I have always thought of myself as a rational materialist. As a science graduate and teacher, I have mostly concerned myself with a material world view and modes of thought that rely on the language of science and mathematics to adequately explain the reality of the universe. Of course I understand that science works to model reality and that with any language there are inherent problems with disconnect between words or symbols as signifiers of the objects and the objects themselves. But, nonetheless, I was fairly happy to proceed within this paradigm.
C.P. Snow described a thesis of two cultures. The argument was "the intellectual life of the whole of western society" was split into two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – which was a major hindrance to solving the world's problems. Despite my love for science, I have also always been a lover of art and literature, feeling comfortable standing with a foot in both camps. For me the two cultures has always been a false dichotomy. Not that I would consider myself anything other than a novice admirer of the arts.
It has been my great fortune to have stood before some of the most famous art works in the world. I have seen Da Vinci’s, Canaletto’s, Rembrandt’s, Dali’s, Titian’s, Vermeer’s, Lowry’s, Pollock’s, Caravaggio’s, Michelangelo’s, Van Gogh’s, Picasso’s, Monet’s, Manet’s, Cézanne’s , Mondrian’s, Ruben’s, Botticelli’s, Munch’s and so on and so on. I have gazed and appreciated, as best I can, these works of art. I have read many books about art; Gombrich, Berger, De Botton, Graham-Dixon, Obrist, etc and tried to glean from these how best to ‘read’ art, how best to see it, how to ‘look’ at it. But try as I might, I have never really understood much of modern art. Take ‘Fountain’ by Duchamp for example. I am aware that ‘Fountain’ is seen by some as a Dadaist work (or even Conceptual Art) but hopefully you get my point: I often find that a great deal of modern art leaves me feeling cold, or worse still, feeling nothing at all.
Now this is almost certainly due to my inability to relate to the aesthetic language of conceptual and modern art rather than any paucity in the artist’s ability. But even with the aid of curatorial commentary and critical description that might permit me to understand a piece of modern art (say, for example, the deconstructed landscapes of Mondrian or the temporal dimension of Pollock’s action painting) I really only engaged with art on a cerebral level, not an emotional one.
That was true until I saw “Soleil Rouge” (or ‘Cancer’) by Huguette Caland, recently on display at Tate: St Ives. Standing in front of this large, red painting was an experience unlike any I have ever had. I was transfixed, mesmerised, captured by it and stopped for a long time in front of it. It drew me back again and again, even after visiting other pictures and galleries, I found myself wanting to see it again; I wanted to be in its presence. Luckily the gallery was not so busy, but on my 3rd or 4th visit to the painting (each time spending 15 minutes or so staring at it) a young gallery attendant asked, “You seem taken with this work, is there anything particular you like about it?” What surprised me then, as it still does now, is that I could find no words to describe the experience I was having.
Milan Kundera said: “Through ecstasy, emotion reaches its climax, and thereby at the same time its negation (its oblivion). Ecstasy means being "outside oneself," as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word: the act of leaving one's position (stasis). To be "outside oneself" does not mean outside the present moment, like a dreamer escaping into the past or the future. Just the opposite: ecstasy is absolute identity with the present instant, total forgetting of past and future. If we obliterate the future and the past, the present moment stands in empty space, outside life and its chronology, outside time and independent of it (this is why it can be likened to eternity, which too is the negation of time). Man desires eternity, but all he can get is its imitation: the instant of ecstasy. Living is a perpetual heavy effort not to lose sight of ourselves, to stay solidly present in ourselves, in our stasis. Step outside ourselves for a mere instant, and we verge on death's dominion.”
The experience I had of standing in front of Soleil Rouge was ecstatic. Ecstatic in the Kunderan sense of the negation of emotion, of time, of self. And yet I still find it hard to put into words what happened to me as I stood in front of that picture. It was numinous. It was indescribable. It was… an experience. An experience that remains with me now, months afterwards. An experience that still leaves me searching for the right words, unsure even how to explain what I felt, what I thought in the ecstasy of staring into the concentric rings of red paint.
This makes me think about the inadequacy of language. There are some experiences for which there are no words; emotions that are impossible to verbalise. At the very least we may find that words are not enough. Who can really say, for example, what it feels like to be in love? What a wholly inadequate word for such a rich, diverse range of feelings and experiences both emotional and visceral. How could one possibly explain, in any coherent way, the experience of holding one’s newborn child for the first time?
Perhaps this is the function of art; to grant us experiences that make up for the inadequacy of language. If one encounters art as experience, there may be no need for words, the experience in itself being enough. Art as experience may serve the purpose of fulfilling some primal urge within us, or filling some void that exists. It may bridge the gap between the reality of the world as mediated by words and the reality for which language is inadequate. Art as experience is ‘ecstatic’ truth and reality and, as Kundera might say, the zenith and simultaneous negation of both. The tension between climax and oblivion provides the momentary ecstasy of art as experience. To live a fully engaged life, in the first person, maximising experiences and situations such as this should be a daily goal. As educators, providing opportunities for experiences such as this will lift the consciousness of our students and help them live more fulfilling lives.