Art out there

In a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Steven Winn took his readers on a voyage into the uncharted realms of the unconscious.

He was trying to get a hold on why certain works of art, paintings, opera, symphonies, movies, transport us beyond our rational selves and into some other, almost "twilight zone" kind of place. In doing so, Winn waxes rhapsodic, crafting the kind of word pictures that I particularly savor. Words that don't find their way into newsprint often enough.

Winn starts his article with someone looking at a painting. "'Time slows down,' said Janet Bishop, curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 'I'm enveloped. The painting I'm looking at isn't the painting anymore. It becomes this place that's entirely other from itself.'

"Bishop was describing what happens to her in the presence of a 1969 Mark Rothko canvas in the SFMOMA collection. 'I could describe its color and its shape and its size,' she went on. 'But there's nothing that can approximate the experience of standing in front of that painting.'"

Most of us have had mind-blowing experiences when in the presence of truly great art. The first time I saw the painting of the water lilies by Claude Monet hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, it literally took my breath away.

I have had similar experiences listening to particular pieces of music. There are scenes in plays and movies that likewise just whisk me off my feet and carry me out into the ethers like the people in a Marc Chagall painting.

There's the intellectual satisfaction that we get from well-crafted prose, poetry, musical harmonies, use of colors and textures, movements and juxtapositions. It speaks to our sense of the aesthetic.

But the kind of response that Winn is talking about doesn't occur in your head. When you're caught up in the experience, you don't even have a head. Or a body.

"The connections that paintings and dance performances, movies and novels and music make to us beyond our conscious perceptions of them are primary and transporting," Winn writes. "Our unconscious, deep-seated responses are what bring us back to the arts for more and more, nourishing and renewing us just as food and air and water do. At the same time, we're carried away from our sensory and analytical selves, lifted or plunged into a web of emotion and association, a fretwork of glinting filaments radiating out in so many directions.

"For some, this becomes a linking to the divine, to something ineffably transcendent. For others, it opens pathways to a shadowy and only fleetingly accessible territory in themselves. It may be a means of communing with an artist's own unconscious essence or of riding the mythic tides that flow timelessly through the arts."

The more metaphysical aspects of the arts have long been recognized. In its study "Gifts of the Muse," the RAND Corporation pointed to the intrinsic value of the arts, the first being immediate benefits such as pleasure and captivation that come from engaging in arts experiences. These motivate individuals to seek more such experiences. This sounds like what Winn is talking about.

The second intrinsic benefit enriches individual lives by bringing about growth such as enhanced empathy for other people and cultures, powers of observation and understanding of the world. The third benefit is the sharing of arts experiences through reflection and public discourse.

These benefits sound very much like the personal and pastoral components of spiritual enlightenment that also tend to elude rational analysis.

"Great art leads us toward places that we can never fully inhabit or navigate," Winn continues. "The unconscious is a realm without any clear roads in or out, and no map when we're there ...

"The arts make us witnesses to who we are, gratefully helpless when it happens. They wake us up and silence us, sharpen our senses and hurtle us away from sensory reality. That, in fact, may be the point where we begin to encounter the nature of our own existence in the fullest sense."

Something to ponder — without using your brain.

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