Paper presented at 2017 FACE/TRAC Convention in Coral Gables, Florida, November 11, 2017
and at the FATE Biennial Conference in Kansas City, Missouri April 6, 2017 for a panel titled
Spirituality in the Classroom chaired by William Carpenter, Indiana Wesleyan University
Art is an implicit, intuitive, metaphorical, spirit-enhancing sensory experience that nurtures the soul and drives life’s evolutionary arrow forward. Tragically, art is rapidly disappearing from our contemporary cultural landscape. Its status as a keystone of cultural coherence is being diminished by hyper-rational, materialistic, technology obsessed, pop-culture attitudes that are leveling our cultural aspirations and dulling and diluting our aesthetic sensibilities.
The most troubling take-away from the quartet of hyper-rationalism, materialistic consumerism, de-contextualizing dependence on technology, and the bizarrely influential subversive ravings of the sophomoric trickster, Marcel Duchamp, is that they distract us from soul expanding engagement with the phenomenal world thereby condemning our ineffable spiritual aspirations and uplifting poetic impulses to the cheerless gloom of quotidian necessity.
In such a deskilled and dematerialized environment, the urgent question facing us then is whether there is a way forward that can revive and restore humanity’s faith in and appreciation for the life-affirming experience of sensuous knowing that is unique in its ability to provide a pathway to the ineffable wonders and sublime mysteries of life. Fortunately, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes.”
Such a restorative strategy develops naturally from studio art instruction when it is structured to encourage us to look intensely, to seek meaning in experience, and to pursue a state of complete awareness of the physical world of which we are a part. After all, art is rooted in the importance of implicit meaning and metaphor, in direct sensory experiences, in embodied emotional reactions, in intuitions, and in a sense of wonder about our ever changing, soul enhancing connection to the phenomenal world. Studio practice, when approached with this fundamental reverence for intuitive modes of knowing, serves as a conduit that connects us to a world much broader and deeper than ourselves, to the soul of the human experience, to direct contact with the "is-ness,” of the phenomenal world. It is this universally shared, embodied emotional awareness that we are referencing when we speak of the Sublime, the Infinite, the Eternal, the Divine, the Good, Quality, Beauty, Love, Unity, Truth, Excellence, Value, and Virtue.
Robert Pirsig, in his two remarkable and philosophically refreshing books, Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Value and Lila: An Inquiry into Morality provides a detailed critique of the limitations of the Western rational tradition while underscoring the importance of direct sensory experiences in human consciousness. He presents a simple thought experiment to drive home the primal power of our shared sensory experience by asking that we imagine accidentally sitting on a red-hot stove burner. The empathetic, physical recoil you one experiences when imagining such a traumatic encounter is because your imagination triggers mirror neurons in your brain that, in turn, send electrical signals throughout your entire body generating sympathetic anticipatory sensations consistent with experiencing pain. These imaginatvely induced sensations confirm that our experience of the physical world is not a “vague, woolly-headed, crypto-religious, metaphysical abstraction” but rather a universally shared level of physical experience through which our reality comes into existence. Sensation is not an intellectual representation of an experience. Sensation is not an indecipherable linguistic description of experience. Sensation is pure, embodied experience, pure feeling, albeit in the case of the hot stove, an undeniably poor quality feeling.
Like the pain of a burn or the sweetness we experience when biting into a ripe fruit or sharing an intimate kiss, Quality, as an event, is the root source of the consciousness shared by all humankind. Quality is the event through which consciousness is created. Embracing our sensory experiences and sharing them with others is nothing less than a miracle of evolutionary affirmation a celebration that we are alive and that we are not alone. It is from these experiences of shared value that our life derives meaning. It is from theses shared experiences that all qualitative judgments are derived. Making choices to improve the qualitative experience is the underlying dynamic principle of evolution. Life does not advance randomly but constantly strives to improve, to be better. We are naturally inspired and propelled forward toward that which is qualitatively better than what came before and toward that which infuses us with joy, fill us with energy, confidence, and of being in and of the world. Quality experience is the driving force at every stage of nature’s evolution. Life evolves toward greater freedom and order.
Remarkably, the primacy of perception that Pirsig celebrates in his philosophical investigations has been powerfully reaffirmed by research into the functional differentiation of the bicameral brain. Iain McGilchrist, a former professor of poetry at Oxford and later a Professor of Psychiatry at Oxford has written an engaging, encyclopedic, and an surprisingly easy to read book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, in which he explains that the long observed differences in hemispheric functionality are not in what each hemisphere does but in how each hemisphere attends to the world. Essentially, we have one brain with two minds that is to say two processes one in each hemisphere two types of attention functioning simultaneously each process independently generating fundamentally opposed realities with distinct sets of sensations, values, and personality each calling into being individually coherent but stylistically incompatible ways of interacting with the world.
The data from these research studies consistently indicate that the right brain functionality emphasizes feeling (empathy) in decision making, thinks in images, it’s where we interpret emotional content in communication, it’s where free association takes place, it’s where facial expression is interpreted, it’s where humor and metaphor (i.e. implicit meaning) are rooted, it’s where spiritual experience, spatial perception peripheral vision, and color perception are monitored. The right brain feels comfortable taking risks, dealing with ambiguity, and entertaining thoughts of mortality (melancholy). The right brain responds to melody, tone, timbre, harmony, and aural complexity. In stark contrast, the left brain relies entirely on self-reflective knowing, is language dependent and logical, removes experience from its context by constructing abstract, static re-presentations of data, controls its environment with power derived from knowledge comprehended through practical, strategic, efficient, sequenced planning. When isolated, the left-brain exhibits obsessive over-confidence mixed with paranoia and emptiness and is the side of the brain that responds to rhythm.
The closer one looks at the contrasting styles of our two hemispheres the more it becomes evident that rational, analytical, and logical thinking styles are fundamentally unequipped for processing the types of experiences that give life meaning such as love, beauty, quality, honor, courage, justice, self-sacrifice, the spiritual impulse, time, gravity, and the sense of belonging and interconnectedness that affirms the ‘isness’ of the natural world and our place in it.
Early on in his book McGilchrist observes that despite the fact that language dominates our conscious idea of self, no less than 90% of our brain’s awareness is non-verbal and pre-conceptual. This means that despite the tendency of language to dominate the “I" inside the head, it is right-brain intuitive awareness, rooted in empathy, that makes up the majority of who we are. He concludes that it is the right-brain relational context that grounds our sense of self and its relation to everything that lies outside of the self. It is this preconscious awareness, this direct reciprocal relationship with the physical world outside our head that forms the ‘primary consciousness’ of being. Or as Descartes should have said, “I feel therefore I am.”
Even though perception is primary we rely on our left brain’s ability to reprocess our perceptions so that we can ‘know’ them. The left-brain rational processes contribute a valuable and necessary distance from the phenomenal world and it provides complementary functionality to the broad, sustained, alert, flexible, contextual right brain attention. To be a fully integrated, satisfied, and creative human being we need to integrate both hemispheric strategies in everything we do. Imbalance damages our integrity.
McGilchrist’s career as a psychiatrist provided him ample opportunity to observe that a severe imbalance in the styles with which an individual attends to the world compromises the integrity and coherence of that individual. As anyone who has interacted with an individual who suffered catastrophic damage to either hemisphere can attest, such damage brings about pathological disruptions in behavior that markedly compromise that individuals quality of life. For a dramatic book about just how drastically consciousness is transformed when one hemisphere is catastrophically taken offline, I refer you to Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor’s moving first-person account of living through a massive left-hemispheric cerebral hemorrhage titled A Stroke of Insight.
After documenting cases of individual pathology McGilchrist then hypothesizes that a society similarly shaped by excessive dependence on one hemisphere at the expense of the other would exhibit behavioral shortcomings and restricted functionality similar to that exhibited by individuals with brain damage. While through his extensive research he did identify five cultures that displayed balanced stylistic functionality (pre-Socratic Greece, Republican Rome, The Renaissance, The Romantic Period, 20th Century Phenomenology), he was unable to identify any that were dominated by right brain attentiveness. The overwhelming majority of cultures displayed left brain domination. He establish the stylistic balance of a culture he examines the degree to which the individual cultures intellectualize the four primary sources of emotional and intuitive satisfaction available to mankind: nature, the body, the spiritual impulse, and art. McGlichirst classifies a culture as imbalanced when it treats the natural world primarily as a commodity to be consumed, when the spiritual impulse is deprived of mystery by an overreliance on dogma or dismissed out-of-hand as logically irrelevant, when the body is objectified and decontextualized (pornography replaces intimacy), and when the arts are marginalized by an avalanche of arcane intellectual theories that render them ineffective as empathetic and metaphoric bridges to that which exists beyond, outside the self.
As you may already have anticipated, when McGilchrist’s applies his hemispheric differentiation model to contemporary Western culture his diagnosis is quite disturbing. He concludes that our culture’s attentional imbalance is so severe that it reaches a level of behavioral pathology resembling schizophrenia. Such a finding goes a long way in explaining why we desperately need to restore balance to the way in which we attend to the world.
Empathy, intuition, and context ground our sense of self as well as our awareness of everything that lies outside of ourselves. It is this pre-conceptual, pre-verbal encounter that provides the ‘primary consciousness’ of being. As artists and art historians it is our responsibility, as keepers of the flame of empathetic engagement with the phenomenal world, not to allow ourselves to surrender to a mechanistic model of virtual, fragmented, de-contextualized re-presentations of consciousness when what promises far greater insight and satisfaction is a fluid, open, infinitely complex, ever-changing, endlessly interrelated, relational model capable of shedding light on the ineffable fullness with which our brain engages with itself and with all that is outside itself. When approaching a work of art it is crucial to remember that images are more real than words. Visual art is visual poetry and it is with that realization that we can regain a profound appreciation for the soul deepening mystery of the eternal along with the everlasting triumph of the beauty of the natural world. It is with these profound and universally shared insights that we become empowered to lead our students on life-enhancing expeditions into the intuitive world where wonder precedes explanation and where the broad, deep context of being informs the making of art.
The balanced bi-cameral model I have described above, a balance that emerges from the unity of logic and emotion, of rationality and empathy, of cognition and intuition, provides just such a restorative strategy. In contrast to the Modern Fallacy (Descartes’ logo-centric world-view in which all that can be known can be known through logic) studying the bicameral brain in the context of the physical world clearly reveals that we think with our entire body and that the fundamental truths that provide profound insights into the meaning of life only reveal themselves through implicit, ambiguous, metaphorical, right-hemispheric pathways.
As artists and art educators, we are in a privileged position to promote a balanced, open, fluid, infinitely complex, ever-changing, endlessly interrelated metaphorical pursuit of mind/body awareness. By embracing this active, embodied manner of seeing, we are challenging ourselves and our audience to look deliberately, to look intensely, to seek meaning in experience, and to pursue a state of complete awareness of the physical world with which we are engaged. Such active engagement with the physical world is “seeing” in the fullest sense of that word. This is what we mean when we speak of sincerity, authenticity, and creativity in art and it is what we mean when we speak of the ‘primacy of perception.’
|University of Miami Faculty Webpage|