Essays and Images: The ends of art
The denial of ecstasy
I am about to enter a Temple of Transaction. I am outside the west front of Winchester Cathedral. It is unfortunate that I have to go in through a door to the side of the central entrance. It is unfortunate because, although not an impressive entrance, nor indeed an impressive west front, the porch here is distinctly like a small grove of trees rendered in stone, and should act as a preliminary for what will come next. This grove-like rendering of both the porch and the interior of the cathedral, while deliberate in its own design terms, also seems to contain a lingering cultural memory stretching back to sacred woodland groves used as special places long before stone or even wood building.
I pass through the side entrance and on into the main body of the building and find myself again forced to one side of the main action.
I am directed to the pay desk, situated at the head of the north aisle. After paying an entrance fee I follow through barriers and cordoned runways which lead me into the centre of the west end of the building. This allows the full musical chords of the shapes and spaces of the nave to strike me with overwhelming force. The grove outside has been transformed into a gigantic, fantastical forest, ordered into majestic lines which disappear both into the distance and into the heights. It has proportions and energy which produce a dizzying sense of other-worldliness, something beyond, but still attached to, our experience of the material world.
But the real moment of transformative drama has already been lost with the denial of use of the central front door. The great piece of theatre contained in this design, of entering through a human scale grove and suddenly being transported into this place of supernormal dimensions and emotions, proportions and mystery, has been organised out of existence.
The central portals of the west fronts of most cathedrals were in the main used for ceremonial processions, the side doors being for the generality as a form of crowd control. The great experience then was reserved for the coped and mitred. Whoever it was for originally, it has now been denied to everyone. It has been taken away by those who have not seen it was there, or thought it of no worth. They have not realised that the building is in itself both an instrument and a theatre which can transport and transform the visitor, not only by its form, but by the physical process and movement that its original design demands. The progression from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
At particular times during the year, the cathedral authority hangs large banners from the side columns of the nave which mask all the relevant lines. It may be that it was always thus, but these displays destroy the visceral experience and meaning of the cathedral. With the fracturing of the processional way into the building and the masking of the structure itself, nothing is left to the visitor of the living power of the work.
Standing now in the middle of the nave, I am aware of this lost opportunity and the utterly diminished experience. A stupendous sea and cliff view has had a car park and caravan site built in the foreground and an off shore wind farm established in the middle distance. It is as if the possibilities of imagination and emotion have been bound down and limited by a smaller, meaner idea. It has destroyed the great one which is so obviously available and so easily denied.
The gothic cathedrals were produced before there were 'artists', before 'art'. Those that made them are mostly gone from history. We do know the name of Bishop William Wykeham's master mason, William Wynford, who remodelled Winchester Cathedral in the late 14th Century. However, the discussions between them and their commissioning masters about the nature of design, the purposes of the building, the intentions of the whole, are mostly unknown. Abbott Suger of St. Denis, France, who many would credit as being the moving spirit at the birth of the gothic style, wrote in broad terms about his philosophy of religion, art and architecture, those then being indivisible notions. We can also hear what these vast spaces sounded like when listening to the music of the Ars Antiqua and Ars Nova, specifically composed for Nôtre Dame in Paris. But even so, for the most part we have nothing much to go on and we must make our own conclusions from our personal reactions to the buildings.
The description I have offered above is therefore a speculation of my own. However, I believe that this description of a total interaction with a work of art (in this case Winchester Cathedral), or rather with its ideal presentation, can act as a template for our approach to all works of art on all levels and give us a benchmark by which to evaluate the experiences offered. And the building’s present forced denial of engagement with its visitors seems to be reflected in our own age over and over again in our approach to and rejection from that which could be the potent in art.
You will note that I am treating the cathedral as a material work of art without religious narrative. My thoughts on what I call the ‘material’ and the ‘narrative’ in art are outlined below.
I believe that works of art must, at some level, offer the possibility of the transformation of our psychological states from the aloof, analytic, everyday to the emotional, engaged and ecstatic. I believe that the confusion, dissatisfaction, mystification and frustration many feel confronted with much contemporary, certainly visual, art is the result of deviations from this fundamental, archetypal pattern.
The moody dissatisfaction with the experiences on offer from much contemporary art which is I feel, becoming a shared and voiced objection, beginning to reverberate from all sides and demanding some response, or at least some pointers to ways out of this current barren landscape. But first we must look at the symptoms of disengagement.
Some say that the experience of art on offer in recent years has been vibrant and exciting. Certainly there are plenty of professional writers on art, and those with a vested interest in promoting contemporary art on a big scale, who say this. But then, to use a cliché, “they would, wouldn’t they?” Those who have no such voice or influence can only react to the works presented to them and their reactions are dictated by the current high priests of art who presume to tell them what is good and what is not. When art is in the hands of a cultural monopoly the lack of choice leads to a tyranny of taste as the experience of the many is limited to the preferences of the few. And those who rely, not on the creation of art, but its manipulation for their own ends and daily bread, must follow the trends set by the current cultural oligarchs.
One of the symptoms of this barren hinterland is the domination of education over aesthetic experience in large public cultural events. The history, philosophy and cultural significance as read by curators and educationalists overrides the sensual experience of the art. Exhibitions are mounted as if they were reference books, and commentaries are printed large and broadcast loud in shows of works that hold denied the possibility of great emotional and engaging experiences. The pressing need to communicate information overrides any physical communication. An exhibition contrasting the work of Matisse and Picasso does not show the images in the best possible setting, and they are laid out as samples on slab or Petrie dish to discuss and examine, not to feel and respond to. The curators of such shows, having to justify their existence to their masters, are forced into mixing education with experience, thereby destroying the visceral life of the work in question. I am all for education. I am all for gaining knowledge about works of art. But it is not the same thing as experiencing them and should not be conflated with it.
In this sort of atmosphere it is more convenient to present works which of themselves require no aesthetic judgement at all, and rely entirely on an attached narrative or concept to weave whatever magic they intend, if any. To work with a conception is easier than facing the real thing, the flesh and the blood of art.
The lessons of the mirror neuron have also been ditched. We know that when viewing an action made by another, giving it attention, the very same neurons which are firing in the observed are working in the observer, creating a kind of shared consciousness. The gesture of a dancer almost makes the body of the viewer move in the same arcs and parabolas. In painting, the physical sweep and texture of a brush stroke allows us to feel the movement of the painter’s arm, and thereby the feeling in his or her brain when making the mark. It is as direct a communication as one might hope for. But withdraw the sense of movement and texture and the object distances itself. This is apparent in film and photography, where the surface of the image has an overall continuous texture. I believe that the universality of this type of image in the last century has been a contributing factor in our becoming aloof from the living, physical world, and makes us think about the image rather than experience the feelings it could potentially communicate.
In recent years, it has also been obvious that an infantilisation of front row art works has been taking place. From the playing with dead animals, the childish use of foul language and faeces and the flaunting of gross and supposedly shocking images have become a commonplace. Adult viewers have been expected to experience some art as if observing children playing with their own shit as if it had anything to say to them. In many instances, they believe it has. Some great art may be child-like but it is never childish.
It is as if in recent years our ability to generate, or even imagine, a direct, emotional, intense, profound, encompassing communication has been somehow atrophied and we are lead ultimately to a gallery with a blank piece of paper stuck to a wall, the last feeble visual whimper of a species with nothing to communicate but information.
The struggle to keep one’s balance
How is it then that this has come about – this misalignment between the current thin gruel of art on offer and our yearning for a deeper, emotional, engaged and meaningful experience? One recently offered explanation has been put forward by Iain McGilchrist in his magisterial book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.
This is an edited version of the back cover blurb of the book which, in spite of its outrageously simplified nature, does give an accurate summary of the idea. ‘Why is the brain divided? McGilchrist argues that the left and right hemispheres have differing insights, values and priorities. Each has a distinct 'take' on the world - most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it. This affects our understanding not just of language and reason, music and time, but of all living things: our bodies, ourselves and the world in which we live. . . . . but, McGilchrist argues, the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we are in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human . . . '
McGilchrist argues that the hemispheres should and sometimes do, work in harmony, and that certain periods of history in the western world demonstrate this. In other periods this harmony has become distinctly imbalanced. He believes that our own experience of left hemisphere dominance in the West is presenting us with a life lived in detail and with knowledge of parts prized over grander, wiser views of the whole.
This profoundly convincing idea of the fluctuations of hemispheric dominance is essential to our understanding of our situation. But further, I believe that at a fundamental level in the human psyche there is an innate and deeper imbalance which emerged with the evolution of consciousness.
Back to the Garden
The arrival of reflective consciousness in human development seems to have set in motion a tension between an emotional, engaged reaction to the world and a reasoned, analytical, working out of it. The evolutionary benefits to the species of analytic consciousness are obvious – the ability to communicate across distances and time, to predict events, to self examine and examine the result of that self-examination. But these come at a price. The price is that we lose a large slice of ‘meaning’ invested in the material world through our engaged and emotional colouring of experience, a colouring which gives the feeling that things and events have significance beyond utility.
I believe that highly developed forms of art (and religion) are manufactured experiences that enable human creatures to overcome the evolved prison of waking, reflective consciousness and allows them back into the world of emotion, memory and dream – where life is experienced in full blown emotion and vibrancy – a supernormal image of life as it is experienced and most relevant.
Art has therefore to work on two levels - the first step must quiet or distract waking consciousness, stop the chatter; the second, to open up paths in the brain to emotional, numinous colouring of perceptions; to allow access to and stimulate the limbic system, a seat in the brain of emotions, motivation and memory, and let it do its work unhindered, as far as possible, by conscious control.
This idea throws up images of our preconscious selves as back in some paradise, some Dionysian garden of Eden; with the tasting of the fruit of the tree of knowledge representing the arrival of consciousness. Our longing to return to the garden is, in this understanding, the stuff of art.
The emotional colouring of experience is also the way in which we identify ourselves and which allows us the ability to discriminate between the objects of the world, to give them values. There are well-documented cases of people who have lost the ‘limbic (i.e. emotional) connection’ and who, though having all faculties of reason in place, are at a total loss as to how to make decisions or judgements. It seems to me that without our first constructing an identity (or several identities) based on an emotional reaction to our surroundings, we cannot move about in the world – we have no relation to our surroundings and become lost. I believe that this need for identity comes before the need for food or sex. It follows that an emotional and empathetic relationship with our surroundings is essential, not only for the colouring of an otherwise grey existence, otherwise analysed to death, but also for our ultimate survival.
The weight of this problem in previous ages was taken by the dissemination of pre-cast identities and universal views provided by various religious dogmas which created a safety net and comforting surety. Now this is not the case and, if the continuing decline of religious fantasy continues, we shall, each of us, be faced with the project of self-construction. This is an extraordinarily difficult task, but it seems to me that this is where life is lived at its most true and its most invigorating.
The mythologist and anthropologist Joseph Campbell wrote about this over half a century ago in his trilogy of books ‘The Masks of God’. In the final volume he writes: ‘The known myths cannot endure. The known God cannot endure. Whereas formerly, for generations, life so held to established norms that the lifetime of a deity could be reckoned in millenniums, today all norms are in flux, so that the individual is thrown willy-nilly, back on himself, into the inward sphere of his own becoming, his forest adventurous without way or path . . . the guiding myths can no longer be of any ethnic norms. No sooner learned, these are outdated, out of place, washed away. There are today no horizons, no mythogenetic zones. Or rather, the mythogenetic zone is the individual human heart. . . . ‘
Responses to art - narrative and material. A digression.
A great deal of the confusion that enters into conversations about art can be elucidated if it is seen primarily as attempted communication. I am indulging in 'art' writing these words, but I am also doing so in my everyday conversations, using gesture and musical inflection as well as language to get over whatever it is I want to impart. This definition shows that we are all partaking in the creation and reception of ‘art’ all the time. We use 'art' at all moments in our everyday lives - that is, we try to communicate feelings, ideas and information by using all the methods (media) available to us for such transactions.
Of course, these attempts at communication have different qualities and must therefore rest on a particular spectrum of values. At one end of this spectrum are the attempts at communication we participate in our everyday lives. These might be disposable, ephemeral, forgettable conversations, note passing or fleeting facial expressions. At the other end, there are communications which we feel are special and need to be preserved, studied and experienced in special places. And these are not communications of ideas necessarily. They are more likely to be the communication of an ecstatic and emotional reaction to the world. It is the art objects at this end of the spectrum, which have the possibility to affect a psychological transformation from the everyday to the extraordinary, which concern me here
It is possible to clarify the nature of 'art' objects (in all media, presented to or made by us), by realising that they can all be placed on a line ranging from what I call the 'narrative' end to the 'material' end. The narrative refers to objects which communicate via the narrative attached to them. The object may have no aesthetic qualities at all (i.e. it does not stimulate the nervous system directly via its form – perhaps another useful definition) but may have great significance to the beholder - for example, a supposed saint's bone to those of a religious persuasion which may bring tears of wonder to their eyes. John Scotus Erigina in the ninth century said ‘We understand a piece of wood or stone only when we see God in it’. It is the narrative, not the object, that operates on the nervous system. At the other end of this spectrum are works which operate via their aesthetic qualities only, acting directly on the nervous system. I call this the ‘material’ end of our line of effectiveness. In between there are objects which have both aesthetic qualities as well as attached narratives - a pietà by Michelangelo, for example, viewed by a Christian audience which understands the story behind it.
It could be argued that giving attention to one’s perception of the material form of an object might offer a more profound experience of the world than the imposition of a narrative onto an aesthetically negative artefact. One thing is certain. The experience of objects solely via its narrative attachment is limited to the society in which the narrative holds currency. It follows then that objects, which do not have aesthetic qualities have limited effect. A place, object or image without aesthetic qualities as defined above, which even so may have enormous significance to a particular social group, would have none whatsoever if presented to a society ignorant of the narrative attachment. On the other hand, an object that conformed to any of the defined ways of stimulating a viewer’s brain by its own material nature (its aesthetic qualities) will have more universal value.
It may also be that the war between a conscious approach to understanding the material world -measuring, reasoning, conceptualising - is at one end of a parallel spectrum, of which the emotional, intuitive grasp is at the other.
Facing the truth
Great art has in most eras attempted to communicate, by both narrative and material means, a complete world view, given the available information and overview of the human predicament as described by the current religious, cultural or scientific descriptions, combined with the personal experience of the artist. In our culture we have veered away from this and looked at the particular, becoming more and more obsessed by detail rather than an all-encompassing point of view. Art has looked at societal minutiae such as advertising, popular culture and the local media and has in particular looked at art itself, setting up a loop system of art referring to art referring to art. Beginning with Marcel Duchamp’s toilet in a gallery, this kind of self-referencing has gone on for nearly a hundred years. Duchamp seems to have asked the question ‘Does the placing of an arbitrary object in an art gallery make it a work of art?’ Unfortunately no-one seems to have given the answer: ‘No – it doesn’t’. The joke has therefore infiltrated the art world across the world for decades, becoming an experience of utter tedium and endless cliché. The ironic stance has also been the fashion, an expression of the fear of being found out in some kind of committing passion.
This turning away from the larger view is certainly described by left hemispheric dominance but I also think that there is a further cause which may well have tipped the balance in this. The worldview presented by scientific discoveries over the past few centuries has gradually undermined the grander images of human significance which were current when religions held sway. From shifting us from the centre of the universe, from under the direct gaze of whatever god or gods had been current, from describing our descent from and connection to other animals, to the realisation that we are an infinitesimal part of a universe of so vast a scale as to be unimaginable, we have been more and more marginalised both by the realisation of our universal insignificance and our total ignorance as to the very nature of our existence.
Further to this, in recent years research into our brains and their workings has made us aware of the perceptual errors we continually make, and confirms the revolutionary notion that we are not looking out of clear windows in our heads at the material world. We have now the certain knowledge that what we are experiencing, second by second, is a brain made reconstruction of the sensed material world which may or may not fit what is actually ‘out there’. Recent research has presented us with concepts of free will in terms not conducive to our self-esteem and that would seem to undermine our traditional ideas of volition and identity. A combination of knowledge of our cosmically insignificant and ephemeral life and our doubts about even our own perceptions leave us bewildered and lost. And this in a more profound way than at any time in our history. It is a terrifying vision; one of a brief existence lived in complete ignorance of its nature and without meaning. A tale told by an idiot, not even full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Another underlying theme is knowledge of our recent history. It is hard indeed to face what homo sapiens has done to itself and to its home planet over the last century with anything but complete despair. The camps, not only in Nazi Germany, but all over the world, where unredeemable horrors almost beyond imagining have taken place and the torture and pointless pain committed to lives at random all day and every day illustrate the way of the world in unbearably brutal terms. It leaves those who have faith in benevolent gods stuttering into silence. And the very existence and use of weapons which can destroy us all at the slip of a finger has us living under a shadow of our own making which can of itself force us to turn away from reality and hide in fantasy.
The resort to fantasy is always available to us and it is without doubt the way that most people choose to deal with the world and live in it, selecting their means of escape by either deep adherence to dogmas of religion or politics, or by use of drugs or chosen life styles which may provide a means of diversion from an unacceptable truth. This would also apply to the art they produce or experience.
But for the rest, what has been learned cannot be unlearned and any turning away is unacceptable. The appalling truth must be faced whatever the consequences. It is here, in this remote and chilling place, that engaged and meaningful creation can take place. The works born in this cold crucible have to deal with the broader view, the sweep and tragic-comic drama of our difficulties and the struggle with our new and profoundly disturbing self-knowledge. We are in the dark forest of legend, without path or way, as Campbell describes, but now it is a description of reality, not a symbol or romance, and the adventure not a metaphor but an actual struggle for meaning and structure which has no guarantee of success. A way perhaps not through and out of the jungle, but of necessary acceptance and compassion for ourselves and our fellow companions lost in this dark wood. This is the true subject of art now and it is through tackling these immense and shadowy nightmares of our very existence that art can regain its position as a necessary, vital and illuminating communication between us. We must all hold hands in the dark – and sing the songs of our lives.
To this effect we must straighten the pathways into the temples and galleries, the concert halls and theatres. We must clean out the accrued junk which disrupts our clear vision of the possibilities of art, the means of grappling with that which matters to us at the very heart of our existence. Winchester Cathedral may then perhaps become a true temple of transaction, avoiding fantasy, where we may experience and examine the nature of our existence in emotional and engaged depth. The insistence by artists in recent years on creating installations – their sacred spaces, their temples of transaction – is an indication that a realisation of this ideal may become a reality.
It may be that reason itself, not the sleep of it, has produced monsters, but we must engage with them face on or condemn ourselves to living in fantasy without contact with the world and our precarious perceptions of it.