Sunday, 17 November 2013

Visual Grammar - Chapter 4 - Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness

Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Selfhood

Visual Grammar - Chapter 4 - Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
In this chapter I am going to work through the issue of how an Active Drawer places patterns on paper (the dynamic workspace) in a way that represents objects from the outside world.  We are now entering into the world of visual nouns.  

If you have been reading earlier chapters you will know that I have described an Active drawer as someone who is skilful at speaking in the unreachable language of the subconscious.  As a start to understanding how an Active drawer does this we have to understand how "an object" is being represented in the subconscious mind. This may seem a question that might have a simple answer, but there is a problem, the problem is with the word "an". 

"An" implies the mind sees an object as a single thing.  We have already discussed how scientists are besotted with oneness, for instance they have a rigid definition of what a bird is which is related to their bloodline and genes, and a thing is either a bird or it is not a bird. The mind has a similar fixation with oneness, but for the mind oneness is a very plastic concept.  The mind's concept of what a bird is has no borders, it can include bees (chapter 3), but it also can be super-restrictive and exclude flightless birds like ostriches as not being proper birds.  As Humpty Dumpty so eloquently pointed out, words mean what the speaker chooses them to mean.

The mind loves to pull things together and make them into a group, and then label them as a single object.  This is done to facilitate fast and accurate thought. .  For the mind oneness is a convenience of thought that helps the subconscious mind  quickly classify and predict the behaviour of things in the outside world in a useful way. Only after the subconscious mind has done its work is the conscious rational mind of the prefrontal cortex allowed to comment and amend.

A stool can be a table, and a table can be a stool. We have a choice when we come across a piece of furniture that might be a table or a stool: If we choose to think of the object as a stool we sit on it, if we see it as a table we put food on it. The non-rigid way the mind sees the furniture enabled us to use the object in a multude of useful ways.  Plasticity is built into everything Nature makes, which is quite different from the products of science which are designed and built for specific purposes and are not expected to adapt to new circumstances.  Aeroplanes are built to fly people across continents, they have a rigid use and will never be used as submarines, but a flying bird has the possibility of change because built built into its DNA is the plasticity to evolve into a penguin if that is where its future lies..

The Plasticity of Oneness

We must always be on our guard when in our thoughts come across the word "one", the mind might be using the word in an illusive way for convenience.  We might intuitively believe in the oneness of an object but the oneness may not exist in reality.  An example is when we try to define of the oneness of our personality, our soul and identity  When we try to catch the shape of these "unified" things we find they have no fixed shape, the oneness we feel intuitively seems to slip through our fingers like fine dry sand.  The same thing happens when you try to find the oneness of everyday objects.

We think we know exactly what we mean when we speak of one sheep

and we are familiar with collective nouns, where 11 sheep become one flock

But already the oneness of a sheep has become the oneness of eleven sheep.  Suppose the farmer sells one sheep, we are not left with "a flock of sheep less one sheep" ?  No, the farmer still has a flock of sheep.  Collective nouns have plasticity, we all know about this from experience.

It gets really interesting when we look at complex objects like Noah's Ark.

There were of course two of every animal on Noah's Ark, but we do not see them all in this picture. There are no sheep, but in our minds we know they are there, they are often just hiding somewhere in the boat.  This is similar to knowing about the the eye and wing on the other side of the bird (Chapter 3).   They exist somewhere out of view, out of mind whilst still remaining in our minds eye. Noah's Ark is a single object made of many, many different things, some of which are in our mind's focus and others that are in some sort of lobby of the mind; there but out of mind.

If Noah asks the sheep to leave the ark it still remains Noah's Ark, but without the sheep, which was in our mind's lobby, out of sight and out of mind anyway.  So when the sheep do leave we do not notice anything has changed.  Unless it is brought to our attention it makes no difference to our image of Noah's Ark whether the sheep are on board or not.

When the animals are all together in a single menagerie on the Ark  they all share a common destiny.  If the boat drifts westward the giraffes go westwards, and the elephants go westwards, and the sheep go westwards.  So it really makes sense for the mind to lump all these different objects with a common destiny into one thing - like we do when we have a lot of sheep in one field and call it a flock.  In this unique case we have no collective name for a boat load of animals, so we give the collective object a unique name: Noah's Ark.  Oneness is extremely convenient because when Noah's Ark goes westwards all the things that make up Noah's Ark go westward too. 

So is Noah's Ark a single object?  How about after the floods subside and all the animals get off the Ark and the tigers go to the jungle in India and the sheep to graze on the hillsides of New Zealand. The object has disintegrated into parts with different destinies, and the Ark ceases to exist in the real world, unless you change the meaning of Noah's Ark to mean an empty ship lying abandoned on the side of mount Ararat.   Perhaps in our imagination it lives on as it used to be when it was floating on the water with all the animals on board.  

There is only one Noah's Ark, but the oneness of Noah's Ark is very plastic; sometimes it is floating on the water full of animals, sometimes it is lying abandoned on the side of a mountain.  When Humpty Dumpty says "Noah's Ark" he decides which way he is using the word.  Alice has to guess how he is using the word.

Active drawing, like conscious thinking, is never independent of the workings of the subconscious mind.  By definition Active drawing reflects the activity that goes in  the subconscious before it arrives in our conscious thoughts.  If the world of subconscious thought is plastic and without rigid definitions, then so will the drawings created from its processes.  Drawing does not see objects like science, unless informed by the rationality of science it has no knowledge of the bloodlines of birds.  The objects created by Active drawing are plastic and this plasticity of objects is reflected in how we draw an object.

 Implications of Plasticity for Active Drawing

All I have written about the plasticity of oneness is uncontentious.  It is largely information we are aware of, but perhaps have never given much thought to.  Looking at these mechanisms of thought have big consequences for the Active drawer because the Active drawer does not imitate the raw data that arrives in their eye, instead they make marks that reflect what is going on in their heads.  If you want to Active draw it is a good idea to be super-aware of how things are being organised in your head because knowing this information will improve your drawing technique.  I am now going to demonstrate how these mechanisms affect the outcome of a drawing.

Generally speaking Active drawing is quite impulsive and fast, whether the drawing is completed in one minute or two hours, it is a fact that time passed whilst the drawing was being constructed.  In terms of thought processes 60 seconds is a very long period of time, much longer than we are ever capable of remaining focused on one idea.  Our thoughts do not stop to let us get the drawing down, a stream of thoughts is always there having something to say and contribute to the drawing as it progresses.  The inspiration with which the drawing was started will be quite different from the thoughts that are happening as the drawing is completed. 

Suppose we are drawing Noah's Ark.  The normal starting point would be to create a boat shape, so whilst drawing the mind thinks of the shapes of boats and hulls floating in water. This provides the platform on which to place the animals.

The next stage is to add some animals, usually the larger animals would go in first, maybe a pair of elephants, rhinos, tigers, or pandas.  The choices are plastic, one day you may decide to choose a panda, the next an elephant, a common choice would be to have two giraffe heads sticking out of the window.  Sometimes the rhino will go at the front end, other times the back. Which animals are where on the Ark is very much in the gift of the moment, and what was going on in the artist's head as they reached that point in the drawing.  When I came to the second window it came to my head to add Noah and his wife looking out (I would have liked to make them wave like they were leaving on holiday but this idea was not included because I did not have space).

As the space on the ark becomes restricted the opportunities for adding new animals becomes restricted.  There are all sorts of animals still not added, how about a monkey, where shall I put the monkey?  Answer I will add a mast.  Now I have a mast I can add two birds which I had forgotten to include. And if I add more windows in the hull of the ship I can get even more animals into my picture

And then the drawing is nearly complete, but the composition has areas where the white space is dead (white space is a big subject for later). The artist might add some clouds, the sun, birds in the air and fish in the water.  Once I think of fish my mind starts racing again; how about an octopus? and a sword fish and two sharks fins?  This is not sea water, but my ideas are plastic and they sort of add fun to the picture.

Throughout the process of the drawing my ideas have flowed and ebbed.  The construction was a sort of interaction with what has already been written on dynamic workspace.  The window stimulated some subconscious memories of old films of holiday makers waving as they left on steam ships for America, which is why Noah and his wife are in that space. Some of the choices were influenced by things that might have happened in the real world whilst I was making the drawing; some riders passed my house which caused me to put horses looking out of the window on the lower deck.

The end result of a drawing will always be unique because they tell a story of what was going on in the mind of the artist whilst the drawing was being made.  Every time an artist starts a drawing they cannot  quite know where it will lead because they cannot predict the thought processes of their subconscious minds.  Every drawing starts with blank workspace and ends up in a unique collection of ideas.

The Role of the Viewer 

The image was of course made to be seen by an audience, people to whom the artist will show your drawing.  A good drawing should include a visual path through which the image can be read.  In the case of the Noah's Ark it goes something like this.  The immediate impression is of a boat floating on water, this is very quickly  followed (maybe instantaneous) by the realisation that it is Noah's Ark.  The viewer then looks for interesting features, and their eye will pick out the biggest most well drawn features which are the larger animals, after digesting this information they might go on to look at the fine detail, such as the little animals squeezed into the windows which were an afterthought.  Some artists include little pockets of interest, jokes and sub-plots, which are a sort of reward to viewers that are kind enough to give the image more time.  In my case I have made teh water around teh ark shark infested and added an octopus. 

Drawings are often designed to be read like sentences.  Time passes as the artist creates the picture and time passes as the viewer is lead around the picture.   If the artist is skilful the structure of the image will follow a path taken by the artist while they were constructing the picture, the net result is that the viewer shares an emotional journey already mapped out and experienced in the head of the artist.

This is an engraving by Rembrandt, the eye is directed to the main subject of the picture which is an old man receiving a messenger 

Did you look at the picture long enough to be led round the picture and rewarded with a sub plot and joke? 

The Porous Boundaries between complex objects

We think of a cat as one thing, and in the physical world it is one thing, a bit like a word is one thing.  Very often, especially when a cat is not the main subject of a picture, the drawing of the cat will be little more than an iconic shape.  The cats on the back of this envelope are sub-plots; iconic black cat shapes

But like with words our internal images of what a cat is has a lot of plasticity.  Humpty Dumpty said words "mean just what I choose", can artists make similar claims about the images they make of things? Let us look at the plastic oneness of cats.

A cat is like Noah's Ark, it consists of many objects: four legs, two eyes, twenty claws, five hundred whiskers, a tail, a nose, thirty teeth, fur, head.....and there are conceptual things to be added to the objects that cats are made of; they purr, hunt,  smell and make cat noises.  The list can go on and on.  You may say "but they are all part of the singular thing we call a cat, it is not like the animals on Noah's Ark who after the storm was over could leave the boat to go and live independent lives.  A cats leg can't go walking off on it's own!".  This might be true in the physical world, but in the world of our subconscious all these elements have independent lives and identities.  Remember how lips of the dead in Emily Dickinson's poem go on talking until they are finally sealed with moss, the subconscious mind has no problem imagining the lips still talking after the bodies to which they belong have been laid to rest.  In the Humpty Dumpty world of our subconscious minds two cats legs can go off for a walk without the rest of the cat, this is not a problem for our imaginations because legs are entities in their own right, and we associate them with walking and moving as well as with cats.   If your imagination fails you here is a drawing of such an event.

Making this drawing took very little imagination.  The image, like Emily's talking dead, of walking cats legs seems sort of natural.

The list of things that are needed to make a cat are plastic too.  Components can be added and subtracted, yet the meaning of the object still remains "cat".  This is true both in the real world and in the mental world, but in our mental world there is even more plasticity.  My wife's Manx cat has no tail, but it is still a cat.  African lions have manes but no stripes or spots, but they are still cats. 

In the mental world of our subconscious mind, where anything can happen, the boundaries are even more plastic.  Looking for images of cats on Google images I came across this cartoon from 1949 that I enjoyed very much.

This picture is a masterly.  In the centre of the picture is the biggest eye pulling wink, the artist has taken a lot of care to make the mother cat look and walk like a cat.  Because the artist has made it the first thing we see we are immediately told that we are observers on to the world of cats.

Having got us into the right frame of mind the artist lets plasticity rip, the errant father who is the major sub plot, is a half human lout half cat creature.  He is a cat mixed with loutish human personality, but we hardly notice the transition from a picture about cats to picture about human behaviour (the father even winks in a knowing loutish way).  The mini sub plots, and last thing we notice in the picture, are the kittens which are drawn almost carelessly.  The artist is capable of making the kittens look kittenish but he does not need to.  The last kitten looks like a half kitten half sheep creature, but the artist knows this will not bother us.

I would guess this image was drawn in the same order that we view it as observers.  I also believe the journey we experience, as we travel along the pathway so carefully constructed inside the structure of this image, is the same pathway experienced by the artist as he made the drawing.   This path is what creates compelling narrative, as if the artist were with us telling us about what was going on in his head when he had this idea in 1949

This is another Cartoon I found in Google images.  

The two animals are so similarly constructed,  there is no difference between a cat and dog foot or nose, but we recognise immediately which is which.  We look at the cat with just two whiskers on one side of his face instead of fifty on each side, and with an uncatlike striped back and know it is a cat.  The dog with floppy ears and patch on its back.   What is interesting to me is that by changing just few critical objects on almost identical scaffolds the artist can switch a drawing of cat into a drawing of dog.  

Singular Objects

Science has a rational idea about what an object is, our minds have a plastic idea, they are very different from each other.  Our mental images of objects feel like they are singular things, but in reality they are ever variable concoctions of mental experiences. The boundaries between mental objects are porous and mingled with concepts shared with other objects.

Active Drawing belongs with the plastic world of the mind which is far removed from the objective and rational reality of science.  To draw even simple objects involves a dialogue between a stream of mental experiences that go on whilst the drawing is taking place and the activity happening  on the dynamic workspace where the image is being constructed. 

In the next lesson we will sail into interesting water where we will begin to explore how the concoction of mental experiences are drawn together within porous boundaries.  Before we move on I want to reassure you that whilst we may be talking about techniques used in childish drawings of Noah's Ark and Cartoons on rude 1940's postcards, which some snobs do not regard as high art, these same methods were understood and embraced by the greatest artists in history.  This is the image by Rembrandt I was looking for earlier.

This image illustrates many of the ideas I have introduced in Chapters 1 - 4.  The image is built around a stern faced Smiley with a strong nose and clearly directed gaze out of the picture (gaze is another big subject) .  The face is the super strong wink that dominates the image and says "I am the face of a strong personality with deep thoughts". The character of the smiley is further enhanced by the strong drawing of the hat and collar which are sub plots that tell us about the lifestyle of the owner of the face, and to a lesser extent the front of the doublet, which looks as if it is made of sturdy material, is another sub plot. The further you go from the face the more the image disintegrates; if you are tempted to look at the hands you will be disappointed, they are either not there or a meaningless mess of blotches, and as you move further down the figure everything that seemed so solid dissolves into nothingness  (what happened to his legs?).

This picture has a very strong narrative; "Look at my face, keeping looking at my face, don't look away from my face" It is a figure that seems to be of such solid singularity, but it is a oneness that is  merged with the outside world.  One wonders if perhaps this is how Rembrandt experience the presence of this man whilst he drew him.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Chapter 3 Visual Grammar - Words - Plastic Facts

Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Selfhood

Chapter 3 - Words - Plastic Facts

Suppose I ask you to picture a bird in your mind and tell me what you see, you might reply "I see a feathered little animal with a beak, two wings and two eyes sitting on a twig "

and then afterwards I might show you this drawing and

you might say "yes just like that"

But how can this be the same animal you just described ?  It has only one eye and one wing.  Perhaps you would then point out that there is no contradiction, it is just that in my drawing you cannot see second eye and second wing because they are hidden, and I would be forced to agree that you are right.  But there are other ways I could draw the bird.   I could un-hide the missing eye and wing.  Is this a more accurate description than the first bird of your mind that I drew for you ?

You might say "No, birds sitting on twigs do not look like that, usually I see them from underneath and their wings are folded by their sides".   But my second picture has more in common with the words you used to described the bird you pictured in your mind.  Perhaps there is a mismatch between how we picture birds sitting on twigs in our minds, and how we describe the same thing using words?   If our minds are stuck in the world of passive drawing technique, then the answer is Yes.  If we embrace active drawing then the answer is surely No.

In this chapter we are going to look at the ambiguity of things.  Looking at birds is a good starting point.  Science has an exact answer to the question about what a bird is.  Science calls the definition of a bird a fact which was worked out through studying the evolution of birds from looking at fossils.  Science has a rigid and cast iron definition about what a bird is, it has a fact.

Evolution of Modern Birds

When we go to school as children we learn about the magnificent discoveries and facts of science.  Amongst many facts we learn are that whilst to the untutored eye dolphins and whales both look like fish they are in fact mammals that breath air and suckle their young with milk.  We are brought up to respect and trust the fruits of Science which has brought us all the extraordinary benefits of modern life, including flying machines like aeroplanes and life giving medicines.

Given all the benefits it is strange how easily we give up our beliefs in the facts of science.  Our rationality is often subverted by emotions and images that well up from the uncontrolled and unknown depths of our subconscious.  I would like to illustrate this duel state of thinking that exists in all our heads using the beautiful poem "I Died for Truth" by an American Poetess who lived in the mid nineteenth century. This is how the text of her poem reads:

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth - the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886

The image at the heart of the poem is clearly irrational; two corpses, freshly dead, conversing on the nature of truth, their dead lips un-silenced by the fact of death.  They will not stop talking until their lips are smothered and sealed by the growth of moss over their mouths.  This image speaks in an irrational language that even the most hard nosed and rational of scientists cannot escape from understanding, in other words everyone, even professional scientists, have minds that are drawn into believing in images conjured up from Emily Dikinson's mad imagination.  What is going on in our heads?  I have thought about this poem a lot.

Another American, who lived only a few years after Emily, called William James, put his finger on this dualism of the mind.

William James (1842 - 1910)

He wrote
"The most ancient parts of truth . . . also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons". ........ "Purely objective truth, truth in whose establishment the function of giving human satisfaction in marrying previous parts of experience with newer parts played no role whatsoever, is nowhere to be found. The reasons why we call things true is the reason why they are true, for 'to be true' means only to perform this marriage-function,"

His ideas about the plasticity of truth are as relevant and extraordinary as Darwin's ideas of evolution, which are again a vision about plasticity and change.  Today William James is regarded as the father of "psychology" and  "consciousness studies", but throughout most of the 20th century his ideas were largely ignored and forgotten.  About last thirty years ago this began to change, and change very rapidly. Consciousness studies and Plasticity are two themes that run through modern biology, and I am about to argue through visual grammar and Art too.

The Executive part of our Brains
A scientist deals in a particular sort of truth which William James called "objective truth".  This is the truth of rational thought, a type of thought processing that is found in the mind of mankind but not in other animals.  Objective thought is the preserve of a part of the brain that has expanded most rapidly in our species but remains small in other animals.  The part of the brain is called the pre-frontal cortex, which is at the front end part of the Neo-cortex which is the thick wrinkled outer layer of the brain which is wrapped around mid brain or limbic system.  The PFC is situated in the forehead just above and behind the eyes.

The PFC is sometimes called "the executive brain" because it has physical connections to almost all other areas of the brain and is active in decision making by our self aware conscious selves.  It is the voice that scrutinises and harnesses the excesses of the subconscious and overrules the hasty inclinations of our emotional selves.  It is also the last part of the brain to reach maturity which eventually happens in our early adult life, which is why teenagers are often fearless and wreckless when compared to fully mature adults. 
Without our enlarged Pre-frontal cortex our human minds would never have developed the rational thought and science that distinguishes our species from other mammals, but it is worth remembering that it is relatively small part of our brains.  Other areas of our brains are very similar in size and proportion to the the corresponding parts in the brains of other advanced mammals.  Our rationality, which is seated in the PFC, is seated outside the animal-like core of our brains where most of our emotional make up, thinking and instantaneous decision making takes place  This means that rationality is not at the centre of operations, it is an evolutionary after thought bolted on top of the brain core where our natural impulses and desires are generated. 

The Limbic System
The core of the brain runs on emotion and intuition which mostly originates in an areas of the brain which is called the limbic system.  The limbic system in humans is not proportionally bigger than the limbic system of other mammals.  It provides the fast thinking, quick response decision making part of our minds, and is the bit that stimulates instant gut and emotional reactions to events we experience in the outside world.   

The dualism about truth has its origins in the balance between these two structures of our brains that work in harmony and balance with each other, what I am saying is that the way our minds work reflects the physical properties and workings of our brain structures. 

Objective Truth
We have a habit of being excessively proud of our rationality, and speaking disparagingly of our emotional selves.  We say such things as "I don't know why I did that, my emotions got the better of me"We have developed a natural tendency to believe that everything nature can do we can do better.   For instance we can fly to the moon - nature cannot do that.  We can make medicines that prolong our lives and eradicate diseases like polio and smallpox which are aberrations of how we think nature should be.  Our rationality makes us so superior to dumb animals (nature's inferior creations) whose stupid ways are so easy for us to outwit.  From such thoughts it is natural to view Objective truth as much better than irrational plastic truth.  Just half a century ago this was the way we all thought, not any more.

In recent years, as the ideas of William James have come back into vogue, and our pride in our rationality has taken a bit of a knock.  Suddenly we understand that rational decision making is always built on top of the fast working emotional and intuitive thought processes of the limbic system.  We find our computers may be faster thinkers, but they lack the plastic ways of nature that invented homoeostasis, self reproduction, self repair, self fuelling and self consciousness.  Whilst we can fly to the moon, we also notice little birds the size of sparrows migrate across the world's surface covering many times that distance in their little lifetimes.

Objective truth is slow, pain-taking and very limited in it's achievements when compared with the plastic wonders of nature.

Plasticity in Art 
According to science the bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, it is as small as a bee, but it is really a bird.   This chapter started with how we define birds using science

The Bee hummingbird weighs 1.8 grams

I will end the chapter with how we define birds using the plasticity of the mind.  At first my definition might look like a superfluous observation, but if you are still thinking that way you are still working with thought processes that are stuck in old assumptions about rationality that dominated our ideas in the twentieth century, beliefs in the superiority of modernity (as in the term modern art).  Science, like our prefrontal cortex, brings benefits and advantage to our species, but it is not at the core of our consciousness.  It is a bolt on.  If we are to grapple with Art, it's meaning and how to make it work effectively, we have first to grapple with non science plastic definitions of truth which at first sight seem to us to be irrational and inferior.  We have to catch up with Emily Dickinson and William James who both observed truth has duality and plasticity at its core

The grammar of sight is a multi modal, multi tasking multi time thing that starts and develops in the emotionally driven core of our minds, not in the PFC.  Active drawing works because it recognises and accepts this duality, on the other end of the scale passive drawing, like concepts that embrace oxymoronic terms like modern art, are stuck in a world where the PFC is thought of as a superior method of thinking that is free and disconnected from our core operational centre - the limbic system.

Back to Birds
Recently I have been looking at the works of medieval monks that worked in an age before science took over our mental landscape.  I came across an idea.  I do not know if this idea is grounded in objective fact, perhaps someone made it up and it has got repeated so often on the internet that it has gained believers.  

The idea is that in medieval times they thought that "Bees are the smallest of Birds".  This is a wonderful way to illustrate the plasticity of words, and how our scientific definitions are so easily subverted by ideas that come from somewhere deep and unknown, way down there in the core of our subconscious minds.

Bees are the Smallest of Birds

Words are plastic.  This is true both for linguistic and visual grammar.  In the next chapter we will investigate where this idea takes us.