September 23, 2009

No Ghosts, No Telepathy

I'm beginning to wonder if abstraction causes such discomfort in some because non-representational art is a reminder of what philosopher Colin McGinn calls the "cosmic loneliness" that drives spiritual belief.

McGinn notes that the sealed nature of human consciousness (i.e., I am and can only be in my own mind, not in yours, even though I'd like to think I can know your mind, or that dog's...) fosters, in some, a relentless loneliness. An antidote to this oppressive feeling is to believe in direct, ever present mental contact with another, even a spiritual other.

I talked with both a science professor and with an ethical humanist recently, and asked them about the same moment of awareness: the moment you look in a telescope and see the moons around Jupiter. The science prof said he has often had people take in the view and then proclaim that what they are seeing is God's creation. And I asked him how he dealt with that; he said he usually replies "How do you know I didn't create what you are seeing through my telescope?"

The ethical humanist stated that what those people were expressing was awe, but they just had to use the language of God to express it. I responded that I imagined what those people were expressing was something like fear, and that they used the language of God to make the unknown less fearful. But thinking on it, "cosmic loneliness" could be an apt description.

Art making and art presentation, especially abstraction (in my view) are such connected, human-to-human activities. Experiencing a great painting can feel like a means of traversing across sealed consciousnesses...but for many, this is completely dismissible. Because if what is viewed on canvas is not recognizable, it is not instantly verifying, and so not of value to the viewer's experience. Yet art created out of the minds of other humans actually is inherently verifying.

A view of distant planets through a telescope is a pretty one-sided, human-to-object-in-space activity, one which can give you reason to both celebrate that humans have created telescopes and reason to be in awe of, well, space. And often this moment of real awe gets taken and proscribed, made into a known, mapped, identifiable thing, a "God creation" -- in part so that one can feel less alone in the universe.

Yet seeing the moons around Jupiter is absolutely not verifying; this view says nothing to me (or any human) about human experience, only Jovian experience. Which at this point in time is utterly, fantastically unknowable.