February 17

Contact, Concept and Art

We live in a reality constructed of contact and concept. The world reveals itself to us in a stream of sensation. We see colors, shapes, lines, shades of light and dark. We hear sounds shrill and bass, harmonious and discordant. Our skin touches cold and heat, hard and soft, rough and smooth. Scent passes constantly through our nostrils and in our mouths we taste bitter and sweet.

Beyond out physical sensations we have the rich inner world of emotion and feeling. Joy, sorrow, fear, anger, and contentment – our inner reality is constantly fluctuating between different emotional reactions to the sensations that the world presents.

This cascade of sensation and emotion is not all of our reality, however, because alongside these our minds have developed the ability to generate a parallel stream of concepts that arrange and organize our sensations into ideas that can be held onto long after the sensations that gave birth to the have faded into our even out of memory.

Our concepts take a set of sensations and create an object out of them. We see a bright circle in the sky and we know that it is the Sun. We may have a more or less developed concept of the Sun. We probably know that it is a star that our planet revolves around over the course of a year. We probably also know that only one half of the Earth is exposed to the Sun at any time and that we all see the Sun for a certain part of every 24 hour period because that is how long it takes for the Earth to rotate around its axis.

And so when we look into the sky we don’t see a bright circle. We see the Sun. And everything that we know about the concept of the Sun is packed into our experience of that circle in the sky. This is what I believe William James meant when he called our experience ‘thick.’

This process of conceptualization allows our engagement with the world to be rich and varied. If we had no concept of the Sun and the Earth and periods of rotation and revolution we would, like human beings of a much earlier time, experience fear every nightfall and at the onset of every winter. We would have no way of knowing if and when the Sun would return, or the flowers would bloom again.

Because of our concepts we don’t just sense and feel the world, we are able to build an understanding of it.

As miraculous a boon as the development of conceptualization has been for us, some have also noticed that it has its price. Our concepts can become so prominent a part of our experience that our senses become deadened. Our direct contact with reality in the form of sensation and feeling fades into the background and we live in a world dominated by concepts and ideas.

It has typically been the job of the mystic and the artist to experience reality beyond concepts and to communicate the senses and feelings of the world directly. Artists, particularly in modern times, have feared that we are losing contact with the world and they try to bring it back to us.

Perhaps one way to define art would be to call it that which delivers us, at least temporarily, from the conceptualized world and brings us into direct contact with reality.