Saturday, April 14, 2018

More Primitive Emotions

Snarling Puppy  oil on panel   2018         photo by Kyle Kutner

This is currently showing at the Peale Center until May 6.

The Need to See

Nina Simone “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

An image is a starting point for thinking. What it triggers is evoked from the life experience of the viewer, but the trigger itself is a structure of interrelationships that offers a way of putting past observations in a new light. Art presents a new perspective and the life of the work once created is continued in the minds of the viewers. The most significant new ideas always involve seeing in a new way whether in an individual’s personal evolution or a paradigm shift in a field of study. The philosopher Thomas Carlyle said, “The chief value of any book is that it excites the reader to self-activity”. This is good brain chemistry. So many of the connections to the nucleus accumbens, considered the pleasure center, come from the area associated with creative thinking and other higher mental activity, the prefrontal cortex. One function of art is to get people’s minds working, not just to stimulate new ways of thinking but to direct attention to what is important, to emphasize values. People need to know what matters.

Ai WeiWei is an artist that sees the need to make something visible, showing what numbers on a page can’t do, move us with the visceral reaction to quantity thereby making us feel the impact of the numbers. He draws attention to lost schoolchildren or refugees, big groups that are ignored to avoid feeling the connection to the tragedy. In the great line from Arthur Miller’s, “Death of a Salesman”- “Attention must be paid.”, talking about the everyday struggles of living. Art shines light on what people need to see. As long as we don’t see, we can avoid responsibility. When we see, we can’t avoid responding. That’s why art can have powerful influence on changing consciousness, and that’s where serious change will have to happen. Once a situation is taken in differently, it can change a whole point of view.

While the internet opens new territory to see, because it is led by the personal search, what a person is looking for can blinker them to what could actually enlarge the point of view. A simple way to open it up is to do image searches on topics of interest, narrow the search to contemporary art with your subject and see what current artists are trying to show about the world we all inhabit together. Seeing is the first beam of connection. The strength of the response is a measure of personal significance and an expansion of self-awareness.

Friday, March 23, 2018



If there’s a visual language every one of us uses every day, it’s the language of dreams. And dreams underscore how much meaning is carried by imagery, in the feeling created by overall relationships in the scene and not in what the things are in the scene. So much of waking life is concerned with identity and definitions. But definitions are not meaning. A book thrown at us means something quite different than the book in our lap. It is only in the relationships that we  see conditions of attack or comfort. A dream can emphasize the more complex feelings like confinement, paranoia or disorientation, and every one of them could be taking place in our living room. The gestalt, the feel of the whole picture, is understood like we understand the relative safety or creepiness of a new place we visit. Our initial impression includes what we expect from the type of surroundings in relation to our personal intentions.

All the meaning of dreams is connected to how it feels to be there. The attraction for the surrealists was the complete visual freedom to put anything with anything, to neutralize the power of definitions and emphasize the feeling we get from the whole picture. The room in the dream may look exactly like it always does, but the foreboding connects to a memory and what about it should be reinforced. Erich Fromm wrote that dreams process emotional evaluations of situations that weren’t noticed in the practical concerns of the day. Dreams are largely visual and do their job whether we remember them or not. Free from real world constraints the subjective experience felt by the dreamer is interpreted with whatever symbols fit. When something is wrong with the picture it shows.

Visual language is the dominant mode in dreams. We are shown the way to look at something where conscious purposes may obscure an important ingredient. Dreams are a mechanism in our ongoing adjustments for psychological balance. With conscious purposes focusing most of our attention during the day, subtle feelings about experience are missed. The current idea about the dream compensating for the onesidedness of waking life dates back to early Taoism which felt the same thing. The language of dreams is the universal language. They portray subjective states as actions with greater precision than language can manage.

Many who study dreams say the faculty of imagination continues at night and artists like Salvador Dali felt night imagination, unobstructed by conscious desires was far superior and developed his system of waking himself so as to do “hand painted dream photographs”.
Non-artists have experienced the insight that led to a solution or a discovery in a dream.
Scholars of most religions treat dreams with respect. It’s written in the Talmud- “A dream is its own interpretation.” This is a way of saying dreams show us something. Rabbi Jonathan said, “A man is shown in his dreams what he thinks in his heart.” This is like what Emerson meant when he said the wise person reads their dreams for self-knowledge, not the details but the quality.

Dreams emphasize the importance of your position, where you are. Daydreaming envisions a different position and dreaming of the future is where you want to be. Visual language is everyone’s heritage. Conscious cultivation of it can deepen our holistic understanding.

Thursday, February 22, 2018


The Position of the Body

    It may have been the taste of cake and tea that prompted Proust’s stream of memories, but for me the trigger is more often an action. I was shaping an old flat sable brush with a sharp knife, and a cloud of memories unfurled from deep in my past. As I pressed the flat side to my worktable and scraped the side, I was back in a friend’s dining room and an intense bearded man was demonstrating how to renew the brush there at the table after dinner. Then the image shifted to the friend who had the dinner party, who was himself the hub of a wheel of memories associated with Maryland Institute, as we called it then.        
    It was this very specific action that spurred my memory to an extensive network of associations. I often think of the body like a pliable tuning fork that depending on the position resonates with and evokes imagery of the past that is associated with being in that position. Studies have confirmed how hormones are affected by body position and then change our mood. As bodies in motion it makes sense that our habitual ways of moving would reinforce certain attitudes in our minds. And before the studies of hormones and neurotransmitters, there were psychological treatments based on the idea, change the body to change the mind. One of these is the Alexander Technique, which addresses the amount of tension that accumulates in the body over time. The body contracts with anxiety and confusion. The treatment offers corrective motions to help pull the body out of its habitual positions and release that accumulation of tension that drains energy. Moshe Feldenkrais was a judo master who had a similar idea. He thought people were frustrated and unhappy because they’d never learned to use their bodies properly, thought too much energy was lost to wasted movement. His books and methods educate people on how to recognize self-defeating body positions and provide exercises that demonstrate better ones.
   New research has shown how exercise is good for the mind as well as the emotions. Chemically there’s the increase in dopamine and BDNF that’s been shown to promote growth of new neurons. In addition, our conceptual structure is built on the foundation of embodiment, the body’s experience of the world. Most of our conceptual understanding and scientific reasoning depends on physical experience of weight, balance and movement. Hundreds of years ago Leonardo da Vinci emphasized that exercise was not just important to health and vitality but to the improvement of mental functioning. Continuing to extend bodily experience is especially important in a time when so much daily activity is done sitting in one place.
    The signals of core wisdom begin in the body. How the body adjusts to the spaces around it is basis for understanding visual art. Art develops core wisdom by distilling the experience of the body and strengthening the communicative power of visual language. The adjustment of the body is registered consciously as feeling, which is response to what we assume the circumstance will need from us. Our built-in response to visual form reflects the meaning we attach to that adjustment, the overall assessment of the physical or psychological environment. Looking at art can strengthen understanding of the body’s adjustment to visual form. Using the body strengthens the conceptual foundation itself. Development of our mental and psychological health requires physical participation.