Consciousness and the iconic image

A lecture delivered at Clare Hall Cambridge University in 2002 on the occasion of an exhibition of my paintings held at the college.

I have to say right now that I am not a scientist, nor am I a trained philosopher. I am an artist – a maker of images or icons. So what I’m doing here using words and thoughts in public is a very good question. I plead artistic licence and ask forgiveness of the professionals here who might think I’m taking a bit of a liberty and should get back in the studio where I belong. However I do believe that we artists are at the beginning of a new understanding of what we do and I want to share some of my thoughts on that here this evening.

I am going to read you an essay I have written recently on the theme of consciousness and the iconic image. I’m going to read it a) because I’m hopeless at extemporising, b) because it is highly complex and I need to be as clear as possible, and c) it has many original features which might get blurred if I improvise. From any audience, and perhaps particularly this one, I expect a very mixed bag of reactions – the scientists among you will probably accuse me of being a New Age mystic, The New Age mystics will think I’m so literal as to seem to have had an imagination by-pass, those literature or arts students will think I am as dry as an equation – and those studying theology will accuse me of ultimate reductionism and probably want to burn me at the stake.

However taken all in all and with clarity of thought this talk will try to present a new way of approaching works of art and attempt to form a solid base from which further discussion might arise, and might just start to drag us out of the dull pit of current aesthetic argument we find ourselves in at the moment – So lets begin.

I has occurred to me over the last few years that there has been a strange turn around in where the more profound discussions about art and its meaning and place in society is happening -It seems quite clear to me now that that discussion is not coming from the art world at all. What has happened over the last ten or so years is that scientists working in the fields of neurobiology and consciousness studies seem to be gaining the upper hand if we are talking about the advanced discussion of art and how and why it makes its effects and its place in society and history. Those realms of artistic inspiration and religious revelation once thought to be the sole and heavily guarded domain of artists and prophets now is being superseded by the neurobiologist.

In recent years work carried out Professor Semir Zeki in London and V S Ramachandran in La Jolla, California (among others) have pushed our understanding of art and its methods and uses much further in my opinion than any Tate Modern catalogue or ICA conference. So I’m going to start with just a taste of some recent despatches coming from the neurobiological front.

Prof Zeki says in the introduction of his book ‘Inner Vision’ ‘All visual art is expressed through the brain and must therefore obey the laws of the brain, whether in conception, execution or appreciation and no theory of aesthetics that is not substantially based on the activity of the brain is ever likely to be complete, let alone profound’ He goes on ‘My primary aim is to convince the reader that we are at the threshold of a great enterprise, of learning something about the neurobiological basis of one of the most noble and profound of human endeavours’. I believe this to be true and I hope that at the end of our session here some of you will also be convinced.

Zeki goes on to discuss in great detail various aspects of the brains visual system and relates them very closely to the way that artists work, both in the past and in contemporary times, seemed to have paralleled both the brains manner of dealing with visual information and its projection of perception into consciousness. He notes powerfully that our visual system is infinitely more subtle and infinitely better catered for in the brain than centres for language. The visual system is almost as old as life itself – whereas the linguistic centres are of recent origin. That is why we still want to look at things and how gather enormous amounts of information by simply by looking.

His main argument starts by asking a basic question ‘What is the Visual Brain for? Why do we need to see at all,’ His answer to this question is that ‘We see in order to gain information about the world’ and he believes that art is part of that same system. I don’t think that goes far enough and will develop my own ideas later. He says that art has an overall function which is remarkably similar to that of the visual brain, is indeed an extension of it and that, in undertaking its functions, it obeys forcefully the laws of the visual brain’. The complexities of the further arguments are not appropriate for this short talk. But I could recklessly try to sum it up by saying that as the brain subconsciously has to select and represent its perceptions of the physical world in an understandable manner to the conscious and even unconscious areas of the brain, so art must and does select, transform and edit its possible images, again so as to make the world or the gaining of information about the world contained in images manageable, efficient and relevant to the needs of the organism – that’s us! Part of his other argument is that certain styles in art – he is particularly good on cubism – deconstructs the visual perceptions in exactly the same way the brain does it itself – in its search for the essentials of incoming information.

Ramachandran takes another view on the way of art and its relation to the neurobiological base of its function. He has written with William Hirstein a paper called ‘The Science of Art’. In this paper Ramachandran and Hirstein bring together 8 laws of artistic experience, which together give it its force and power. Among these are the isolation of represented objects, the perceptual grouping of pictorial elements and perceptual problem solving. He has cheekily aligned these to the Buddha’s eightfold to wisdom and enlightenment.  But at a profound level this work is also founded on the idea that, as Zeki has outlined, the brain must search for essentials in its sifting and sorting of it perceptions – so does the work of art. Some of their findings or speculations are not particularly new – and a great many artists would agree totally with what they have to say – they have been following these laws instinctively from the year dot. For instance one of their eight laws they have called the Peak Shift principal. I believe this has been known in biological fields as the Supernormal Sign Stimulus. This is the extraordinary fact that we can produce artificial objects of a particular kind that are more effective in stimulating the organism than the natural world can provide. For example we know that a seagull chick will beg for food by pecking at its mother’s beak which has a red dot on it. Now the chick will continue to peck at a beak that no longer has a mother attached, and more – it will also continue to peck at a stick which has a red dot on it. And even more remarkable the chick will prefer to peck at a stick with three red dots on it than to the real thing – mother attached or not.  The red dot is known sometimes as a ‘releasing stimulus’ or a ‘trigger feature’. This idea is related to many features in works of art – from subtle exaggerations of colour and form to outrageous caricatures. In art we are offered a supernormal sign stimulus – the object of which might be seen to be exaggerate and wrest the essential form from the object.

There are many features in brains function we can now cite as being fundamental to our understanding of how works of art make their effects and people like Zeki and Ramachandran are laying down a foundation of how we might develop this understanding – but now on a scientific base and not merely on personal opinion. Even so at the present level of investigation our understanding of the deeper subtleties of the effects of art have hardly been touched on. That obviously, at the present time leaves what can be said about the subject in the terms rather limited.  But greater insights will come and new and more refined definitions will come.

Further on from the neurobiological side but intimately related to it are new ideas about human consciousness. This is the ‘in thing’ at the moment, as some of you may know. Now I am a real amateur here and my reading is scant. However that will not stop me from producing now some outrageous speculations of my own about art, its base in brain sciences and a theory of consciousness – well what I got to loose?


Let me go back to basics for a while and think about what happens when something in the physical world stimulates one of our senses. Supposing I burn my hand. The signal which flows along the nervous system to my brain as electrical impulses. When it arrives there it arrives in the form of electrical energy. It has no form – it is not pain – it has no words to tell you what to do. It arrives at its particular centre in the brain as pure amoral energy. When it gets there it is formed into what we call a perception. That perception will be formed both from both innate mechanisms and remembered related incidents from the past. If the sensation is such that it requires action the energy will be channelled via the receiving perception and thrown forward to the motor centres which will make the body take appropriate action – often without the organism being conscious of it – or further to the conscious areas of the temporal lobes where the thing can be examined and a decision made as to the appropriate action. When we consider these systems it brings up quite a difficult idea – or rather one contrary to what one would instinctively believe was so. As we understand that this system works in this way it become obvious that the mode of expressing energy is not attached to the stimulant which created it in the first place. It would seem that in this system – as long as the organism has a chance to consciously examine the choices of action and mode of expression offered to it – it could actually decide how that energy is going to be expressed. In the case of my burnt hand it might seem I have no choice in retracting my hand from the heat – its been decided for me. However – for whatever bizarre reason I might have – it is obviously also possible for me to train myself NOT to react in that way. People do it. There is a scene in the film of Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence puts a lighted match out with his bare fingers with no seeming ill effect. A soldier tries it and burns his fingers. ‘What’s the trick’ he says. Lawrence says ‘The trick is not to mind the pain’.

Now – what are the implications of all this? Let’s take an outrageous image. You stroll down your local street on a sunny afternoon. In front of you a charming little child is riding a tricycle along the pavement. Next to the child there is a man who suddenly produces from his overcoat a rifle with fixed bayonet. He lunges at the child spears it through the chest and hurls it through the air. Your reaction is appalled shock, unbelieving horror, screaming rage and anger, fear and outrage. You try to achieve – well what – justice?

Let’s move that same scene to the ravine of Babi Ya in Poland in 1944. You are strolling by a pit full of machine-gunned human beings of all ages. In front of you is a naked child. A colleague of yours standing by with a rifle with a fixed bayonet stabs the child through the chest and hurls it into the pit. Your roar with laughter and give your mate a cigarette and a light. Then get on with what you are doing.

What I am saying is that the mode of expression of stimulated energy is not fixed – not attached to the stimulant. It is in the main directed by the familial, social and cultural background of the organism. So you will see that in all cultures, even the way crying – just look at the way people cry around the world (plenty of examples on TV news these days) – there are many styles of crying and laughing which are dictated by the local custom. A deal is done among a cultural group which says this is the way we express joy – this sadness – this horror etc. And not only that there are customs that dictate what is funny and what is tragic. Of course the things develop over years and they change over years either by a natural evolution or by individuals of strong persuasion persuading others to express themselves in a particular manner. We can see this happen in the west very clearly in phenomena like fashion – where aesthetics have little say and a dominant style will come into prevalence by force of advertising even if it is uncomfortable or even damaging to the wearer.

So in art although the mode of expression has been decided we presume by the artist and his or her customers we now have to admit that they are all taking part by and large in a kind of cultural expressionist deal.

Let me go back to consciousness. It would seem to be – and I believe many scientists are of this persuasion now – that consciousness consists of a series of reflective insights whereby one neurobiological effect can be examined from somewhere outside itself but still within the brain, and that that new insight can itself be examined – its like a hall of mirrors. It develops the Freudian model of Id, Ego and Superego into and much more complex system of super-superegos almost ad infinitum. It’s as if the brain contained a spiralling thrust into consciousness like a sort of neuro-helix – and perhaps a neuro-double helix as in the DNA model – with conscious thought attached to its lower level background emotion in the brain’s limbic system.

(I have recently been informed that it is probably to a level of five layers of reflection that the human brain can deal with – – but I don’t know that).

With this spiralling self examination going on we can then relate that to the idea that eventually the liberated consciousness of a particular individual is capable of choosing his or her own mode of expression of neurological energy – and that this choice eventually has to be a moral choice.

My image then is of the basic electrical firings travelling around the neurobiological systems of body and brain, becoming perceptions and travelling forward (or not) into consciousness. If the energy and related perception reaches the frontal temporal lobes it can then be examined by our reflective consciousness. The action or mode of expression related to that original stimulus and perception are then capable of becoming a conscious MORAL CHOICE of that particular individual.

Theory of Art

So where does the expression in art come into this scenario and how do those systems in the brain examined by Zeki and Ramachandran relate to it.

OK – what we need at this point is another fearless leap into controversy and go for a definition of art. Roger Fry the critic and painter of the Bloomsbury group stated one I particularly like. He said ‘All art is significant deformity’ That’s a good one and you can see how it relates to some of Ramachandran’s ideas. My own – and I will venture my own – is this. Art is embellishment. An astonishing statement.

I mean by that that anything which embellishes the natural state of things may be seen as art. This of course includes an enormous range of human activity (even animal activity perhaps) – from me singing in the bath to Die Meistersinger – from cooking a pizza to the Sistine Chapel. Well I don’t mind that – I think that’s right. Because the more important question which relates to all these embellishments – these works of art – is ‘What is art capable of?’ Well it can sell you a can of baked beans, or it might engender an overwhelming sense of compassion for the whole of creation. In this system we can mentally – or even graphically – construct a rising scale of the capabilities of art and then have enormous fun slotting works of art along the continuum.

For example – you can decide the top and bottom of this scale yourselves – and that in itself would be an indication of what you are – what your range of expression is – what slight embellishment of life do you notice at the bottom line – and what do you recognise the highest, most complete and satisfying aesthetic experience available to you.

If we took something conventional for our bottom line. We might say that – well whatever – the end of a swan vesta matchstick is unnecessarily coloured red. It’s a nice red and all together in the box well – they look – nice. Now supposing at the top end we had something like ‘Hamlet’ – not the cigar, the play – as a great and mysterious and overwhelming work, or The Divine Comedy, or a late Beethoven quartet or something from other cultures equally wonderful and strange and seemingly of endless complexity and fascination. The results of his game, the opinions expressed in it – (and I think its a good and useful game) as I indicated earlier – will be determined in the most part by agreed manners of expression within a culture. So with that understood we can muck about with our artists. So where would you slot in Jane Austen? What about Raymond Chandler or Elvis or Marcel Duchamp? In general the placements on this scale would depend on who you are and who were your cultural peer group.

Let me make some further points on this spiralling consciousness idea. I believe that the spiralling expansion of conscious decisions, the eventual moral decisions made about how to behave in the world (which includes how one is to express a stimulated energy) is directly related to political and social organisation. It would seem clear from what I have suggested that any regime which required agreement both in moral opinion and mode of expression (which all do) would need at some point to stop the spiralling consciousness of individuals – those who might disagree with the given political morals and norms of expression chosen by a particular culture. So in very hard line regimes areas where consciousness might get free of its cultural heritage would be squashed as soon as it appeared Look at the exhibitions of degenerate art in Nazi Germany or the stifling art produced  in all totalitarian states. The lid is kept firmly on the modes of expression. Looking around the world now its quite obvious that this is the case.

However for the individual who has the strength and persuasion to break through those intellectual and cultural barriers there would seem a particular path available – one which would seem to lead to a kind of compassionate serenity in life. One can sense this feeling of inclusive compassion in accepted great works from all cultures and epochs – in Bach, great Indian music, in the late works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, in Zen painting etc, etc. In these works the individual consciousness has fled the restriction of local culture and – using the fundamental archetypal brain functions we mentioned at the beginning – spiralled into an inclusive and over seeing view of the world. This has produced icons – the simple Greek word for image – that can contain a whole universal view.

Let me delve for the moment into one example of what I consider a great iconic work of art and look very briefly at its background. Not visual art – a play. There is a fascinating off shoot in Renaissance history little examined I think until recently. It is the about the prevalence of mnemonic systems of imagery devised during the middle ages – mainly due to lack of books – whereby an individual could by using a system of wonderful visualisations conjure up almost all available knowledge and information about the world – once they had learned it – a sort of portable, mental encyclopaedia. One of he last exponents of this was the itinerant philosopher Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a maverick philosopher who travelled Europe with his mass of unorthodox ideas eventually paying the price of expanded consciousness by being burnt at the stake in Rome. He turned up in England during The 1590s and got himself somehow into very high circles which included Sir Philip Sydney and the fringes of the crowd around the Earl of Southampton – Shakespeare’s patron. Now some of the ideas of the universal mnemonic iconographic image seem to have filtered through to Shakespeare himself – it is especially apparent in the later plays and no more so than in The Tempest. In The Tempest we have an attempt to represent the whole of creation from the depths of depravity, even the depths of the sea to the highest moral heaven and all between. Think of the witch sycorax and the evil god setibus, then Caliban, the drunks, the conniving courtiers, corrupt temporal power, the young lovers full of hopeful future, then Prospero the artist and his finest almost amoral sensibilities in Arial. And see how it all ends – forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, freedom for the spirit and the contemplation of death. It’s not bad is it. And it is a wonderful example of a work of art spiralling out of control – out of political control and reaching a plane of experience, in my view, at the highest level available for art.

I believe that in works of art – and I must keep insisting on its direct parallel with the spiralling consciousness I have mentioned – I believe that the work of art can – depending on what the artist has required of the work – express this system as an ultimately morally chosen iconic image.

There’s an obvious objection here. It’s this. If, as I have said the mode of expression of any given stimulated energy is up for grabs – how on earth can we agree as to what our response to a work of art should be or is? Well we can see this is a problem, which has become more and more intractable as the last two centuries have developed. Since the inception of Impressionism (which I believe was one of the great dumbing downs in the history art – I mean it wasn’t very ambitious was it?) the lack of any coherent agreement among both artists and audiences as to what they should express and how they should respond to various works has become a major problem. In centuries past there was a tacit cultural agreement about what was going to be viewed and what the response might be. The religious and cultural baggage made sure that only in a limited way were innovations – spiralling conscious leaps – to be tolerated. With the emancipation – certainly in the west – of the individual’s consciousness it is demonstrable that the freedom to decide is there but there are no props or way marks to show the viewer, or the artist for that matter, which way to leap. So they stand there in small groups waiting to be told what to feel – and usually they wait a long time or become the victims of fashionable persuasions.

There are two things to be said about that I think.

The first is that in our new experiments and thinking about the way the brain operates, how the visual system works its way, how consciousness develops views of the world, we can begin to lay the foundations of a solid science of art. If we stick with the neurobiological foundations of perception and consciousness we might just begin to build a very powerful and possibly universal aesthetic.

The second is that I believe that when an artist attempts to make such an image it is beholden on him or her to give a certain amount of information within the image whereby the viewer may be lead towards the original idea or feeling behind the appearance. Thereby gaining some guidance to the manner in which he or she is expected to respond; It is then up to them to make a moral decision as to whether they think the response requested is congenial to them or not. I say this because it is quite apparent that information about a visual sensation alters the possible emotional reaction to it. For example although we have to admit that the effect of the night sky on the visual system in the human brain must be more or less constant, as the perception rises in to consciousness the possible reactions or expressions become altered by what knowledge or information is available related to it. If you consider the stars bits of tinsel stuck on a dark blue sheet, you will have a very different reaction to the basic visual perception from someone who believes they are of infinite variety and distance in an unknown and mysterious universe.

So the artist can deliver the visual explosions in the brain by the use of neurological sound practise but the full expression can only be brought forward by an interaction with information.

Now I want to come to my final point and sum up. When Zeki says that the visual system in the brain and its parallel expression in works of art is an information gathering system, we must be forced to ask – well – what is the information for? One answer would be to allow the organism to find its way about and get its food and find its mate etc. All the things organisms are supposed to consider of prime importance. Why they need to do this is still a complete mystery. However I would say something else. I would say that the information gathered, those essences paired down, are to allow the organism – specifically a conscious organism that is the human creature – to achieve a sense of personal identity. The sensations gathered, the perceptions dealt with, the images constructed and the very feel – the qualia – of the world – all rebuilt into something that says ‘I am this and I am here’. And now that I have said this I can go and get my food, and drink and mate etc. And I believe that the purpose of our greater embellishments – our art – is just that – to furnish us with a sense of identity. We do this in art by producing myths. Now when I say art – I might actually say along with Blake – the emanations of the imagination. And in this include the stories we tell about ourselves that manifest themselves in religious and political myths. In our works of art the prime function is to present a myth of self and that myth will be based on a reaction to the physical world, the moral choice of the mode of expression of energy and the overriding myth or story that the individual chooses to live by. It has been said recently that we have little to do with the physical world – that we are in fact dreaming ourselves into identity and into consciousness. Well – if this is the case – that we eventually construct ourselves through the dream of life – then we better make sure that the dream is relevant and life enhancing rather than, bogged down in spurious history and damaging more than constructing.

In one great myth, at the end of one of the greatest iconic works of art ever made, Dante reports this great vision – a vision it seems to me still to echo the image of spiralling and reflecting consciousness we have talked about, in which we see not the god constructed universe or beyond – but ourselves. He wrote:

In that abyss
Of radiance, clear and lofty, seem’d, methought
Three orbs of triple hue, clipt in one bound:
And one from another, reflected seemed
As rainbow is from rainbow: and the third seemed fire,
Breathed equally from both.
O speech!
How feeble and how faint art thou, to give
Conception birth. Yet this to what I saw
Is less than little.  O eternal light!
Sole in thyself that dwell’st; and of thyself
Sole understood, past, present or to come;
Thou smiledst, on that circling, which in thee
Seem’d as reflected splendour, while I mused;
For I therein; methought, in its own hue
Beheld our image painted: steadfastly
I therefore poured upon the view.