A brain within a brain: our early animal mind and its modern master
Knowledge that we evolved from animal origins is difficult to equate with the unique human ability to create paintings, sculpture, music and dance. Such artistic activity seems to hold little survival value in a theory of life that places our genesis in a savage struggle for existence. It seems highly improbable that natural selection, the mechanism by which the theory of evolution brings about adaptive change, should open up a path of development that would lead to an animal with artistic sensibilities. There seems little survival value in the evolution of an ape that wanders around contemplating the beauty of a sunset. True, natural selection has no guiding hand. It is a blind process and it cannot foresee the outcome of its actions. Natural selection could have stumbled towards the evolution of an art-loving ape, but unless that act gave the ape an advantage in the struggle for survival such a creature would have long gone the way of extinction.
The fact that we are still here and we have evolved into creatures that possess great artistic sensibilities means there is more to painting, sculpture, music and dance than the mere creation of objects that we associate with the history of art. There is more to art than appearance. Paintings, sculptures, music and dance are the objects that we have inherited from past ages, when artists had no understanding of human origins. As such, all traditional art is steeped in myths and superstitions about the cultures and times of their creators. Such work does not reveal any understanding of the origin of art in relation to our animal beginnings, but is more likely to reflect beliefs in the cultures within which the artist was working. The art will entwine into sight, shape, sound and movement all kinds of primitive faiths and superstitions about creativity. We see art reflecting hunting and fertility rituals on cave walls. Gods are carved in the stones of pyramids or painted on the ceilings of churches and temples. Kings and queens are pictured upon wall after wall of many palaces. All these and many more images fill the history of art, but none questions the purpose of art itself. They all use art without question to serve the time and place in which the artists lived, worked and died. Only at the end of the nineteenth century, when our understanding that we evolved from animal origins finally became accepted, do we see the first glimmers of realisation from artists that art has a far more intriguing purpose than that of social servitude.
Art’s beginnings in the cave age place the acts of painting, sculpture, music and dance at a time when our evolving mind was accelerating away from its animal origins towards our modern intelligent awareness. Although the human brain had already evolved towards the capacity we possess today, our cave dwelling ancestors still lived by instinct. The presence of mind we possess was still to develop, and it is during this ‘awakening’ towards intelligent awareness that we see art emerge. It begins to appear as intelligence gains the power to overcome the sense of instinct that once dominated our mind, and it is therefore not unreasonable to think that art played a very decisive part in this transformation.
Learned scholars will have you believe art is a cultural phenomenon. They tend to see art as having arisen to serve the spiritual and enriching role of intelligence. Its cause is often described in lofty tones as the result of our superior intellect that has propelled us to great creative achievement. I do not deny this line of reasoning. Great works of art are indeed a testimony to the need of intelligence for spiritual and intellectual enrichment, but I believe the power that drives this need is not intelligence itself. I am more inclined to think we are driven to create great art because our intelligence has never learned to recognise the base animal sensations that underlie our modern mind. We live our lives with tamed and subdued experiences created from far more powerful base animal sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement. It is these base animal powers that artists sense and try to recognise, and every time an artist tries to give form to these base sensations he or she is driven to modify the tamed and subdued experience by which we live. The results are works of art that display an intensified rearranging of our day to day level of perception.
Artists try to reveal an intensity of perception they sense within themselves but they struggle do this because our intelligence has evolved away from being able to recognise the experience. What results is an art object: a masterpiece of painting, sculpture, music or dance that represents a rearrangement of our limited ability to recognise the far more powerful and emotive raw sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement that we still generate in our animal mind. What we need to realise is that great art objects only heighten our intelligent sense of order and control, but could never show the full raw power of perception that is generated by our animal level of mind.
My argument is that art is not a product of our superior intellect, but the result of our inability to use our powers of perception to translate and recognise the deeper animal sensations within us. I believe our intelligence stops us knowing the experience that drives us to create art objects. It does so because it has never learned to recognise these animal sensations but has only ever learned to transform them into a more intensified sense of order and control that we see in art objects. The acts of painting, sculpture, music and dance have attempted to give form to these more powerful animal sensations within us, but they could not. Instead they gave us a perceptual advantage over instinct, and art became a tool that showed us how to increase our subdued sense of perceptual awareness to a greater level of intelligent recognition. Our animal mind drove our intelligence to create art objects.
This state of mind propelled us to seek out a higher, organised sense of sight, shape, sound and movement. The result of this seeking became the traditional forms of art that we now preserve in art galleries around the world. Traditional painting, sculpture, music and dance display an intensified structuring of perception, and I will imply this is the result of our need to impose order and control over our sense of instinct. We were driven to create these art objects because without their forms of organisation our emerging intelligence would have had to find a way to identify sight, shape, sound and movement by instinct, and because intelligence was emerging to overpower instinct, it could not do this. Instead, intelligence used the sense of organisation art gave us to suppress the sensations of instinct rather than embrace them. Art objects became the tools of intelligent organisation of how we recognise the world right up to the end of the nineteenth century. Only after this time do we begin to see art trying to reverse this process, seeking to find ways of reflecting the sense of instinct hidden behind traditional art. By the turn of the twentieth century we see all the old values of traditional technique deteriorating as artists began to experiment with art forms trying to reveal sight, shape, sound and movement through instinct.
Our brain generates a very powerful perceptual awareness for the objects and events surrounding us that we no longer recognise because intelligence has evolved to hide this sensation. Modern art is a way of trying to recognise this hidden power of perception.
I have said that we have two ways of seeing the world around us one through intelligence and the other through instinct. Our intelligence evolved to block the instinctive way of seeing. The implication of this is that we have two brains. Of course I do not mean this in a literal sense. We only have one brain but it is not a single structure. It is a very complex collection of odds and ends that have to work together in some sort of order for us to survive. For simplicity imagine an intelligent brain that surrounds the old animal parts of our brain and works to keep them from influencing us. Our old animal brain still goes about doing its job. We must remember that our animal mind is millions of years older than the intelligence that surrounds it. Its workings are instinctive and inherent. We believe this animal part of our brain is mostly concerned with the ‘lower’ bodily functions like movement, reflexes, hunger, defecation and procreation, but we tend to forget that this animal brain once served as our only way of perceiving the world around us. It once possessed a way of interpreting sight, colour, shape, sound and movement that has been taken over by our intelligence. That old interpretation, and the view of our surroundings it generates, is still created in the depth of our mind but it is now altered and modified long before we are allowed to experience it.
This very basic picture of the structure of the brain helps us understand the idea of art as a product of our mind, created by an underlying perception that is more powerful than intelligence recognises. This underlying perception forces intelligence to look at sight, shape, sound and movement in a more intense way and the result of this way of ‘looking’ drives us to create paintings, sculpture, music and dance. These products are the result of our intelligence trying to grasp sensations that it ‘feels’ as a presence within itself. The problem is that intelligence struggles to give form to this ‘feeling’. I will imply that it is this elusive ‘feeling’ that is Art. It is the ingredient that can never be pinned down in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Artists sense it, and it ‘drives’ them to rearrange sight, shape, sound and movement into objects that we class as art.
What we need to understand is that these objects do not make up the identity of art itself but are rearrangements of sight, shape, sound, and movement that intelligence knows how to recognise. To be Art the object would have to show us sight, shape, sound and movement as sensed by instinct and this is something intelligence cannot do. These sensations come from deep within our mind and, because we are considering only physical causes for these sensations, they can only come from the older areas of our mind. There are no outside influences at work here. What drives us to create art is not a superior intellect or some distant god, but the animal areas of our brain we have inherited from our past. They generate powerful sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement that we have evolved away from being able to recognise.
So, art is an intense way of perception that we inherit from our animal beginnings but, because of evolution, we no longer know how to experience this intensity of knowing generated by instinct. Instead we replace it with a form of perceptual recognition that hides the original experience. The idea is that we evolved to replace this old animal perception with a more precise intelligent perception that did not recognise the world around it as instinct did. As a result this ‘modern’ part of our mind now stops us experiencing the world through the perception generated in the older parts of our mind. Artists sense this older animal perception more than most of us and in their attempts to seek out and reveal what they sense they are driven to create works of art.
This idea gives us a good physical cause of art that allows us to view the history of art as more than the result of cultural or economic necessity. With this idea we will be able to see that the advantage art gave us in the struggle for survival was feedback. As our intelligence evolved we gained a way to transform our old animal perception into a more successful intelligent form of control and organisation. It gave us an advantage in the struggle for survival, but this new way of perception did not replace the old animal experience. Intelligence evolved on top of it, and art became the buried ‘feeling’ that was once a more powerful way of knowing the world through instinct.
To begin to understand this we need to go back to a time and place before art and find a creature that was more animal than human. We will be a long way from the beginning of art as we know it, a long way from those beautiful cave paintings at Altamira in Spain or the Magdalenian caves in southern France. The cave dwellers who painted these works possessed a perception that was not so different from our own. They may not have understood their surroundings as we do, but they already possessed a power of recognition in their perception that was full of the control and organisation we take for granted in our day to day awareness of the world around us. What we need to find is a creature that knew perception through an animal awareness. For this we need to go much further back in time. To find this creature we need the help of the archaeologist and the anthropologist to guide us to a place where humans emerged from pre-history. The place was almost certainly around Ethiopia, and the time about 4.5 million years ago.
Our animal ancestors lived here, small chimpanzee sized creatures known to us through fossil bones that were found with fossilised wood and seeds suggesting a forest environment. The minds of these long lost ancestors knew their world through instinct alone, and to have survived to reach this distant point in history, these instincts had to be inherent. They had to have evolved over billions of years to become inborn structures that gave our ancestors the ability to react to sight, shape, sound and movement without reasoned thought. It is this instinctive view that lies at the root of all art. It knows sight, shape, sound and movement in a far more intense and powerful way than we are now capable of comprehending, but its power of perception is kept subdued by our intelligent interpretation of these sensations. The world would present a far more intense experience to us if we could ‘turn off’ the intelligent view we create in our minds. If we could do this we would have access to our old powers of perception generated by instinct. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible to do because we have evolved to keep the view subdued behind vast powers of recognition. In the next chapter we will try to understand how an instinctive view of the world might be understood to our modern way of thinking. Before we embark upon this quest we need an idea of where these inherent instincts are still created in our minds. To do this we need a brief look at the architecture of the human brain.
If we look at the brain with the naked eye we see nothing more than a dull grey material covered in convoluting ridges (known as gyri) and grooves (know as sulci) and we notice that, at first glance, the brain is composed of two distinct halves. Deep within the divide between these two halves lies a structure known as the corpus callosum that joins the left and right sides of the brain. Look closer and there are further structural distinctions. At the back is an area called the occipital lobe that is largely responsible for visual processing. Further forward at each side, around the position of the ears, are the temporal lobes that play a part in the processing of language and sound. At the top of the brain are the parietal lobes that are mainly responsible for creating our awareness of perception and distance within time and space. These areas also play a part in our sense of movement and touch. Right at the front are the frontal lobes that are responsible for reasoning and planning. Finally, deep between the temporal and parietal lobes there is a region called the insula which works in processing and controlling the sensations of taste and temperature.
If we go underneath the surface of the brain we would see a further set of structures each with a twin in the opposite hemisphere. Four of these structures – the amygdala, hypothalamous, thalamus and hippocampus – are connected to form what is called the limbic system. This limbic system is understood as the seat of our emotions, instincts, appetites and reactions that help us survive. The amygdala is an area active when we feel emotions. The hypothalamus acts as a processing centre for many of the other regions of the brain, receiving information and sending out appropriate responses. The thalamus acts as a connection site between all incoming sensory information that is passed to the higher areas of the cortex, the one exception being the sense of smell which is the most primitive of our senses. The hippocampus is responsible for the storage and retrieval of long term memory. Above and slightly encircling the amygdala and hippocampus are the basal ganglia that act as an interface between the rest of the brain and the brainstem. Finally, the cerebellum (which means little brain) has long been seen as a purely motor, movement and balance centre.
Under the cerebellum is the bottom most region of the brain that forms the brainstem at the top of the spinal cord, and this is the oldest section of the human brain. This area of our brain is a vital part of our most basic sense of survival, an area that controls eating, sleeping, defecation, orgasm and breathing. It is the most primal part of our brain which we have inherited from our reptilian ancestors.
In the 1950s the distinguished neuroscientist Professor Paul MacLean (ref: The Triune Brain, 1990) proposed that we think of the human brain as structured into three areas of growth related to our evolution from primal beginnings. He called his theory ‘The Triune Brain’ and believed that, as we evolved from amphibians into land mammals and on into primates, our brain was not enlarged by complete restructuring but developed by adding new deformations around the ancient inner core. First came the so-called ‘reptilian’ brain, the innermost region that in all reptiles gives support for the most basic functions of breathing, blood circulation and digestion. It is also involved in basic behaviour like mating, aggression and anger. In humans this reptilian brain sits at the top of the spinal cord, at the very base of the brain.
Because of the way evolution adapts organisms for survival, any new advantages in brainpower had to be ‘grafted’ onto this primitive structure. MacLean envisioned this as a new area of growth wrapped around the reptilian brain. He called this the ‘limbic brain’ and this gave a creature a new repertoire of emotions. A creature without a limbic brain would not care about the fate of its offspring. It would abandon it's young to fate and would not be averse to even eating them. With the evolution of the limbic brain, with its capacity to generate emotions, we begin to see creatures that display the ability to protect their young to increase the chances of survival. Indeed, feelings such as love, sadness and jealousy appear to have their roots in the limbic brain. Evolution of a still larger brain added yet another layer of structure around the old reptilian/mammalian concoction. This third development added what was to lead to the most incredible runaway expansion in brainpower - the neocortex. This area of the brain begins to emerge to provide the rudimentary development of logical thinking. In the primates it would give rise to tool making and the use of communication, and in we human beings, to an explosive mutation of neurological interactions that give us the power of language, writing, planning and, of course, art.
Today this rigid subdivision of the brain into three areas that represent the ages of development has given rise to a number of legitimate objections, but Professor MacLean’s visualisation is still a useful way of understanding how the brain evolved. The subdivision between reptilian within mammalian within intelligence is now seen as more complex. The ancestry is still there but is no longer seen as a rigid boundary between one ancient structure and the next development. It is, however, generally acknowledged that the process of evolution has created very deep and ancient areas of the brain that still work away processing information in the old instinctive way. This way of processing is inherent. It comes packaged in the genetic information that guides the growth of the brain in the womb. It must include ways of recognising sight, shape, sound and movement that once allowed the reptilian and mammalian structures to function without learning. It is this inherent interpretation of perception that modern art is concerned with trying to rediscover.
Because we generally no longer believe art is a gift of superior intelligence, the only other place this power of perception can be generated is in the oldest parts of our brain. How could our brain have inherited the structures that can work away generating a vision of the objects and events around us that is blocked from entering our intelligent awareness?
FIGURE 4 LEFT SIDE OF A HUMAN BRAIN SHOWING THE INNER STRUCTURE
1.THE SPINAL CORD conveys impulses from the brain to other parts of the body, and relays messages from them back to various brain structures. 2.THE MEDULLA helps regulate breathing, swallowing, blood pressure, responses and more complex functions like sleep. 3.THE PONS serves to link the cortex to the cerebellum. Neurons within the pons are associated with facial expressions and eye movements. 4.THE MIDBRAIN forwards sensory impulses from the spinal cord to other parts of the brain and controls reflex responses to stimuli. 5.THE CEREBELLUM is responsible for balance and posture, incorporating the sense of the body’s position in space and co-ordinating all of its motions. 6.THE HIPPOCAMPUS is involved in emotional reactions and also in learning, processing information and storing memories. 7.THE AMYGDALA, working with the hippocampus, generates emotions from perception and thoughts. 8.THE HYPOTHALAMUS controls adjustments to heart rates and body temperature, and regulates sleep and hormone levels. 9.THE PITUITARY GLAND, under the direction of the hypothalamus, secretes hormones that circulate around the body to control glands. 10.THE THALAMUS deals with all senses except smell. Many types of information for the cerebral cortex are routed through here. 11.THE CORPUS CALLOSUM is a band of fibres that connect the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. 12.THE CEREBRAL CORTEX, the surface of the cerebrum, carries out sophisticated processes like language
Genetics is the mechanism that guides the forming of an organism from conception to adulthood. Inside the nucleus of every cell in every living thing is a master plan that controls the ability of the cell to maintain itself and a healthy relationship to other cells around it for a predetermined length of time. Providing no accidents befall the amalgamation of cells they will go on doing their job until time finally wears the process to a halt. This master plan is stored in genetic information in chromosomes that are passed from parent to offspring. This plan is encoded in the form of a molecular substance called deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The DNA molecule holds all the information needed to guide the growth of a living organism after an egg is fertilised. This complete information is passed into each new cell as it divides within the egg, to trigger the pattern of development of all the different appendages the organism grows as it matures into adulthood. The physical characteristics of a living thing and its ability to maintain itself are determined by the information stored in the DNA within every cell of a body. Whether the egg will grow into an insect, a fish, a bird or a human being will depend upon the DNA the egg inherits from its parents. Likewise, whether a cell will become part of a liver, a brain, an eye or the gut within any of these living things is determined in the same way.
Within this guided process of growth and development of a living thing, we need to realise that instinctive reactions and inherent ways of sensing the world have to be created in the same way. Before intelligence emerged from this process of genetically guided growth, instinct was the only way of reacting to the world around you. Instinct had to interpret sight, shape, sound and movement into some form of recognisable information within the brain so the creature could react. When an insect emerges from a chrysalis it will not learn to understand the world around it to build this information in its mind, but will react by instinct to whatever events it encounters. It will set about the job of finding food and avoiding being eaten so that it can reproduce to ensure the survival of its kind. If left unchecked, insects would engulf the world but, thankfully for us, other creatures have evolved that know by instinct how to find and eat insects, so they can also follow their plan of survival.
Life went on following these patterns structured in the DNA of every cell in every living thing for millions upon millions of years. Life did not need intelligence to understand the world because ‘knowing’ how to react to the world was just another pattern built into the behaviour of a living thing from its genetic inheritance.
Within this instinctive picture of events the mind is but a very primal form - a presence of mind we cannot even begin to imagine because it is an unconscious entity within a living thing. The creature cannot ‘know’ its own mind but just reacts to set patterns generated within its brain that have been inherited from its parents. The creature is an automatism controlled by mechanical and involuntary actions. To such a mind, sights, shapes, sounds and movements would be nothing like the sensations we comprehend. The sensations would not be learned or understood through intelligent awareness but only ‘felt’ in a much more direct way. It is this lost way of ‘feeling’ sight, shape, sound and movement that is of interest to the artist. The feeling that is Art is full of sights, shapes, sounds and movements we have no way to comprehend, because our intelligent perception transforms and overpowers the animal sensations into experiences we have to know how to identify before we can become conscious of them. Our old animal way of perception is still created and generated in our mind through genetically inherent information, but we no longer have any idea of how to access the powerful interpretation of sight, shape, sound, and movement it propagates within us. The vision was lost to us as our species began to learn to transform that instinctive sense of perception into intelligent awareness. The vision was buried in the depth of our mind and it is this I believe modern artists have become aware of.
Science now knows that within the genetic formula that guides all living things the inheritance of fixed, automated behaviour appears in basic life forms and is transformed into a ‘learned’ way of knowing the world as complexity evolves. The debate over how much behaviour is inherent and how much is learned is known as ‘Nature versus Nurture’. Our interest in Nature versus Nurture lies in perception. We want to know how much knowledge of sight, shape, sound and movement we comprehend through inherent instinctive ‘knowing’ and how much is learned. In human beings nurture takes over from nature in the ‘wiring’ of our intelligent mind soon after birth and the inborn genetically controlled structures that sense sight, shape, sound and movement in the oldest areas of our mind are buried behind this ever expanding network of learned knowledge. Our capacity for learning begins at a very early age and takes over the structure and control of our conscious mind. The vast computational power of intelligence emerges to swamp what the modern artist wants to understand, and in its place we learn to comprehend the world in an intelligent way. This learned intelligent perception then serves to stop us sensing by instinct. This process has evolved in human beings because it offered a greater chance of survival. Intelligent perception, especially in the case of sight, is far more precise than instinct. Instinctive vision will react to movement without understanding and will be faster than intelligence but not necessarily as precise. Sometimes it is better to know what you are running from, rather than just running from everything that moves.
My dog has an incredible sense of smell. He is often alerted by scent long before I am aware of what he is sensing. Nine times out of ten it will be a female dog because that’s where his interests lie, but occasionally he surprises me. He knows when something is amiss and alerts me. My intelligent learning seems dulled in comparison and yet, if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, he can’t tell a person walking with a child from a person with a dog in the distance. He continues to stare and to sniff at the air long after I have recognised the situation and it is often some time before the approaching mother and child is perceived as irrelevant to his love life.
Intelligent perception is more successful than instinct because it generates the ability to distinguish the world around us in a more organised way. And yet, for all its success, many of us feel we ‘miss something’ in this organised vision of the world. Something is being overpowered by intelligence in order for it to control our sense of perception and it is this ‘feeling’ that artists sense more than the rest of us. It can only come from our older ‘animal’ powers of perception. With today’s understanding of life and how it evolved here on Earth there is no other plausible explanation.
Where I live, I can walk the moors and cliffs along the coastline. I find it gives me a great sense of awareness for instinct but I am well aware that it is not a true animal awareness. My sense of sight, shape, sounds and movement is stolid compared to what goes on around me. Only my dog senses the true power of animal instinct, and yet he does not know it. He contents himself in a world of smells and sounds beyond my awareness and leaves me to ‘imagine’ what instinct feels like through an intelligent mind that is always getting in the way. I know my intelligence modifies what I want to sense and gives me an ‘idea’ of what I am trying to experience. The ‘idea’ is not the experience but an interpretation of what intelligence thinks my old animal sense of instinct once felt like. There is a world of difference.
I believe we still inherit instinctive ways of knowing sight, shape, sound and movement but we have long forgotten how to recognise the objects and events around us through this ‘animal’ awareness. Instinct may not necessarily be a better way of knowing the world but, for an artist, I believe instinct is a more powerful way of sensing sight, shape, sound and movement that we no longer experience. From the artist’s point of view, trying to regain a sense of instinct for the objects and events going on around you is a powerful way to endow artwork with a more emotive and forceful presence. This is what artists have always tried to do.
An animal view: Instinct and its perception of the world
A mind dominated by blind instinct would be a dark and fearful place to us. Such an animal vision of the world is not generated by the kind of conscious awareness that illuminates our understanding of objects and events. As such, instinct gives an entirely different experience of sight, shape, sound and movement. The instinctive mind structures its perception of the world from genetically inherent information that has been passed down from generation to generation so that an awareness of objects and events can be ‘wired’ into the growth of the brain. Long before a creature encounters the ‘real’ world the instinctive mind will already know how to react in the appropriate way to any events going on around it. Unlike our intelligent mind, which has to learn to react to events, the instinctive mind is ready to generate the appropriate responses.
We possess much of this inherent awareness at birth but spend our formative years replacing it with a new, more adaptive awareness that we learn to construct for ourselves. Although an instinctive creature lives and reacts in the real ‘outside’ world, just as we do, it never comes to know that place. We understand – or like to think we understand – the difference between the ‘real’ outside world and the learned ‘inner’ idea we possess of it. There is no such distinction for instinct. Instinct supplies everything the creature needs to know in order to survive, without that creature having to become aware of what the ‘outside’ world is. It is a very difficult concept for us to grasp because we no longer know this vision of the world. For instinct to adapt to changing circumstances, a creature must die so that the genes that create the reaction that failed to meet the needs of survival are not passed on to the next generation. Some other creature that survived will pass its genes on, and in this way a new ‘adaptation’ will be generated in the new instinctive mind.
Blind instinct only has ‘inner’ impulses to react with and these impulses have evolved to match events in the real ‘outside’ world. If outside events change then the instinctive mind will continue to react in its set ways, and ultimately the creature will perish if the reactions fail to ensure survival. The species cannot modify behaviour but must wait for those among its many kind that did survive the changing environment to pass on their genes. Within this passed on information the instinctive mind can generate its new form of adaptation and the inherent sense of instinct will have been modified to the changing environment. It is a slow costly process of trial and error. Millions must die for a few to develop the new skills and survive. To us, with our learned intelligence and cognitive reasoning, it seems a wasteful process but it has served life on Earth for millions upon millions of years. It is a tried and tested process of evolution, while our intelligence is but a few hundreds of thousands of years old.
The intelligent perception we use today is a very modern tool of the mind that has evolved to generate a very specific way of recognising the objects and events around us. This perception is created in our mind as a language, built from learned experience, that totally dictates the way we recognise everything we encounter in our day to day lives. Our language of perception tells us how close or how far away from us an object is. It tells us how big or small something is likely to be, what noise to expect to hear from what we see happening, and to expect an object to be soft or hard, or light or heavy. In fact everything we know of in our day to day lives is structured from this language and it creates an experience of learned understanding with which we shield ourselves. It insulates us against uncertainty. We expect the objects and events around us to conform to this learned language of perception, and when something fails to conform to what we expect to experience we find ourselves unsettled.
I once remember walking across a film set and seeing a very fragile old lady lift a steel girder. For a second or two I felt a twinge of disbelief, until my intelligence stopped the feeling with its knowledge of polystyrene. Had I had a more primitive mind the illusion might have led me to believe this old lady was some sort of god. As it turned out, she was a film extra. My point is that we learn to believe what we believe and, in this instance, I had learned to expect that steel girders are heavy things. Our learning taints our understanding of the world around us and dictates what we expect to see. What we experience in our day to day lives is not therefore so much the reality of objects and events, as it is an idea we hold that gives this reality a form of recognition. The reality itself becomes a hidden experience, shielded from us by learned understanding. This learned understanding is called into use within our perception automatically. We don’t think about using it, we just see something ‘out there’ in the real world and match it to this language of perception we have created with our intelligence. The result – unless you are walking around a film set – is usually a reasonably good understanding of what we see.
In art, this language of perception that we use to recognise objects and events in our day to day lives is used in a different way to help us discern pictures, sculpture, music and dance. The language is called into use to transform our experience of the art object rather than to just recognise it. The sense of recognition our language of perception creates is used by our intelligence so that - in a landscape painting for example - instead of seeing blobs of colour on a flat surface we see distant mountains and trees. We ignore the reality of the paint and substitute a form of recognition that identifies the arrangement of shape, colour, light and shade as something representational of all the clues our language of perception uses in the real world. Likewise with sculpture, music and dance: instead of a mass of stone we recognise a carved figure, instead of a jumble of sounds we hear music, instead of just sensing movement we discern the patterns of a dance. In art, our intelligence is transforming the way we perceive the reality of an object in a way that is more obvious than in our daily lives. In our day to day living the transformation is much subtler. Our language of perception does exactly the same thing as it does when we look at art but, unlike the transformation of a flat object into a picture of a landscape, we transform the raw sensation of an object or event into a controlled form of recognition. You could say that what we experience of the objects and events around us is a composition of learned understanding, and it is this composition we experience instead of the reality of what confronts us.
Our language of perception has therefore evolved to give us a very precise way of organising the sensations that reach our brain. What we experience of the world around us is an interpretation of what confronts us, rather than the reality that surrounds us. What we experience is a very carefully structured translation of perceptual awareness moulded into a language of perception, a way of understanding that has been modelled to make sense of the barrage of information we encounter in the real world. To understand this more clearly, lets look at some figures that confuse this language so that we find ourselves forced to confront a sense of uncertainty in what we experience - optical illusions. These figures work by presenting a shape or an object that our experience has taught us to recognise in one particular way, and then introducing an element of uncertainty that disrupts our interpretation of what we see. One of the best known of these illusions is the Necker cube.
Psychologists use ‘ambiguous figures’ like this to explain how patterns of stimulation at the eye give rise to different interpretations of perception in our mind. There are many examples like this, but the Necker cube will serve our purpose. Our interest lies in its ability to offer an insight into another way of seeing that we want to understand in relation to our idea of modern art. The Necker cube brings a contradiction to our learned understanding of perception. It can be seen in several different ways, so that even as our learned understanding settles on one viewpoint it is disturbed because an alternative viewpoint keeps being recognised. If you look at the small circle you will either see it at the centre of one of the faces of the cube or in the right upper corner of another face. The view alternates between a high viewpoint, where you see the top of the cube, or a low viewpoint, where you see the underneath.
Figure 5 A Necker cube
Our interest in this tool of the psychologist lies in the realisation that there is an instinctive view of this object which we fail to see because the power of our intelligence always works to subdue it. Because instinct has no knowledge of the illusion of depth in pictures we should be able to ignore the visual dilemma created by the Necker cube. We should see the cube as a flat two-dimensional pattern of lines but we do not because intelligence has learned to project forms of recognition over everything it sees. We try to recognise a cube instead of a flat pattern and, because the Necker cube generates contradicting views, our intelligence gets confused. We see an impossible object instead of the reality of a flat pattern of lines.
Another example of this inability to sense by instinct arises when we look at a picture with perspective. Perspective is an invention of drawing that creates a very realistic representation of depth in a flat picture. Perspective divides the picture up into lines that converge on a single point on another line that represents the horizon. Any image of an object drawn within these imaginary lines will show the correct size in relation to its distance from a given viewpoint.
Figure 6 Simple perspective
Because our intelligence has evolved to interpret our perception into a three-dimensional idea of the world around us, we recognise the pattern in Figure 6 as representational of two parallel lines receding towards a distant horizon. We think of it like a road or rail track and we generate in our mind the information to ‘make sense’ of what we see. We imagine a great distance to a horizon instead of the reality of what we see. The reality is a flat object with no depth, but because we have evolved to overpower this view of the world we imagine great depth in a flat image. A simple diagram like this, just like a landscape painting that is full of distant mountains and trees, shows us an instinctive view of perception that our intelligence stops us from recognising in the real world. We imagine a sense of distance in the pattern, when in fact there is no depth in what we see. The view as sensed by instinct cannot have this sense of depth because instinct cannot learn to understand it as intelligence does. For instinct, this view of great distances that we learn to live with is seen in a different way.
To understand this we need to think like a landscape painter. When a landscape painter paints an object in a scene that is a long way away he or she does not think of the object as being a great distance away but as being smaller than all the other objects in the scene. Distance, to a landscape painter, is an illusion that is created in a picture by thinking about what we see in the real world in a different way. If the painter is painting a tree in a landscape then he or she will paint big trees or little trees. The little trees will create the illusion that they are a long way away and the big trees close to us, but that is not the world the painter creates. That is an illusion we imagine because we have learned to project this idea of a relationship between size and distance over all we see and do. The world the painter creates is a world with no depth where objects have no fixed size.
This relationship between the size of objects in a picture gives us a clue to a way that instinct might once have understood how we see the world around us. We can use this idea to help us create a vision of perception that is different from the one we learn to build from childhood. This vision will work to show us our surroundings as we have never seen them before. It will give us another way of thinking about how we perceive the world around us and this will serve our purpose of creating a sense of uncertainty in all we see and do. It is this uncertainty we want to foster, as this will open our mind to sensing by instinct.
You need a little imagination to grasp this view of our surroundings but there are many tantalising clues to help us see the possibility of what we seek to realise. The first of these clues actually comes from the history of painting. It is noticeable in paintings that were made before the discovery of perspective. In the history of the visual arts there are traces of how the human mind had great difficulty picturing an accurate representation of the depth we see in the real world on the flat surface of a painting. It is not until the Italian Renaissance, when the laws and principles of perspective were founded by Filippo Brunelleschi and brought to perfection in the art of Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo Da Vinci, that a realistic illusion of how to do this first appears.
Up until the establishing of perspective in the visual arts, drawing and painting reveal a curious interpretation of the idea of space in the picture created by the artist. It is as if the human mind was subconsciously remembering a different way of recognising the great distances in the scene the artist was trying to paint. Perspective does not exist in the real world. It is a device used in painting and drawing that creates a realistic placing of the size of objects in relation to one another as we recognise them in the real world. Perspective makes pictures more believable. Our intelligence has learned to recognise this concept of size and distance in the real world, but it seems artists could not relate this concept to painting until the invention of perspective.
Figure.7 This painting shows the naïve concept of space that is often found in art before the discovery of perspective. A Duccio circa 1308-1311. Tempera on wooden panel. From the back of the Maestà altarpiece in the Museo Dell Opera Del Duomo, Siena. Image courtesy of The Masters Collection.
Before the Italian Renaissance and the invention of perspective artists had no idea how to translate real world size and distance onto the flat surface of the picture. They seem to have been trying to draw and paint objects in a different way, almost as if their mind was still thinking of the size of objects as they understood them when close to. We know that, in a painting or a drawing, an object that is large when close to us must be drawn smaller to adhere to the laws of perspective. Before the discovery of perspective artists often painted distant objects to a size that was not proportional to their distance in the picture space. Their mind was on other things such as the majesty of the subject they painted. The discovery of perspective completely displaced the old naïve picture space that preceded it. Because these pre-perspective painters were giving all conscious thought to the subject, the backgrounds often contain tantalising glimpses of an interpretation of size and distance that we now find odd.
This naïve representation of space in painting is a good clue to the alternative interpretation of perception we are trying to understand. This ‘incorrect’ picture space disturbs our modern awareness of the right proportions in relation to the size and distance of objects in a scene. Let us take a closer look at this idea. Try to imagine what the world would look like if you did not have any knowledge of the relationship between the size of an object and its distance from you.
Figure 8 A painting showing perspective as it was structured in pictures from the Italian Renaissance. Objects are now scaled and proportioned in relation to their distance from the artist’s viewpoint to give a realistic illusion of the real world.Oil Painting on Canvas. 1730-5 by Canaletto 1697-1668. The Piazza San Marco in Venice. Image courtesy of The Masters Collection
The outside reality of the world is not going to change. Everything around you would appear exactly as it does to your intelligent understanding. What would be different is the way your mind interprets the information you see in front of you. Without a concept that relates the size of an object to its distance, you would need another way of understanding what you see. This other way of understanding can be glimpsed from the way painters thought about the backgrounds of their paintings before the invention of perspective.
At first glance this other way of understanding size and distance seems unbelievable. At present you believe everything in the world around you has a fixed unchanging size as it moves around. For example: a vehicle travelling away from you towards the horizon gets smaller and smaller in your field of vision but you know, from intelligent learning, that the vehicle only looks smaller because it is moving over distance towards the horizon. Ask yourself this question: If you did not have this knowledge, how would your mind interpret what it sees? The obvious answer is that the car is getting smaller and smaller within your field of view. This sounds crazy but bear with me, because we are talking about how a mind interprets what it sees and not the reality of events. Let me use two illustrations to make the point. I will ask Alice to be our guide because she knows what Wonderland looks like. In the following examples the ‘picture frame’ represents your field of vision. Think of each ‘picture frame’ as a ‘scene’ of the world around you that is being constructed in your mind. In Figure 9 the posts are the same sizeand distance from each other.
Figure 9 Alice through the picture frame. Seen from outside the picture frame (View 1) Alice will think it is a long way to the horizon because she works out the distance by comparing her size to the posts. (View 1a).
What Alice would see in the ‘picture frame’ (View 1) is the familiar view we all understand through intelligent learning: two or more objects in the correct relationship to size and distance as displayed in a landscape that covers a great distance to the horizon. The image in (View 1a) shows the idea of size and distance Alice has built in her mind from the information she sees in the picture. She imagines that if she stands down at the other end of the floor, she will still be the same size as she is beside the picture frame.
In Figure10 the posts are different sizes and very close together. The scene in the ‘picture frame’ (View 2) will look the same but the information it contains is very different. This second view fools Alice. She creates a different understanding of the world from the same information in the picture frame. Alice thinks as she did in the previous example. She thinks it is a long way to the horizon, but this world is nothing like the one she believes in. Her mind creates the belief in great distances, but in reality (View 2a) it is only a short distance to the horizon.
Figure 10 Alice through the picture frame. Seen from outside the picture frame (View 2) Alice still thinks it is a long way to the horizon. She thinks the posts are the same size but in reality they, and everything in relation to the posts, get smaller towards the horizon.
As she walks this distance Alice gets smaller and smaller. You might imagine that if she turned around and looked back she could realise her mistake, but time is also a factor that we must calculate in this view. Alice has moved through time and, in this world, everything gets smaller and smaller as time goes on. If she turns around she will see the posts receding to an even smaller picture frame and a distant horizon in the other direction. If she walks back to the picture frame she and the frame will have become smaller yet again. In this view the horizon becomes a point of infinite regress she can never reach. The future, in this instinctive idea of size and distance, is smaller than the past.
As a point of interest there is another experiment from psychology that helps to demonstrate how deceptive our language of perception can be. An American psychologist, A. Ames, who started as a painter, produced a series of ingenious perceptual demonstrations aimed at disturbing our visual awareness of objects and events. His most famous demonstration is an oddly shaped room that is designed to make familiar objects appear to change size as they move from one side to the other. The room is constructed so that the far wall slopes away from the observer but it is decorated so that, from the observer’s view, it looks rectangular. You do not notice the distortion until someone in the room walks from side to side.
Our mind has learned to recognise rectangular rooms, and its belief in the information from the senses is so strong it actually accepts the impossible and generates the view that people are changing size as they walk from one side to the other. Of course the people do not change size but walk away from the point of observation, down the length of an angled wall, and yet the belief in the rectangle is so strong that the illusion causes great shock and disbelief.
These ideas demonstrate to try to show you that there are other ways of interpreting the information that comes to our mind from our senses. Our intelligent way of understanding the world around us seems unquestionably real but it is only one way of many. An animal mind with an instinctive view of reality will have none of the learned understanding we take for granted, but the different interpretation of perception will make no difference to a creature’s ability to move about. Even if a mind ruled by instinct had no recognition of size and distance it would react to other clues. The size of an object in the field of view would be an obvious alternative. From instinct’s point of view a small object would not be thought of as a long way away, because instinct has no such learned concept. Knowledge of distance is replaced with a reaction to size. A small object is not a threat within the field of vision, but if it begins to get bigger it is time to run away.
Figure 11 Having a fun day in an Ames Room at Keswick, Northumberland.
Even more interesting examples of how instinct could generate a very different awareness of size and distance can be found in anthropology. In one classic study of African forest-dwelling pygmies the anthropologist Colin M Turnbull makes an observation that reflects the idea that our mind inherits an ‘older’ interpretation of size and distance in its perception of the world around us. In his book ‘The Forest People’ * Turnbull spent many years studying the pygmies who live in the Ituri forest. It is believed these people may be the earliest inhabitants of the once vast tropical rainforests that covered the landmass from coast to coast. Our first record of the Ituri pygmies comes from the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Nefrikare and is preserved on a report written by his commander Herkouf. Herkouf had been sent on an expedition in the fourth dynasty, some 2500 years ago, to discover the source of the Nile. Later records show that the pygmies were a long-established race at the time of the pharaohs.
Colin Turnbull describes an incident when one of the pygmies named Kenge was persuaded to accompany the author out of the rain forest:
'The guide Henri pointed out the elephants, hoping to make him feel at home but Kenge was not impressed – he asked what good were they if we were not allowed to go and hunt them. Henri pointed out the antelopes, which had moved closer and were staring at us as curiously as ever. Kenge clapped his hands together and said they would give good food for months and months. And then he saw water buffalo still grazing lazily miles away, far down below. He turned to me and said, “what insects are those?”. At first I hardly understood, then I realised that in the forest vision is so limited that there is no great need to make an automatic allowance for distance when judging size. Out here, in the open plains, Kenge was looking for the first time over apparently unending miles of unfamiliar grassland, with not a tree worth the name to give him any basis for comparison. The same thing happened later on when I pointed out a boat in the middle of a lake. It was a large fishing boat with a number of people in it. Kenge at first refused to believe it. He thought it was a floating piece of wood'
* Text quoteThe Forest People Colin Turnbull 1961 Jonathan Cape Ltd
From observations like this, and from the history of art, it is clear we could have evolved away from a view of the world around us that did not recognise the relationship of size to distance that we take for granted in our awareness of perception. The Ituri pygmies and other forest-dwelling tribes probably still possess the last remnants of an older ‘animal’ sense of perception. The predecessors of these ancient peoples probably possessed and used an even stronger animal sense of perception that we still inherit, but that we no longer know how to recognise in our experience of the world around us.
A full instinctive vision of the world would have no sense of depth, which we create in our minds by relating our knowledge of size to distance. Even objects passing behind each other would offer no clue of depth to instinct; the concept would simply not be a calculation as we know it. It is also possible that instinct has a far more holistic view than we are able to understand. Our intelligent mind fragments our perception so that we see selective objects and events in a scene. This reduces the overload of information so that we can single out more immediate and precise identification of what confronts us.
Abstract paintings are more holistic than representational images. In a Jackson Pollock drip painting there is no identifiable subject and our senses are confronted by a far greater ‘overall’ impression of the artwork than we would normally get from a representational picture. This is far more effective in generating a sense of instinctive awareness because intelligence has no form of identifiable image with which to fragment the scene into divisible parts and help it subdue this older animal way of perception.
Before our intelligence took full control of our powers of perception we probably knew the world in a much more holistic way. Our mind generated a view that did not distinguish individual objects and events but encompassed a single sensual experience of the world to which we reacted through instincts. We no longer know how to recognise this. For us the world is a place of divisible experience through which we sense individual objects and events. To see the world this way you need a level of intelligent awareness that can take some forms of recognition from the holistic experience and ignore the rest. This is how we see the world around us today. We look at a single object and project our learned knowledge of recognition towards it while everything else in our field of view is ‘seen’ in a lesser state of awareness. The only way to describe this ‘lesser’ state of awareness is to think of it as a lost view of objects and events.
Figure 12 Detail of a Jackson Pollock painting. White Light 1954: The Museum of Modern Art, New York. © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation ARS, NY and DACS London 2009. Photo © courtesy of Andre Techen
We see this view all around us but we cannot look directly at it. To look at it, our intelligent mind must fragment the whole experience our animal mind generates. This destroys the holistic view we should see by instinct. We replace it with the intelligent view we have evolved to live with today.
If we try to look at this whole view of everything that surrounds us we have to shift our state of awareness to identify a given object or event. Everything else in our mind then slips back into this ‘lesser' state of awareness. The one thing we look at will be identified through our learned knowledge but all other things will be ignored. We know all the other things are there, but we cannot know how they appear to the sense of instinctive animal perception we still possess in the depths of our mind. The view is lost to us because to try to see it we have to shift our intelligent awareness to identify it. When we do this, what we originally looked at falls out of intelligent awareness back into its form of instinctive perception. This inherent, instinctive view of our surroundings cannot be seen, because our mind has to transform the view to become aware of it.
Many artists have played with the idea of capturing the ‘lesser’ state of awareness we possess for the object and events around us. Among the most interesting is the sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
Figure 13 Alberto Giacometti Walking Man c. 1949 Artist © Succession Giacometti, ADAGP/FAAB, Paris and DACS, London 2009.Photo © Burstein Collection/Corbis
Giacometti created thin figures of people by removing clay from his model until there was little remaining but a gossamer form. His works retained the height of a human figure but ended up with little material substance. He believed that, when seen from a distance, the human figure presented this ‘lesser’ state of awareness to our mind. He understood that we never learn to see this appearance and, as the figure gets closer to us we transform this ‘lesser’ view into forms of recognition by looking at the object through learned understanding. We shift our focus and the figure emerges out of a ‘lesser’ state of awareness into a view that is dominated by learned knowledge. Giacometti worked to keep this ‘lesser’ state of awareness in his sculptures when we look at them. His sculptures try to reveal the view our mind sees when it is not focused on an object. The problem he faced was that to look at this view we have to focus on the object, and this focusing destroys the appearance the object has when we are not thinking of it or looking at it. He wanted to bring an object close to you that still kept the form of the ‘lesser’ state of awareness your mind never lets you recognise. Giacometti struggled with this realisation most of his life, knowing that every time he tried to look at an object he had to bring what he wanted to look at into focus - and this destroys the hidden view he wanted to see. It is the dilemma of all modern artists who become aware that the way their mind perceives the world around them works to destroy the very thing they want to look at.
Because our intelligent mind has evolved on top of an old animal mind, we find ourselves surrounded by a ‘feeling’ that our intelligence view of objects and events is hiding a more intense vision of the world around us. This intense vision is generated by our old animal mind, but to look at it we have to transform it into intelligent awareness and this will destroy the original experience. We find ourselves in possession of two ways of perception: one that is generated and controlled by our intelligence and another that our intelligence has to work to keep hidden from us.
Before our intelligence evolved, our distant ancestors lived with only the instinctive animal powers of perception. This revealed the world around them in a very emotive and intense way. Colour, shape, sound and movement were experienced as a far more direct sensation than we know today through our intelligent mind. We still inherit those instinctive animal powers of perception but our intelligence now takes those direct sensations and modifies them before we are allowed to sense them in their original form. For most of us this is not something we ever think about. We go about our daily lives oblivious to the deeper more powerful sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement that surround us. Like skaters on a frozen lake we spend our lives gliding across a smooth surface and we leave our marks like the patterns etched by the blades of the skates under our feet. Yet, beneath us, a great depth of dark water lies unrecognised and undisturbed. The ice and the dark water are of the same substance but we only see the appearance of the ice that supports our movements. Of course, the ice is the view of the world we build with our intelligence while the dark water beneath is created by our animal mind that we keep submerged.
The intelligent view is what we use every day of our lives but, if you are an artist, you will find you are more sensitive to this underlying level of animal awareness that intelligence works to subdue in the mind. Sensing it will drive you to want to rearrange the sights, shapes, sounds and movements you experience all around you, because you will feel that these sensations are muted in some way. You will want to intensify how they appear to you and so you will rearrange these sensations. If you are a painter or a sculptor you will look at a shape you recognise and modify it to make it appear more intense. If you are a musician you will take sound and try to arrange it into forms of harmony and melody. If you are a dancer you will take movement and try to create more intense patterns of motion. The results of these activities are what we recognise as painting, sculpture, music and dance. Objects that try to intensify the mundane appearance of our day to day experience of sight, shape, sound and movement.
For most people and many artists this is as far as it goes. These ‘art objects’ are beautiful things in that they give our intellect a sense of ‘higher’ awareness and pleasure. We can look at a nice landscape or a skilfully carved sculpture and marvel at the dexterity and craftsmanship employed in creating an intense representation of light and shade or form. We can relax to beautiful classical performances of music, or jive to jazz, or head bang to heavy metal. Whatever your tastes you are being offered a ‘heightened’ sense of perceptual awareness above your normal day to day level of perception. For most of us this is all there is to art. We enjoy the experience, and the objects and performances by artists serve a social purpose by giving us a sense of fulfilment for ‘something’ that is missing in our lives. We don’t question what is missing but look to art to ‘fill’ the emptiness.
To a modern artist this use of art is pretence. The ‘heightened’ level of perceptual awareness created by traditional painting, sculpture, music and dance is nothing like the sense of sight, shape, sound and movement generated by instinct. These art objects are still a muted experience of the more powerful and intense sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement that they try to arouse in the spectator. They are ‘safe’ sensations in that they are still controlled and organised by intelligence. To know the sensations of ‘heightened’ perceptual awareness generated through instinct requires intelligence to relinquish its control and organisation over our perception. When an artist does this the result is often a bizarre or ludicrous work that disturbs rather than pleases the intellect. The work has to disturb rather than please because – to revert to my earlier metaphor - it has to braak through the ice built by our intelligence to stop us sensing the deeper, dark water over which we skate.
As great and wonderful as much traditional painting, sculpture, music and dance are, they are not, nor could they ever reveal, the experience of the old animal sensations of sight, shape, sound and movement that are still generated in the depths of our mind. Modern artists therefore disrupt the traditional ways of working because this is the only way to look beyond intelligent control and organisation, to get a glimpse of an original way of perception we still inherit in our mind. As we will discover, this is the path modern art originally arose to explore.
An ape becomes an artist: We evolve an awareness full on imagination
I once knew a child who thought she could literally catch hold of the moon. She loved to get dressed in warm clothing and run into the garden on a cold clear night, trying to reach up to grasp the bright reflective orb, laughing and giggling hysterically in a shroud of her warm breath because her prize was always just out of reach. I must admit I was guilty of teasing her and encouraging her innocence. She was too young to understand the size and vast distances involved in her quest and I had no wish to destroy her happy fascination with a childhood fantasy. Within a year or two I knew that beautiful idea of the moon and the image of her dancing in cold air would be gone forever, replaced with the harsh facts of reality.
The world is all to quickly understood by the growing intelligent mind and only the poet remains among us to hold on to the innocence we all felt in childhood. The scientists believe they are revealing the reality of the world as they discover more and more facts but their search is not one of innocence. It is the fantasy of the naïve sense of reality that is so important for the poet and the painter - as it must also be for the sculptor, the musician and the dancer. Unlike the scientist the artist is not commanded by equations that determine the nature of the reality that surrounds us, but is fascinated by a wish to touch another awareness of reality from within.
Science is about observable facts and mathematical certainty in all we see and do, but art is about touching a sense of unknowing at the very heart of that ever expanding vista. As science reveals more and more observable facts and our vision of the universe grows, art becomes an ever-deepening sense of uncertainty in the mundane. Art is the ordinary object you see every day and think you know. It is the cup upon the table or the plant in the sunlight. Science understands these things by atomic structure, gravitational force and photosynthesis, but for the artist they are objects we have never seen in their true appearance. This true appearance is hidden by the very power of intelligence that makes us think we know what we see. Art is the child’s mind trying to catch the moon while the scientist and the astronaut have long disclosed the reality of what we see.
In science the moon is a distant place to travel to and explore, and to dissect and understand, but to art the moon is a sensation felt beneath all that intelligent knowledge, a sensation felt by instincts that have become hidden in the depth of our mind by the power of our intelligence. To instinct, the moon is not an object understood by its distance with an orbit of precise velocity and a trajectory that offsets the force of gravity. To instinct, the moon is not ‘out there’. It is not a satellite of grey dust upon which linger the footsteps and discarded machines of exploration. That is the moon we have learned to see, but the moon we have learned to hide is the one that was but a presence among many things that showed us the world in a far more animal and emotive way. To this ‘animal’ part of our mind the moon was a feeling that exerted its influence upon our body fluids as much as it wields its pull upon the oceans. The moon was not an object to be understood but a sensation to be felt within the mind. It was once to us as it is for the wolf that howls and moves in and out of shadows by stealth and cunning. It is a moon we have forgotten how to see.
The moon we now look out at is seen through closed windows where the glow of the television dulls its reflected light, and the warmth of central heating removes that satellite’s cold chill. Our world has become insular and secure and within this intelligent withdrawal we have buried the sense of awareness for the base sensations of life on Earth. The moon as sensed by instinct has long been buried within the depth of our mind to be replaced with a moon of intelligent understanding. And so it is with all things. We have become imperceptive creatures who have numbed our sense of instinct through the construct of an urban world made of concrete and glass and scientific understanding. Thankfully there are still artists among us. People who still hold on to a sense of the moon with the child’s innocent eyes.
We recognise this sense of fantasy as separate from our scientific understanding of the world because our scientific knowledge is more believable. The fantasy is amusing but unrealistic and yet there lies within the fantasy a way of knowing the world that is no less a reality. To continue with the moon as an example we can say that it has always been the companion of life on Earth. Indeed without it, it is unlikely that the building blocks of life would have been laid by the churning of minerals from the land into the seas. The moon has always been there for living things and has been seen in many different ways. It has been sensed through instinct and puzzled over by our emerging intelligence long before the understanding we possess today. Even our own species has believed the moon to be a flat disc in the sky rather than, as we now apprehend it, an airless orb of rock and dust in the vastness of space. The moon was no less a reality because it was not understood in the way we understand it. My point is that it matters little how you interpret an object or event in the world around you as long as that interpretation helps you to survive. Sensing the moon by instinct was an aid to animal survival and no knowledge of the reality of the object was necessary.
The same could be said of hunting and scavenging for food. We don’t need knowledge of food to find it by instinct because we have inherited this ability to distinguish what to eat and what not to eat through trial and error. Our ability to discern taste and smell are inherent instincts learned thorough millions of years as our ancestors struggled to survive. Those who failed to find food or ate poisonous varieties no longer survived to pass on the behaviour patterns that led to the wrong choices. Our ability to distinguish between bitter and sweet tastes and the scented or pungent odours of good or bad food evolved in this way. Our most distant ancestral life forms probably had poor senses of smell and taste along with crude eyesight and they probably ate anything they could stumble across that did not eat them. It would take a long time and the deaths of millions of those who ate the wrong things or were eaten themselves to ensure we would know by instinct what tastes sweet or bitter and should or should not be eaten. Everything in the earliest life forms had to be learned by trial and error. It is a wasteful process that went on slowly developing better senses and instincts over vast tracts of time.
An adaptive intelligent awareness that allows learning from experience rather than through instinct does not begin to appear until late in this evolutionary process. More advanced mammalian life forms with well developed senses of sight, smell, and hearing become more adept at discerning the nature of the reality around them. Reality becomes less of a place to blindly stumble around in and more of a place to be aware of. The animal mind that lives in this reality is still dominated by instinct, but the instincts have evolved from the basic needs of survival towards more specialised functions. Sight, shape, sound and movement become sensations in the mind that create what we would now call a model of the external world. This animal mind is the basis of our intelligent awareness and it is here that very powerful sensations of perception are structured through instinct. This animal mind became the seat of well-honed and very precise instincts for survival. The fast reactions and instant responses reach their most powerful and advanced stages of development in the animal mind. Night vision, sonar and many other specialised forms of perception are controlled and initiated by the sense of instinct that gives to many creatures a very intense vision of the world.
Exactly when our human ancestors began to develop a more intelligent awareness on top of our intense animal powers of perception is difficult to know. The Pleistocene is considered the period when our modern intellectual powers began to develop. A period that began around two million years ago and lasted for about 1.6 million years. Somewhere in this vast timescale we began to emerge from being an insignificant ape like creature, with only instinct to guide our sense of survival, to becoming more humanoid, a creature with a prevalence to walk upright and the beginnings of an intelligent way of perception that would develop rapidly to overthrow the sense of instinct we had always lived by. This development of intelligent perception is very new compared to the length of time our ancestors struggled to survive with only instinct as a guide.
Intelligent perception has become a dominant force in our lives. It has propelled us to great intellectual and engineering success that has accelerated our lifestyle from cave dwelling to city living in little over 40,000 years. Intelligent perception sees the world differently from instinct. It creates an understanding of objects that allows us to predict events and this is something instinct seems never to develop. Instinct reacts but does not predict the outcome of its actions. It has no time for this consideration. Nine times out of ten instinct reacts in the right way to ensure survival but every now and then it fails. Instinct will not learn from this failure. It will go on reacting in the same way because it will take many generations and many failures to change behaviour. Intelligence allows for learning by experience and this increases the chances of survival. Intelligence is slower than instinct but it becomes adept at learning to react in different ways and this is a great advantage in an ever-changing environment.
In the world of intelligence every object and event has to be understood. You have to know how to recognise different shapes and movements, rather than just react to any shape or movement, and you have to know how to relate different sounds and smells to known events. An increased memory is essential for this task because when something happens in the real world you only have this memory to tell you what to expect and how to react. An unexpected noise will startle you, but your intelligence will stop you reacting by instinct by recognising the sound before your unconscious reactions make you run away. When you see something you do not recognise at a distance you feel instinct beginning to emerge in your mind but, at the same time, intelligent awareness is working hard to draw from memory some form of identity to override your animal response. In terms of survival, intelligent perception, and the awareness of the world around us it creates in our mind, is a distinct advantage. If something is going to happen it is better to see it coming than to wait until it arrives. It gives you a better chance of living to tell your grandchildren the tale of how you avoided disaster because you recognised the impending threat.
In terms of perceptual experience - we are talking about art here and art is concerned with the sensual intensity of sight, shape, sound and movement – the ability to recognise and predict what you see or hear overrides a more intense power of instinctive sensations of that experience. You might have survived to tell your grandchildren the tale but you cannot describe the sensations you felt in those moments just before your intelligence worked out a strategy for escape. Those sensations were instinctive and, had you stopped to enjoy their intense feeling of sight, shape, sound and movement, you would probably not have lived to tell the tale.
In this scenario the artist seems to be a person who is out of place in the reality of events. When a threat is looming you either react blindly by instinct or work out an intelligent response that will increase your chances of survival. Is an artist going to stop and stare because he or she wants to experience the intensified sensations being generated by instinct? I don’t think so. The intelligent person will ignore the feelings being generated by instinct and use memory to initiate some form of controlled response. The animal will have fled, regardless of whether or not fleeing will increase the chance of survival, but the artist is still standing there enjoying the sensation? No, the artist would have long gone the way of extinction.
How then are we to explain the advantage art gives us in the reality of events? To my way of thinking art, as a ‘feeling’ sensed by instinct, drove intelligence to recognise sight, shape, sound and movement in a more intense way. Art had to play a part in helping us increase our powers of intelligent perception over instinct. I have stated earlier that I believe our inability to sense by instinct pushes us to create art because art is an intelligent attempt to transform the sensations of instinct into something recognisable. It is because intelligence cannot identify the sensations within us that are generated by instinct that we are driven to create works of art. Art objects are attempts to identify these animal instincts, but this is something intelligence cannot do so the objects end up as intensified interpretations of intelligent perception. Sight, shape, sound and movement end up being arranged into more intense constructs that we recognise as painting, sculpture, music and dance. Art did not come into existence to create these objects but to help us give the sensations of instinct an intelligent form of recognition. Art objects are a result of this need. They represent a reflection of a state of mind that has evolved to project organisation and control over sight, shape, sound and movement. To instinct, sight, shape, sound and movement are events to react to, but for intelligence they are events to be controlled and organised. It is this additional sense of control and organisation that traditional art objects represent.
We now look for this sense of control and organisation in everything we see and do. We no longer know how to sense by instinct and the view, as generated by instinct, seems chaotic and destructive from our intelligent point of view. Intelligence has evolved way from recognising what instinct sees and we cannot picture forms as sensed by instinct. In our attempts to recognise such forms we ended up making painting, sculpture, music and dance; objects that are intensified arrangements of the sense of order and control we hold over our powers of perception. In other words, because intelligence has no way to turn sight, shape, sound or movement into instinctive form, it ends up modifying what it knows how to recognise. This is the advantage art gave us in the struggle for survival. It drove us to intensify the sense of order and control our emerging intelligence was trying to impose over our sense of instinct.
This is why I believe that the sensation of instinct is the base power of art. It is the cause of art in that our intelligent mind cannot look at it without increasing the powers of control and organisation we project over all we see and do. Any attempt to look at the world through instinct – and this is what I believe all artists have always tried to do – will push the artists to increase the arrangement of sight, shape, sound and movement in their work to a more intense level of recognition. It is this increased level of how we recognise sight, shape, sound and movement that the art object presents to us, but it is not a vision of the world as sensed through instinct.
Our intelligence may have been driven to make paintings, sculptures, music and dance to discover what this sense of instinct was that we felt within us, but what happened was that this act drove us to create artefacts. It propelled us to make objects that helped us recognise the world around us in a more advantageous way. Art actually helped us bury the sense of instinct by driving us to look at the world as an intensified experience of day to day perceptual awareness. Art – as an attempt to sense by instinct - played a huge part in increasing our powers of intelligent perception because it increased our ability to recognise objects and events through a greater sense of control and organisation. This increased ability pushed the sense of instinct deeper into our mind and made our intelligent perception stronger than it would have been had intelligence had to recognise the world without art. As time went on we moved further and further away from sensing by instinct and closer to an intensified intelligent perception of objects and events that art showed us how to recognise. A painting of a bison on a cave wall shows that we had begun to project this intensified sense of control and organisation over all we see and do. Instead of staring mindlessly at a blank wall we began to recognise the shapes of animals and faces and figures. Outlining these imaginary shapes with coloured earth became a way of looking at the world more intensely than we do in day to day life.
It is this intensified recognition that we now live with. We awaken to it every day of our lives and it reveals the world around us in great detail, which intelligence has learned to recognise because of art. Art objects are an embodiment of this in that they are objects that have been created by people who sense the power of instinct, but are unable to formulate a vision of it. In its place these artists are driven to show us an intelligent view of sight, shape, sound and movement that is a rearrangement of our day to day level of perception. It is this rearrangement that helped us recognise the world around us in a more advantageous way.
Today, our intelligent perception lives with this modified way of recognition. We see objects and events in a precise organised way, but in the cave age this state of mind did not exist. We would still have sensed most of our surroundings by instinct. We had yet to learn how to use increases in brainpower to organise intelligent perception and it is this role of organisation that art played such a decisive part in helping us to attain. Painting, sculpture, music and dance taught us how to recognise sight, shape, sound and movement in an organised way. Paintings on cave walls are like words on blackboards in today’s schools, in that they represent organised images of recognition. The word ‘bison’ is an organised image of recognition for a large mammal, just as a picture of a bison is also an organised image; the only difference is the word is more abstract than the painted picture but it is no less an image of recognition. Our intelligent awareness has to learn to discern an image of recognition from all the other sensations bombarding our intelligence from our old instinctive way of perception. We no longer sense this bombardment because we learn at an early age to create forms of recognition for every sight, shape, sound and movement we are ever likely to encounter. These forms of recognition become ingrained in our sense of perception so that the old instinctive way of knowing these sensations never infringes upon our day to day lives.
Art was part of this change in perception that took us on a journey to overpower our ability to sense by instinct and replace that old animal state of mind with the capability to understand perception through intelligence. Painting, sculpture, music and dance are the objects we made as we followed this path of development. We found ourselves recognising more and more of the world around us in a new advantageous way that pushed the old instinctive view to the back of our mind. The view once sensed through instinct became ordered and controlled and art was a major player in creating this state of mind. Before art our view of the world was singular and holistic. Our intelligence brain had increased in size and was probably trying to make sense of this view but it would have been overwhelmed. Only instinct knew how to react to it, because instinct did not have to learn to understand the holistic view. It inherited knowledge of how to interpret a holistic view of the world that had been learned through trial and error over millions of years.
As intelligence evolved and we emerged from this instinctive holistic view we found ourselves having to fragment it into indivisible identifiable objects and events. Paintings, sculptures, music and dance were the tools we developed for this job. They created order and control over how we recognised sight, shape, sound and movement and allowed us to distinguish the ‘outside’ world from the ‘inner’ sensations of it. This is because to instinct the world is not a place ‘outside’ ourselves, as we now think of the world around us through our intelligence. The shape of an animal as sensed by instinct was not understood as an ‘outside’ object separate to the rest of the world around it. To instinct an image of an animal is but a small part of a vast and powerful ‘inner’ sensation associated with feelings of hunger and fear.
We no longer know how to sense this vision of the world because we have learned to see it in a divisible way. We see the animal as separate from other sensations in our view of the world, just as we see the image of a bison painted on a cave wall as separate from the wall itself. To see that you have to ignore the holistic animal sense of perception and project a sense of intelligent control and organisation over what you are looking at. Our animal ancestors had to create that sense of control and organisation over what they saw. They lived in a holistic vision of the world and ‘outside’ objects, as we know them, were not seen with the separate identities we apply to them. Everything was an integral part of the one sensation of the world as seen by instinct. When we began to outline the shapes of animals on cave walls we began to create a way of seeing separate identities from this one holistic sensation of instinct. Our emerging intelligence broke the sense of instinct down into separate objects and events, and began to transform our perception of the world from a single holistic view to a fragmented experience of separate items that could be recognised and controlled in a new ‘intelligent’ way. This gave us an advantage in the struggle for survival. It gave us a way to see the world around us as far less overwhelming than it would be if seen by instinct. Our sense of perception, transformed by this way of recognising objects and events, began to control how we identified the world around us rather than reacting blindly to it through instinct.
Drawing, painting or sculpting a recognisable object is an act that allows you to think of that object as separate from the rest of the world. It removes the object from its holistic place in your mind and this holistic place is where instinct resides. If you could experience the world around you as one single sensation where sight, shape, sound and movement are all interwoven you would know perception through instinct. You no longer sense the world around you in this way, because your intelligence has evolved to take this experience and fragment it into many separate sensations that order your perception. You see the world full of individual objects and events that give you a greater chance of survival than the instinctive view.
Our old instinctive perception is buried in this way by intelligence, but the original holistic experience is still generated in the oldest parts of our mind. It is intercepted and modified by intelligence long before we are allowed to become aware of it but every sensation of sight, shape, sound and movement exists in our mind as a single holistic experience. We cannot sense it with intelligence because to do so intelligence has to extract a single identity from this pool of inherent sensing and this brings it within the spotlight of conscious awareness that is our way of knowing the world around us. We don’t see our surroundings in an unconscious holistic way but as a fragmented divisive conscious experience. We learn to build this experience at a very early age and it then works to hide the singular holistic view generated by instinct. At our conscious level of perception the world is easier to understand and to control.
The traditional way of drawing and painting recognisable objects is a statement about this divisive act of perception. If you have drawn the outline of an animal on a cave wall you have separated it from the rest of the world and the herd it lives with and, in your mind, it can be thought of as easier to hunt and kill. The image you have painted has the power to diminish the overwhelming presence of the outside world and reinforce your sense of success. To the primitive mind, this gives to the image a sense of magic.
Because we are now born to look at the world around us in a divisive way, as a place full of individual separate objects and events, we lose any sense of the whole view at a very early age. To a more primitive mind, that still possesses this holistic singular perception of the world, recognising an individual object would be like a revelation. It would seem like an act of magic and it is this sense of magic we see in all early art. A painting of an animal on a cave wall represents a record of an act of intelligent recognition over our older holistic singular perception that must have once dominated our mind. It is difficult for us to imagine the significance of this act of intelligent perception because we learn to generate it in our mind when we are children. Our animal ancestors did not do this. They had to learn to extract a sense of intelligent perception from a mind full of the older animal holistic view. They had to learn to see the world around them as a place full of individual recognisable objects and events. It is as difficult now for us to see the holistic animal view as it would have been for them to see the intelligent divisive view we live with. We never think about it because we are born to build our powers of intelligent perception as soon as we can and, from that day on, we see the world full of individual objects and events. For our animal ancestors objects and events did not emerge into a state of conscious awareness within their mind as they do for us, but were seen as part of a single vision of events. We only have to think of an object in our field of view to distinguish that object from everything else around it. This way of intelligent perception has to be learned and the act of outlining the form of an animal on a cave wall with coloured earth is a record of this learning process in action.
To draw an object is an act of learning to separate the object from the whole view within which it exists. We don’t see it this way because we have learned to live with the separated view from a very early age. We distinguish individual objects and events without thinking about what we are doing. We find it almost impossible to even imagine what a holistic view looked like. It is alien to our way of thinking and yet we once lived with this way of knowing our surroundings. The prehistoric beginnings of drawing and painting, like sculpture, music and dance, seem to indicate that our mind was already well advanced in transforming our old animal perception into becoming intelligently aware.
Another key element in this development is our ability to imagine recognisable images in places where they do not exist. Old twisted tree trunks and wind-eroded rocks are perfect depositories for triggering this kind of perceptual anomaly. We see faces and figures in these natural objects and it is difficult to understand what advantage in the struggle for survival this ability would have given us. It is more likely that this way of imaginative recognition is a form of mistaken identity that would have been detrimental to us in a savage world of animal survival. It could, however, be a remnant from our early powers of recognition that have remained, like the emu’s flightless wings, as a vestige within our powers of perception. It seems more probable that, as our mind was evolving away from its animal state of awareness, it would have been infantile in its ability to formulate the powers of recognition that now allow us to identify every object and event without difficulty. Our ancestors would have projected this new developing ability everywhere and towards everything, rather than with the precision we now possess. We know how to recognise any given object or event by a very precise and well developed sense of intelligent perception but our ancestors were only just at the beginning of the development of this state of mind. As a result our early intelligence was a small influence in a mind dominated by instinct.
We probably learned to recognise the features of a human face quite early in this learning process. It is the strongest of all our powers of recognition. Babies begin to recognise the abstract shapes of a face long before anything else. When two simple designs are shown to very young babies and the eye movements are filmed, the baby will spend longer looking at a pattern that resembles a face than a pattern that is jumbled. Our old animal instinctive perception probably saw our surroundings like the jumbled pattern presented to a young baby, and our emerging intelligence had to recognise shapes as individual objects and events from this view. As we wandered around in this instinctive state of mind our emerging powers of recognition would probably have been projected over everything. As a result we recognised faces and figures in twisted tree trunks and wind- eroded rocks. It is this mistaken power of identity we still carry around with us today. It is a remnant of our early intelligent powers of perception that has remained with us as we developed more precise control and organisation over everything we saw and did. In the next chapter we will look at how this mistaken power of recognition helped us project anthropomorphic and totemistic ideas into our view of the world.