January 22, 2002

“What does it mean?”

“What is it supposed to 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 fathers.

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 completion.

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 meditative states.

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.