Friday, May 16, 2014

Expanded consciousness and the origin of art

Part II
In Part I, I talked about how our human ability to enter into a state of unknowing stimulates creativity: epiphanies of  art, magic and spiritual awe. In fact, according to a fascinating book I am reading, this talent is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human
Big Horn Rhino: Chauvet Cave

Lewis-Williams in his book, The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, makes a strong case that our modern human consciousness emerged relatively recently in evolutionary terms, about 30,000 years ago during the upper Paleolithic period. This is the point in our human history when archeologists have recorded an explosion in human creativity, both in human tool-making technology and sophisticated art that even today resonates within us so strongly that it still can evoke goose bumps of awe.

As Judith Thurman writes in a wonderful New Yorker piece⁠1:“Some of the most remarkable art ever conceived was etched or painted on the walls of caves in southern France and northern Spain. After a visit to Lascaux… Picasso reportedly said to his guide, “They’ve invented everything.
“What those first artists invented was a language of signs for which there will never be a Rosetta stone; perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls… [A]nd, more to the point of Picasso’s insight, the very concept of an image. A true artist reimagines that concept with every blank canvas—but not from a void…
However, they didn’t create these masterpieces from an “ordinary” state of consciousness.
The outline of a pregnant mare
 Photo: Heinrich Wendel (© The Wendel Collection, Neanderthal Museum)
According to Lewis-Willams,  paleolithic shamans created this magnificient art while in kind of a trance achieved by expanding their consciousness through sensory deprivation, fasting, and ritual in order to bypass their rational selves to become totally present in the moment. In this state of expanded consciousness, the nature of which I attempted to describe in my last blog, they gained access to what Watts calls "the real world", the pure world of the Tao, a wiggly universe without form.
In the wiggly, flickering light of an oil lamp, the shaman interacted with the ink blotch shape of the rock and created a human world. The creation didn’t materialize out of nothing, it was created by the interaction between the shape of the rock and the image-maker:“They typically incorporated the rock’s contours and fissures into the outlines of their drawings—as a horn, a hump, or a haunch—so that a frieze becomes a bas-relief. But, in doing so, they were also locating the dwelling place of an animal from their visions, and bodying it forth.”⁠2

The image at the top of this page of the Big Horn Rhino is a perfect example. Here are some others:  The image below is a curled-up bison painted on the ceiling of Altamira, ‘squeezed’into the contours of a rock that hangs down from the ceiling: the shape of the rock interacting with the image-maker.
Curled up Buffalo
Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (Kindle 2032-2034)
Mammoth sculpted in bas-relief in the Grotte de Mammouth near Domme, Dordogne.

Lewis-Williams points out a fallacy common to archeologists and, for that matter, most westerners today, who explain everything human in terms of evolving intelligence and rationality or, as he says “becoming brighter and smarter:”
As these archeologists see it, “early people were becoming more and more like Western scientists. This is what we may call ‘consciousness of rationality’… The problem here is that the emphasis on intelligence has marginalized the importance of the full range of human consciousness in human behaviour. Art and the ability to comprehend it are more dependent on kinds of mental imagery and the ability to manipulate mental images than on intelligence.⁠3

This is a profound point, I think. The essence of what makes us human is not rationality and intelligence but the ability to enter a higher states of consciousness where art and magic merge with our yearning for the divine.

Some archaeologists like Martindale understands this, that we are not just computers, and urges us to spread the web of our inquiry wider: “We need to explore altered states of consciousness as well as normal, waking consciousness. We need to understand the ‘irrational’ thought of the poet as well as the rational thought of the [laboratory] subject solving a logical problem…”⁠4

If we could only see that we are always in the process of creating maya,  building the illusion of what we think our world is,  from the hail of random stimuli ceaselessly bombarding us from the formless world beyond.   Taking my camera and photographing the fantastic images I see in rock formations and gnarled dead trees is my way of consciously opening myself up to the process of creating maya while paying homage to these magnificient shaman artists of old.

In Part III of this series, I want to get back to Picasso’s insight about how every artistic image presupposes a concept: A true artist reimagines that concept with every blank canvas—but not from a void.

Neither my photographic images nor the Paleolithic cave artists’  paintings were created out of a void. We didn't create something from nothing.  There is always a interaction between the image maker, artist materials, and the surrounding world. 

Could this interaction be what the Buddhists call dependent arising: that nothing exists in and of is elf but arises out of multiple causes?

Stay tuned.

1 First Impressions: What the world’s oldest art say about us. By Judith Thurman. New Yorker 6/23/08
2 Ibid.
3 The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by Lewis-Williams, David.  (Kindle Locations 1990-1995).
4 Ibid. Kindle Locations 2083-2088

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