Art and the Expanding Mind
Finding depth in the artistic experience
Recently I had the pleasure of attending a screening of Il Buco; a visceral, immersive account of the 1961 cave expedition to discover the 700 metres deep Bifurto Abyss in the caves of Pollino, Italy.
The film is almost completely without dialogue and music, and on paper, all I can really say of the plot is that a farmer tends to his cattle and some speleologists explore a cave, (though there are one or two spoilers I’ve omitted).
But to assess this film in terms of plot would be to do it a disservice. From the very first moment, we are immersed in beautifully detailed surround sound and expansive, lush cinematography of southern Italian landscapes. We hear the buzzing of bees, the jingle of cowbells, and the rustle of the wind in the trees. Our farmer speaks to his cows in an intuitive language of indecipherable sounds and his voice echoes out across the valleys.
Later in the film, we are treated to the tantalising contrast of a tiny cave space and the way such a space sounds, followed by a long, beautiful reverb as one of the cavers throws a stone into the dark, unseen passageways that lie ahead of them. At other times their oil lamps cast a focused light that can only partially reveal the enormous space they find themselves in.
Though the film progresses, at any one time it is hard to place where we have come from and where we are going, perhaps, just as the cavers feel inside the caves, or the farmer feels on the endless hillsides.
The feeling that encompassed me as I watched this film reminded me of similar feelings that I have experienced watching other films and video art installations. It brought to mind the short film Factory by Sergey Loznitsa, or any of Andrei Tarkovsky’s works.
The feeling was of deep presence and expansiveness; a sense of the ever-deepening and expanding now.
This is art for the expanding mind.
All art, it seems, sits somewhere on a spectrum in relation to the use of time and narrative. Yet these opposite ends of the spectrum are so fundamentally different.
Much of popular art in the west is focused on narrative. We grow up surrounded by recognisable structures that progress; songs with two choruses, symphonies with five movements, films with three acts.
Art of this kind tends to create and perpetuate conventions and structures; touchpoints that facilitate entertainment and meaning-making.
It exists within the realm of thought, along the axis of time. It is concerned with bringing meaning, through thought, to our experience of the passage of time and human suffering. Its dynamics are that of tension and release, right and wrong.
It is our assessment of what is happening in relation to our values that leads us to be moved, to be entertained, and to learn. We feel injustice, or the like, because we have a sense of how the events unfolding relate to what we expect or would prefer to be.
But whether fulfilled or subverted, those expectations always remain part of the equation.
By contrast, art for the expanding mind takes place upon a different axis. It takes place entirely in the present, yet its axis extends infinitely deeper and deeper into this moment. It invites us to let go and fall into the present experience, being enveloped in the senses and subtleties of feeling.
Art for the expanding mind redefines the nature of meaning or subverts it altogether, raising questions that cannot be answered in thought.
By evading the axis of time, it diminuates the question of “what is our suffering for?”, bringing us to the present moment where there is nothing to compare; a state of letting go where the experience of suffering softens and dissipates, and the wonder of creation emerges.
Art for the expanding mind reaches us by dismantling conventions. The fewer familiar conventions, the less our thinking can build and jump to conclusions. And so, as our thinking mind becomes quiet, a feeling of infinite expansion and aliveness emerges as the experience of the senses takes over instead.
It is interesting then to note that art for the expanding mind has arguably only reached its zenith in the west in the last hundred years or so, emerging in contrast to a rich history of artistic structures and traditions. Alongside these developments, living standards have radically improved, science has reshaped our understanding of reality, and new spiritual ideas have flooded in.
Prior to the twentieth century, most artforms had been working with structure and narrative for thousands of years, from the tragedies and comedies of Greek plays to the tension and release of Bach’s music.
Even in the still imagery of fine art, we find myth; objects and characters interacting with each other, referencing and retelling well-known stories and themes.
However, by the time we get to the mid-twentieth century, various attempts to break out of these conventions are flourishing.
In music, atonalism starts to experiment with undermining our familiarity with harmony. Then minimalism invites us to get lost in repeating movements and textures. John Cage experiments with writing music by chance and later Brian Eno experiments with music that is generated by technological process.
Meanwhile, in fine art, the likes of Pollock and Rothko are breaking down visual composition into its constituent parts of textures, shapes, colours and movements.
Artists are becoming more interested in art that emerges and is discovered rather than art that achieves, follows or conforms to envisioned outcomes. They are becoming interested in more elemental forms.
These evolutions in western art occur concurrently with western social movements of liberation and expanded consciousness in the form of the evolution of psychotropic drugs, the importing of Eastern spiritual traditions and the ongoing evolution of quantum mechanics. John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen begin their more experimental music works just as Alan Watts is coming to prominence in his teachings and the use of LSD in psychotherapy is pioneered.
So, does the more recent flourishing of expanded art, in tandem with groundbreaking social and psychological movements of consciousness imply an evolution of humanity? Are we seeking more to exist, live and thrive in the expanding mind state? Is our fascination shifting from our human narratives to something more fundamental in our reality?
More often than not, art balances both ends of the spectrum, to some extent relying on thought and convention, whilst otherwise inviting immersive, sensory presence.
It is one thing to be immersed in the meditative, ambient experience of William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops”, but an entirely more profound experience when accompanied by the understanding that these tape recordings are physically and irrecoverably degrading across the course of the album.
But while thinking can add value to the expanded mind experience, it is not a prerequisite. Conversely, the presence of the expanded mind experience is absolutely a prerequisite for thought; before there can be thought, there must be the space of conscious awareness within which it can arise.
This hierarchy points to the fundamental nature of reality; that we are primarily experiencing events unfolding here and now, regardless of whether or not we are thinking about them.
While our rich history of narrative art continues to help us find meaning in our human experience and to teach it to others, art for the expanding mind points towards a more fundamental reality; the fractal, emergent, ever-flowing, ever-present indivisible oneness of nature, that we are both a part of and one with. It invites us into both a different way of experiencing and to a different way of identifying.
Art for the expanding mind shows us that there is nothing to grasp, nothing to understand, yet still nature flows, beauty manifests, and life continues on.
When we allow ourselves to fall into these artistic experiences, for some time at least, we are able to transcend the existential loneliness that pervades human experience; all those personal stories that define our lone human identity. Instead, we can become immersed in being; the being of everything.
Derek Kirkup is a composer based in Bristol, UK. Please share, and subscribe for new musings on art, creativity and spirituality. www.derekkirkup.com.