Art and Consciousness; identical twins

“Having secrets is an essential part of being human. Secrets play a big role in the use of language. A secret is something I know that you don’t know, but also something I know that you don’t know I know – it gives me control.”
(Daniel C. Dennett)

An unusual series of programmes was shown on Dutch television recently. Six scientists – men at the top of their profession – were brought together in a round-table discussion. Probably the hope was that this meeting would produce ‘Great Thoughts’, possibly a historic moment or two.

Before the final discussion, the interviewer visited the six scientists and talked to them about themselves, their work, their experiments, their dreams. The result was a series of six engaging programmes lasting one and a half hours each. The interviewer asked each of his interviewees what they thought about the other five and these disclosures opened each of the individual programmes. They were followed by a short introduction and the interview itself. Only the face of the interviewee filled the screen, a refreshing change from the usual superficiality and hectic pace of TV-land.

I became fascinated during the interview with Daniel Dennett, probably because I discovered so many similarities with my own way of thinking and because his starting points lie close to those of art. I also found it absorbing to see what the other scientists had to say about him. Just like artists they argue amongst themselves and disagree about the fundamentals.

Rupert Sheldrake:
“Dennett’s very clever and I appreciate the quickness of his mind but his starting points are all wrong. He’s starting from a materialist point of view, trying to fit the mind into some kind of computing-machine model – it’s curiously old-fashioned.”

Oliver Sacks:
“I think it’ll be very interesting to meet him – he is so concerned with higher mental functions and consciousness. I think he may come over as the most philosophical member of our group. But I wonder if there will be any point of agreement or reconciliation between us.”

Stephen Jay Gould:
“A colleague of mine [at university] … much too committed to strict Darwinian interpretation. [laughing] Somehow we’ve got to broaden him out to understand how rich evolutionary theory is. But he has very interesting things to say about intelligence and consciousness.

Freeman Dyson:
“He’s a philosopher so maybe I’d like to ask him: Does science make a difference to you? Is it important for you to know whether the universe is finite or infinite? As a philosopher, is that the kind of question you want to know the answer to?”

Stephen Toulmin:
“Dennett … does seem to be the brightest and in some ways the most interesting of the people who are still stuck in the old groove. I mean, this whole cognitive science trait seems to me to be one more theoretical artefact we didn’t need. And I don’t think it focuses on the problems of the mind in a way that is going to make them any more soluble in the long run. It’s just going to keep people in the business of trying to reconcile our understanding of psychology with an out-of-date view of physics.”

In the round-table discussion that concluded the series, the interviewer confronted several of the scientists with their remarks. It was striking that they all partially withdrew their comments and conceded the strength of Dennett’s case. So which opinion was relevant? Which comment had lasting value? Is the first one, made when the person was not present, sharper and more radical and the judgment given in the general discussion more subtle? How do you reach a precise definition?
This is what fascinates me. In sculpture, it is not so much the formal, technical aspects I am interested in or even one’s emotional response.. What delights me is precision of thought, of assumption of a position and the fundamental singular imperative that allows you to reach it.

“Terror is a transitional phase. Iconoclasm is outward-looking – never facing inwards. But there is no point in demolishing. The real changes never take place at the moment of revolution, because the revolution – through its very longing for change – searches for a form of true harmony, for the ideal image. The real change is usually before or just after, when the revolution is not facing outwards, but inwards. When the conversion takes place in the heart of things. Therefore there is no point in making art in these times that uses the existing language – it is simply no longer viable, you can’t use the same words or the traditional system of the picture.
Yet the circle is not complete – you can’t deny that people still make things. You shouldn’t have to place yourself outside art – you should arm yourself with the knowledge of all the art that has been made. The artist takes up reality, responds to it and reflects it back on itself. But that is nothing more than the result of perception. By allowing the observation to take place and using it together with a knowledge of art, you have the exact boundary from which you can respond to art.”

I wrote that in 1982, eleven years ago. Am I mistaken – or has nothing changed? Is this statement still valid? Or should it be more precise – more adapted to today’s world?

Dennett says:
“Not all information enters the brain at one point. Once perceptions, sounds or words enter through the eyes or ears they are interpreted by specialist parts of the brain. The parts that interpret words are different from the parts that interpret music or other sounds. And in all probability, while you listen to words, you also start to form a mental image, even though you are looking at me. For example, if I start to tell you about a theatre, you immediately form a quasi-visual picture of a theatre that you know, the seats, the stage and so forth. While you listen, your brain is busy in all sorts of ways trying to understand my words. And the result is that you forget the words but remember what they were about. It’s happening already – you couldn’t repeat word for word what I’ve just said. But you’ve got the gist of it. The actual information has already vanished forever.”

I often imagine what it would be like to become blind suddenly. I imagine it would be possible to recall all the images I’ve seen through the years and stored in my memory, so that being an artist would not have to stop. We all have a bookcase full of books. But how many of them have we read – really read? A similar kind of fantasy is to shut yourself off from the world with only this bookcase full of books. You’d have enough to last a lifetime.
But Dennett kills my dream.

“Instead of information, something takes its place that is stored for a longer time in a number of places. The memory is distributed somehow in the brain. Memory is not like taking a can off the shelf, opening it and tipping out its contents. It is always a process of re-interpretation. Even when you relive something very powerfully and with all the vivid details, it is not like seeing a film in the cinema. Time has been twisted round and only the essence remains.”

Emmenthal consciousness.

We are astonished when we notice the huge gaps in our consciousness, holes in space and time, like a huge blind spot in our eyes big enough to hide six full moons, piled one on top of the other. You don’t notice from day to day, because you don’t know what you’re missing.
I find this extremely satisfying – a work of art not like a unified whole but burst into bits like pieces of a grenade. Innumerable gaps and blind spots which we can certainly try to find but which – especially in the first instance – don’t reveal themselves. Precision is never linear, not like a story that fits hand-in-glove. Precision, which I believe to be necessary at present, can be found in between words and in between things.
How carefully do people look? Listen? Make use of their senses?
Is it really necessary to take in everything at one glance, immediately in order to understand and interpret it. Is not the concept of precision much more relevant to the formulation of a question, than the provision of a well-considered statement?

“It’s the same with consciousness. What matters is what you think there is. We think there are no gaps in our consciousness. We ignore the gaps and because we ignore them their existence is not important. That is also why it’s so difficult to demonstrate that they’re there. But there are ways to call up the gaps and see the blind spot. In order to do so you have to see the edge. To see the edge you require receptors on both sides of the gap. But on the inside there are no receptors, so you can’t see it. In fact you can only see your blind spot by letting something disappear into it while you’re watching. That’s quite easy to do. You put two crosses on a wall. You shut one eye. You look at one of the crosses and move your head towards it until at a given moment you can’t see the other cross. It has disappeared into the blind spot. There are other gaps like this.”

Six people sitting round a table. Only politely interested to begin with. They are superficially in agreement but soon differences start to fly back and forth. How should precision be defined? Agreement, conflicts of opinion or the confrontation itself?

‘Sculpture’ is a term left over from a time when Art was still subdivided on the basis of material. However, such a subdivision is no longer possible.
Nowadays art tends to be labelled according to ‘movement’, ‘period’ or a way of thinking. A work of art consists of various elements that together form a particular piece. Artists take a position in relation to each of the different elements. They reflects, then choose materials, forms, colours. They decide on a measurement, a scale, on smooth or rough, dark or light, complex or simple. Artists ponder over presentation, over light, contrast and resemblance. They take a position, but one which is always influenced by culture and time. Indeed, the artist reacts to them. I think this reaction should be as radical as possible. The radicality serves the idea but is not subservient to it. There are many works that attempt to do this and are possibly even radical, but I wouldn’t call them works of art.

I find the word image an impossible one. We use it as if it referred to a unity – an object you can look at. It seems as if we continually need to simplify and to see one thing where there are many. The brain has at least 32 centres for visual information alone. So any image we see is almost automatically divided into 32 different aspects in order to be stored. It is as if anything you look at shatters at the moment of reception and is later assembled like parts of a mosaic, to form a whole. What we call an image is in fact the result of a negotiated process between these 32 visual sections, not to mention the countless other parts that deal with other organs of perception.
The whole communication system that links all aspects – that combines, reduces or deduces – is responsible for creating something that we can call a complete image but is only the sum of a series of negotiations.

Emmenthal consciousness once more.

Are these blind spots in our consciousness more fundamental, showing moments of insight that go deeper than merely wanton forgetfulness?
Is Dennett’s secret actually a blind spot? Why is it that having acquired a certain basic store of knowledge, the desire to know gradually gives way to a state of not wanting to know? Is the blind spot not infinitely more interesting than all the so-called images we can see?

A work of art is not a centre. It is a receptor, set on the border of the blind spot and only visible for those who really concentrate upon it. But how do you define what is there? Everyone I ask will say that he or she sees a work of art but I don’t think that is the case.
It requires precision in the definition of what you see and prefer not to see.
It requires another language with different metaphors.
It requires a different way of listening.
All the senses have to be used in another way – you must read in between words, look in between things, feel in between senses.

Take twenty young artists from different countries with different backgrounds, put them together and within a very short time a small number of them will find a certain measure of agreement. At roughly the same moment, the rest will no longer be taken seriously. They won’t be included in the important moments, in the times between the formalities.
I have gradually become less interested in the radical statement, the uncompromising remark, or in sculpture as an autonomous given. I adopt a position in between.
Between things, between time, between precision (a linguistic impossibility!)
It results in the inability to define, to name things – with the unpleasant consequence that in the end you can’t talk about anything. You can’t see anything. It’s just there. Born out of a sense of necessity.

You have landed in a blind spot, in a gap in your consciousness.
Art and consciousness, non-identical twins.


January 1993

translated from the Dutch by Wendie ShafferP