Week 3: Extra. Philosophy: Art Precedes Thought

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Herbert Read’s  Icon and Idea : The Function of Art in the Development of Human Consciousness,  discusses the theory of  visual meaning, or art, preceding concrete and conscious thought.  Read clearly explains that this theory is not originally his but from the works of Conrad Fiedler. 

Read claims, “Art has never been an attempt to grasp reality as a whole–that is beyond our human capacity; it was never even an attempt to represent the totality of appearances; but rather it has been the piecemeal recognition and patient fixation of what is significant in human experience”. In my personal life, I have made a conscious habit of diving into and experiencing all types of art-making so that I might better understand the artists that I study. I resolve that as some performing artists undergo their creative rituals to begin their next work, there is an overwhelming feeling of need for mastery and greatness–to create an expression that expresses all, reaches all, touches all; like sitting down to begin your English assignment and feeling as if you just must write the next great American novel! But as Read mentions, such an absolute creation is not possible for us, and great artwork is focused on one or a few human experiences.  For example Goya’s famous The Third of May 1808, which depicts one event, in one place.  

Francisco Goya. The Third of May, 1808. 1814-15. Oil on canvas, 8’9″ x 13’4″ (2.67 X 4.06 m). Museo del Prado, Madrid – H. W. Janson’s History of Art for Young People.  4th ed.

This form of singular communication is an example of Read’s discussion that before words, there were images. He says, ”what we articulate is communicable only in virtue of its aesthetic form”. To expand, Read and his colleagues claim that in Prehistoric time homo sapiens found themselves in a physical, visual world that they needed to survive in.  These humans had instinct enough to know that they needed food and shelter, like animals do, and that it was made apparent that one could not survive alone in the wild world. Thus to the human experience was introduced the need of Companionship & Communication.  

The text goes on to explain that because of the visual and physical experience we are having on Earth, our mind sees what we need before we turn to our partner and communicate that need. To remember something, is to subconsciously see it. How else would you really know it existed, let alone that that is what you needed? This visual-cognitive process was essential for our ancestors to farm, hunt, and protect each other as seen in the Neolithic eras. After the process has repeated itself our “consciousness develops [and] expands in thousands of directions, like a tree” until our bank of virtual associations grows to be a high-paced communication and analysis hub, allowing for modern communication and thinking.  A basic example can be that as we see more of the world, like traveling or participating in new experiences, we have more memories or visual images to call back on and form new meanings, ideas, and associations. Our modern world has become globalized, creating a new and more experienced human society that can invent, progress, and evolve more rapidly because of this process. 


January 23, 2017





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