University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Art Department

Art-making as a lived experience and a learning process: Art Expression as a Learning Process

by Krishna Reddy

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower..."
--From Auguries of Innocence by William Blake

Part I: Life and Mind in the Universe

In our attempt to discuss art-making as a learning process it may be interesting to think about—and to some extent to explore—the interrelationship between mind and the Universe, which touches human life very closely. This subject deserves deep study and contemplation.

We human beings, essentially dynamic processes, are of the Universe, which is a continuous changing process. We are of this great organism, and its space is the background from which we emerge.

The early human, born on the shores of the Unknown, into a world of scintillating and dynamic energy patterns, was differentiating himself from it, acquiring new emotional and mental characteristics, obeying an initial inner formative impulse. Ever changing natural phenomena, part of a vast Universe in constant upheaval, inspired in him feelings of awe and fear. They robbed him of all assurance and tranquility. He felt lost living in the bottomless chaos. He struggled for survival within a harsh and unyielding Nature. He strove to wrest the things of the outside world from the flux of happenings. He sought permanency, solidity, and stability in the natural world.

The impulse of self-preservation created a self-consciousness and the assumption that “I” exist apart from the Universe. His self-centeredness was powered by a felt urge toward balance and harmony and by instinctual physical drives necessary for his comfort, well-being, and life. In search of order and harmony, he was driven to wrest order from the flux of happenings. He created a physical world from the content of his consciousness, with mental concepts of space, time and matter. In a desire to glorify order and harmony and ward off chaos, he created an environment and objects in his own image. His was a humanly conceived world system, the universe of the mind’s own creation. Here he could find repose.

At the same time he wanted to understand the natural world around him, and through this desire developed spiritual curiosity. He wished to experience a deep sense of connection to and interrelationship with his surroundings. He longed for complete union with the Cosmos, yet was terrified of it, because it would be the end of his life.

From the time of our earliest ancestor, the process of creating an artificial environment has continued, leading to a technocratic world system. This synthetic world of ours is rife with distortions that we have created through organization. We have not only lost touch with the spiritual nature of the earth, but the earth itself is now in danger of losing its very physical substance through our actions. We lack a planetary vision. We lack awareness of the connection between our self-centered consciousness and the world around us. We have alienated ourselves from nature.

Our senses bring knowledge that leads to memory and then to ideas and ideals, that begin a life of their own. Thought is the activity of knowledge: of memory, of ideas, conclusions and beliefs forming our consciousness. Thought dominates our lives.

There is nothing new in what we already know and in projecting our knowledge we learn nothing—unless we break with and move away from that current of thought, committing ourselves to meaningful human endeavors. In apprehending the outside world, we need to cast off thought processes and to go beyond thought altogether. We need the sensitive awareness of the present. This requires that we become extremely sensitive and that all of our senses be alive.

In the search for meaning and understanding, it is the capacity of intelligence to discern, learn and create. Our intelligence helps our sense of wonder to emerge, which is the start of the learning process. Our childlike awe and wonder about nature mark our awakening to planetary awareness. This awareness manifests itself every time we discover the unimaginable marvel of a flower, or the spectacle of the most distant stars and galaxies. The visionary faculty is within the reach of anyone who can retain a sense of wonder and awe.

Artists demonstrate this point. The artist learns by looking intensely at nature, by being aware of it, by being open to it with all his senses. He has an appetite for learning and a passion for discovering, he is engaged and experimenting. In this he draws upon the deeper sources of his individuality, his instant “tune-in” to vast fields of the phenomena of life. The state of mind where he is free to express a vision of a new order of reality is essential for the artist. He can enjoy the freedom to go beyond craft, to explore, to approach that mysterious entity, the thing in itself, the ultimate reality. That is the goal of his quest for meaning and learning. Mondrian said: “I do not want pictures, I just want to find things out.” And Picasso: “When I paint my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for.”

Through his creation the artist transmits a feeling that insight into the mysterious sources and inner workings of reality is exciting. His task is to show that art-making can be a breakthrough to creativity and learning; that art has a great deal to do with emotional life, as it springs from the depths of man’s spiritual nature. In the capacity of our intelligence and the radiation of its enormous energy, there is revelation and learning. Art-learning illuminates what is most subtle, and penetrates it most significantly.

The challenge is how to recover the astounding capacity we have for creative intelligence and aspiration. To marvel and wonder is the beginning of learning. For all our measuring sticks and scientific theory, we are still young. We are, in Newton’s words, like children playing with pebbles on the sea shore, while the great ocean of Truth rolls unexplored beyond our reach.

Part II: State of Mind

Our organism is a complex assemblage, a celestial alchemy of space and time. Our mental environment is a diverse network of memories, thoughts, instincts, emotions, and deep intuitions—reflecting the inner processes of our heredity and experience.

Our sense of self—our consciousness—arises as from the cerebral patterns permanently inscribed as a result of many life experiences. Our consciousness is the movement of all these in space-time and our reaction to everything around us with a sense of being in the here-and-now—a sense that we actually exist.

The physical limitations of our animal frame, as well as our heredity and experience, shape our consciousness, evolved through conflict and competition. The longing for security is the basic content of our consciousness. In common with other animals, we possess instinctual physical drives—drives to avoid sources of fear, pain, and anxiety. Driven by our instinctive laws of perception—our fears, anxieties, and our desire to pursue pleasure—we have been “programmed” psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. Over millions of years, these drives have programmed the way we, our ancestors, and all other animals have reacted and continue to react to the world around us. It follows that our drives profoundly influence our consciousness. In our attempts to learn the true nature of the objects we perceive, our consciousness intervenes and shapes our thoughts, emotions, and actions. There can be occasional breakthroughs, however, whenever the brain can be free from the content of its consciousness.

Continuous change characterizes the natural world, not permanence, solidity, or stability. Our instinctual nature overwhelms us by intervening in our attempts to learn the true nature of the objects we perceive. Fear causes us to see chaos in the outside world. In our reaction to reality, in our struggle to bring forth from chaos a sense of order, an organizing faculty within our nervous system intervenes, forming these impressions into coherent patterns of proportion, symmetry, equilibrium, and harmony, which we call “aesthetic harmony.”

Fear, anxiety, and insecurity also cause us to perceive the outside world in terms that conform to the instinctual nature of the organizing faculty within our nervous system. The forms of the things we mold or fabricate, and the impact of our actions on the environment are examples of this: attempts by our symmetry-seeking minds to reduce the images given in visual perception to a schematic or structural order. To the sense of sight (our “noblest sense”) we apply the language of geometry—in the structural sense, geometrize things seen. For example, such a complex organism as a tree—with all its interrelated cellular and spatial structures—we reduce to a spheroid poised atop a cylindrical column. But the essential nature of the tree is more than what we see.

Given a piece of forest land, we clear it and straighten it out, as we cannot perceive its complex structure and are terrified of its apparent chaos. We transform the living jungle into an elegant, formal garden. We build everything geometrically with basic shapes, primary colors, and in simple linear ways. This is reflected in the way we overspread this planet with out constructions and cities (such as the man-made Dutch environment). In organizing our environment to fit our needs, we have deeply interfered with this planet and the life on it.

In order to observe things as they truly are, to perceive what is actually happening in the world outside of us, we need to transcend our consciousness as created by our mental environment, to free ourselves from the “instinctual” world view our physical drives impose on us. As reality lies beyond this, we need to set aside our preoccupied faculties so we can observe things as they are, so we can see what is actually happening. There are moments in our life when we are driven by our sense of wonder and curiosity to question life and find things out.

In Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, certain thinkers tied to creative existence realized the importance of freedom as they attempted to learn the sum total of visible truth open to human intelligence. They recognized that to observe clearly one must be free from all self-imposed limitations, preoccupations and prejudices. Using this newfound freedom, they wanted to examine, understand, and create in the context of their relationship with the world outside themselves.

Among these thinkers were the artists of Europe in the late nineteenth century, who, in their attempts to correlate art and reality, were also struggling to free themselves from their instinctual limitations. These artists were in their own way philosophers and explorers. They wanted to learn from the visible, the actual, palpitating reality of things: the phenomenal image, the true nature of the objects they perceived. They were explorers who invented an entirely new reality by relating the analysis of human life to the analysis of nature. They developed an experimental and exploratory attitude towards nature.

As these thinkers attempted to transcend their instinctual nature, the organizing faculty seems to have taken over their explorations. In the spirit of research they invented visual abstraction, by paring down the visible world to its essentials—from chaos to glorious harmony. They felt there were creating icons of distilled beauty by reducing the appearance of objects to their pure and essential forms. They created images the way we translate concepts into symbolic forms. In their attempt to reduce the images given in visual perception to a structural order, the instinctive laws of perception intervened. Their experiments reflected their formal and intellectual roots.

Cézanne, for example, said his aim was “to make order out of confused sensations which we bring with us when we are born.” He believed that reducing the phenomenal image by stripping it of its concrete details would allow him to come to its pure, essential form, its solidity and reality, its structure. He made laborious efforts to reproduce this essential form with scientific exactitude. He did not realize that in his patient search for the form inherent in the object he was only extending himself—his instinctual need for structural order and geometry.

Mondrian, in his quest for self-contained abstract forms, ends up making reductive visual conclusions in harmony with his instinctual needs.
Malevich aimed to transcend entirely the natural world. His “Black Square” was hung high, like an icon, across a corner, and became the emblem of Suprematism, the most reductive, uncompromising style of abstract painting. Malevich called it “the beginning of true sense.”

Mondrian and Malevich did not realize that in their search for the essential nature of objects, they were only extending themselves—that in each experience they were forcing reality to submit to their instinctual concerns.

Juan Gris stated, “Why not let the geometric and architectural speak for itself in terms of pure form and color.” Through improvisation and interplay he produced some beautiful images.

Kandinsky and Picasso did recognize the interference in their creative work of these limiting forces. Having done patient research with Cubism to reduce images to geometric structures, Picasso began to see its limitations. He watched his own conditioned faculties take over his Cubist approach, and tried to depart from Cubism and surpass it. With a newly learned visual language he worked on poems of his life experiences, and would continue to do so the rest of his life. He once said: “when I paint my object is to show what I have found and not what I am looking for.” This statement shows that he must have recognized the importance of learning. But in his art his intellectual and emotional needs overwhelmed his actions.

The Surrealists went farther in learning the secrets of the Self, which are hidden deep within everyone. They wanted to draw their imaginative powers from long-buried memories, from the deepest layers of the unconscious: the Id itself. But in their declaration “cut off reason and logic—one plunges into the deepmost wells of creativity,” they could not escape their brains, crowded with experience and overwhelming.

Also, the scientists and intellectuals of that time believed that the Universe was governed by basic laws of beauty, simplicity, and harmony, as a result of their human presumptions. Even now, scientists are working with their measuring sticks to arrive at the marvelous symmetry and rationality they perceive in the physical universe, but which are really mental concepts of space, time, and matter.

There were artists and thinkers tied to creative existence who recognized that the projection of a symbol or image from the subconscious was not an act of creation, but merely the transfer of an already existing object. They saw that in order to observe clearly one needs to be free to look, free from memories, ideas, conclusions, and beliefs interfering between one and the world. In their quest for meaning in life, they went further, projecting themselves into the future, not knowing what they would find. They had an appetite for meaning and a passion for discovering the true nature of the objects they perceived. Their curiosity and wonder drove them to discover the visible, actual, living reality of things. They wanted to learn the mysterious sources and inner workings of Nature. They wanted to examine, understand, and create. In their journey, they appreciated the way the eye becomes educated through contact with nature. In their penetrating experiments, they just wanted to find things out.

Part III: Learning Process

The creative potential is innate in each of us, and we should struggle to make it function in our lives. Creativity contains the sense of wonder, which eventually drives us to transcend ourselves and explore Nature and the Universe. Curiosity—wanting to know—is the seed that grows through marveling and wondering into learning.

In our exploration of the world outside us and our transcendence of ourselves, we are abided by our minds. The human mind is an extraordinary phenomenon, equipped with supreme intelligence—to observe, to question into life—to find things out—to enter into the depths of it, into what lies behind it. With all our senses as windows, the mind is a visual organ to peer at the universe.

So the flowering of our mysterious organism is in our sense of wonder, in our open awareness and appetite for learning, in our passion for discovery. Responding to the excitement, mystery, and amazement of the Cosmos, we seek out the hidden structure of the external Universe and explore the mysteries of Nature’s processes.

The outcome of this learning process through our minds will be to transcend altogether our mental environment, its memory and remembrances, to move beyond the “me” and the self-conscious, to learn the world. The goal or our minds is to transcend themselves, in order to help us transcend our human condition and move toward a state of egolessness.

In pure observation free from the activities of the self, there comes to us the revelation of the presence of the other, the Unknown, the reality. This is pure perception, unrelated to thought and time. In this process there is creativity and learning. It is a transcendent state of observation that allows us to penetrate into the inmost essence of things, the mysterious sources and inner workings of Nature. We explore the mysteries of a Universe that is in constant upheaval. We witness movements of the inward life of things, a Nature where nothing stands still, reality as a continuously changing process.

The serious thinker gives away all he has—his possessions, his normal self—in order to be open before the presence of Nature and the Universe. In this way he makes a breakthrough to creativity, and engages in a true dialogue of man and Cosmos. He projects himself into the future, not knowing what he might find. He questions life: to discover, to learn, to understand, to find enlightenment, to live.

Artists saw the importance of clarity and perception in a mind that is free to observe. In their new-found freedom they took off on their own, to learn the underlying truth of objects. They educated themselves by intensely exploring Nature, and while they explored, they experimented and marveled. They wished to enter into the depths of the Universe, into what lies behind it and to discover the dynamic properties of the phenomenal world. They realized the need to observe in a way that transcended the self. The more deeply the artists had this realization, the more philosophically grounded they became.
Sartre said: “a revolutionary philosophy must be a philosophy of transcendence.” Art-making in this sense becomes the most precious evidence of freedom.

Artists recognized that the human being is qualitatively distinguished from other life-forms by a certain spirituality and a higher consciousness. As true artists they were of great spirituality, and their art sprang from the depths of their spiritual nature.

Van Gogh meditated on the unearthly beauty of reality. In his longing for complete union with nature, he was free to express a new vision, a new order of reality. He created a world of scintillating and dynamic vision of nature. He pursued art as a religion and a mission in life. In his work we see the expression of an ecstatic state of mind.

Brancusi created serene images, like his “Bird in Space,” by raising the fusion of elementary geometric forms to spiritual heights.

Giacometti, likewise, operated on a spiritual plane, in his dialogue with life in terms of dynamic, linear movements. He created philosophical works of extreme penetration. He insisted on the primacy of pure being and creative procedure. He probed the unknown and the hidden, creating an archetypal vision of it. He produced monumental pieces of art with tremendous feeling.

Paul Klee was a great thinker and poet in his art. He questioned everything in life. With his deep feeling for materials, every new thought he had realized itself in new ways and means. He expressed his vision of existence with penetrating insight and accomplished art. His work was a dialogue of man and Cosmos. While working in Kairouan, North Africa, on one of his paintings, he said: “I now abandon work. It penetrates so deeply and so gently into me, I feel it and it gives me confidence. Color possesses me. That is the meaning of this happy hour. Color and I are one. I am a painter.” In the art he created throughout his life, we feel the expression of a life lived fully and with a highly developed sense of wonder and awareness, and we experience also the joys of discovery and learning.

Following these artists and their art, we begin to see that they were humble people who led a simple and wholesome life without pretensions, much like that of any Sunday painter lost in Nature and enjoying his little discoveries and learnings therefrom (differing from the Sunday painter only in that they were more devoted artists). Exercising their senses in the process of working, they sharpened their sense of wonder and awareness. Their art expressed their learned experiences and they were more creative in their explorations.

An artist can, like a true poet, in his leisure hours carry on his experiments in silence, and marvel.

Part IV: Creativity and Art Expression

This earth of great beauty is a marvel. As we descend into this paradise, every day, every moment of our life becomes a constant celebration. The earth is a living totality, with its own vital functions, while at the same time it belongs to a greater community in time/space. The flowering part of this mysterious Nature is the splendor of human life, equipped with an open frame of mind, with planetary vision. We have developed a profound sense of wonder and curiosity. We have the capacity to enquire, to learn the true nature of the objects we perceive, to enter into the depths of what lies behind them; to learn, to find enlightenment, to live. The basic role that mind and self play at some unfathomable level is the workings of the Universe.

As we have seen, however, our instinctive physical drives, our physical limitations, and our consciousness intervene in our efforts to discover the underlying reality of nature and the Universe. The organization of our society, the way we seek to dominate, subdue, and overspread this planet, have allayed our fears and provided us a refuge from apparent chaos, but have also prevented us from perceiving fundamental truths.

Our social and political systems rob men of freedom and equality. Violent and power-hungry individuals and even societies seek to suppress and use us, conquer and destroy us. We are acted upon, changed for good or ill, by other men. Our capacity to think is pitifully limited. Our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is shrouded in veils of mystification. Such a reduced awareness bedevils our sense of reality. A person is a shriveled, desiccated fragment of what he can be. Humanity is estranged from its authentic possibilities, given less and less opportunity for any active or creative living of its own. This is a blockage of spontaneity of the growth and expression of man’s sensuous, emotional and intellectual capacities. Such alienation is achieved only by outrageous violence, perpetrated by human beings on each other. This is terribly serious in the utterly sad and increasingly violent world we live in.

In our desire to value and glorify order and harmony and ward off chaos, we have created a physical world as a product of our own imagining. We created the things in our own image by imposing our mental constructs upon space. We wandered away from the river of life and separately created a world of our own: Vanity Fair—a social world dominated by folly, frivolity and show—in which we could find repose.

As human vices such as greed and envy were systematically cultivated in such a world, the inevitable result was nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. The whole passionate wonderful life of man in communion with nature was wiped out. Now our brains are trained, educated, and conditioned to mesh with this system—we are potentially humans, but are in an alienated state. Our vision is clouded by ignorance and prejudice.

The industrial revolution obliterated Western spirituality. We tend to think of the spiritual life as a seeking of the unknown, as a flight from reality. In fact it is an attempt to define and explore reality.
Living an ambitious society, full of conflict and corruption, the artist also is corrupted with vagaries of private greed. In a culture now dominated by the notion of art as commodity, the artist becomes self-indulgent and preoccupied with himself, and with goals involved in self-promotion. He learns to use his art as a means, as an acceptable product, geared to impress others. He designs his works of art to satisfy the tastes, desires, and needs of his market. The modern artist is miserably dependent on the dealer, the curator, the critic, and the media of publicity. He puts himself on a track to satisfy the passing fashions of the commercial world, where improvisation and interplay are mistaken for creativity. But true creativity cannot exist where there is motive, ambition, and competitiveness.

Philosophically minded artists recognized the potentials of the human mind. Released from the idea of earning a living, they were able to address the problem of how to recover the astounding capacity we all have for creative intelligence. To learn the true nature of the manifestations of nature—of nature’s processes. They were explorers—in the ecstasy of freedom—engaged and experimenting. Their raison d'être was to find things out—to learn.

With his awareness and sense of wonder, the artist wants to know—wants to see and understand. The artist undergoes deep and personally meaningful experiences. He feels the joys of discovering and learning, as long as he is free to express himself and live a simple life close to nature. His longing is for complete union with nature, instead of detachment from it. In such an artist the expression is of a fully lived life. It substitutes feelings for theories and replaces a sense of memory with marvel. It transmits a feeling that insight is exciting. In such a life there is authentic learning and creativity.

As we want to know we open ourselves—and there the Other is. When we are not there—with our prejudice of Self—the Other is. This is a breakthrough to creativity; there is revelation and learning. This is art-making as a learning process and a creative process. This is the real joy of life—to find enlightenment, to live, to discover, understand and learn.

Return to the Retrospective Exhibition, Three Master Printmakers: Lee Chesney, Krishna Reddy, and Ken Kerslake.