Overweening Generalist

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Trippy Art Theories From Oliver Sacks and His Antecedents

My own thinking about art theorizing, and later anti-theorizing, may have started as a young teenager on a beach towel in the sand, during the summer, at Huntington Beach, or Newport Beach. The visual tableaux of "straight line" horizon of sea/sky, the relaxing auditory soundtrack of Pacific Ocean waves crashing in their marvelous periodicity, the caress of sun on my melanin-deficient skin (yearly checkups now for melanomas, OY!), the primal people-watching of others there, barely clothed, the smell of sea-brine and cocoa-butter suntan lotion, and often, with friends, mind-altering chemicals, like beer or cannabis. On my back, the sun overhead and reflecting off the proto-glass sand surrounding, Sol beating down on my closed eyelids, entoptic imagery. I hope all of you reading this have had the experience of seeing geometric squiggle-waves, or waves radiating out orange or blue waves in roughly 360 degrees from a point, or little bacterium-like shapes floating around in your field of vision. Some people call them "floaters," and sometimes they encounter them while being ill, or faint. I saw them on the beach, always. I could always count on them. I could also banish them by thinking of more worldly things. But eventually, after looking at plenty of cave paintings from places like Lascaux, or Islamic Art, or modernist Abstract Expressionism and 1960s psychedelic art...I wondered: is my beach experience related to the history of art in some way?

                                            entoptic imagery, consciously elaborated

The OG Is Anti-Art Theory
I have no problem with anyone's art theory (with exceptions: Ayn Rand's, the Nazis, 1930s Soviet ideas, and a few others), and I will continue to read anything that seems new. I find value in many aesthetic theories. I get a kick out of Ruskin. E.H. Gombrich's book Art And Illusion was thrilling, and will thrill me again when I return to it. I love looking at Kandinsky's paintings, and his mystical-intellectual ideas about juxtapositions of forms and colors I find baffling yet still interesting. Etc.

I object to the idea of "the best" theory of art. If your favorite theory of art doesn't show up in the blogspew, I could not possibly care less...just continue to enjoy your Art.

Alan Watts, in his The Culture of Counter-Culture, wrote that it's good that we don't have a precise theory of art, or more widely, a precise aesthetic theory, one that, if applied correctly, would churn out great art and artists. Because that would be very boring. I read that over 15 years ago and still agree. Moreover, my developing epistemology increasingly provides evermore doubt we'll ever arrive at a precise aesthetic theory. There was a time - perhaps 1880? - in which this idea would've been thought pessimistic; I see it as an unalloyed joyous thing.

As a young man, Oscar Wilde was furiously reading esthetes and theorists, trying to find his own way. He read the great aesthetic theorist Walter Pater and fell under his influence. Eventually, as Richard Ellmann writes in Four Dubliners, "[...] but he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of the night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail [...] no theory of life seemed to him to be of any importance compared with life itself." (p.23)

This seems quite isomorphic to Alfred Korzybski's "The map is not the territory."

                                                     basic entoptic imagery

Oliver Sacks
He's just produced another book, Hallucinations. My local library bought five copies, they're all checked out, and there are 42 holds. The Berkeley intellectuals (most of the population?) are fascinated by hallucinations, for multivarious reasons. It also doesn't hurt that Sacks is one of the few scientist-intellectuals who writes so well for the general public that his books still qualify as non-fiction juggernauts in publishing. I will devour his latest book as soon as I can get my hands on it, as I have all of his previous books. From reading reviews of Hallucinations, I find it laudable he's making a very nuanced argument in an effort to de-stigmatize hallucinations, because we're all hallucinating far more often than we'd think.

The paideuma - our collective semantic unconscious - assumes hallucinations are for the seriously ill. It seems part of our long historical baggage of overly-rationalized systems of thought that are now built into the fabric of almost every aspect of our lives, and owes largely to the incredibly influential and persuasive rhetorics of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, St. Augustine, Descartes, and Newton.

Around 2008 Sacks published a book on Migraines. His latest book seems to elaborate on some of what was in his headache book, but I'll have to see for myself. In Migraines - which he has had since early childhood - (he also has prosopagnosia, or "face blindness") he describes the imagery that accompanied a migraine headache: tiny branching images, like twigs, geometrical structures that covered his entire visual field, lattice and checkerboards (typical OG digression: this reminded me of Werner Heisenberg, trying to come to grips with quantum phenomena, and in order to escape his hay fever, retired to an island, where he could hike and think and play mental games of chess with his friends, finally arriving at a mathematical solution to the quantum by using a bizarre matrix algebra that no one would have ever thought would be put to practical use), and sometimes more elaborate patterns like Islamic carpet patterns and complex mosaics, spirals and scrolls and filigree, eddies and swirls. At other times he saw three-dimensional shapes like pine cones and sea urchins.

                                                       Heinrich Kluver

Now, this is not new territory. Sacks, as a neuroscientist, read Heinrich Kluver's books Mescal  and Mechanisms of Hallucination. Kluver experimented with mescal himself and saw infinitely small and transparent oriental rugs and malleable filigreed biological-like objects, often spherical, like radiolaria. Kluver hypothesized that these were "form constants" that were geometrical and ornamental but were innate, which reminds me of Mandelbrot's sets and their descriptions and fantastical arrays in our natural world.

Reading Sacks and then Kluver, this resonated with me because one of my favorite things to do, late at night, cannabis or no: page through marvelous books of prints by Kandinsky, Alex Grey's staggering book Transfigurations, and Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms In Nature, among many others.

When I consciously do this, it is because of the reliability of pleasure, and a concomitant entrance into a finite province of meaning, outside the primary, ordinary, taken-for-granted "reality" of our (in this case my own) daily lives.

                                                 Hubel and Wiesel

Basic Idea of Where These Forms Come From
Kluver was fascinated because these visual images seemed to not have anything to do with memory, personal experience, imaginative force, or the desire to see them. They appear to be archetypal. Furthermore, people the world over express these forms in their artworks, whether in Africa, ancient Mexico, or southern Europe during the Paleolithic. But why? What explains it?

The visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe near the "back" of our brains, was described by Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel, and they deserved more than one Nobel Prize, their work was so fantastically groundbreaking. It turns out the part of our brains that is involved in seeing has very many layers and they're quite specialized. One sheet of neurons only knows a dot, others know little lines, other colors, etc. It's incredibly complex and totally amazing they were able to crack this code, via painstaking work.

So, via migraines, or sensory deprivation or hallucinogenic drugs, or fever, or flickering lights, or just-waking/just-falling asleep states: the cytoarchitecture of these basic sheets of neurons - each neuron only "knows" how to do ONE THING! - gets activated. Our primary visual cortex, in these altered states shows us, makes available to us for contemplation, the dynamics of a part of our visual cortex: lines and shapes, from Euclidean forms to non-Euclidean forms, up to - if we're really "out there," Mandelbrot-like forms: animals, landscapes, people, other Beings.

Oliver Sacks thinks the elementary forms of our worldwide human Art can use, as explanatory schema, non-ordinary states available to all of us in one mode or another, and the workings of the neurophysiological workings of the primary visual cortex.

Now, this may seem reductive. And I think it is. But it's my current Number One as far as the basic mental elements of Where Art Comes From. And it seems to go a long way in explaining what caused those shapes playing for me, unbidden, on the backs of my eyelids, in the Theater of the Entoptic,  while sunning on the beach. Am I married to this theory? No. But I will be astonished if a richer one comes along.

A Parthian Shot: because I think it's basically correct - that various non-ordinary states in the human archetypal landscape have given rise to Art - I see the so-called War On Drugs (which I often extensionalize to a War On Certain People Who Use Drugs The State Arbitrarily Outlaws) - as a War on Human Nature, and I got this idea from David Jay Brown, in an essay he published in Rebels and Devils: The Psychology of Liberation.

Entoptic Imagery and Altered States of Consciousness

Oliver Sacks on hallucinogens and hallucinations. We need more and more of these hyper-articulate intellectuals talking about their own phenomenological experiences on psychoactive drugs. This is less than 5 minutes, and get a load of what Sacks says about amphetamines!:


Andrew Crawshaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Super Melios said...

Great collection of thoughts and references, thank you

michael said...

Thanks!, The Super Melios!

You comment got sent to my personal email and I thought, "What? Someone's commenting on an old post?"

I've since read Sacks's book and found it most satisfying. I think the history of art theorizing is incredibly rich, but it's often emanated from a sort of armchair Platonified sort of philosophizing.

Sacks is among a handful of writers from the sciences - esp the neurosciences - who have dared to write about art and the actual neurobiological processes in humans, and I see it as edifying discourse. Sack's book may be the best of the neurobiology-and-art- for-the-sophisticated-lay-reader books to come along so far.

I am still a big fan of Gombrich though, and while I consider him more as drawing from a sort of Gestalt psychology than neuroscience, I think he still has a lot to offer...and he was one of the great all-around intellectuals of the 20th c.