The Arts and the Evolution of
Consciousness - Perception
PURAN LUCAS PEREZ
This is an exploration of the role the arts play in the evolution of human consciousness. In particular this essay focuses on how our perceptual abilities have been expanded and deepened through the arts. My central premise here is that our engagement with painting, photography as well as music and literature, etc. sets up a potent feedback loop where the arts develop our capacity to see along certain lines and then, in concert with that vision we experience and reshape our world. This world view then becomes the basis for the next iteration of arts, and so on.
A good place to begin is to fully appreciate how important and how prevalent the arts are in our lives. I’m speaking here of the arts in the broadest sense, not just the fine arts but also folk and applied arts, design, architecture, commercial arts and crafts of all kinds. Yet, in spite of the centrality and ubiquity of the arts in our lives we seem to have little appreciation of how important they actually are to human and cultural development.
Consider for a moment that we are literally surrounded by art objects. Almost every single thing around us in our daily lives (except for the birds and the trees, etc.) was designed by someone. Artfully, thoughtfully or not, almost everything around us began as a sketch on paper or in someone’s mind. This is obviously true of all the spaces we inhabit, the clothing we wear, the decor we chose for our homes, and just about everything we use from a spoon to a cell phone. Consider too that in the 21st century the majority of our entertainment and information comes to us via audio visual streams whose content has been designed, created, delivered with more than a little thought to the aesthetics involved.
The reason I say that we have little appreciation of the profound importance of art in our lives is that real curiosity about its daily effect on our consciousness seems to be all but absent from public discourse. If we look at the typical debate about public arts funding, or supporting arts curricula in schools, or the value of community-based arts initiatives, we mainly hear vague arguments about the importance of art as culture. In terms of a broader understanding it seems that, beyond these practical considerations, there is little serious conversation about how the arts really affect our lives.
The arts can and do:
• inform behavior
• educate and illuminate
• define relationships
• enhance vision
• stoke motivation
• connect us to the past, and the future
• bridge and bond us to one another
• project mythologies and make them comprehensible
• support or question societal norms
• offer conceptual alternatives
• stimulate sensorial and brain development
• nourish the inner self
• provoke dreaming
• distribute non-verbal information vital to species development
• generate social awareness
• inspire deep personal awakenings etc. etc.
What follows is an opportunity to reflect more deeply on one of the most significant effects art has had and continues to have on human consciousness — perceptual development. I believe it can be credibly argued that we are better able to distinguish color, sound, texture, etc., because of the perceptual richness the arts—in the broadest sense—have given us. But perhaps more important, are questions about how deeply our perceptions have actually been influenced, in a significant way, by the arts. It is interesting to consider the degree to which the arts have shaped and directed our perceptions of the world, established patterns and filters which bring certain aspects of reality into sharp focus while leaving others in the background. It’s possible that the arts have given us a sort of living frame for reality. A frame which then shapes and recreates that reality itself. Could it be that the greatest art work of all is the world we have created together?
A simple way to begin to explore this is through the use of metaphor:
The arts enable us to thoughtfully, deliberately reflect on just about anything in the range of human experience.
The arts take us beyond the reach of our senses, illuminating things that exist outside of the physically present world.
The arts function as time travel and time freezing devices making it possible to challenge “the arrow of time”.
The arts provide a much broader view of reality so that we can “step back” to see the larger patterns and rhythms at play.
The arts offer ways to gain insight, to penetrate through the veil of the obvious and see into the forces and energies within.
Can you see aspects of yourself in these faces? If you had to give each of them a name them what would that be?
Art As Mirror
The arts serve as mirrors offering us reflections of who we are and clues to the mysteries of human experience. In all times, people have lingered at the mirrors of the arts, fascinated by what they find there. From the very earliest paintings that we know of in the caves of northern Europe to the summer blockbuster at the local multiplex, art has invited us to join with it, the way we join the image in the mirror. With a mixture of attention, wonder and trance we gaze into these mirrors in many different moods and expectations, sometimes transfixed by what we find there. (Have you ever found yourself unable to put a book down, or sitting in the car until the music piece you were listening to was finished?)
The arts fascinate us because they reflect what we find beautiful or intriguing or frightening or important, or worthy of worship in any given time and place. But more than that, they inform us in direct ways, at a level below language (even in written or spoken works) about human experience. In great art this reflection is both particular, arising from a particular individual in a particular cultural context, and universal. So the arts offer us the opportunity to see who we are both here and now and at all times and places. It may be up to scholars, philosophers, theologians, and scientists to explain to us what we are, but it is artists who can reveal to us who we are.
By using the metaphor of art as mirror I’m suggesting that whenever we contemplate a work of art we are looking into ourselves. We might even say that a particular work attracts us to the extent that we can recognize ourselves in it and that to the extent that we cannot ‘find ourselves’ in the piece we are left perplexed or disengaged. When a movie, a play, a book, a symphony brings us to tears, laughter or deeper thought is it not because something of our our true selves is genuinely touched, tickled, revealed. This suggests that the artwork, in a sense, ‘knows’ who we are and is able to express that vividly and authentically enough to strike us in the place where mind, body and heart are joined.
This understanding by itself may seem fairly obvious: art is about human experience in some form — how could it be about anything else? But the implication of this for developing perceptions could be significant. If I develop the practice of standing before a work of art and, along with the other ways I may enjoy it, I add the question, ‘Who am I here?’ I might achieve a new depth of empathic understanding. Now, if I transport that practice into my daily experience and when beholding anything or anyone I pose the same query — ‘Who am I here?’ — how might that transform my experience?
Art as Magic Lantern
The arts can illuminate aspects of life that are hidden, unexplored or in the domain of the mystic. This is because they are more than windows set up before our vision. Artists, writers, performers, designers, etc. shed a particular light on their subject — adding a particular radiance of understanding and appreciation. This radiance — which I’m calling, the ‘magic lantern’ effect — becomes a central property of their work and always reveals more than a purely objective (if there can be such a thing) representation might.
Thus, in great works of art we can become participants in a deep knowing, a rare insight, a unique wisdom which flows through the mind, heart, and hand of the creative individual. In the greatest works we often have the sense that a transcendent level of seeing, a transpersonal understanding has become apparent, as if the artist herself has tapped knowledge beyond her own experience.
When, for example, Michelangelo created his masterpiece, David, he seemed to push beyond his personal love for the human form to touch something almost divine. Is it possible that his enormous skill and unbridled passion for beauty alone can account for his ability to so powerfully imbue the marble with the radiance of his vision? Or was there something else at play? Perhaps this is an example of the magic lantern effect which arises from the creative process itself.
This effect, which is discernable yet imperceptible to the senses in an ordinary way, is often there in sacred art. Stone carvings and bronze casts of the Buddha are a prime example. This state of serene balance of the Buddha in meditation is not just depicted in these works of art. In many of these works the supreme composure, peace and equanimity becomes somehow palpable. What’s more it may be that truly fine Buddha statuary actually induces a meditative state in the observer, as if the artist’s enlightened perception is reaching trough time and space as a direct, living energetic influence.
Even in less exalted works there is often an illumination of the inner workings of things. The arts frequently enable us to consider the essential qualities of material objects. Architecture — from buildings, to bridges, to boats — does this beautifully as it makes visible, and comprehensible the underlying forces gravity, mass, and movement. Some art even casts its magic light on the process of casting light itself. Famously, the Impressionists challenged us to look deeply into the nature of seeing and to radically recalibrate our understanding of what the senses are for.
Wind itself cannot be seen yet it can be made visible by the magic lantern of art . What do these reveal about the nature of wind?
Art as Chronoscope
The arts are the closest thing we have to a genuine time machine. This is evident in the obvious sense that the arts can actually put into our hands, and before our eyes physical objects which came into being in distant times and places. But this may be also true in a deeper sense. Isn’t it possible that as we experience works created in another time we can not just appreciate, but actually inhabit forms of consciousness which predate our own. In this sense the artifact is more than a historical record, it becomes a talisman which facilitates a sympathetic union with, in effect, another world. If we are sufficiently attuned and intuitive, this act can bring us into a state of presence which transcends the actual moment and place in which we stand, a state which links us to a much more fluid and navigable experience of time.
It can be argued that, in fact, we cannot actually replicate previous forms of consciousness. Since we would be necessarily doing this through our existing consciousness, the most we could hope for is a best-guess reconstruction of previous ways of seeing, being, thinking, and feeling in terms of our current abilities and propensities. If this is true then we have to be satisfied with that degree of emulation which the artist’s skill and our deepest perceptions allow. Yet even this emulation, partaking as it does in the capacity that art has to tap the depths of individual and collective experience, can be far more vivid and “real” than a purely intellectual reflection on times past.
Be that as it may, there is no question that our sense of the past has been largely shaped by the literature, arts and crafts of people who were alive in other times and who are, in a sense, still present in these forms. Even our impression of historical accounts are subject to the way we envision them in our imaginations—strongly influenced by imagery, literature and other artifacts from the times described. In this way art contributes a living, quality to our to our internal recreation of the past, and enhances our ability to experience a real connection .
In different way the arts can also convey us to the future. Although a relatively recent development, science fiction has become an important artistic genre. Pioneered by Jules Verne and H.G Wells this art form offers visions of the future which tell us as much about the world we are in as the one we may be hurtling towards. Because it is an art form what is more important than how well science fiction can predict the future is how influential it might be in generating it. Again the arts serve a purpose far greater than entertainment in enabling us to move along the otherwise obdurate continuum of time.
It is also interesting to consider how the arts help to situate us in the present. The art, architecture, music, fashions and technology design of the current day tell us how we see our world, what we think is valuable, what we aspire to, what we fear, how our perceptions have developed. The content and the style of contemporary arts also offer fascinating symbolic reflections of what goes on in the collective mind — above and below the surface. And there is another significant way in which the arts help us grasp the present. Because of their almost magical ability to freeze time, the arts — in particular photography can open the present moment to a leisurely contemplation which otherwise would be impossible.
Eadweard Muybridge was an English photographer important for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion. He famously tried to discover if there is a moment when all of the horses' hooves are off the ground. We might experiment with taking mental snapshots of ourselves -- freezing a moment to inspect our physical emotional and mental attitude.
Art as Metascope
Art expands our vision beyond the limits of time and space, culture and personal experience. Lifting us to other planes of perception, it allows us to entertain a much broader view of the world and of ourselves in it. As much if not more than any other form of inquiry or expression the arts enable us to engage the big questions. Through the arts we can give form and dimension to the vastness beyond the human frame. The arts give names, faces and personalities to gods, to forces of nature, to ancestral heroes, to fantastic realms which, although we could say exist only in the imagination, have become part of human lore. The arts enable us to map the infinitesimal and the enormous, enabling us to comprehend scales of existence far beyond our own. Through the transport of art we can create and stand at a point of observation outside of human range and thus get a panoramic view of civilization, culture, the natural world, the cosmos.
Of course the sciences are superb at this as well and give us a sureness of detail that the arts cannot. But the arts are not concerned with facts as much as with truth and can, by virtue of their gift for ambiguity, offer the highest truths to human appreciation. These are the truths that exist in an order beyond the dichotomies of right and wrong, correct and incorrect. It could be argued that only art, freeing us from the constraints of language can propose answers to the great questions—where did we come from, why are we here, and where are we going?
Mapping is not just visual recording, it is the creation of special modes of perception which make it possible to envision a much larger reality than the one appearing immediately before our eyes. In this way all sorts of maps, diagrams, even architectural drawings enable us to see the overarching and underlying patterns which are not visible from a fixed point of view.
We may not think of these as art although they are often designed to be aesthetically pleasing, but they are directly connected to capacities which almost certainly came to us through the arts. All maps, charts, etc depend on special signs and conventions which must be understood in order to “read” them. (Think of how geographical maps have an arrow with an ‘N’ above it as an orientation symbol.) This is pure iconography, a capacity which almost surely arose in human consciousness through art.
Art offers an ideal way to engage with the ‘big’ questions — where did we come from, why are we here, etc.? Because art aspires to truth, more than fact it provides a way to consider open ended responses to these questions which can grow with us as our consciousness evolves. This presupposes that our goal in entertaining these questions is not a conclusive definition but a deepening of our capacity to envision and to understand — skills born of the imagination and which are principally developed through the arts.
The mythologies of different cultures invariably find unique artistic expression and it is interesting to consider the connection between these forms and their essential meaning. Could it be that the manner in which a particular mythology is pictured — the images and styles used — provide a sort of interpretive codec? The means of depicting gods and other important creatures may illuminate the mythos by helping to situate them in the imagination. Once lodged there they can partake of the the life of consciousness and thus achieved the status of “embodied” spirit.
In the highest sense Mythology informs civilization. But it can also, more pragmatically, underpin the moral and ethical norms without which society could not function. The Western movie, representing the American mythos is a case in point. The Western hero is often a fiercely independent loner who is yet deeply committed to the common good, rescuing the collective from moral oblivion.
When taken together the works of great artists can give us a panoramic view of life. The 9 symphonies of Beethoven are a sweeping vista of the heroic, the noble, and the romantic, and even the superhuman aspects of existence. The Complete Works of Shakespeare offer an encyclopedic understanding of psychology, politics, religion, mysticism, mythology, and more.
Perhaps the most dramatic recent innovation in the metascopic potential of art is drone photography. Used frequently now in motion picture production and prevalent on You Tube, the drone provides a bird’s eye view, enabling us to literally rise above. Apart from its functionality as a way of setting the scene or revealing a new location in films, what effect might this have on consciousness whose attention tends to fixate on the “close up” of details?
Art as Introscope
The arts offers us the opportunity to look inward. They invite us to states of introspection which are largely free of theoretical or doctrinal constraints. In the great works of art we are welcome to explore the depth of human experience without any pre-drawn conclusions, encouraged to see for ourselves what we can, and allowed to ignore that which we can’t. This is very different from methods of introspection based on specific psychoanalytical, theological, or social frameworks. These frameworks tend to be more about indoctrination than introspection and serve to limit what we find within rather than encourage open-ended ongoing self discovery. In this way it could be said that art offers an ideal road to developing self-awareness and knowledge.
Art attracts us inward in many different ways and to many different ends. Stories, whether spoken, written or rendered on the stage or through the magic of movies can help us to a deeper understanding of the human journey. Whether on the archetypal level of the tragic flaws and comical tendencies so lovingly exposed in the works of Shakespeare, or in the complexities of the human heart carefully illuminated, for example, by Lawrence Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet, or in the role of society in shaping individual lives so imaginatively revealed by Charles Dickens, stories can provide the deepest form of education. Their characters, settings and situations draw us into a natural, trancelike receptive state of identification. We recognize these people, feel empathy or revulsion, see more clearly the pitfalls and promises of life, all the while catching glimpses of ourselves and relating the story to our own experiences. Few things can bring our own personality and circumstances into such high relief as a good tale.
The visual arts provide a similar opportunity for the investigation of cognition and perception. This can be seen most vividly in the 19th century as the classical rules of painting gave way to Impressionism which in turn spawned many streams of exploration into the nature of seeing, and into how the personal psyche can be pictured beyond the scope of the strict principles of representation. Letting go of such devices as vanishing point perspective, the post-impressionist and Cubists broke down the conventions of seeing which were anchored in the primacy of a personal point of view. This gave rise to abstract artists who then explored what was to be found underneath that personal view.
Poetry and music can usher us into the center of being. Moving beyond the limits of formal language these art forms can draw us into emotional and spiritual experience that seem to be located closer to the core of who we really are. When we find ourselves, through a few lines of poetry, or a brief melodic passage, spontaneously moved to tears or astonished by a sudden insight we may be drawing closer to the central habitat of the soul. We may be in the presence of something which puts us squarely, if fleetingly, at the very heart of who we are.
Art as Meditation
Copyright 2020 Puran Lucas Perez