Sunday, May 27, 2018

Religion and States of Consciousness

Egyptian Khnum throwing man
on the potter's wheel
After many years of comparative analysis of the predominant religious traditions, I'm starting to conclude that they just might distinguish themselves most fundamentally as anthropomorphic projections of various states of human consciousness. Not that the transcendent that religions point towards is just a projection, or that it is even a projection. Rather religious projections might very well indicate there is this infinite, underlying reality, perceived as somewhat like a shadowy reflection of what we're yet to fully comprehend.

What we've produced in religion among other cultural traditions could be referred to as thumbnails, memes, snapshots, or frames in modern parlance, low resolution images of an underlying reality at the edge of our conscious awareness. That makes religious perspectives incredibly interesting to me. I'm absolutely fascinated with how man has in image and ritual manifested these states of awareness by means of religion. This seems to permeate to some extent, particularly aesthetically, into the respective cultural traditions of music, drama, art, craft and architecture.

The Waking State

Personally, I was raised squarely in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Islam is situated here as well for the purposes of this comparison). All three share the view of the transcendent as the Master Potter. The divine is a being of focused attention, completely omniscient and of total awareness. We are made or crafted in the Potter's image. That image is a rational one, self-conscious reason being our mark of divinity, the separating principle from mere animals e.g.

The Dream State

The Hindu tradition places everyone and everything within the Dream of Brahma. All that is are manifestations of the divine operating in a subconscious state. With great effort and discipline a moment of ecstasy can be achieved akin to a lucid dream where the state of subconsciousness thins toward divine awakening.

Brahma taking a nap
The Organic State

Jainism, Buddhism and Taoism purport that the Universe itself is the Living embodiment of the transcendent. Just as we grow ourselves, the universe grows itself in a manner it knows not, yet knows perfectly. The deep unconscious running all of our bodily systems and manifesting itself in desires and motivations often to our complete surprise.

However, there has been an abandonment of these religious traditions globally over the past few hundred years in favour of the following:

The Abstract State

Sign, symbol, notation, quanta and other systems of notation are instrumentally useful, another quite unique reduced resolution image that allows us to grasp something otherwise overwhelming. However, categorisation and quantification, labeling and measuring has become the privileged subset of focused attention exponentially gaining ground and more to the point exclusive dominance.

Every effort may be made to systematise a given phenomenon; however, if the phenomenon defies measurement, reduction to a norm, it does not rise to a level worthy of further consideration. It must be discarded to maintain the integrity of the abstraction. I would argue that any system of notation (lingual, mathematical, etc.) taken for reality is necessarily a reduction and generalisation of what there is so that the lack of correspondence between abstraction and the fullness and incommensurability of reality lead to irresolvable absurdity. The commitment to the abstraction is powerful, stronger it would appear than any other religious sentiment as it is the most instrumentally useful, that is to say it gets work done.

But what is the transcendent but that which cannot be reduced within a system of abstraction?

The Steady State

These are just some preliminary thoughts; however, I think there is a way of reconciling what at first appear to be disparate or even opposing perspectives within a nested hierarchy. What I've described as the Abstract State matured in the West at the time of the Enlightenment. It sprung from a long period of mental discipline most notably in the monasteries of Europe where earlier individualistic concepts of the logos, hero and redeemer began to consolidate into the image of the awakened, enlightened individual, a reflected image of the highest conceivable idea, God. The Waking State has made possible logic, arithmetic and collectively what we would call Western philosophy; whereas further abstraction opened up modern science, engineering and medicine.

Despite the fact that the aspects of ourselves that we can predict or the things that attract us are often difficult to articulate we continue to act in the world. We take decisions, we love, we build, we're social or less so, we reproduce. We feel ourselves actors, not so much acted upon and yet none of it seems to require explanation. Our own motivations are somewhat mysterious to us; nevertheless, they feel of our own, not of anyone else. Most of our actions are semi-conscious at best and stem from murky deeper motivations operating at a subconscious level...akin to a dream. The rationalisation always come after, it's derivative. From the Dream State pour forth music, craft, language, drama, myth, and religion; each convention successively moving to greater states of articulation and self-awareness.

All of our rationalisations, determined action, hidden motivations in turn spring from something entirely obscured from view. We grow ourselves. No one else does it for us. How or why do we do it? Obviously we know how, we're here after all. The unconscious represents that which we know but don't know that we know. Nature is representative of this, utterly unconscious yet undeniably active, described in the Taoist tradition as Ziran, "of itself so", what we might translate as "spontaneity". To act in accord with nature is not to act at all, at least consciously which is a bit of a trick if you try, since to try is to act consciously. Nevertheless, as many artists, musicians and craftsmen come to realise, such a state of Mushin or "no mind" is achievable and in fact necessary to master one's art. I have some further thoughts about that here: Craftsmen of the Tao

Thinking of our capacity for abstraction as a distillation of a more fundamental capacity for conscious attention, itself nested in a motivational structure akin to a dream, all of which is grounded is something like a biological imperative seeking higher levels of complexity through repeated iterations. What generates such a hierarchy? What is the first cause, the prime mover behind our capacity for an abstracted point of view springing from an awakened, enlightened mind rooted in obscure motivations made possible by a generative unconscious?

This is where my ink runs dry...

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Contributed by Patrick Webb

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Academy of Classical Design

Courtesy of the The Academy of Classical Design
For years I've worked as a traditional craftsman, primarily in various aspects of plastering but also dabbling in masonry and stone carving. I've attempted over the course of many years a very disciplined study of my craft, mastering to the best of my abilities the accepted means and methods, material science, the technical design and stylistic conventions associated with traditional plastering. However, finding training in the more artistic aspects of my craft has been hard to come by and blazing my own trail has been a glacially slow, arduous and oft times costly affair.

In 2013 the Academy of Classical Design had a gallery showing in Charleston, South Carolina entitled "Pure Ornament". This was the first time I'd heard of the Academy, was quite impressed with the work but only went as far as making a mental note of it. Fortunately, the following year I was invited by the founder and director of the Academy of Classical Design, Jeffrey Mims, to give a lecture on the "History of Ornamental Plaster". That changed everything. I witnessed on that visit a disciplined, rigorous, traditional program of artistic study in a monastic setting that was wholly applicable to my craft. I knew at that moment that if the opportunity were to present itself I would find a way to join Jeffrey at the Academy.

Last year that opportunity arose so my wife and I jointly took the decision to move from the historic downtown of Charleston to the small country town of Southern Pines in the Sandhills of North Carolina where the Academy is situated. It's horse country up here and we've quite literally put ourselves out to pasture living in a barn, in a loft above longtime residents "Midnight" and "Lightning". Angela has quickly adjusted, teaching a number of courses at the culinary program of our local community college. For me this move has been more dramatic, being not just a change of location but more importantly a significant transition in vocation as I've been invited this year on the board of the Classical Design Foundation, the non-profit entity that oversees the Academy which realises the educational mission of the Foundation. I'm also quite involved in assisting the Academy in developing a third school dedicated to the historical, technical and artistic instruction of Architectural Ornamentation. Additionally, the Foundation has established the Mural Guild as a vocational initiative intended to draw upon the drawing, painting and ornamental design instruction to offer advanced students the opportunity to participate in realising grand narrative murals in civic spaces available for public enjoyment.

Allow me to briefly share how the Academy is organised structurally and it's approach to the education of the artist.

Two Schools, a Program and a Guild

The Drawing School

This is the foundational school of the Academy. It's a rigorous study that aims to coordinate the hand and the eye, aiding the student to perceive what is seen accurately, with precision and to translate that to paper. Beginners start out with two dimensional plates that are copied at full scale followed by a series of plaster casts, introducing various challenges of perception and presentation in incremental stages.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Painting School

Upon successful completion of the Drawing School, students may continue studies in painting. Working with colour initially begins with a very restrictive palette so as to exhaust the impressionistic possibilities of the hard/soft, warm/cool chiaroscuro techniques that were employed by masters of the Renaissance period and adapted by the Ecole de Beaux Arts. Advanced students may pursue anatomical studies and working from live models.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Ornament Program

Architectural ornamentation has always been an important aspect of the curriculum, integrated into the Drawing and Painting Schools from their inception. However, this year for the first time, the study of architectural ornament is being offered as a dedicated and separate short course for students and professionals of architecture, furniture and theatre design, historic preservation, arts and crafts. The study of the history of ornament, technical layout and artistic convention is a pragmatic yet extensive undertaking that we're looking to develop into the third school of the Academy.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Mural Guild

The mural guild initiative aims to work with mature students, who've achieved a high level of technical mastery in drawing, painting and ornament to combine those skills in the composition, symbolic and dramatic narrative of grand scale mural projects accessible to the general public. The education of the Academy looks to support the Guild by providing a comprehensive program of education combined with the highest standards of excellence commensurate with that which produced the very best American examples such as the work of Edwin Blashfield at the Library of Congress or John Singer Sargent at the Boston Public Library.

Courtesy of the Academy of Classical Design

The Education of the Artist

Having personally studied briefly at the Drawing School (about 5 months total), I have been favourably impressed with the learning environment as a personal experience and overwhelmed with the results it produces so would like to share a few observations of approaches that I feel cultivate such an environment.

Time to Grow

The studio itself is open from morning until late into the evening six days a week to accommodate a variety of personal schedules. The program of study may be rigorous; however, there are no deadlines placed on students. A student is given as much time as they need to master a skill; they are never rushed. In fact, if anything students are encouraged to take on non-artistic work part time so that they can extend their education over a longer period of time.

A Drawn Out Education

There is a real faith in the capacity of the students, that they already hold the necessary potential to acquire the skills necessary for mastery. The role of the instructors is to lead with limited example, share and reinforce the few technical points that can be articulated and give the student time and room to put in the work and teach themselves through repetitious practise. In addition to the Director, advanced students share in the teaching, an activity which aids them in becoming better artists themselves and helps to foster a collective approach and shared methodology necessary for larger mural projects.

The Basis for Critique

There are an infinite points of view of any object that is to be represented. One can view it from close or far away, from a variety of angles or under a variety of lighting conditions. However, as we share nearly identical sensory capacity, if we assume the same distance and viewing angle under the same lighting condition we can count on seeing the same thing. In a studio environment there are practical constraints that can be placed on the aforementioned that make it easier on the student during the learning process.

A Critique may sound like a judgement and in a way it is. However, it is a corrective judgement putting faith in the students potential to improve rather than a condemnatory judgement of their person. In short, the critique method could be described as encouragement.

Narrative, not just Realism

Although useful technical ability is developed to be able to represent what you see, it does not end there. Great art is dramatic, it motivates, it has something to convey about e.g. the tragedy and beauty of life or the nobility of the human being. Weekly lectures and guest speakers help to put the day to day work in the studio in a greater historical and traditional context.

Patronage of a Classical Ideal

The Academy of Classical Design (the educational branch of The Classical Design Foundation, a 501 (C) (3) nonprofit organization) is truly a unique institution. It teaches artistic realism in the service of higher purpose, meaningful narrative for the benefit of society at large, a Classical ideal. It is also embarking on an ambitious project: the rebuilding of a formal educational infrastructure for the teaching of architectural ornamentation and grand narrative mural work; something that was tragically lost several generations ago and is completely necessary if we are to once again rejoin art with architecture in creating great places, pinnacles of human capacity that uplift and inspire ourselves and generations to come as we have been uplifted by those who came before us.

As Henry Hope Reed shared with us in his book The Golden City:

"Such an ideal in classical terms is beauty, and to achieve beauty in art is to imitate nature. This does not mean indulging in simple realism, rather it means accepting as model the best that nature offers the world, such as the human form, and it includes the best of the past in art. Man, to attain beauty, has to develop skills by accepting as model the best that nature offers the world, such as the human form, and it includes the best of the past in art. Man, to attain beauty, has to develop skills by accepting the ancient models, those tested by time, by drawing on nature with a trained eye, by standing by certain basic premises. One such premise is the absolute necessity of ornament in art."

The Academy teaches the redemptive power of beauty and the enrichment of one's life that the pursuit of art, craft and ornament imparts to the individual participant and to the culture we all share. Without question, we are quite willing to contribute the best of ourselves to that pursuit yet recognise we cannot achieve goals of such ambition alone. We need and very much welcome your participation. If you are interested in supporting such education through patronage, as a student or just finding out more about our activities please visit our contact page or reach out to me directly at the email below:

Interested in more content on a Philosophy of Craft?
Please visit my YouTube channel: A Craftsman's Philosophy

Contributed by Patrick Webb