Saturday, 16 March 2013

(...) there is a dream dreaming us. - African Bushman1

Remember the things thou hast seen. Truly thou knowest what they have seemed, what they have meant to thee! Remember also the things thou shalt yet see. Truth is all in all; and the truth of things lies, at once hid and revealed, in their seeming. George MacDonald2

If visual art is about anything, surely it is - at least in part - also about dream. Dream enfolds it and unfolds within it. Art holds within its manifold qualities the power to make dream seem real, and to render reality as if it were a dream. It can present us with the imagined, and give it the semblance of reality. Again, it may take the actual, real world, and represent it as an image, a semblance of the real as if in a dream. Within that semblance, beyond the constraints of the physical world, we find that our imagination is free to roam.

However, this ‘roaming’ is not absolutely free: it is guided along a particular broadway inspired by the image. The image calls to mind worlds both familiar and newly-discovered. These worlds are explored or re-visited, giving new experiences that will take their place in the ever-changing, ever-evolving welkin of our inner universe. The image in imagination is the core of a constellation of subtle experiences, perpetually regenerated and renewed. And, as in a dream, whatever image is presented to us, we discover that we live for the moment in that world.

When we dream during ordinary sleep, we have little or no control over our dreams. It is as if someone else is dreaming for us. That ‘someone else’ is of course - according to Freud - the subconscious mind. Many of our dreams appear to be confused and unintelligible, and perhaps must remain so. However, just occasionally we are presented with a dream that seems to be unusually significant: we will awake with a feeling of calm and peace, knowing the dream has given as a truth deeper than we could arrive at through conscious thought. Here, something else besides the mind - whether conscious or subconscious - is evidently at work. It is as if deep within there is a well of truth and wisdom that can reveal to us the nature of our own Reality: the true nature of our existence, and its relation to the world.

Would it not be wonderful if all of our worries were removed, if we no longer had to feel the angst of being, if all attachment to ego, possession, even self-preservation were to evaporate? Yes, undoubtedly it would. But what would remain of us? Love: perhaps love of the world seen in a new light, a world of delight in each new moment. Here the world, indeed the entire ‘creation’, might take on the aspect of play. All that we had previously seen and known would still be there, but revealed now as pure living joy. It would be as if someone else were living our life, someone for whom everything was blissful play: the brightest joys and the darkest sorrows - all play. This indeed would be the “dream dreaming us”. The play of delight, infinite and eternal.

Art can be a means to express this. Perhaps, indeed, this is what lies at the core of art’s life. It is the age-old narrative of play, timeless and never-ending. By ‘play’ we do not, of course, mean something either frivolous or childish : ‘child-like’ might be a more apt description of it, and yet it is as serious as the care and attention you might give your dearest friend. When an artist creates, he or she is invariably at ‘play’: playing with shapes, with forms, with ideas, with composition. At the same time he or she is playing with feelings, with emotions, with thoughts, memories, and so on. Crucially, this ‘playing’ involves suspension: the suspension of the closed ‘reality’ of the objects in play. It may involve inverting, subverting, converting, re-arranging, and re-presenting. It will go on until a certain truth - or completion - is arrived at, in what the artist will call a resolved piece of work. It is here that the culmination of the experience of art - sometimes called the ‘aesthetic experience’ - is achieved, both for the artist and for ourselves, who as the audience also partake of and share in the work, both actively and passively.

From this point of view the ‘aesthetic’, far from being an outmoded, socially and politically discredited, and intellectually illusive concept erroneously ascribed to art - the prevailing opinion of recent times - may be re-discovered: as something quite apart from itself, but yet itself as in what the word was perhaps originally intended to convey. Given the impossibility of any word or concept having the power to sum up what art ‘is’, the idea of the ‘aesthetic’ may, after all, come close. For in that word are conveyed two important but paradoxical qualities that we may attribute to art: detachment and involvement.

In his book Aesthetics and Its Discontents,3 Jacques Rancière skillfully puts forward a similar argument around and for the ‘aesthetic’, as a space within which a given “distribution of the sensible” may be redistributed, and points to a possible and corresponding ”redistribution of the sensible” that is actually the true ideal of politics. For he sees in the aesthetic the means to reconcile the apparent paradoxes that are constitutive of art; the seemingly paradoxical enigma that I would say is actually the essence of art’s response to the problem of life. Pivotal to his insight is the idea of the “free play” of art as aesthetic experience, as it was described by Schiller in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man. Rancière’s development of Schiller’s idea of art as ‘free play’ is taken up in John Baldacchino’s book Art’s Way Out,4 where in one chapter the idea of play in art is ‘played’ out through two art-historical paintings about play and its objects, in a much-needed re-thinking of art, politics and art education vis-a-vis what we can discover about them through the expansion of critical thought and intuitive insight into works of art.

Perhaps the idea implicit to these excellent books suggests that in art we may find a true reflection of one aspect of the nature of a Universal Reality: that life is play in the profound sense described above, and we are in some strange way both the players and the played. Far from being a totalising dominant, this ‘universal’ is an open, constantly progressing journey into light, intellectual and spiritual. What is glimpsed through the writing of Jacques Rancière and John Baldacchino, as through that of Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, and many others in their field, is the inkling of a new consciousness that has the power to encompass, to affirm, to illumine and to expand all that is truly human into its very own liberating and transforming Dream.


1 Sir Laurens Van der Post, A Mantis Carol (Washington: Island Press, 1983).


2 George MacDonald, Phantastes and Lilith (London: Gollanz, 1962), “Lilith”, p. 405.

3 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. S. Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009).

4 John Baldacchino, Art’s Way Out (Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2012).

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