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Loosening Identity: The Subject in Contemporary Painting

by Ashley Johnson


The Challenge


Artists trying to make socio environmental paintings in the 21st century face a number of challenges. We are generally aware that aspects of our shared existence are in crisis and that remedial action needs to be taken to address issues like climate change, rampant capitalism, poverty and environmental degradation.




The 20th century saw the commodification of art in terms of Modernist and Post Modernist manifestations. Sometimes political interests interfered as in the CIA’s direct promotion of Abstract Expressionism as part of their Cold War strategy to establish American abstraction as the preeminent expression of the so-called Free World. Marxist and socialist thought became the preserve of the intelligentsia at universities. Thus, much of Conceptualism is rooted in thinking about social order.




This has given rise to an anomaly where artists might be creating works as social commentary but can only reach an audience through a commercial system of monetary exchange. Auction houses define the value of art and they have no interest in ideas.




Universities establish the critical debate and outline the narrative trajectory of Art. Trends like Relational Aesthetics, where artists engage with the public through providing useful public services like a pop up library, are an example. Painting becomes an anachronistic practice and is devalued, leading to the ridiculous assertion that “Painting is dead”. It was also seen historically as elitist. In my opinion, painting does need to reinvent itself, but because we think in pictures, it is a biological manifestation and is inherently valuable. Capitalism works by creating shortages thereby accruing value to products. Universities do a similar thing by limiting access to the system while validating theories.


Primal Paintings


For many viewers some of my paintings present a challenge because they transgress cultural norms and present sexual scenarios that bring to mind aspects like bestiality. Religious and social conditioning has initiated many taboos. Humans see themselves as separate from animals by virtue of consciousness and sentience. They imagine a teleological process leading towards perfection or salvation. Theories of evolution share this myth with faith-based initiatives. My Primal Paintings present bizarre narratives with hybridized animal and human components so as to provoke thought. They are tragicomic, in that they deal with life and death, or existential issues, but with humour.




I am concerned with redressing the balance between animals and humans to build empathy. Consequently I explore the origins of our way of conceptualizing humans and animals. This leads to Cartesian logic and the mechanical metaphor. Descartes famous statement: “I think therefore I am” provokes me to ask: What is consciousness? Do we think and where does the self come from? There are a lot of assumptions underlying our cultural beliefs. What is the true nature of reality and individuality? How do animals fit into this scenario?


Cartesian Logic


Rene Descartes, a mathematician philosopher from the 17th century and the Age of Enlightenment, developed some theories that still act as the foundation for modern Western Culture.  His concept of analytical geometry suggested that space and spatial relations could be measured.  Quantities that could not be measured exactly would fit into the system if new symbols were created for them.  The principle that the world of natural phenomena could be understood through number and measurement became basic scientific procedure. Cartesian logic, which plays such a large part in the human's conception of self, thus gave birth to scientific method. His idea was to remove all doubt from scientific method so that it was founded on empirical observation alone. This way of thinking is referred to as Reductivism.


I Think, Therefore I Am


Descartes' proof of existence - "I think, therefore I am", began his quest for truth.  However, locked within his perception is also the idea that the human is somehow unique and separate from other animals, in the respect that it can think.  Descartes saw this ability as God-given.  


Brain and Mind Duality


Going further, he described the workings of the human body in mechanical terms.  The brain is perceived to be of substantive matter but the mind is considered to be immaterial.  Thus the mind activates the brain, which causes the body to act like a machine.  He considered the nexus of this interaction to be the pineal gland, situated in the center of the skull.  He also regarded some ideas as innate to humanity, like the idea of free will.  This emanated from God and therefore must be true.  Thus, he created the perception that the mind is somewhat independent from the body/brain and in control of it.  It was immaterial and linked to God. He also considered animals to be devoid of feeling and thought. Humans have language, which animals lacked, implying they lacked reason. Only beings endowed with a mind and soul are rational, thus animals could not have a soul. They cannot experience hunger, thirst or pain but produce squeals of pain merely as a mechanical response.


Consciousness and Unconsciousness


In Meditations he asks: “What then am I? A thing that thinks. What is a thing that thinks?  It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.”  Consciousness is pre-eminent in this perception but Descartes also notes involuntary bodily movements like passions that are not accounted for by conscious thought.  This led to the concept of the unconscious, which came to be considered a separate compartment of the brain.  His perceptions remain the dominant 'common' way of conceptualizing the relationship between the mind and body.  Even the current myth that sees the mind as a software program is influenced by this separation of mind and brain.


Art and the Mechanical Metaphor


Art is a process of creation where we imagine the mind stimulating the brain to generate an art object.  Consciousness is seen as the source of creative production. Art also partakes in the mechanical metaphor by dividing its functions into sections like painting, sculpture, ceramics and aesthetics.  We structure our art institutions to mimic the hierarchy of this mind/body perception.  Theoretical and stylistic divisions like Conceptualism or Minimalism are yet another way in which the mechanical model dominates our perceptions.




Dividing the human being into constituent compartments has the effect of stripping the organism of its body/brain/mind/environmental unity, and choosing conscious awareness as the determining characteristic of the human mind means that interpretation is limited.  


Descartes Error


Descartes has made an assumption that behind the thought there must be a thinker. Antonio Damasio is a neurologist who wrote a book called Descartes' Error, which seeks to demonstrate how reason and feeling are intimately bound up with the brain and body. He says: “the comprehensive understanding of the human mind requires an organismic perspective; that not only must the mind move from a nonphysical cogitum to the realm of biological tissue, but it must also be related to a whole organism possessed of integrated body proper and brain and fully interactive with a physical and social environment.”


Self Comes to Mind


A later book is titled Self Comes To Mind and considers how we create our own conscious minds. A process of mapping takes place as our body relays information to the brain. The body state is continually mapped in the brain and they are in dialogue with one another. The brain can also simulate body states ‘as if’ they were occurring. Thus we can project what body state other people may be in. He sees the skin as a major sensory organ on par with eyes, ears, smell and taste. Quoting: “ Consciousness is the result of adding a self function to mind that orients the mental contents to one’s needs and thus produces subjectivity. The self function is not some know-all homunculus but rather an emergence, within the virtual screening process we call mind, of yet another virtual element: an imaged protagonist of our mental events.” He says: “ I see the neurology of consciousness as organized around the brain structures involved in generating the lead triad of wakefulness, mind and self. Three major anatomical divisions – the brain stem, the thalamus and the cerebral cortex – are principally involved, but one must caution that there are no direct alignments between each anatomical division and each component of the triad. All three divisions contribute to some aspects of wakefulness, mind and self.” Of animals, Damasio says: “If a species has behaviors that are best explained by a brain with mind processes rather than by a reflex brain with mere dispositions for actions (such as reflexes). If the brain has the components to make conscious minds in humans then the species is conscious. Language is not required.”


Morphic Resonance


The scientist, Rupert Sheldrake, generated the idea of ‘Morphic Resonance’. This refers to the ‘mind’ of a species, which in a mysterious way dictates the actions of individuals in the entire species. Thus skills learned by one group of birds suddenly appear in that same species on other continents. They learnt how to open milk bottles.


Newtonian Reality


Our concept of reality is locked upon the Newtonian idea of space, object and time. We continue to use this system because it seems to be objective reality. We observe objects in space and absorb interpretations of the data. Unfortunately that is not really what is happening. We are actually projecting interpretations onto phenomena and consciousness functions more as a censoring device. It delimits our possibilities. We see what we want to see or are programmed to see.


Particle and Wave Duality


Quantum theorists have made astounding assertions about reality being both a particle and a wave, with the subjectivity of the observer predicting the outcome. A recent experiment has finally produced an image of light as a particle and a wave simultaneously.


Ambiguity and Contradiction


It points up a deficit in our cultural language that we cannot accommodate ambiguity and contradiction. Things are exclusive as black or white, yes or no, never inconclusive. It is interesting that we seem able to comprehend the Quantum view of reality but continue to conduct our lives according to Newtonian constants. One of the challenges of the 21st century is to permit a new awareness of reality and work out a way of thinking in that mode.


Manufacturing Perception


It can be demonstrated that our perception of the world is created within us.  Gregory Bateson, in his book Mind and Nature: a necessary unity, explores the meaning of some perceptual experiments he undergoes with a Dr. Ames. He deduces that the processes of perception are inaccessible to us.   “The machinery of perception created the image in accordance with the rules of parallax, rules that were for the first time clearly verbalized by painters in the Renaissance; and this whole process, the creating of the image with it's built-in conclusions from the clues of parallax, happened quite outside my consciousness.” The rules of the universe that we think we know are buried deep within our processes of perception (Bateson 55 1985:43).


Art as Biological Expression


It would seem logical that art is a biological expression of the body/mind complex.  We tend to see that form as art, because it is part of our matrix of seeing. Other animals will also possess the energy to project a matrix of seeing to satisfy their ends. To claim human superiority, because of manifestations like reason and art, is extremely arrogant.  It is to ignore the strong forces which surge through all life in subliminal form and for which we have no language.  The shape that our culture takes is informed by the same energies that compel small fish to swim in a formation that creates the illusion of a larger fish.


The Bushmen


As an artist trying to communicate meaning through narrative strategies, I have mused about the nature of reality and perception. Coming from South Africa, I noticed that Bushman cave art and ritual ceremonies seem to incorporate the spirit world alongside their experience of hunting and survival. When drawing in caves they are evoking this world and their lines are magical transporters of conceptual direction. As a community, the concept of individuality is not functional for the group. Africans are traditionally pastoralists so Bushmen as hunter/gatherers, are seen historically as a threat to livestock. The Colonialists also drove the Bushmen towards extinction. They were seen as being not quite human and therefore could be hunted.


Trance Dance


Small groups of Bushmen survive in desert regions where they continue to hunt antelope, sometimes carrying kills back to camp over three days. They have an interesting concept of the power possessed by animals. It is called n/um and is an energy that can be beneficial or destructive to humanity if not channeled. The Bushmen perform the Trance Dance, which is a healing ritual, around a fire at night. The women sit in a circle and clap the intricate rhythms of wordless songs that are named after "strong" things like Eland or Gemsbok antelopes. The men dance in a line within the circle and alternate the vortices by changing direction. Spirit animals are attracted to the dance site. The dancers describe a boiling in their stomachs and begin to see pathways of light that lead to the spirit world. At a point some go into a trance that enables them to blend with the spirit world and in certain cases become spirit animals. This allows

them to transcend physical barriers and become shamans. These healers seek the "sickness" in the other individuals, drawing it out through sites like belly buttons. Finally, they collapse exhausted and are coaxed back to life by the others through song and stroking.


Alternate Versions of Reality


Cultures like the Bushmen of the Kalahari or the Australian Aborigines have no problem reconciling alternative versions of reality. They see experiential reality as part of an overall Dreamtime or Spirit-world. One of the features of this way of thinking is to see the animals and environment as part of the self and vice versa.


A New Way of Seeing


The reason to develop a new way of seeing is to alter our effect on the environment. Instead of seeing a tree we need to see the larger organism. Boundaries must be relinquished so that environment merges with self. The Bushmen provide an example of a culture that achieves this. It seems to me that the Western notion of the individual is really just a paradigm and that creative endeavour could reinvent the persona and by extension, the society. If the ‘environment’ were contained within the idea of the ‘self’ perhaps we would pay more attention to it and devise better structures of governance.

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