy of art educators, historians and critics. I assert it is fundamental to the understanding of the role of art in the world. It goes a long way to explain why individuals are mysteriously drawn to image-making, sound-crafting, word-smithing.
There are two dominant pathways to understanding: the trail that leads from Aristotle, through Descartes, Newton, Einstein, Whitehead, Russell is the path of our technical world. It is the pathway to science; the role of science has been to convert insoluble mysteries into understandable enigmas. So much success has followed from the scientific path we tend to ignore the other one, just as rich, a road strewn with wonders of another sort completely, one owning a language of its own. Statues erected along this road will show the figures of mystics, poets, musicians, painters, sculptors, the transcendent souls, Rumi, Augustine, Each, Shakespeare, Mozart, Nietzsche, Whitman, the seers.
And what is it they "see?" Why should a life completed in scientific rigor cry-out for something else? It does. Less obvious are the empty spaces in the lives of the transcendent. Why do they cry? The phrase " Sino scientia, ars nihil est," (3)known to students of art, carries the whole answer. It implies an included middle state: the competing opposites, science--mysticism, and a third, all-inclusive, result. Both paths are necessary. One without the other cannot fu1fi1l-one hand cannot clap.
This has been an overly wordy introduction to a subject that words cannot correctly describe. My science road was medicine and pathology. The latter speciality, closer to pure science than the "art" of medicine, describes itself almost entirely by me~rls of imagery. It is not a mystery why I might have been drawn to it. Early on, I found it to be creative and poetical. That is no longer the case. The influence of present-day law and lawyers have removed creativity from medicine, a sad fact of medical life. What results is a practice that parrots the dominant technology, rather like copying the painting of another, the "expert." The origin of the expert in our society has its own cultural anthropology and psychology .The result is stultifying to physicians and disabling to the whole process.
If I start from the view of the critic, I assert that a critic does not serve me unless he tells me if he likes the work or does not. That's the first step. He can try to explain why, and when he does so, he cannot avoid eventually describing himself. Thus I may come to understand his constitution, prejudices, genetics, socio-biology and the like.(1) I do not want, from a critic of a hamburger, the history of the hamburger, the family history of the cook, a description of animal husbandry, a discourse on the variety and kinds of onions, pickles and so forth. I want only to know if he likes it. I silently ask: "Did it taste good (to you)?" If he tells me it did, and then if I buy one, taste it, and also find it 'good,' the critic has done his job. Etc. And so it goes.
What I find 'good' about a given hamburger (or whatever), then, is necessarily a reflection of me, in concert with the intentions and skill of the cook. Now, it may be that you have a richly formed vocabulary about the sensations associated with gustatory satisfaction, but I tend to own only a few: yum yum, good, delicious, and so forth. Moving to what I might find 'good' about a given work of art, poetry or music, I first sense my 'liking.' Perhaps the qualities contained within the origins of the word, 'liking,' will suggest an art 'yum yum.' And it is that 'yum yum,' surely not in any way unlike the sensation I note when I see a pretty girl: 'yum yum.' That is the first step. Gestalt. Boing!! Pow!!
Hamburgers are one thing and art is another. Academies exist for training in culinary skills and art. Graduates of each special school carry-off the lore that constitutes the foundation of their craft; comparatives abound: the science involved in producing a predictable and safe meal rests upon fundamental physical and chemical reactions. To successfully make mayonnaise, mastery of the nature of emulsions is required-physical chemistry. Similarly, the physical chemistry of art materials supports all forms of art: drawing, paper, lithography, sculpture(2) and so on. Basic knowledge of this sort is essential for artists and chefs. But that is only the starting point. While it is true that most graduates of either school will never achieve success as modem society tends to define it, it is also true that a chef and an artist who owns the basic skills has the tools with which to reproduce a predictable outcome: a good tasting hamburger or a work of art that will1ast over time.
Among those graduates will be the few who send, with their work, a message from their soul. It is not accidental, when outstanding chefs are examined, we find an artistic soul, one to match the artistry of their individual creations.(4) It does not follow that basic training is the source of the magic w1thin the soul of the master.
Few graduates of art schools remain artists throughout their life-times. If they expected to, perhaps they were naive. Most working artists and musicians need a day job, or a patron, if they stick to these careers. The reasons are rooted in the value individuals and societies place upon art and music-unfortunate for seekers of this kind of life. Not many are willing to expend money for works of art or will support the work of living composers. Popular music and popular art are specifically excluded here. These do not involve important creative acts. Art of this genre is purchased to match the sofa or to give the illusion of artistry or, in the case of music, musicality: 'classical' collections, elevator music, "Muzak," and what Jim Spitzer calls "Art Zak," to be found in hotel rooms, motel rooms, and industrial buildings.
When I feel the "pow!!" boing!! or 'yum yum' on meeting a work of art, it is the first step: I find in the bottle a message specifically meant for me. The next step is to find if the craft-the science of art-was done well.
The whole matter involves a complicated interplay of universals and particulars. Universal themes, mythological messages, material stored in what some call the collective unconscious, those, combined with particulars: my unique sociobiology , a product of my genome and of the mating algorithm that conjoined mother and father. In short, just because you don't "get" a given work of art, does not mean that someone else didn't or won't. For some creations, there is only a handful, maybe a solitary receiver. Rather like love, this is.
And so, from this, I can begin to particularize.
1."The Language Instinct, How the Mind Creates language." Steven Pinker, Harper Perennial, 1994.
Cognition saturation perception
One's observations are comprehensively determined by one's theories
One's values are determined by one's culture
One's science is determined by one's class affiliations
One's metaphysics is determined by one's syntax (language)
Because perception is saturated by cognition, observation by theory, values by culture, science by class, and metaphysics by language, rational criticism of scientific theories, ethical values, metaphysical world views, of whatever can take place .only within the framework of assumptions that-as a matter of geographical, historical or sociological accident-the interlocutors happens to share.
2. When Mussolini ordered a huge copper sculpture of himself, he was thinking of something the size of the Statue of Liberty .The Italian artisans who worked on this, however, had insufficient knowledge of the physical nature of copper. By the time the project had risen to only half height, it collapsed upon itself. The Statue of Liberty, designed and built in France, has an engineered, structural steel armature, from which the copper exterior hangs.
3. Without Science, Art is Nothing.
4. One of our local well-known chefs, John Ash, began as a painter.
(c) copyright J.C. Leissring 1999-2002