Qualitative Limits of Consciousness

It is, of course, true for the TV set that a satisfactory picture on the screen is an indication that many parts of the machine are working as they should; and similar considerations apply to the "screen" of consciousness. But what is provided is only a very indirect report of the working of all those parts. If the TV suffers from a blown tube, or the man from a stroke, effects of this pathology may be evident enough on the screen or to consciousness, but diagnosis must still be done by an expert.

This matter has bearings upon the nature of art. The TV which gives a distorted or otherwise imperfect picture is, in a sense, communicating about its unconscious pathologies—exhibiting its symptoms; and one may ask whether some artists are not doing something similar. But this still won't do.

It is sometimes said that the distortions of art (say, van Gogh's "Chair") are directly representative of what the artist "sees." If such statements refer to "seeing" in the simplest physical sense (e.g., remediable with spectacles), I presume that they are nonsense. If van Gogh could only see the chair in that wild way, his eyes would not serve properly to guide him in the very accurate placing of paint on canvas. And, conversely, a photographically accurate representation of the chair on the canvas would also be seen by van Gogh in the wild way. Re would see no need to distort the painting.

But suppose we say that the artist is painting today what he saw yesterday—or that he is painting what he somehow knows that he might see. "I see as well as you do—but do you realize that this other way of seeing a chair exists as a human potentiality? And that that potentiality is always in you and in me?" Is he exhibiting symptoms which he might have, because the whole spectrum of psychopathology is possible for us all?

Intoxication by alcohol or drugs may help us to see a distorted world, and these distortions may be fascinating in that we recognize the distortions as ours. In vino pars veritatis. We can be humbled or aggrandized by realizing that this, too, is a part of the human self, a part of Truth. But intoxication does not increase skill—at best it may release skill previously acquired.

Without skill is no art.

Consider the case of the man who goes to the blackboard —or to the side of his cave—and draws, freehand, a perfect reindeer in its posture of threat. He cannot tell you about the drawing of the reindeer ("If he could, there would be no point in drawing it"). "Do you know that his perfect way of seeing — and drawing — a reindeer exists as a human potentiality?" The consummate skill of the draftsman validates the artist's message about his relationship to the animal—his empathy.

(They say the Altamira things were made for sympathetic hunting magic. But magic only needs the crudest sort of representations. The scrawled arrows which deface the beautiful reindeer may have been magical—perhaps a vulgar attempt to murder the artist, like moustaches scrawled on the Mona Lisa.)

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