They say that "every picture tells a story," and this generalization holds for most of art if we exclude "mere" geometric ornamentation. But I want precisely to avoid analyzing the "story." That aspect of the work of art which can most easily be reduced to words — the mythology connected with the subject matter —is not what I want to discuss. I shall not even mention the unconscious mythology of phallic symbol-ism, except at the end.
I am concerned with what important psychic information is in the art object quite apart from what it may "represent." "Le style est l'homme meme" ("The style is the man him-self") (Buff on). What is implicit in style, materials, composition, rhythm, skill, and so on?
Clearly this subject matter will include geometrical ornamentation along with the composition and stylistic aspects of more representational works.
The lions in Trafalgar Square could have been eagles or bulldogs and still have carried the same (or similar) messages about empire and about the cultural premises of nineteenth-century England. And yet, how different might their message have been had they been made of wood!
But representationalism as such is relevant. The extremely realistic horses and stags of Altamira are surely not about the same cultural premises as the highly conventionalized black outlines of a later period. The code whereby perceived objects or persons (or supernaturals) are transformed into wood or paint is a source of information about the artist and his culture.
It is the very rules of transformation that are of interest to me—not the message, but the code.
My goal is not instrumental. I do not want to use the transformation rules when discovered to undo the transformation or to "decode" the message. To translate the art object into mythology and then examine the mythology would be only a neat way of dodging or negating the problem of "what is art?"
I ask, then, not about the meaning of the encoded message but rather about the meaning of the code chosen. But still that most slippery word "meaning" must be defined.
It will be convenient to define meaning in the most general possible way in the first instance.
"Meaning" may be regarded as an approximate synonym of pattern, redundancy, information, and "restraint," within a paradigm of the following sort:
Any aggregate of events or objects (e.g., a sequence of phonemes, a painting, or a frog, or a culture) shall be said to contain "redundancy" or "pattern" if the aggregate can be divided in any way by a "slash mark," such that an observer perceiving only what is on one side of the slash mark can guess, with better than random success, what is on the other side of the slash mark. We may say that what is on one side of the slash contains information or has meaning about what is on the other side. Or, in engineer's language, the aggregate contains "redundancy." Or, again, from the point of view of a cybernetic observer, the information available on one side of the slash will restrain (i.e., reduce the probability of) wrong guessing. Examples:
The letter T in a given location in a piece of written English prose proposes that the next letter is likely to be an H or an R or a vowel. It is possible to make a better than random guess across a slash which immediately follows the T. English spelling contains redundancy.
From a part of an English sentence, delimited by a slash, it is possible to guess at the syntactic structure of the remainder of the sentence.
From a tree visible above ground, it is possible to guess at the existence of roots below ground. The top provides information about the bottom.
From an arc of a drawn circle, it is possible to guess at the position of other parts of the circumference. (From the diameter of an ideal circle, it is possible to assert the length of the circumference. But this is a matter of truth within a tautological system.)
From how the boss acted yesterday, it may be possible to guess how he will act today.
From what I say, it may be possible to make predictions about how you will answer. My words contain meaning or information about your reply.
Telegraphist A has a written message on his pad and sends this message over wire to B, so that B now gets the same sequence of letters on his message pad. This transaction (or "language game" in Wittgenstein's phrase) has created a redundant universe for an observer O. If 0 knows what was on A's pad, he can make a better than random guess at what is on B's pad.
The essence and raison d'etre of communication is the creation of redundancy, meaning, pattern, predictability, information, and/or the reduction of the random by "restraint."
It is, I believe, of prime importance to have a conceptual system which will force us to see the "message" (e.g., the art object) as both itself internally patterned and itself a part of a larger patterned universe — the culture or some part of it.
The characteristics of objects of art are believed to be about, or to be partly derived from, or determined by, other characteristics of cultural and psychological systems. Our problem might therefore he oversimply represented by the diagram:
[Characteristic, of art object/Characteristics of rest of culture]
where square brackets enclose the universe of relevance, and where the oblique stroke represents a slash across which some guessing is possible, in one direction or in both. The problem, then, is to spell out what sorts of relationships, correspondences, etc., cross or transcend this oblique stroke.
Consider the case in which I say to you, "It's raining," and you guess that if you look out the window you will see raindrops. A similar diagram will serve:
[Characteristics of "It's raining"/Perception of raindrops]
Notice, however, that this case is by no means simple. Only if you know the language and have some trust in my veracity will you be able to make a guess about the rain-drops. In fact, few people in this situation restrain them-selves from seemingly duplicating their information by looking out of the window. We like to prove that our guesses are right, and that our friends are honest. Still more important, we like to test or verify the correctness of our view of our relationship to others.
This last point is nontrivial. It illustrates the necessarily hierarchic structure of all communicational systems: the fact of conformity or nonconformity (or indeed any other relationship) between parts of a patterned whole may itself be informative as part of some still larger whole. The matter may he diagrammed thus:
[("It's raining"/raindrop.)/Yom—me relationship)
where redundancy across the slash mark within the smaller universe enclosed in round brackets proposes (is a message about) a redundancy in the larger universe enclosed in square brackets.
But the message "It's raining" is itself conventionally coded and internally patterned, so that several slash marks could be drawn across the message indicating patterning within the message itself.
And the same is true of the rain. It, too, is patterned and structured. From the direction of one drop, I could predict the direction of others. And so on.
But the slash marks across the verbal message "It's raining" will not correspond in any simple way to the slash marks across the raindrops.
If, instead of a verbal message, I had given you a picture of the rain, some of the slashes on the picture would have corresponded with slashes on the perceived rain.
This difference provides a neat formal criterion to separate the "arbitrary" and digital coding characteristic of the verbal part of language from the iconic coding of depiction.
But verbal description is often iconic in its larger structure. A scientist describing an earthworm might start at the head end and work down its length—thus producing a description iconic in its sequence and elongation. Here again we observe a hierarchic structuring, digital or verbal at one level and iconic at another.
"Levels" have been mentioned: (a) It was noted that the combination of the message "It's raining" with the perception of raindrops can itself constitute a message about a universe of personal relations; and (b) that when we change our focus of attention from smaller to larger units of message material, we may discover that a larger unit contains iconic coding though the smaller parts of which it was made are verbal: the verbal description of an earthworm may, as a whole, be elongated.
The matter of levels now crops up in another form which is crucial for any epistemology of art:
The word "know" is not merely ambiguous in covering both connaitre (to know through the senses, to recognize or perceive) and savoir (to know in the mind), but varies —actively shifts— in meaning for basic systemic reasons. That which we know through the senses can become knowledge in the mind.
"I know the way to Cambridge" might mean that I have studied the map and can give you directions. It might mean that I can recall details all along the route. It might mean that when driving that route I recognize many details even though I could recall only a few. It might mean that when driving to Cambridge I can trust to "habit" to make me turn at the right points, without having to think where I am going. And so on.
In all cases, we deal with a redundancy or patterning of a quite complex sort:
and the difficulty is to determine the nature of the patterning within the round brackets, or, to put the matter another way: what parts of the mind are redundant with the particular message about "knowing."
Last, there is a special form of "knowing" which is usually regarded as adaptation rather than information. A shark is beautifully shaped for locomotion in water, but the genome of the shark surely does not contain direct information about hydrodynamics. Rather, the genome must be supposed to contain information or instructions which are the complement of hydrodynamics. Not hydrodynamics, but what hydrodynamics requires, has been built up in the shark's genome. Similarly, a migratory bird perhaps does not know the way to its destination in any of the senses outlined above, but the bird may contain the complementary instructions necessary td cause it to fly right.
"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point" ("The heart has its reasons which the reason does not at all perceive"). It is this—the complex layering of consciousness and unconsciousness—that creates difficulty when we try to discuss art or ritual or mythology. The matter of levels of the mind has been discussed from many points of view, at least four of which must be mentioned and woven into any scientific approach to art:
(1) Samuel Butler's insistence that the better an organism "knows" something, the less conscious it becomes of its knowledge, i.e., there is a process whereby knowledge (or "habit" —whether of action, perception, or thought) sinks to deeper and deeper levels of the mind. This phenomenon, which is central to Zen discipline (cf. Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery), is also relevant to all art and all skill.
(2) Adalbert Ames' demonstrations that the conscious, three-dimensional visual images, which we make of that which we see, are made by processes involving mathematical premises of perspective, etc., of the use of which we are totally unconscious. Over these processes, we have no voluntary control. A drawing of a chair with the perspective of van Gogh affronts the conscious expectations and, dimly, reminds the consciousness of what had been (unconsciously) taken for granted.
(3) The Freudian (especially Fenichel's) theory of dreams as metaphors coded according to primary process. I shall consider style—neatness, boldness of contrast, etc.— as metaphoric and therefore as linked to those levels of the mind where primary process holds sway.
(4) The Freudian view of the unconscious as the cellar or cupboard to which fearful and painful memories are con-signed by a process of repression.
Classical Freudian theory assumed that dreams were a secondary product, created by "dream work." Material unacceptable to conscious thought was supposedly translated into the metaphoric idiom of primary process to avoid waking the dreamer. And this may be true of those items of information which are held in the unconscious by the process of repression. As we have seen, however, many other sorts of information are inaccessible to conscious inspection, including most of the premises of mammalian interaction. It would seem to me sensible to think of these items as existing primarily in the idiom of primary process, only with difficulty to be translated into "rational" terms. In other words, I believe that much of early Freudian theory was upside down. At that time many thinkers regarded conscious reason as normal and self-explanatory while the unconscious was regarded as mysterious, needing proof, and needing explanation. Repression was the explanation, and the unconscious was filled with thoughts which could have been conscious but which repression and dream work had distorted. Today we think of consciousness as the mysterious, and of the computational methods of the unconscious, e.g., primary process, as continually active, necessary, and all-embracing.
These considerations are especially relevant in any at-tempt to derive a theory of art or poetry. Poetry is not a sort of distorted and decorated prose, but rather prose is poetry which has been stripped down and pinned to a Procrustean bed of logic. The computer men who would program the translation of languages sometimes forget this fact about the primary nature of language. To try to construct a machine to translate the art of one culture into the art of another would be equally silly.
Allegory, at best a distasteful sort of art, is an inversion of the normal creative process. Typically an abstract relation, e.g., between truth and justice, is first conceived in rational terms. The relationship is then metaphorized and dolled up to look like a product of primary process. The abstractions are personified and made to participate in a pseudomyth, and so on. Much advertising art is allegorical in this sense, that the creative process is inverted.
In the cliche system of Anglo-Saxons, it is commonly assumed that it would be somehow better if what is unconscious were made conscious. Freud, even, is said to have said, "Where id was, there ego shall be," as though such an increase in conscious knowledge and control would be both possible and, of course, an improvement. This view is the product of an almost totally distorted epistemology and a totally distorted view of what sort of thing a man, or any other organism, is.
Of the four sorts of unconsciousness listed above, it is very clear that the first three are necessary. Consciousness, for obvious mechanical reasons,47 must always be limited to a rather small fraction of mental process. If useful at all, it must therefore be husbanded. The unconsciousness associated with habit is an economy both of thought and of consciousness; and the same is true of the inaccessability of the processes of perception. The conscious organism does not require (for pragmatic purposes) to know how it perceives —only to know what it perceives. (To suggest that we might operate without a foundation in primary process would be to suggest that the human brain ought to be differently structured.) Of the four types, only the Freudian cupboard for skeletons is perhaps undesirable and could be obviated. But there may still be advantages in keeping the skeleton off the dining room table.
In truth, our life is such that its unconscious components are continuously present in all their multiple forms. It follows that in our relationships we
47 Consider the impossibility of constructing a television set which would report upon its screen all the workings of its component parts, including especially those parts concerned in this reporting.
continuously exchange messages about these unconscious materials, and it becomes important also to exchange metamessages by which we tell each other what order and species of unconsciousness (or consciousness) attaches to our messages.
In a merely pragmatic way, this is important because the orders of truth are different for different sorts of messages. Insofar as a message is conscious and voluntary, it could be deceitful. I can tell you that the cat is on the mat when in fact she is not there. I can tell you "I love you" when in fact I do not. But discourse about relationship is commonly accompanied by a mass of semivoluntary kinesic and autonomic signals which provide a more trustworthy comment on the verbal message.
Similarly with skill, the fact of skill indicates the presence of large unconscious components in the performance.
It thus becomes relevant to look at any work of art with the question: What components of this message material had what orders of unconsciousness (or consciousness) for the artist? And this question, I believe, the sensitive critic usually asks, though perhaps not consciously.
Art becomes, in this sense, an exercise in communicating about the species of unconsciousness. Or, if you prefer it, a sort of play behavior whose function is, amongst other things, to practice and make more perfect communication of this kind.
I am indebted to Dr. Anthony Forge for a quotation from Isadora Duncan: "If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it."
Her statement is ambiguous. In terms of the rather vulgar premises of our culture, we would translate the statement to mean: "There would then be no point in dancing it, be-cause I could tell it to you, quicker and with less ambiguity, in words." This interpretation goes along with the silly idea that it would be a good thing to be conscious of everything of which we are unconscious.
But there is another possible meaning of Isadora Duncan's remark: If the message were the sort of message that could be communicated in words, there would be no point in dancing it, but it is not that sort of message. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of message which would be falsified if communicated in words, because the use of words (other than poetry) would imply that this is a fully conscious and voluntary message, and this would be simply untrue.
I believe that what Isadora Duncan or any artist is trying to communicate is more like: "This is a particular sort of partly unconscious message. Let us engage in this particular sort of partly unconscious communication." Or perhaps: "This is a message about the interface between conscious and unconscious.
The message of skill of any sort must always be of this kind. The sensations and qualities of skill can never be put in words, and yet the fact of skill is conscious.
The artist's dilemma is of a peculiar sort. He must practice in order to perform the craft components of his job. But to practice has always a double effect. It makes him, on the one hand, more able to do whatever it is he is attempting; and, on the other hand, by the phenomenon of habit formation, it makes him less aware of how he does it.
If his attempt is to communicate about the unconscious components of his performance, then it follows that he is on a sort of moving stairway (or escalator) about whose position he is trying to communicate but whose movement is itself a function of his efforts to communicate.
Clearly, his task is impossible, but, as has been remarked, some people do it very prettily.
Was this article helpful?