I think of art as based on crafted perceptions. There are perceptions we can have that are moving and inspiring, such as that of a sunset or birdsong or the face of a beloved, but it is when we attribute perceptions to human artifice that we speak of art. The various sources of artistic perception such as actual sights, pallets of colour, instruments of vision, experiences and stories and so on undergo a transformation. This has focus or direction, it is a distillation, bringing up to an ideal of perfection that, though it may echo what can come to us in life, has a permanency that makes it miraculous.
Encounter with art can open our eyes and ears, guide us to see and hear more even in what comes to us from the natural world. It educates us in what to see, how to hear, to see what we feel and sense what we think. Portraits by da Vinci, Rembrandt, Auerbach help us to see people in a deeper way.
One obvious feature of the creative perception proper to art is that we are enabled to dwell upon a perception, to have a kind of experience life by itself does not bring. When we stand before a Van Gogh, approaching near to it, moving our gaze across it, sensing the materials of which it is made it is exactly as if we are given a chance to look into perception itself. It is up to us what we see or hear but we are in conversation with an independent witness or seer. The artist is guardian of an inner perception and helps us to see. At the very least, the artist is saying, ‘I have seen this. And how I have seen this is here in this work’. What is shown has the taste of eternity.
Many people are drawn to imagine special powers of telepathy and clairvoyance, but it is hard to see how any such gifts could ever surpass what an artist does. The artist has seized upon something, has valued something, has made manifest something that entailed Labour and sacrifice, perchance. Out of the limitations of time and space something has been brought into existence that binds the inner and outer worlds of human perception, that unites sensation and meaning.
The agelessness of art is nowhere better exemplified than in standing before examples of fashioned in the ice age 30,000 or more years ago. Some people have felt that in this palaeolithic art we witness the very birth of beauty itself.
It is permissible to say that art is always revelation of a kind; it has to bring into awareness something that changes the nature of awareness itself. There is reasonable theory that as painting in the Middle Ages changed, one of the things that appeared was that people were giving value to the natural landscape as something of significance in its own right. Paintings of the Madonna start with her in an enclosed room. Then the windows open and vistas can be seen through them. Eventually, she sits in an open field. In like spirit the Dutch school of Vermeer made the everyday domestic scene a sublime reality comparable to representations of miracles and saints. And the very act and materials of painting became worthy of note in the 20th century.
It is rewarding to consider different kinds of art, though categories are, one says, made to be broken. In relation to painting an interesting view is to distinguish the virtues of:
- Verisimilitude of representation
- Impressions of perception
- Going beyond appearances
1 has always been a friend of science. 2 has echoed the concerns of phenomenology. 3 has expressed metaphysical ideas such as those of Theosophy. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klint are prime examples.
Concerning (1) science and art have a continue to acknowledge each other, the extraction and depiction of visual data itself having a long history from Paleolithic times to the spellbinding images we have today of distant galaxies and even black holes. (2) of course, includes what is called ‘Impressionism’, which includes the attempt to capture what we actually see instead of what we presume to see.
(2) focuses on perception itself, while (1) focuses on what we can see or be helped to see. Almost always there is some holding hands with science, that is, discovery about the world and ourselves. Concerning (3) they have the example of the brand of art rising round the beginning of the 20th century devoted to an understanding of the ‘fourth dimension’.
The esoteric views of Gurdjieff have rather obscured matters especially in regard of his pronouncements on ‘objective art’. He argued that the true artist knows exactly what he is doing to convey an impression and seems to equate such an impression with a kind of knowledge. He makes no concession to the level of participation of the audience, asserting that such art would create the same impression in everyone – a strange and extravagant claim! People have looked for exemplifications of objective art in ancient times. Contrary to this I have followed the idea of universal understanding to consider something like the song Summertime (composed by Gershwin in the 30s) as most truly representative of objectivity, on the grounds that it has engendered no less than 25,000 different versions and is known throughout the world.
But one aspect of Gurdjieff’s teachings is highly relevant and insightful. This concerns the remarkable conception of transformation that he gave based on the idea of three ‘being foods’: food and drink per se, air in all its subtleties and, most importantly, impressions. The three foods can undergo various stages of transformation, eventually to be made into finer or inner bodies. The third being food of impressions, however, can only develop if the individual concerned is conscious of them when he or she receives them. Sometimes Gurdjieff speaks in this context of that special condition he called self remembering saying that this is something that most people imagine they already have but in fact rarely do.
Linking this to our musings on art, it would seem that a genuine work would involve an awareness on the part of the artist of what awareness gives to the impression he seeks to convey. In the seeing of the painting, for example, would be the consciousness of how the scene is being seen and this, in its turn, has the presence of the viewer, the seer, contained therein.
Our view supposes that the total perception includes a viewer and that all that we are calling genuine art addresses the human possibilities of any viewer. In a word, they can be called ‘objective’ in the sense that they are possible for anyone.
Reflecting on the role of the viewer we can say it is a feature of art that spectators or listeners will be paying special attention in a way that is rarely found in everyday life. People will pause before a painting, stay quiet during a concert, repeat the experience many times, consult commentaries and guides. This is not to say that such disciplines are not to be found in relation to the natural world. We are thinking here of what is called the ’naturalist’s trance’ as practice for example by E. O. Wilson and Konrad Lorenz, when attention is carefully held within a frame before some biological unfolding. The aim is to come to see something that otherwise would not be seen top the inherent properties of this process are, as I have alluded to in my book on dialogue, akin to phenomenology which requires – in epoche – the suspension of habitual notice seeing so that new ones can emerge. The reference to phenomenology is to suggest that the seeing of a work of art can require the transition from a previously established kind of perception to a new one. Such a transition I would identify with what is called colloquially in the fourth way waking up. This notion revolves around the attitude that for the most part we are asleep and perceive like robots.
To see the perception offered in the work of art is to open a door towards seeing perception in new ways or having new perceptions. In the discourse of the fourth way the term ‘shock’ is sometimes used to signify some impulse brought about in us that challenges our conditioning and can enable the transition into a more creative kind of seeing. What could be the point of spending time on art otherwise? It seemed to be a barrier between us and the work of art that may or may not be breached or overcome, but through which we might ‘tunnel’ (to use term from quantum physics) to get within the work instead of vainly reacting to its impression upon us. John Bennett argued that art brings us near the perception of eternity, to which we are ordinarily blind. William Blake would have agreed:
A Poet, a Painter, a Musician, an Architect; the man or woman who is not one of these is not a Christian.
You must leave fathers and mothers and houses and lands if they stand in the way of Art.
The Eternal Body of Man is the Imagination; that is God Himself, the Divine Body, [Hebrew] Jesus; we are His Members.
It manifests itself in His Works of Art: In Eternity all is Vision!
Bennett’s own reflections often centred on the painting by Van Gogh of the Bridge at Arles. Rarely has an ‘eternal moment in time’ been so wonderfully captured. One feels like entering into the image for ever! One finds oneself standing by the river watching the women washing their clothes in eternity.
It’s as ‘objective’ as one can make it!
But, what of the perceptions I have spoken of in relation to art? Can there be significantly new perceptions? There is a complexity involved that has to do with the usual fixation of the idea of ‘impressions’ with sense impressions. Can we speak of emotional and intellectual impressions? We cannot help but invoke Gurdjieff again, in his consistent doctrine of the normative nature of man as composed of three centres. We probably think of art as pertaining to the emotional centre and science to the intellectual centre. But it is also common to associate emotion with colour and intellect with form.
The most important feature of centres we want to speak of is that, the higher the level of energy or consciousness involved, the more the centres can ‘understand each other’ (note that we need to suspend the usual way of talking in which only our supposed ‘I’ is capable of understanding). In crude terms, this means that a sensation can become a feeling and a feeling a thought and then a thought a sensation and so on. But only in some kind of wholeness of experience. In this sense, Beethoven’s claim that ‘music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy’ rings true. And we cannot understand anything without the senses.
References to wholeness can be vague. We can. Perhaps, illustrate what it means by considering the contrast between an existential arrangement of elements in which they are variously separated and their essential unity in which they coincide. This is shown in texts and in particular in forms of writing such as ‘ring composition’ where there is an obvious linear order of things which we follow in what we call ‘reading’ and another order which is usually barely conscious but can be cultivated. The coming together of what were initially two independent and separate elements creates something new.
I think that this is excellently illustrated by the what are called ‘autostereograms’. An example is shown below. If one stares at the image with a certain defocussing of the eyes a three-dimensional object appears. Somehow the left eye picks up one set of elements and the right eye another. When it first happens, it can be quite startling and people who cannot produce the effect accuse those who can of lying and artifice.
But can we find an example that properly belongs to the world of art. Yes, indeed. As is often the case the physicist David Bohm can provide us with a powerful anecdote.
I should perhaps [mention] here that my first reactions to modern art were almost entirely negative. However, in some respects, I have changed my mind.
For example, with regard to Rouault, I first felt that his pictures were very discouraging and depressing. Gradually, I began to see them in a new light. In particular, last year in London, I saw a picture of his, The Old Clown …
At first, it seemed to be rather a mixed up set of patches of colour. But gradually, it began to take shape. In particular two patches struck my eye, one in the face of the clown and another outside him, which seemed to complement the first. My eye began to move back and forth from one patch to the other, a pulsation was established, and suddenly it ceased, to give way to a remarkable new steady vision which I can best describe as seen in a new dimension. It was not so much that the clown became visible in three dimensions, this was true but only a minor point.
The major point is that there seemed to be a flow or a current in which the whole being of the clown poured outward to reveal itself, all his feelings, thoughts and emotions etc., and a counter-flow in which the outside (including the viewer) was drawn into him, to emerge again in the outward flow. It was a very striking experience for me, one that I shall always remember. Whether the artist intended the picture to be seen in this way, I don’t know of course, I would be interested in knowing whether it struck anyone else in this way.
– David Bohm, Bohm–Biederman Correspondence, Vol 1: Creativity and Science. Edited by Paavo Pylkkanen
I once had chance to talk with him about this experience of his and he expressed the idea that he had understood space differently because of it. The painting, the artist and the viewer are a trinity of meaning making. The other trinity of sensation, feeling and thought concerns the nature of the experience. Colour, space and line enable the crafting of perceptions.