Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The view of the self as part of the world

The view of the self as part of the world, iPad painting, 2011 (After Ernst Mach)

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Studio painting series 2011

Studio Painting 1 (White Series), 2011, Oil and sand on shaped panel

iPad paintings

View of bedroom, Lavagna, Italy, 2011

The perception of art and the science of perception

Human Vision and Electronic Imaging XVII
Burlingame, California
Session 8: Art Theory, Perception, and Rendering
Date: Thursday 26 January
Time: 8:30 AM - 11:40 AM
Session Chair: Huib de Ridder, Technische Univ. Delft (Netherlands)
The perception of art and the science of perception (Invited Paper)
Paper 8291-35

For many centuries artists have studied the nature of visual perception and how to convincingly render what we see using a variety of media. The results of this prolonged investigation, during which knowledge and insights were handed down from generation to generation, can be found in all the countless artworks deposited in museums and galleries around the world. Works of art represent a rich source of ideas and understanding about how the world appears to us, and only relatively recently have those interested in the science of vision started to appreciate the many discoveries made by artists in this field. In this talk I will discuss some of the key insights into vision and perception that artists have revealed through their inquiries, and show how they can help current thinking in science and technology about how best to understand the process of seeing. In particular, I will suggest that some important artistic ideas continue to present fundamental challenges to conventional ideas about how reality is represented.

Art, visual perception and ontology

Talk to be given at:
The Shalem Center, Jerusalem
December 11-15, 2011

"Do the operations of the human mind have something to teach us about the fundamental structure of reality?" I propose the answer to this question is 'yes' because, in short, the operations of the human mind are identical with the fundamental structure of reality. There are many ways this argument could be made: from quantum physics, from philosophy, or from religion. In this paper I will make a number of specific points using evidence from art and neuroscience. The main claims are:

1. The mind and reality cannot be separated. Those interested in the nature of the conscious mind often ask how it is that physical processes can give rise to conscious mental experience. Others ask how it is that the mind and reality are related. Both these questions presume a fundamental separation between the mental and the physical, mind and world. If the mind and world are separate then there must be some boundary between them. Yet it is by no means clear where this boundary would be. Any clear line of separation is, at best, arbitrary and contingent. The lack of any determinate boundary between mind and world, I will argue, renders them inseparable and effectively identical.

2. The mind brings reality into being for the perceiver. Numerous proposals have been made as to the nature and function of the conscious mind. For some, the function of the mind (instantiated in the brain) is to give us useful knowledge about the external world and our own situation within it. This again assumes a distinction between an internally operating mental process (in the head) and an external reality (in the body and world). I will propose that one the main functions of the mind (whether located in the head or not) is to bring the world into being. In other words, rather than representing what is determinately 'out there', in some mind independent external realm, our perceptual awareness actively generates what we experience of reality in accordance with the needs of our biological makeup.

3. The primary function of the mind is to create distinctions. Human perception is an enormously complex system that does many things, and much of what it does is still poorly understood. Yet I want to argue here that one of its primary functions is actually rather simple: to register distinctions in perceptual data. The data arriving at our senses is both richly patterned and inherently unpredictable, and our perceptual systems must very rapidly parse it into meaningful information. This process, which occurs seemingly instantaneously and effortlessly, actually involves a huge range of neurobiological processes. The most basic of these, however, is the imposition of boundaries or distinctions on an otherwise continuous stream of data. In fact, the sensory system operates almost entirely by detecting not 'things' in the world but differences. From this we build up an impression of a world that is divided into discrete 'things' rather than a continuous whole. The fundamental role of the perceptual system in imposing distinctions on the world is something that James, Bergson, and Spencer-Brown, among others, have pointed out.

4. Reality is fundamentally indeterminate prior to perception. An ancient philosophical problem concerns the nature of the reality existing outside or beyond the scope of our perceptions. Philosophers have often posited an external reality that lies behind our sensory impressions of the world, full of the material objects upon which our sensory impressions are based. While many have acknowledged that our senses do not necessarily give us 'true' knowledge of the world we perceive, as they are vulnerable to error and illusion, this results from the imperfections of our sensory apparatus rather than any ontological uncertainty about how the world is constructed. Opposing this view, I will argue that we do not perceive a fixed, determinate reality about which we make imperfect judgements, but rather we perceive a world that is profoundly indeterminate in its constitution. To speak of a world 'in itself' as having inherent properties or qualities, which are fixed attributes of the objects we assign them too, is nonsensical when we understand the way the perceptual system operates.

I will support these claims by showing examples from art history, my own work as an artist, and some scientific experiments in which I have collaborated with neuroscientists and psychophysicists to study the perceptual response to art works. My contention is that one of the most important questions now facing us is to understand how it is that our mental apparatus, which is after all part of the world, is able to create determinate states from an inherently indeterminate reality. I will conclude that it is necessary to develop a new cross-disciplinary approach to investigating such questions that draws on insights from art, philosophy and science.

Training facilitates object recognition in cubist paintings

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2010

To the naïve observer, cubist paintings contain geometrical forms in which familiar objects are hardly recognizable, even in the presence of a meaningful title. We used fMRI to test whether a short training session about Cubism would facilitate object recognition in paintings by Picasso, Braque and Gris. Subjects, who had no formal art education, were presented with titled or untitled cubist paintings and scrambled images, and performed object recognition tasks. Relative to the control group, trained subjects recognized more objects in the paintings, their response latencies were significantly shorter, and they showed enhanced activation in the parahippocampal cortex, with a parametric increase in the amplitude of the fMRI signal as a function of the number of recognized objects. Moreover, trained subjects were slower to report not recognizing any familiar objects in the paintings and these longer response latencies were correlated with activation in a fronto-parietal network.These findings suggest that trained subjects adopted a visual search strategy and used contextual associations to perform the tasks. Our study supports the proactive brain framework, according to which the brain uses associations to generate predictions.

Indeterminacy and realism in cinema and art

Tagungsband Realismus nach den europäischen Avantgarden, Verlag für Kommunikation, Kultur and Soziale Praxis, Bielefeld, (in press).

This paper will address two moments in cinematic history: a shot that occurs in Robert Wiene's avant-garde production of THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920) and the attempt by the main protagonist in Antonioni's BLOW-UP (1966) to discern a phantom figure in a blurry section of a photograph. Both are examples of what I term ,visual indeterminacy', where images resist easy or deny immediate interpretation. Visual indeterminacy is in fact quite a common perceptual phenomenon. Although not very widely studied in science it has been recognized for centuries by visual artists and writers. I will discuss the phenomena of visual indeterminacy, its perceptual basis, and its wider implications for our understanding of how we see the world. In particular, I will note the impact of indeterminacy on our notion of the ,real' by looking at the work of the artist Gerhard Richter, whose images veer between the mechanically and expressionistically abstract to the photographic. Richter's declaration that works of art should defy easy interpretation will be considered in relation a wider modernist preoccupation with indeterminate meaning.

Connecting art and the brain: an artist’s perspective on visual indeterminacy

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2011

In this article I will discuss the intersection between art and neuroscience from the perspective of a practicing artist. I have collaborated on several scientific studies into the effects of art on the brain and behavior, looking in particular at the phenomenon of “visual indeterminacy.” This is a perceptual state in which subjects fail to recognize objects from visual cues. I will look at the background to this phenomenon, and show how various artists have exploited its effect through the history of art. My own attempts to create indeterminate images will be discussed, including some of the technical problems I faced in trying to manipulate the viewer’s perceptual state through paintings. Visual indeterminacy is not widely studied in neuroscience, although references to it can be found in the literature on visual agnosia and object recognition. I will briefly review some of this work and show how my attempts to understand the science behind visual indeterminacy led me to collaborate with psychophysicists and neuroscientists. After reviewing this work, I will discuss the conclusions I have drawn from its findings and consider the problem of how best to integrate neuroscientific methods with artistic knowledge to create truly interdisciplinary approach.

Art and Externalism

Journal of Consciousness Studies (in press)

How have artists understood the relationship between the mind and the world? This paper presents statements by a number of artists that speak of how subjective experience is constituted by the unity of inner self and outer reality, or how objects in the world can acquire mental properties. I will discuss some reasons why artists hold these views and how they might contribute to the ongoing debate between internalist and externalist theories of mind. Drawing on the conception of mind-world relations attributed to artists, a way of understanding perceptual experience will be outlined that stresses the reciprocity between head-bound and world-bound processes. This approach allows the opposing, and seemingly incompatible, views of internalists and externalists to be embraced within a more inclusive schema.

The New Mind: Thinking beyond the head

Co-authored with Riccardo Manzotti, AI & Society (in press)

Throughout much of the modern period the human mind has been regarded as a property of the brain, and therefore something confined to the inside of the head — a view commonly known as 'internalism'. But recent works in cognitive science, philosophy, and anthropology, as well as certain trends in the development of technology, suggest an emerging view of the mind as a process not confined to the brain but spread through the body and world — an outlook covered by a family of views labeled 'externalism'. In this paper we will suggest there is now sufficient momentum in favour of externalism of various kinds to mark a historical shift in the way the mind is understood. We dub this emerging externalist tendency the 'New Mind'. Key properties of the New Mind will be summarized and some of its implications considered in areas such as art and culture, technology, and the science of consciousness.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Pansophic Principle: Seeking common ground between the Arts, Sciences and Humanities.

The forefront of human endeavour is extraordinarily diverse. At one time we have physicists building the CERN particle accelerator to search for the Higgs Boson, philosophers arguing whether mental properties lie inside the brain our outside it, and artists cutting rotating discs in the sides of buildings. Seemingly incompatible as they are, all these activities must somehow be connected: they are all attempts to probe, investigate, understand, and convey the peculiar nature of reality and human experience; they are all aspects of a single world.

Pansophy was defined in the seventeenth century by Comenius as ‘universal knowledge’. At a time when it was theoretically possible for one person to read all the books in circulation the ambition of synthesizing all human knowledge must have seemed attainable. In our own age, with the exponential growth in disciplinary specialism, it is unlikely that one person could absorb all the information relating to their own named discipline, let alone a fraction of the all information in print.

The advent of moveable type in mid-fifteenth century Europe contributed enormously to the spread of ideas during the Renaissance and the consequent emergence of novel ideas and technologies. Access to printed information generated not just new knowledge but combinations of knowledge that had hitherto existed in disconnected planes. Libraries and compendia allowed scholars to cross-reference and even stumble unexpectedly on remote ideas that they were then able to piece together into new systems of thought.

The internet, arguably the most significant development in knowledge distribution since moveable type, offers our own age much the same opportunity to access diverse ideas and find the underlying connections between them, but on a far grander scale. Searching for a term like ‘indeterminacy’ will yield references in areas as disparate as philosophy, mathematics, quantum physics, spiritualism, medical science, art theory, and music. Inevitably the term has a unique history and meaning in each case, yet there is also a sense in which it refers to the same phenomena across all.

An immense task now faces humankind. Knowledge continues to be generated at an ever-expanding rate. New specialisms and hybrid disciplines emerge with increasing frequency. But if we accept the pansophic principle that all this knowledge is, in the end, about the same thing — the nature of reality and human experience — then who is doing the work of reconciling this enormous diversity in order to find within it the patterns and connections that would allow a broader rather than narrower understanding of our condition? This is possibly one of the most important challenges facing human inquiry at this time, and the internet can facilitate this in a way that has few historical precedents.

The pansophic principle, however, is not aimed at the simple unification of all knowledge into an all-encompassing truth. It is not a means of homogenizing human ideas or beliefs into a unitary system — an ambition with unfortunately sinister historical precedents. The diversity and incompatibility of human ideas is part of what gives intellectual life its richness and capacity for innovation. Rather, the challenge is an essentially contradictory one: to appreciate and respect the differences between strands of thought, with their disparate histories and contexts, yet at the same time actively locate the productive resonances between them

Friday, 17 September 2010

Drawing people

CEP Conference, Oxford, 2010

Mind and reality (Thich Nhat Hanh)

‘Recall a simple and ancient truth: the subject of knowledge cannot exist independently from the object of knowledge. To see is to see something. To hear is to hear something. To be angry is to be angry over something. Hope is hope for something. Thinking is thinking about something. When the object of knowledge (the something) is not present, there can be no subject of knowledge’ (1991:45-46).

‘Consider the example of a table. The table’s existence is possible due to the existence of things which we might call “the non-table world”: the forest where the wood grew and was cut, the carpenter, the iron ore which became the nails and screws, and countless other things which have relation to the table, the parents and ancestors of the carpenter, the sun and rain which made it possible for the trees to grow’ (1991:47).

Hanh, Thich Nhat (1991) The Miracle of Mindfulness. London: Rider.

‘When we have a concept about something, its image appears within that concept. For example, when we have a concept of a table, we see an image of that table, but we must remember that our concept is not the thing itself. It is just our perception, which might in fact be very different from the table. A termite, for example, may perceive a table as a feast, and a physicist may perceive it as a mass of rapidly moving particles’ (1992: 54).

‘The notion that things can exist independently of one another comes from the perception that they have a beginning and an end. But it is impossible to find the beginning or end of anything’ (1992:60).

Hanh, Thich Nhat (1992) The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. Berkley: Parallax Press.

(with thanks to Melanie Chan for the quotes)

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The indeterminate in cinema and art

In this paper I will address two moments in cinematic history: a shot that occurs in Robert Wiene's avant-garde production of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and the attempt by the main protagonist in Antonioni's Blowup (1966) to discern a phantom figure in a blurry section of a photograph. Both moments are examples of what I term 'visual indeterminacy', where images resist easy or immediate interpretation. Visual indeterminacy is in fact quite a common perceptual phenomenon, and although not very widely studied in science it has been recognized and exploited for centuries by visual artists and writers.

I will discuss the phenomena of visual indeterminacy, its perceptual basis, and its wider implications for our understanding of how we see the world. In particular, I will note the impact of indeterminacy on our notion of the 'real,' and close by looking at the work of the artist Gerhard Richter, whose images veer between the mechanically and expressionistically abstract to the photographic and hyper-real. Richter's declaration that works of art should defy easy interpretation will be considered in relation a wider modernist preoccupation with indeterminate meaning.

Keynote presentation
Realism after the European Avant-Garde Conference
University of Paderborn, Germany, October 2010

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Perceptual Technology


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Art Connections

In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science
Edited by Bruce Clarke, Manuela Rossini

"We live in a time when dialogue between the arts, sciences, and humanities is widely encouraged. Funding agencies offer incentives for scientists to work with artists; books are being written that seek to span C. P. Snow’s “gulf of mutual incomprehension” between scholarly cultures; interdisciplinary conferences are being convened that support cross-area dialogue and report the findings of collaborative projects. There is a sense that previously disconnected fields of study are actively converging.

All this is welcome given the fractured state of contemporary knowledge. Born just over 400 years ago, the poet John Milton is reputed to be the last person who would have been able to read every book then in print. Certainly the well-educated person of his time would have understood a wide range of subjects. The subsequent tendency towards micro-specialism in academia has brought breadth and depth at the price of fragmentation and isolation; no longer could any individual hope to absorb more than a tiny fraction of published information, and most disciplines work in ignorance of each other. Ulrich’s directory of periodicals, which lists most of the world’s scholarly journals, boasts over 300,000 titles, each representing the tip of an iceberg of accumulated knowledge. And a report in 2002 by the Association of American Colleges and Universities identified the “atomization of the curriculum” caused by artificially dividing knowledge into distinct fields as a significant barrier to the future of education..."

With forty-four newly commissioned articles from an international cast of leading scholars,The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science traces the network of connections among literature, science, technology, mathematics, and medicine. Divided into three main sections, this volume:

Links diverse literatures to scientific disciplines from Artificial Intelligence to Thermodynamics
Surveys current theoretical and disciplinary approaches from Animal Studies to Semiotics
Traces the history and culture of literature and science from Greece and Rome to Postmodernism
Ranging from classical origins and modern revolutions to current developments in cultural science studies and the posthumanities, this indispensible volume offers a comprehensive resource for undergraduates, postgraduates, and researchers.

With authoritative, accessible, and succinct treatments of the sciences in their literary dimensions and cultural frameworks, here is the essential guide to this vibrant area of study.

Published July 2010

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Art and Extensionism

In this chapter I will consider some of the consequences of externalism for art. I will argue that some artists have intuitively understood the mind to be something that extends beyond the brain and the body. The kinds of externalist tendencies evident in artistic practice, however, differ somewhat from those found in the more formally expressed theories of science and philosophy. Then I will take an approach I have termed 'extensionism'. Extensionism stresses the extended dimensions of objects and events rather than that which divides them. When this approach is applied to the analysis of art it becomes apparent how widely distributed the mental aspects of artworks are, and how hard it is to put the genie of the conscious mind back into the bottle of the brain.

Book chapter in Aesthetics Beyond the Skin, edited by Riccardo Manzotti, due 2011

Art, indeterminacy and consciousness

One of the functions of the brain and perceptual system is to categorize data from the world into discrete meaningful chunks and so impose distinctions on the world that are consistent with the biological needs of the perceiver. However, under certain conditions such as deep meditation, when afflicted by particular agnosias, or when faced with visually indeterminate stimuli, these object distinctions break down or disappear altogether. The world can then appear as indeterminate, i.e. devoid of the objective distinctions that characterize our habitual engagement with the world (a mode of perception termed ‘nirvikalpa’ in Indian psychology).

I will show that artists have long understood this contingent nature of objective distinctions and tried to create works that evoke indeterminate perception by dissolving the hard, deterministic boundaries around objects. This has resulted in varying degrees of visual indeterminacy in art movements such as impressionism, fauvism, cubism, and abstract expressionism. I will discuss my own paintings, which attempt to induce a visually indeterminate state in the viewer, and the collaborative work I have done with psychophysicists and neuroscientists to investigate the effect of indeterminate artworks on subjects’ responses and brain functions.

This indeterminacy in visual experience is analogous to the inherent indeterminacy operating at quantum levels of reality, according to the standard Copenhagen interpretation. I will suggest that the viewer who interprets an indeterminate image is attempting to ‘collapse’ many potential states into an actual state in the same way states of quantum superposition are said to collapse during observation of sub-atomic events. This, I will argue, suggests a role for consciousness as the process by which the inherent indeterminacy of nature is resolved into the more determinate world we experience.

I will close with the claim that the experience of trying to resolve visually indeterminate states demonstrates how the conscious mind acts to bring the world into being for us.

Paper at Towards a Science of Consciousness, Tucson, April 2010

Art and Posthumanity in a Boundless Reality

While new forms of bio-art seem to signal a change in direction for contemporary art and ideas, they in fact merely extend a tradition that is already well established. When the process of making and observing art is understood in a way that denies the distinction between object and viewer, and recognises the inherent continuity between biology and technology, then artistic forms like bio-art no longer seem so transgressive. This extended view of material and biological existence, I would argue, is essentially what should be understood by the term 'posthuman'. Here the posthuman being is seen as an agent within a boundless reality, and we are faced with the challenge of how to articulate this new reality with concepts that no longer seem adequate to the task.

Paper at Zoontotechnics Conference, University of Cardiff, May 2010

The Posthuman Condition: Progress and Challenges

There have been enormous shifts in the intellectual landscape since the first edition of The Posthuman Condition was published in 1995. The view that the mind is entirely dependent on the brain has been widely and seriously challenged, with theories of enactive perception and extended cognition now gaining significant currency; mid-twentieth century models of artificial intelligence, with their dependence on top-down processing and symbolic logic, have been replaced with situated models of intelligence based on embodied interaction within the environment; and the notion of posthumanism itself — once a minor strand in science fiction literature — is now a major branch of cultural theory, which some have argued is succeeding postmodernism as the defining intellectual idiom of our age.

While all this is to be welcomed, I want to argue that the posthuman conception of reality continues to present us with profound challenges, the importance of which many contemporary theorists are yet to grasp. Take the startling implications of quantum theory, part of standard scientific knowledge for nearly a century now. Thought for a long time to be confined only to the smallest detectable scales, recent experiments have shown how quantum effects can influence events at the human scale of reality. Yet despite this, many thinkers continue to rely on ontological assumptions that were already out of date by the 1920s. Just as vital is the need to incorporate new knowledge arising from the quest to understand consciousness, which in the last 15 years has moved from the margins of psychology to the forefront of science and philosophy. Many recent discoveries in consciousness studies are deeply perplexing and counter-intuitive, and force us to rethink cherished beliefs about human nature.
I will survey these developments and point to where posthuman thinking might further guide us as we struggle to come to terms with developments in science and technology in the gathering posthuman age.

Keynote at The Emergence of the Posthuman Subject Conference, University of Surrey, July 2010

Art and the conscious mind: The artistic contribution to our understanding of human nature

I will argue one reason the nature of consciousness is so deeply mysterious is because there is much more at stake than the relatively local issue of how subjective experience is supported by the biology of the brain — crucial though that question is. I want to explore the possibility that our conscious experience is synonymous with reality itself. For without awareness of ourselves and of the world there is no reality, at least not in the sense we habitually experience it. Take away our self-knowledge, our sense of presence in the environment, our access to immediate memories, thoughts and beliefs, and the condition of existence in which we are immersed from moment to moment disappears.

If conscious experience and reality are synonymous, as I will argue, then we must consider the consequences for our understanding of human nature. For one thing, we may need to think less about a reality that pre-exists us — one that we are passively conscious of — and more in terms of a reality that emerges simultaneously with the dawning of subjective experience — a reality we are actively conscious with. The implications of this for our view of mind, nature and existence will be considered in this paper.

I contend that art and artists have something useful to contribute to questions about mind, nature and existence — questions that have traditionally been addressed through the disciplines of science and philosophy. Using examples from the history of art I will show how artists have explored many of the same essential problems as metaphysicians and scientists, even if they have done so by different means and with different outcomes. Art, therefore, offers a way of investigating metaphysical questions about the mind and reality that richly complements other disciplines and so extends and deepens our understanding of these vital questions.

Paper at Consciousness and Experiential Philosophy Conference, Oxford, September 2010

Art, Perception and the Mysteries of Experience

The idea that there is a world full of real objects existing whether or not we are there to see them is taken for granted by most of us. It seems obvious that the everyday fabric of reality is made of things that have qualities like tangibility, colourfulness, weightiness, smelliness, and tastiness. Yet scientists have known for nearly 200 years that objects in the world have none of these qualities in themselves. All the sensory qualities we associate with the world are not due to the way things are in themselves but are generated by our perceptual systems. It is ultimately our minds that create things as they appear to us, including all the sounds, textures, aromas, and patterns of the world.

In this talk I will give a brief account of the way our perceptual systems work to generate sensory experience, and indicate some of the puzzling consequences that arise, not least the fact that without the presence of the mind there is no reality at all. I will then look at the parallels between the way we construct a perceptual experience of the world and the way artists construct realities through images. In many ways the artistic process mirrors that of perception in that images have to be constructed and interpreted in the same way we have to construct and interpret reality. Using examples of works by Turner, Picasso, and Tanning I will draw attention to some of the mysterious aspects of our perceptual experience that artists have probed through their work.

Paper at International Symposium on Illustration, Cardiff, November 2010

Thursday, 4 February 2010


I'm currently working on a new book about art and consciousness, so posts to this blog will be few and far between for a while.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Gober 'Untitled' 1990

Gober Untitled 1990 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The conceptual surprise in this piece comes from the co-presence in one place of two distinct objects: a bag and a torso. The fact that the bag is made of beeswax carries connotations of waxy skin. The hair (which is human) is being both hair and representing hair at the same time, while the painted nipples consist in paint being both itself and nipples at the same time. The creases appear as part of the torso and the bag, and one is also reminded of the idea of the 'body bag'.

All these overlapping and multiple associations co-exist in this fairly simple object. We are aware of them to varying degrees, some more than others, and each contributes to the richness of the overall experience.

In this work the process of conceptual organisation being done by the object recognition systems is somewhat perplexed and confounded. The object has many of the perceptual characteristics of a body, but it is not a body. Likewise, it has many of the perceptual characteristics of a bag, but it is not a bag. Gober is directly interfering with these perceptual processes in order to generate the psychic affect of the work.

Warhol 'National Velvet' 1963

Warhol National Velvet 1963 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This Warhol poses a dilemma: in one respect, we have a series of dispassionately, almost cynically, presented frames positioned in a happenstance way across the surface, reproducing an image of a fleeting cinematic moment as though with little care. But in another respect the image betrays the artist's personal fascination with fame, celebrity and film glamour, obsessively grasping a present but lost moment through repetition. National Velvet is both detached replication and indulgent celebration.

Matisse 'Woman in a hat' 1905

Matisse Femme au Chapeau 1905, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

This is clearly a provocation. The hat is vague and incoherent and topples awkwardly on her head, almost burying it; the skin is ghoulish and transparent, barely distinct from the background. The body is skewed, her right arm gauche and her left arm a loosely placed stump. Colours jut up against each other, seemingly present for their own sakes rather than in service to what they represent (the slab of orange neck).

Yet the picture as a whole has a unity, like a many-coloured map that describes the regions of a single nation. And amidst it all is evidence of the presence of a living person transposed into paint by the action of the artist. It is an uncannily real face, sketched with a directness that belies a greater concern for the act of looking that the faithfulness of the recording.

But for all its attempts to provoke, and for all the upset and hilarity it caused, its underlying structure is that of a rather conventional fin-de-siècle portrait of an elegant, modish Mademoiselle.

Art and the conscious mind

Much of our experience of an artwork is unconscious or semi-conscious. We are aware of aspects of its form or meaning that are not necessarily the subject of our immediate attention; they may be vaguely felt or sensed 'in the background'. Yet they often contribute in some way to the overall impression we have of a work, feeding into the more present aspects of what we call the 'conscious' mind. This conscious mind is that within which our experience feels contained or centered, and holds all the components of thought to which we have immediate access.

A major component of this is the artwork itself, its visible presence (if a visual piece), its localised context, the knowledge we bring to it, and so on. All these in some way combine to create the global effect of viewing the artwork, and can be subject to varying degrees of attention depending on the unfolding of our thoughts.

During this process it is possible that impressions hitherto confined to the unconscious aspect of mind can come to the fore, and the significance of some hidden quality can be grasped. Then the sum total of thoughts available to the conscious mind is expanded, enriching the experience of the artwork and expanding the content of the mind in question.

This process of enrichment rarely occurs immediately, depending often on prolonged contemplation to reach its fullest state. During this process the interaction between the mind and the object can become generative; new connections between parts of the work are created, a process that can be extended longer the richer the work of art is.

Here the conscious mind becomes increasingly attuned to the form of the work, growing in capacity, sensitivity and complexity — engaging in what is normally termed the 'aesthetic experience.'

Friday, 30 October 2009

Lichtenstein 'Rouen Cathedral Set V [center]' 1969

Lichtenstein Rouen Cathedral Set V [center] 1969 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The Ben Day dots simultaneously sustain and interfere with our perception of the cathedral. A close inspection is almost giddying, physically unsettling, as though one were looking through the punctured white screen masking a duochrome image behind, whereas in fact the duochrome image lies on top of the white ground. I am aware of several things at once: the cathedral, the dots, the Monet, the Lichtenstein, the High Modernist aesthetic of the museum — at no time do these settle into an an undifferentiated whole. I am looking at many layers of image, just as I am looking at many dots.

Giacometti 'Bust of Diego' 1957

Giacometti, 1957, Bust of Diego, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

There is no reality aside from that perceived — a perception that is in itself real. Certain artworks address this perceptual reality, rather than some conjectural external reality to which we could have no access. Works such as this Giacometti deal with perceptual reality — the level at which we experience the real — by showing the world is mutable, unstable, and dependent upon the position and the action of the viewer. There is nothing fixed or self contained to be observed. Vision, movement, memory, knowledge all go to make up the world. Reality lies in the act of perceiving and not in the object itself.

Miro 'Painting' 1926

Miro Peinture (Painting) [formerly Dark Brown and White Oval] 1926 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The soft brown space is misty and suggestive — almost suffocating, like a smoke cloud — and segmented by diagrammatic dotted black lines, creating a transparent cubic depth. Into this are placed the objects that float freely both in depth and across the flat surface. The white oval is a jokey face, moon-like and childish, the other blob a yin-yang symbol or half-lit planet. One mass is tethered to a solid black weight, the other in unsupported orbit.

This simple composition generates multiple oppositions: The vague brown area, dimensionless and boundless, is trisected by the Euclidian space of the dotted lines along the traditional three fixed axes; the happy white face-balloon, which floats upward, is restrained by the sombre black mass which gravity pulls downward; dark and light meet with large and small, solid and vaporous, occupied left and almost empty right, white full moon and black crescent moon. The complexity of the painting, which is not immediately registered, emerges only through study.

The contradictions allied to the ambiguities give the painting a delicate weight.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Against being 'in' the world

It doesn't seem right to say we are beings 'in' the world, as if the world were a container within which we exist as a component or resident — as if we are in the world as we are in a house or room. The implication is that the world/room is something pregiven around us that we are not so much a part of than a part within, and that that world/room would continue in the same way if we were not there. It seems better to say we are beings 'as' the world, and that that world is a condition of our being there, as much 'in' us as we are in it.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Claims about truth

If a claim is made that the nature of truth consists in having attribute y, then that claim must itself have the same attribute y (if it is to be true) in which case it is potentially recursive.

If the attribute y must apply prior to the condition of truth in order to substantiate the claim then the attribute y requires a further prior condition of truthfulness — and so to infinite regress.

Claims about the nature of truth are vulnerable to recursion and regression, and therefore unsustainable by conventional logical standards.

(By analogy: If I need confirmation that a particular object is exactly one metre in length I can apply a ruler and measure it. The truthfulness of the claim about the length depends of the veracity of the metre length I compare it to, and the veracity of this claim depends on comparison to a prior metre length, and so on. And although numerous attempts have been made to eradicate the uncertainty over the exact length of one metre, from the eighteenth century to the present day, there remains a degree of uncertainty (now at the sub-atomic level).

That the length of one metre is established by convention is not in doubt. What remains doubtful is how long one metre is. Therefore, the truthfulness about the claim that a certain object is one metre long refers only to other claims about the length of a metre. There is no final fact to establish the truth.)

By example: If I make the claim that the nature of truth lies in there being a correspondence between a state of affairs in my mind and a state of affairs in the world, then that claim must itself be subject to the same conditions of truth, such that there must be a correspondence between the nature of truth (being a correspondence between mind and world) and something else. What would that something else be? If it is something in the mind or the world then we risk self reference and regression. If it is something not in the mind or world then where would it be?

Note: This is not to argue that no truthful claims can be made, but that claims about the nature of truth cannot be made (at least not without recursion or regress).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Other Dimensions: Paintings by Robert Pepperell

28 September - 9 October 2009

St John the Baptist Crypt, Nelson Street, Bristol, BS1 2EZ

Other Dimensions includes a selection of paintings by the artist and writer Robert Pepperell. The work investigates the idea that, despite what is widely believed, our everyday world is not made up the standard three dimensions of space and one of time. Between these lie other dimensions of indeterminate value, where objects are neither flat nor deep, or perhaps both flat and deep.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Other Dimensions: Various paintings

Various paintings (2009. Various media, various sizes)

A selection of smaller paintings that study the interplay between the image, its interpretation and its surface.

Other Dimensions: Fixing

Fixing (2009. Oil on canvas, 123 x 123 cm)

We sometimes talk about ‘fixing the eye’ on something in an effort to be more certain about what it is we are seeing. This painting offers a scene in which nothing can be fixed, except the objects within it that themselves are designed to fix.

Other Dimensions: Triangles in red, black and mauve

Triangles in red, black and mauve (2009, Triptych. Oil on constructed panels, 123 x 246 cm)

Viewing the painting from a distance of about three meters, and by concentrating on the middle point of the central panel, a shifting arrangement of shapes can be perceived. These shapes have a sense of depth, and cannot be regarded as entirely flat.

Other Dimensions: Still life with flowers and paintings

Still life with flowers and paintings (2009, Triptych. Oil on constructed panels, 130 x 173 cm)

The paintings depict everyday objects arranged in such a way that they are not immediately recognizable. The spaces occupied by the objects do not necessarily coincide with spaces in which they are represented.

Other Dimensions: The Deposition

The Deposition (2009, Triptych. Oil on constructed panels, 180 x 360 cm)

The design of this triptych is loosely based on a classical biblical scene, overlaid with more contemporary images. The point at which the surface of the image meets the eye is never really fixed.

Friday, 31 July 2009


Just the right sort of wrongness is needed.

Colour as subject

Sometimes the colour is the subject

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Merleau-Ponty: Cézanne's suicide

Cezanne, Portrait of Gustave Geffroy, 1895

"He stated that he wanted to make of impressionism "something solid like the art in the museums." His painting was paradoxical: he was pursuing reality without giving up the sensuous surface, with no other guide than the immediate impression of nature, without following the contours, with no outline to enclose the color, with no perspectival or pictorial arrangement. This is what Bernard called Cezanne's suicide: aiming for reality while denying himself the means to attain it. This is the reason for his difficulties and for the distortions one finds in his pictures between 1870 and 1890. Cups and saucers on a table seen from the side should be elliptical, but Cezanne paints the two ends of the ellipse swollen and expanded. The work table in his portrait of Gustave Geffroy stretches, contrary to the laws of perspective, into the lower part of picture. In giving up the outline Cezanne was abandoning himself to chaos of sensation, which would upset the objects and constantly suggest illusions, as, for example, the illusion we have when we move our heads that objects themselves are moving—if our judgment did not constantly set these appearances straight. According to Bernard, Cezanne "submerged his painting in ignorance and his mind in shadows." But one cannot really judge his painting in this way except by closing one's mind to half of what he said and one's eyes to what he painted.

It is clear from his conversations with Emile Bernard that Cezanne was always seeking to avoid the ready-made alternatives suggested to him: sensation versus judgment; the painter who sees against the painter who thinks; nature versus composition; primitivism as opposed to tradition. "We have to develop an optics," Cezanne said, "by which I mean a logical vision—that is, one with no element of the absurd." "Are you speaking of our nature?" asked Bernard. Cezanne: "It has to do with both." "But aren't nature and art different?" "I want to make them the same. Art is a personal apperception, which I embody in sensations and which I ask the understanding to organize into a painting."' But even these formulas put too much emphasis on the ordinary notions of "sensitivity" or "sensations" and "understanding"—which is why Cezanne could not convince by his arguments and preferred to paint instead. Rather than apply to his work dichotomies more appropriate to those who sustain traditions than to those—philosophers or painters—who found them, we would do better to sensitize ourselves to his painting’s own, specific meaning, which is to challenge those dichotomies. Cezanne did not think he had to choose between feeling and thought, as if he were deciding between chaos and order. He did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear. He wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization. He makes a basic distinction not between "the senses" and "the understanding" but rather between the spontaneous organization of the things we perceive and the human organization of ideas and sciences. We see things; we agree about them; we are anchored in them; and it is with "nature" as our base that we construct our sciences. Cezanne wanted to paint this primordial world, and his pictures therefore seem to show nature pure, while photographs of the same landscapes suggest man's works, conveniences, and imminent presence. Cezanne never wished to "paint like a savage." He wanted to put intelligence, ideas, sciences, perspective, and tradition back in touch with the world of nature which they were intended to comprehend. He wished, as he said, to confront the sciences with the nature "from which they came.""

Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne's Doubt

Bacon: Contradiction and suggestion

Bacon, Three studies for a crucifixion, 1962

Bacon: I want a very ordered image, but I want it to have come about by chance.
Sylvester: It's a matter of reconciling opposites I suppose; of making the thing be contradictory things at once.
Bacon: Well, isn't this that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible and at the same time as deeply suggestive, or deeply unlocking of areas of sensations other than simple illustration of the object that you set out to do? Isn't that what all art is about?

Francis Bacon in conversation with David Sylvester, 1966

Monday, 27 April 2009

Redon on titles of drawings

Odilon Redon, Roger and Angelica, Pastel, 1910

"The title that occasionally identifies my drawings can be superfluous. It is justified only when it is vague, indeterminate, and even equivocal. My drawings inspire and cannot be defined. They do not determine anything. They place us as music does in the world of the ambiguous and the indeterminate."

Odilon Redon, "Confessions d'artiste", Soi-même. Journal (1867-1915) in Henri Dorra, Symbolist Art Theories, University of California Press, 1995, p. 55.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Knowing ingorance

I increasingly find the act of writing is merely a process of skirting around my own ignorance.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Essence of mind/Chords of reality

Internal and external

Pencil and crayon on paper

Touch and sight

Pencil on paper

Head/World Paradox

1. We experience the external world outside the head.

2. The head contains all experience, including that of the external world.

3. We experience the external world inside the head.

Mind/Reality Paradox

1. We can distinguish between internal subjective experience and external objective reality.

2. The distinction between internal experience and external reality occurs within internal subjective experience.

3. We cannot distinguish between internal subjective experience and external objective reality.

Saturday, 21 March 2009


Ink and oil pastel on paper, 2009

Objects and appearance/Mind and reality

If we separate the object (the 'thing in itself') from its appearance ('in our senses') then we have created the problem of how the object and its appearance are related. One solution might be to remove the separation. Without this the object and the way it appears to us are identical (aspects of the same), and so the realms of the ideal and the real are merged (aspects of the same).

One could point out that there are many cases where the mind departs from reality (dreams, hallucinations, misperceptions, etc.), and that these cases strongly suggest a disparity between the appearance and the objectivity of the world. In such cases, though, the subject concerned is still having a real experience, i.e. the world as it appears to them at that time is veridical. But their understanding of that experience (say, a dream) at a later point may in retrospect change when compared to the norm.

This is in essence no different from misapprehensions, such as the person who thinks it is Friday and then realises it is actually Saturday. At the time it was in force the experience of it being Friday was entirely real. It only appears as unreal in comparison with a subsequent understanding. Likewise, our dreams appear unreal on waking, but utterly real while being dreamed.

A constituent of realness is the mental activity required to perceive it

We could say that objects in the world do exist; they have objective properties like colours, shapes, sounds, tastes, etc. that (by any reasonable definition) are real. But their realness occurs only by virtue of the activity of a certain kind of mental apparatus, and this activity cannot be disentangled from the realness that the objects have. This on the grounds that if the operation of the mental activity is altered (through intoxication, through training, by surgery or lesion to the brain, as examples) the nature of the reality experienced can vary from the norm.

To answer the question, then, does an object x exist when we cease to pay attention to it (either by perception or conception) we can say that it does not, on the grounds that the quality of realness that any particular object has consists in part of the mental activity in play when the realness is experienced. Without that mental activity the realness, as such, is not in play. When we experience realness it is, quite literally, an experience, which is to say the experiental aspect is central to the condition.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Nature and divisibility

Nature (or reality) is is neither continuous nor discontinuous. When we are analysing natural phenomena it's fine to decide that a distinction can be applied here, or a separation there, as long as it is understood that in doing so one is creating a distinction that exists only by virtue of the act of creating it. To believe then that the distinction is an aspect of reality existing quite separately from the person who supposes it to be there is fallacy. It must also be accepted that in creating the distinction one is immediately presented with the problem of how the separated parts are related (a problem that could be resolved by the removal of the distinction).

It should not be inferred from this, however, that the distinction has no place in reality, since the mind is part of the world it perceives, and insofar as reality exists at all it exists in the mind of the person who is themselves a constituent of that reality. Mind and reality become identical, and include all the forms reality takes consequent on the mind that creates it.

Realism and anthropocentrism

Any version of realism that assumes the world as it appears to humans is equivalent to the world 'as it is' must be dubious. Because the world appears to humans in one sort of way does not means it appears that way to all creatures. Nor need it necessarily have always appeared to humans as it appears now. Different perceptual systems, different understandings of natural events, will give rise to different kinds of realities. How do we determine which is the 'real' reality? Is it not more likely that the nature of reality is conditional on the nature of the perceiving agent? In which case reality is an observer-dependent phenomena.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Smiling in photographs

When did people start smiling in photographs?

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Art and consciousness

Patrick Caulfield, Interior with a picture, 1986

Art training consists in large part in cultivating perceptual awareness, particularly visual awareness. Artists are especially sensitive to visual phenomena and, referring continuously to examples provided by other artists, their potential for transcription into art. Often when we experience an artwork we are invited to share in the artists' heightened sensitivity in a way that heightens our own. If there are degrees of intensity in conscious experience then art can induce a greater degree than other kinds of stimulant.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

The variety of beliefs

For every idea or opinion held exists the potential for another that opposes it, however delusional, irrational or trivial the contradiction might appear. Every occurrence of the ugly has the potential to be regarded as beautiful, and something beautiful could just as well seem pretty or empty.

This does not deny there are truths, or occurrences of beautiful or ugly things, but rather that they are not intrinsically, universally, or eternally so. Values or qualities depend on associations that extend beyond the item in question.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Painting and conscious awareness

Philip Nicol, Sun Shower, oil on canvas

This painting depicts a scene that I have never seen in actuality. It may be something the artist never actually saw either. But this creates no problems for me in recognising what I see. I am able to 'remember' not only each object but the way they appear subject to the peculiar lighting conditions in play.

It depicts a scene — a collection of objects — I have seen countless times in various configurations and under numerous lighting conditions, but perhaps rarely paid attention to.

So there is a strong sense of familiarity without there being an equally precise sense of actual location.

What this painting, and others like it, seem to do is bring to the front of my conscious awareness a visual experience that I have experienced but not appreciated. It directs my attention towards, for example, the coloured puddles each reflecting a different part of the space above. There is a delight in remembering these that comes from seeing them as puddles and patches of paint at the same time.

Since my attention is on the painting, and not the scene it depicts (as it would be in actuality), I give consideration to what I might otherwise overlook. My immediate conscious awareness is populated by both a vividly present arrangement of marks and something more remote in my memory. It makes me conscious of my own mind.

(With thanks to Philip Nicol for permission to reproduce the painting)

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Perception and world

The world generated by perception is not the world 'as it is'.
The world 'as it is' is infinite, the world as perceived is finite.
What we perceive is a fragment of an infinite potential; the world in entirety is not perceptible.
Yet we are also part of the world in entirety.
And what we perceive is the world as it is, since we are the world as it is.

Ruskin on Science, Art and Literature

"In science, you must not talk before you know. In art, you must not talk before you do. In literature, you must not talk before you think...

Science: The knowledge of things, whether Ideal or Substantial.
Art: The modification of Substantial things by our Substantial Power.
Literature: The modification of Ideal things by our Ideal Power."

John Ruskin, Deucalion - King of the Golden River and the Eagle's Nest, 1872, p. 303

Thursday, 29 January 2009

The brain and reality

The function of the brain is not to represent reality but to generate it.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Perception and the appearance of reality

Studies of animal vision suggest that different species have very different visual experiences of the world. Cats and dogs, for example, are red-green colour blind, although they see more in the periphery and at night, while snakes can 'see' infrared frequencies at night although not things that keep still. Horses, with eyes at each side of the head, see a greater panorama than humans, while insects like flies and bees have compound eyes which make up a mosaic-like image composed of many individual units. Some insects, like butterflies, see more colours than us, while others, like bees, see less but can see in the ultraviolet spectrum.

What appears to humans, with our particular perceptual apparatus, as reality will appear quite different to another species. Something that is an object to us may not be to a fly, and vice versa. This tells us that the way the world is divided up according to human perception is not the only way it can be divided up, and that in fact what constitutes reality is something of a moveable feast depending on the structure of the perceptual systems being used. Reality is subjective.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Clare Chapman

Clare Chapman, Dusk #2, 2008, oil on canvas, 100×140cm

Plato's Indeterminate Dyad and the division of the unlimited

"We assume that the 'Indeterminate Dyad' is a straight line or distance, not to be interpreted as a unit distance, or as having yet been measured at all. We assume that a point (limit, monas, 'One') is placed successively in such positions that it divides the Dyad according to the ratio 1 : n, for any natural number n. Then we can describe the 'generation' of the numbers that follows. For n = 1, the Dyad is divided into two parts whose ratio is 1 : 1. This may interpreted as the 'generation' of Twoness out of Oneness (1 : 1 = 1) and the Dyad, since we have divided the Dyad into two equal parts. Having thus 'generated' the number 2, we can divide the Dyad according to the ratio 1 : 2 (and the larger of the ensuing sections, as before, according to the ratio 1 : 1), thus generating three equal parts and the number 3; generally, the 'generation' of a number n gives rise to a division of the Dyad in the ration 1 : n, and with this, to the 'generation' of the number n + 1. (And in each stage the 'One' intervenes afresh as he point which introduces a limit or form or measure into the otherwise 'indeterminate' Dyad to create a new number...

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, (Routledge, p. 122, n. 35)

Saturday, 17 January 2009

About writing

Writing is really re-writing.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Bergson: Mind, matter and memory

"Thereby also some light may be thrown upon the problem toward which all our enquiries converge, that of the union of body and soul. The obscurity of this problem, on the dualistic hypothesis, comes from the double fact that matter is considered as essentially divisible and every state of the soul as rigorously inextensive, so that from the outset the communication between the two terms is severed. ... But if these two postulates involve a common error, if there is a gradual passage from the idea to the image and from the image to the sensation; if, in the measure in which it evolves toward actuality, that is to say, towards action, the mental state draws nearer to extension; if, finally, this extension once attained remains undivided and therefore is not out of harmony with the unity of the soul; we can understand that spirit can rest upon matter and, consequently, unite with it in the act of pure perception, yet nevertheless be radically distinct from it. It is distinct from matter in that it is, even then, memory, that is to say, a synthesis of past and present with a view to the future, in that it contracts the moments of this matter in order to use them and to manifest itself by actions which are the final aim of its unison with the body. We were right, then, when we said, at the beginning of this book, that the distinction between body and mind must be established in terms not of space but of time."

Bergson, Matter and Memory, p.220

(with thanks to Alise Piebalga for the reference)

Ruskin's definition of imitation

"Whenever anything looks like what it is not, the resemblance being so great as nearly to deceive, we feel a kind of pleasurable surprise, an agreeable excitement of mind, exactly the same in its nature as that which we receive from juggling. Whenever we perceive this in something produced by art, that is to say, whenever the work is seen to resemble something which we know it is not, we receive what I call an idea of imitation. Why such ideas are pleasing, it would be out of our present purpose to enquire; we only know that there is no man who does not feel pleasure in his animal nature from gentle surprise, and that such surprise can be excited in no more distinct manner that by the evidence that a thing is not what it appears to be. Now two things are requisite to our complete and most pleasurable perception of this: first, that the resemblance be so perfect as to amount to a deception; secondly, that there be some means of proving at the same moment it is a deception. The most perfect ideas and pleasures of imitation are, therefore, when one sense is contradicted by another, both bearing as positive evidence on the subject as each is capable of alone; as when the eye says a thing is round, and the finger says it is flat; they are, therefore, never felt in so high a degree as in painting, where appearances of projection, roughness, hair, velvet, &c. are given with a smooth surface, or in wax-work, where the first evidence of the senses is perpetually contradicted by their experience; but the moment we come to marble, our definition checks us, for a marble figure does not look like what it is not: it looks like marble, and like the form of a man, but then it is marble, and it is the form of a man. It does not look like a man, which it is not, but like the form of a man, which it is. Form is form, bonâ fide and actual, whether in marble or in flesh — not an imitation or resemblance of form, but real form. The chalk outline of the bough of a tree on paper, is not an imitation, it looks like chalk and paper — not like wood, and that which it suggests to the mind is not properly said to be like the form of a bough, it is the form of a bough. ...
...Whenever...I speak of ideas of imitation, I wish to be understood to mean the immediate and present perception that something produced by art is not what it seems to be. I prefer saying "that it is not what it seems to be," to saying, "that it seems to be what it is not," because we perceive at once what it seems to be, and the idea of imitation, and the consequent pleasure, result from the subsequent perception of its being something else — flat, for instance, when we thought it was round."

Ruskin, ibid. p. 24

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Painting as perception

"To gaze upon the clouds of autumn, a soaring exaltation in the soul; to feel the spring breeze stirring wild exultant thoughts; — what is there in the possession of gold and jewels to compare with delights like these? And then, to unroll the portfolio and spread the silk, and to transfer to it the glories of flood and fell, the green forest, the blowing winds, the white water of the rushing cascade, as with a turn of the hand a divine influence descends upon the scene. These are the joys of painting."

Wang Wei (Chinese, fifth century), in The Mind of the Artist Thoughts and Sayings of Painters and Sculptors on Their Art by F. R. Stockton.

Ruskin on great art and ideas

"But I say that the art is greatest, which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas, and I call an idea great in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, and in occupying, exercises and exalts, the faculty by which it is received."

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, I, II, p. 11

Cobra: indeterminate forms in painting

Tegn, Christian Dotremont, 1971

"The forms which appear to us today as the most valuable, as much through their formal arrangement as by their expressive intensity, are not properly speaking either abstract or figurative. They participate precisely in these cosmic powers of metamorphosis where the true adventure is located. (From where there arise forms which are themselves and something other than themselves, birds and cacti, abstraction and new figuration.)"

Jean-Michel Atlan, 'Abstraction Adventure in Contemporary Art', Cobra, 1950

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Metaphysics and regress

The goal of metaphysics is not just to try and understand why we exist but why we know we do and why we ask about it, and then why we want to ask why, and so on. This evokes the potential of an upwardly spiralling regress.

A mind composed of contradictory beliefs

As I am drifting off to sleep I repeatedly hold two opposing thoughts: first, that as each day passes I grow a day older, and that this process extends indefinitely, and second, a belief that cuts across the first, that this process will definitely stop at some point, and I will cease to grow a day older each day.

Each belief is strongly held, despite the contradiction, and this seems to me to offer support for a view of the mind that is not unified — in the sense of consistent and harmoniously ordered — but fragmented and contradictory.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Bush and the Presidential portrait

George Bush confronts his Presidential portrait

Seeing yourself as another person, seen from both the point of view of others and yourself; to see yourself as others see you at the same time as seeing yourself as yourself, but also separate from you. All this must take place at the moment you see your portrait.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Light-heavy stone

The stone feels heavy next to the pebble but light next to the boulder. Is the stone heavy or light?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Dialethism and truth

If there is a concern that sympathy for dialethic position (in which something is true and false at the same time) undermines the value of truth, then it should be borne in mind that it may be true that something is both true and false; if so, dialethism upholds the value of truth.

The measure of the universe

We do not measure the universe in itself but our capacity to behold it, which is really a measure of our capacity to behold ourselves, and our own extent.

Sunday, 14 December 2008


Enamel sign for KUB Bouillon, photographed at L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antiques market, France, Summer 2008.

The summer of 1912 was a very productive period in the development of cubism. Picasso was living in the town of Sorgues, north of Avignon where Braque would join him. A common sight would have been the advertisements for KUB bouillon, a popular brand of seasoning. The opportunities for punning this presented did not escape the artists, and Picasso directly referenced KUB in a painting that year, which some have seen as an example of proto-Pop art :

Picasso, Landscape with Posters, 1912

Richardson (A Life of Picasso, Vol. 2, p. 352) recounts that the Germanic-sounding KUB came under suspicion at the start of WWI as Maggi, the corporation owning the brand, erected signs and posters across France carrying "code numbers of purely administrative significance." Fearing these were enemy signals the authorities ordered them removed or defaced. This caused Picasso, with his connections to German dealers, some anxiety as to whether his own references to KUB might come under similar suspicion.

Georges Braque, L'Affiche de Kubelick (Le Violon), 1912

Valuing painting

How can you put a price on a painting? — it's either worth nothing or everything.

The point of doing art

Surely the point of doing art is to make work unlike that being made by your contemporaries. If not, then what?

Shchukin and the psychological shock

"If a picture gives you a psychological shock, buy it. It’s a good one." Sergei Shchukin

Deirdre, Fernand. 2008. The lost picture show. The Sunday Times magazine, January 13 2008, p34.

(with thanks for Florence Martellini for the reference)

Rembrandt as a painter of experience

"Rembrandt’s paintings are not an image of the world but an interpretation of the experience of the world."

Jean François Chevrier, Museum of Seattle, “Craigie Horsfield”, p20

(with thanks to Florence Martellini for the reference)

Qualities imply what they are not

It seems true that no quality can exist of itself, that is, 'up-ness' cannot exist apart from 'down-ness', or 'red-ness' apart from 'green-ness'. Each quality possesses within itself something of all the qualities it is not, and this is especially so of opposites, which seem to announce their absent partner each time they are cited: the closed door is also not open, the heavy weight is also not light. It was Heraclitus who pointed out that the path up the hill is also the path down.

Artists and rational argument

"The creative artist, like the philosopher, is fully committed to a truth-seeking activity, trying to see below the surface of things and acquire a deeper understanding of human experience, however, he [sic] publishes, or publicly presents, his insights in a different form from the philosopher, a form that relies on direct perception and intuition rather than on rational argument."

Bryan Magee, The Story of Philosophy, 2001

As a generalisation this is probably unobjectionable, but as a rule it is dubious. Putting aside the question of whether 'truth' is the main objective in either activity (one can imagine both art and philosophy being practiced for reasons other than the search for truth), and the quibble about gender assignment, what remains doubtful is the opposition of 'direct perception' and 'intuition' versus 'rational argument'. It's possible to think of philosophical arguments that appeal to direct perception and intuition (especially in the eastern tradition — through the direct contemplation of nature, the elliptical remark, or koan form) as well as artistic statements that are the result of a reasoned, logical process (some of Sol LeWitt's 'structures' spring to mind, as well as other constructivists and process-based artists). This may be over-loading Magee's generalist claim, but it is worth resisting the easy separation of art and philosophy.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Where is the music?

If I hear a piece of music that I know but haven't heard for years, it can seem both new and familiar at the same time — some parts I recognise and some I don't. Where in this process is the music? It cannot be entirely external to me ('on the radio') since part of my experience of hearing it is determined by what I recover from memory, which presumably is internal to me (including the thoughts I associate with the music, which are not in the music itself)? Yet it cannot be entirely internal to me ('in my head') as there are sections I seem to have no memory recall for. These seem to be delivered 'fresh in' from the world — I hear but don't recognise.

The question of where the music is is not entirely clear, or more precisely the question of where my experience of the music originates is not clear. The common-sense answer that the music is playing outside of me but I experience it inside of me doesn't suffice since it makes just as much common sense to say the playing and the experience, to me at least, are one in the same. For there's no experience without the playing, and the playing is nothing without the experience.