Art Theory

The Birth of Consciousness, Society and Art

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Going Back to Where It All Began to Unlock the Mysteries of Conceptual Art.

(© Copyright of Vicki Bright 2015)

I am going to be journeying right back to the beginnings of modern man to try to understand the fundamental benefit(s) of art. I will then use this line of thinking to scrutinise modern day conceptual artists with similar belief systems to early man. My main line of enquiry will be Joseph Beuys (1921 – 1986), backed up by other artists to solidify my argument.

I will start by using a Marxist approach to establish that the early art that we will be looking at was indeed created by fully human, fully conscious people. I will be looking at how their evolution aided the start of language and society and the role of the shaman within those societies. I will then discuss the shamanistic interpretation and how we can use this to try to understand early cave art, and then see how this ties in with art today.

My area of interest is our Western European Upper Palaeolithic ancestors; the Homo sapiens, where it has been documented that the sudden acceleration of the development of the modern human happened around the same time as an influx of art (Lewis-Williams 2005:96). “…art appeared and human life became unrecognisable” (Lewis-Williams 2005: 40).

Frederick Engels (1820-1895) uses Marxism in an outline of a text which he would have included in Dialectics for Nature called The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (Engels 1876) In this he discusses how apes developed into man by the development of an erect gait and dexterous hands that allowed them to produce tools to carry out labour. They also realised through labour the benefit of joint activities which encouraged talking and eventually the evolution of their biological structure to make talking easier. Engels point is that labour created the need for language and so played a hand in the development of the modern human. And labour and language together created society.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) once said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” (Marx 1859)

The level of consciousness of Homo sapiens being of a human level like our own is evident in their social structure. This can be directly cross-referenced to Marxist theory, where “all the fundamental social categories, forces and tensions….were thus present at the lowest stage of fully human social evolution” (Lewis-Williams 2005:53). David Lewis-Williams discusses that Marxism theorises a society as comprising of an infrastructure and a superstructure. The infrastructure (or the economic base) includes the production of life’s necessities through social relations. This in turn determines the superstructure, consisting of belief systems and laws (Lewis-Williams 2005:53). See Fig. 1


Fig. 1

If we look at the Base in relation to the western European Upper Palaeolithics, we can relate it to the production of tools, hunting weapons, clothes, fishing equipment, the earliest man-made houses and it is thought collective hunting strategies (Guisepi 2000). If you take Fig. 2 at face value then this appears to document those group efforts.


Fig. 2

In relation to the second strand of Marxist theory of social structure, the Superstructure, I would like to refer to Shamanism and its religious and political involvement with primitive societies, by looking at some examples of Upper Palaeolithic art.

A lot of early art was centred around mysticism. It has been speculated that shamanism explains some, if not all of early art in some locations (Lewis-Williams 2005:235). This is a good example of two of the Marxists qualities in the Superstructure; religion and politics. Religion for the obvious esoteric connotations of shamanism, and politics because of the segregation between shamans and non-shamans. Many Upper Palaeolithic artworks show relatively decipherable shamanic characters such as human figures with robes and headdresses, sacrificing animals and changing form (Lewis-Williams 2005:174-75). However they had even more shamanic connotations due to where they were found. The caves that contained shamanistic art were said to have been avoided by all but shamans and created fear and awe amongst the non-shaman people (Lewis-Williams 2005:178). They were often hidden and could only be seen by lighting the cave by hand (See Fig. 3).



Fig. 3

Although there have been many arguments debating the ‘shamanistic interpretation,’ the argument by Lewis-Williams is compelling. Thomas Dowson writes about the problems with the shamanistic interpretation being because of the modern definition of a shaman (Dowson 2007). I am however referring to the shaman in terms of the religious system and as the “law-maker” in a judicial system pertinent to a Superstructure. And it does however help us to look at the shamanistic interpretation as an insight into how it could have influenced the development of art.

Although primitive communism suggests a class-less society, the shaman did have a social and political function (Vitebsky 1995:33). Social behaviour was regulated and arbitrated (Vitebsky 1995:112). This is a modern observation as much as a historical one, but considering the fear that the shaman provoked it would make sense that they would therefore have been held in some judicial power by the rest of the community. The fact that the shaman’s powers were used for the protection of the community would also suggest the importance of them (Vitebsky 1995:110).

Mind in the Cave delves deeper into the world of the shaman and discusses altered states of consciousness, exploring the notion of consciousness by way of a spectrum. It discusses different levels of consciousness as suggested by psychologist William James (1842-1910) from waking state, through day dreaming and dreaming and hallucinatory states. An interesting point is made about the possibility that prehistoric art was a by-product of hallucinations induced by psychotropic substances as well as sleep, food and light deprivation. There’s a distinct possibility that the art left behind by our Upper Palaeolithic ancestors is a direct projection of their minds. This theory is given its reverence by research about the shamans of the modern descendants of the Sans South African Upper Palaeolithic (Lewis-Williams 2005:10), as well as scientific research about hallucinatory states. Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art reproduces an experiment where the hallucinatory areas of the brain are stimulated, and this produces the types of group patterns and shapes that correlate to the rock art of the Upper Palaeolithic. They conclude that the same effects are produced by sensory deprivation also (n.d).

The Shamanistic interpretation was such an important revelation to the study of prehistoric art because it explained how art began. Once the two dimensional had been recreated by our shamanic ancestors by way of hallucinatory visions, this new way of looking at the world became learnt by others. We are not born with an understanding of two dimensional representations, but this is a skill learned by social interaction. This has been proven by Anthony Forge’s observation of the Abelam tribe of New Guinea who were unable to recognise faces in a photograph until they were bluntly pointed out. This recognition of two dimensional images was then taught to others in the tribe (Spivey n.d, Lewis-Williams, 2005:183). It is presumed, and with a good supporting case, that this is how the word got out about this new ‘art’ all those tens of thousands of years ago (Lewis-Williams 2005:183).

It seems early shamans used art to explore their social and spiritual practice. This included using altered states of consciousness whilst creating art or in reference to previous states of altered consciousness. If we are to go along with the shamanistic interpretation, which seems to be a well justified argument, then this would lead us to a conclusion that the shamans were recreating visions believed to have come from the spirit world, therefore making the artwork itself sacred and a connection to the spirit world (Lewis-Williams 2005:234 – 235, Clottes 2002).

A large percentage of the subject matter they used were the animals that they consumed; bison, ibex, deer and horses. There were also depictions of social scenes, sexual organs as well as the geometric shapes and patterns we discussed earlier in relation to the use of psychotropic substances and sensory deprivation. If the shaman of prehistoric times had as much importance to the wellbeing of their community as has been speculated (Vitebsky 1995:110) then it would be a good assumption to say that the subject matter used in Upper Palaeolithic art was of particular significance to them, particularly if they were using art to request from the spirit world an abundant stock of food, or the health, wellbeing and virility of the animals and people.

From a Marxist perspective; the Base (in the case of the Upper Palaeolithic; labour which was in tune with nature and food) shapes the Superstructure (In this case the shamanic belief system and corresponding judicial system) If we are agreeing with the Shamanistic Interpretation, then most of the artwork of the Upper Palaeolithic was produced by the shamans, and was a direct representation of the link between their Base and Superstructure. Their hunter-gatherer way of life shows their stage of societal evolution, in this case part of a society based on ‘primitive communism’ or in terms of modes of production; the Tribal mode. And with the connection to nature that the hunter-gatherer required, was the use of nature as their creative muse.

There are quite a few anomalies amongst the artwork that does not follow the trends discussed above however. I would like to propose two arguments as to the meanings behind these. Firstly that the artwork was created by non-shaman ‘imposters’, and secondly the concept of shaman children.

As an artist myself, I remember studying the artwork of the great masters and getting inspiration for my own artwork. I held them in great reverence like the non-shaman Upper Palaeolithic may have held the shamans. Was some of the art found from this time simply an ‘imposter’ trying their own hand at art? This would explain some examples such as Fig. 4 which could be compared to a budding young artist drawing a picture of their family like in Fig. 5.



This compliments my second argument; there is a theory, backed up by archaeological evidence that suggests the involvement of children in shamanism. If we look at Fig. 6 we can see a handprint of a young child preserved in the clay. This was found deep in a cave in France and footprints have been found next to the famous clay bison. There has also been baby’s hand stencils including at least one that “seems to have been made while the child’s arm was being held by an adult.” (Clottes 1998:98 – 99) As discussed earlier, only shamans were allowed deep into the caves so this would suggest the status of the young people that ventured that far.



Fig. 6

As with prehistory, we can only theorise as to whether either or indeed both of these arguments actually explain the less decipherable examples of Upper Palaeolithic art, but the evidence makes for a good case.

So we have established and backed up an argument that the Western European Upper Palaeolithic people were fully conscious, they were part of a society and there was social hierarchy, in particular shamanism. They were also faced with conflicts with the lesser developed Neanderthals who’s race was rapidly declining, and from the arrival of migrants from the Balkan states and Asia.

Archaeological finds that have been scientifically dated show that the geological area that we are interested in was behind Asia and the Americas in its development. So whilst the next stage of Western European Upper Palaeolithic could be defined by Marxism as ‘Asiatic,’ there is some geological significance. Whilst Western Europe was still in a Tribal mode of production, the other continents were way ahead. As soon as those tribes started migrating however, a lot of social diversity would occur (Guisepi 2000).
“The Upper Palaeolithic was a period of social diversity, a time when social distinctions and social tensions proliferated and came to be the driving force within society. If we are to seek a driving mechanism for the west European ‘Creative Explosion,’ it must be in social diversity and change” (Lewis-Williams 2005:181).

So, they were a race faced with rapid change, picking up new skills that would form the first agricultural system and take them from the Palaeolithic age, through the Mesolithic age and onto the Neolithic age and the next step on the societal ladder (Hirst 2014). The emergence of art, music and dancing also showed how complex their society was (Guisepi 2000). All of these factors do well to explain why art emerged. They also give clues as to why the art was created and of what benefit it had to the Upper Palaeolithics of Western Europe.

As argued by the ‘shaman interpretation’ it was likely that the artwork was created by shamans. There could be some pieces however which were the creation of ‘imposters’ or child shamans practising their skills.

We have also established that the subject matter in general represented the society that they were part of; one that evolved around nature and hunting as well as their belief system; shamanism. This included the use of altered states of consciousness to connect to the spirit world, for guidance in the protection of their community. It is likely that the artworks were a record of these experiences, or a connection between the spirit world and the material world, making places of art sacred. If this was the case, it seems the shaman was fulfilling his obligations as a person of power by creating art.

So can these theories be applied to the modern world? Are artists still creating artwork for the same reasons as our prehistoric ancestors? To try to answer these questions I would like to take a look into the world of the late Joseph Beuys.

I am going to be linking our ancestors of prehistory and Beuys by comparing the shaman of the Upper Palaeolithic with Beuys the shaman, arguing that they assumed the same roles; they took inspiration from nature and created art for the protection and development of humanity. They used their stature to try to heal and inform on a social and spiritual level.

Known particularly for his sculptures and performances as well as his distinctive image, Beuys was an artist as well as assuming the roles of a political and social activist and teacher. He was also famously known by his persona; the shaman. His persona was well suited to his ethos; he showed many attributes in his social and political involvement that we have discussed in relation to the shamans of prehistory. Beuys saw himself as a tool, fulfilling his obligation as an artist of stature by using his art to educate people about the society they live in and all its flaws. He saw that he could change chaotic energy into order or form through the use of sculpture (Halpern 1988).

The materials Beuys used played an important role. He often recited a story from his past, although this has since been disputed. The story recalls a time when he was shot down in the Crimean war and his wounds were tended to by the nomadic tribe, the Tartars, who were descendants of an ancient Asian civilisation of the 14th century. He talks about being wrapped in fat and felt, which ultimately saved his life. Whether there is truth in this story is irrelevant, what is important is how this relates to how Beuys explores the materials that he worked with. Felt and fat reoccurred frequently in his work. He explored natural materials and their properties as well as nature taking prominence in his themes. The hare, the stag and the bee were frequently revisited (Anon n.d).

The bee was of particular poignancy. Beuys was fascinated with the functions and activities of bees and related this to his interest in societal structure (Stachelhaus 1991:57). Beuys developed his ideas on sculpture from this fascination. He recognised societal issues and made art to symbolise them. The Upper Palaeolithic used aesthetic representations of hunting and spiritual subject matter. Beuys represented his society contextually by his “social sculpture” a termed coined by himself meaning artwork that worked as a metaphor for the moulding of society (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:26). Beuys was interested in making art as a point of discussion rather than an aesthetic product.

Honey Pump at the Workplace (1977) was an example of his affinity and interest in nature as well as his contextualisation of society or ‘social sculpture’. “For Beuys, the production of honey and the organisational system of bees in the hive were on a par with human social systems.” (Anon n.d). Honey Pump consisted of several tubes being pumped full of honey by a motor lubricated with fat. Beuys had been stimulated by the lectures of Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925) which compared the work of the beehive to the work of the human body. Beuys expanded this discussion by likening the human body to a state, or a community of various functions. Honey Pump represented both the circulatory system of a human body and the social system of a beehive, and on its deepest level it symbolised the idea of socialism (Stachelhaus 1991:57 – 58).

Like Karl Marx, Beuys explored social structure. To Beuys however the answer was in freedom through creativity rather than another failing social structure. Marx analysed situations and came up with alternatives whereas Beuys was a creative activist (Politi 1993).

A good example of this was one of Beuys’ most famous pieces “I like America and America likes me.” This was a performance from start to end, including the journey to the gallery in which he was about to spend three days living in a cage with a coyote. He was picked up in an ambulance from the airport and wrapped in felt until he got to the gallery. This was to avoid any outside influence so he could start the dialogue with the coyote without being tainted (Hall 2005).

The piece was a dialogue between Beuys and the coyote that went beyond language. They were able to come to an understanding with each other and learn to live together in the space. Two different worlds came together and lived besides each other, unlike man and beast in the history of the ‘white man’ and the coyote (Hall 2005).

The piece was laced with symbolism. The name of the piece itself was particularly ironic considering Beuys’ opposition to the military action in Vietnam. More significantly symbolic was the use of the coyote, a Native American animal that was treated as a pest by European settlers who tried to eradicate it. Before those times the coyote was seen as a powerful god by the native people. This piece was an attempt for Beuys to heal some of the damage done by the ‘white man.’ (Anon n.d).

The props themselves held particular significance. As well as a triangle, (to represent Beuys’ celebration of a Rudolf Steiner theory Beuys called “the essence of man”) some straw and the familiar use of felt, a daily pile of Wall Street Journals were used. As if staged, the coyote urinated on them, thus reclaiming ownership of its native land; marking its territory on such an iconic American paper (Strauss 1999).

Peeling back the layers of symbolism, Beuys had been described by some as a trickster, much like the coyote had in history (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:26). The coyote was also a symbol of survival against evolutionary change as well as being believed in mythology to carry shamanic knowledge from the Paleo-Asiatic times (Strauss 1999).
As mentioned earlier the piece was also meant to heal like a lot of Beuys’ work. The fact that Beuys chose an ambulance as a mode of transport to the gallery was significant to his cause. Beuys’ philosophy was that art has a social function and the power to heal (Anon n.d). In one of his performance pieces First Footwashing as a Public Performance (1971) he took on the role of Christ, washing the feet of his audience as a purification ritual (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:28). This action is also not dissimilar to a ritual that would be performed by a shaman.

The cross was another piece of remedial symbolism that was repeated throughout Beuys’ work. It was a representation of many other crosses (Mesch, Michely 2007), such as those with religious connotations, the medic cross to signify healing but also as a sign of unification. It was a sign of the need for unification of East and West for the health of society, as well as the inner unification of human beings themselves (Straine 2001). Beuys also used half crosses such as in Halved Felt Cross with Dust Image “Magda”(1965) (Fig. 7), said to represent the need for healing (Rosenthal, Rainbird, Schmuckli 2005:39).



Fig. 7

Beuys had an ‘Expanded Concept of Art.’ This was another term coined by himself, related to ‘Social Sculpture’ but expanding the realms of art beyond the traditional to encompass an educational dialogue with the world. He said, not without criticism that “everyone is an artist.” This was meant however with regards to the anthropological concept of art, meaning universal creative faculties. Art was the work of the human in general, whether in the field of medicine, agriculture or administration (Stachelhaus 1991:60). With the freedom that this definition gives to art, came the work of Beuys that held real socio-political roots.

With this in mind, I would like to look at two projects that Beuys carried out in the latter part of his career that held the essence of his message. The first is the talks he held, which produced blackboards now presented as independent pieces of artwork.

If we are to take the talks that resulted in blackboards as one project, as a piece of conceptual art as defined by Beuys ‘expanded concept of art’ we would naturally scrutinise the cause rather than categorise the outcomes as aesthetical commodities. Following this train of thought the ‘project’ spans and connects “myth, alchemy, astrology, anthropology, and the social and political sciences” (Anon 1999) and they were a “blend of art, politics, personal charisma, paradox and Utopian proposition” (Anon 1988).

In these Public Dialogues, I summarise thusly: He explained that he wanted everyone to participate in creativity to change society. He believed that his idea of art encompasses everything from science to socialism and politics. That art is between all ideologies. All creativity within any field of thinking starts at the same point. He talks about freedom allowing people to create a new consciousness. He explained that at present, fields such as science and technology have to quantify things from the view of materialism. Until people change this way of thinking they will be stuck in bourgeois materialistic idealisms. He believed that we need to nourish our spiritual rather than materialistic needs by going back and analysing the point at which we create problems and formulating a new way of thinking to realise the next stage of evolution (Beuys 1974).

For my final example I would like to explore one of Beuys final feats to save the world which was sadly unrealised by Beuys in his lifetime. After a long illness he died of heart failure in 1986. In 1982 he started 7000 Oaks which was a symbol of the regeneration of “the life of humankind within the body of society and to prepare for a positive future in that context.” (Beuys n.d). Starting in Kassel, Germany he wanted to plant the world with trees. Each tree was accompanied by a piece of basalt stone very similar to the ones featured in The End of the Twentieth Century (1983/5) See Fig. 8



Fig. 8

Although Beuys could not finish this project himself, 7000 Oaks was a catalyst for change. It inspired many, including an environmental and political group called Platform who continued the project, and the final tree was planted in 1987 by Beuys’ son (Byrne 2010). Even from the grave Beuys was able to pass on his shamanic ways to the next generation just like the shamans of the Upper Palaeolithic may have done.

Since then other artists and groups have been inspired by Beuys 7000 Oaks, including the Dia Art Foundation, Walker Art Center and curator Todd Bockley the Joseph Beuys Tree Partnership and artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey to name just a few. Projects are still being completed all around the globe to plant trees and make the world a better place (Anon 2014).

7000 Oaks was an indisputable example of Beuys’ concern for environmental issues. As well as starting the German Student Party (who he claimed most of the members were animals) he also co-founded the Green Party in Germany (Anon n.d). He was a true protector of the people and their world just like the shamans were all those tens of thousands of years ago.

In the beginning my aim was to study art of prehistory at the very start of the modern man to try to gain an understanding of what benefits art had to us then. I then wanted to see if I could apply my findings to contemporary art. I chose Joseph Beuys ‘the shaman’ because of the similarities between his social status, inspiration and motivation for his work in comparison to our prehistoric ancestors. “For him the shaman was a figure in whom material and spiritual forces were able to unite.” (Anon 2009)

We discovered that Upper Palaeolithic art was thought to have been created by shamans who had considerable social standing within their communities. Their roles as shamans elected them the healers and protectors of their people. They had a responsibility for the cultivation and continuation of their future and the preservation of their race. We learnt that they were inspired by the elements that governed their superstructure; the animals that they hunted, as well as recording their exploration of altered states of consciousness and their belief systems and ceremonies.

Beuys was a spiritual man existing in a sceptical society. The big difference between prehistoric artists and Beuys was simply the times that they were present in. You may feel that this is stating the obvious. I am however referring to this in relation to the distractions of modern life that the prehistoric man was not yet subjected to, allowing them to be more in touch with the world spiritually.
“The human being is fundamentally a spiritual being and that our vision of the world must be extended to encompass all the invisible energies with which we have lost contact or from which we have become alienated from.” (Halpern 1988)

This quote from Beuys shows the recognition of the need to relate to the world spiritually, just as the shamans of the Upper Palaeolithics did in their creative interpretation of the spirit world. The Upper Palaeolithics were part of a tribal society where they lived in harmony with nature and their spiritual beliefs.

Beuys took inspiration from nature and his beliefs and assumed the role of healer of the people and society. He used his art as a tool for personal development as well as to inform and educate on the state of present times and how to invest in the future.

Beuys and the Upper Palaeolithic shamans alike, they wanted to use their art to shape a positive future for their race, and they were not the only ones. Performance artist Marina Abramovic (who incidentally recreated Beuys’ How to Explain Painting to a Dead Hare (1965)) spent time and gained much insight from indigenous tribes and shamans travelling the Gobi, Taar, Sahara and Central Australian desert (Paris 1990). Abramovic, born in Yugoslavia has described herself as the ‘grandmother’ of performance art. Her artwork has been transitory in line with her life (Richards 2009:1). She lived a nomadic lifestyle and travelled, experiencing eastern cultures, which in turn would influence the artwork that she has produced over her career (Furstenberg 2006:110, Richards 2009:1). Today she, like Beuys educates. She developed an approach she calls “cleaning the house” which she now teaches. It is a method of intense cleansing of the body and mind using mental exercises (Abramovic n.d). Although a lot of her earlier work was a personal exploration, her more recent projects reach out to a wider audience, such as the Marina Abramovic Institute and her latest performance piece 512 hours, which engages the audience in the development of mindfulness (Seppings 2014).

As well as Abramovic I could discuss many more artists that all play their part in spiritual, social, political and environmental action; Banksy, Yoko Ono and Guerrilla Girls are some examples on a very long list of people that use art to contribute to the development and healing of mankind.

These modern artists do well to evidence that they do in fact have a lot in common with their prehistoric ancestors, maintaining the reasons and benefits of art to this today.

Anon, 1988. Beuys Four Blackboards. 1988. [Online] London: Tate Gallery. [Accessed 20 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, 1999. MoMA Highlights. [Online] [Accessed 20 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, 2005. Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments: Room 4 [Online] [Accessed 18 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, 2014. [Online] [Accessed 19 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, 2014. Beuys a Party for Animals. [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, n.d. Artist Rooms Artist Essay [Online] [Accessed 15 October 2014]. Available at:
Anon, n.d. How Joseph Beuys celebrated his 63rd birthday. [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:
Bahn, Paul G, 1998. The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Byrne, Susanna, 2010. Susanna Byrne talks to Ackroyd & Harvey [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:
Clottes, Jean, 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory. New York: Harry N. Abrams Publishers.
Clottes, Jean, 2002. Palaeolithic Cave Art in France [Online] [Accessed 10 October 2014]. Available at:
Dowson, Thomas.A. 2007. Debating Shamanism in Southern African Rock Art: Time to Move on… [Online], 62(185), 49-61 [Viewed 1 October 2014]. Available at: Southern_African_Rock_Art_Time_to_Move_on..
Engels, Frederick, 1895, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man. Work of Frederick Engels 1876 2014. [Online] The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man. [Accessed 02 October 2014]. Available at:
Goy, Bernard, 1990. Marina Abramovic. Journal of Comtemporary Art, [Online] [Accessed 24 September 2014]. Available at:
Guisepi, Robert. A, 2000. An Overview of the Paleolithic Prehistoric cultural stage, or level of human development, characterized by the creation and use of stone tools. [Online] [Accessed 07 October 2014]. Available at:
Hall, Martina 2005. Joseph Beuys and Me. [TV] BBC4. 28 Feb 21:30
Halpern, John, 1988. Joseph Beuys – A Portrait, [Online Video] [Accessed 13 October 2014]. Available at:
Hedgecoe, Mark, 2009. Prehistoric Europeans: People Who Invented Art. [Online] Produced by Mark Hedgecoe. UK BBC. [Accessed 20 September 2014]. Available at:
Hirst, Kris K, 2014. The Origins of Agriculture in Central Europe. [Online] [Accessed 10 October 2014] Available at:
Lewis-Williams, David. 2004. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. Reprint Edition. London : Thames & Hudson.
Lewis-Williams, David. 2005. Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods. London :Thames & Hudson
Anon. Marina Abramović on Performance (1 of 3), 2014 [Online Video] Produced in association with Madtown Media. [Accessed 22 September 2014]. Available at:
Marx, Karl, 1977. Preface, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, [Online] [Accessed 04 October 2014]. Available at:
Mesch, Claudia, Michely, Viola, 2007. Joseph Beuys: The Reader. London: I.B. Tauris [Online] [Accessed 20 October 2014]. Available at:
Politi, Giancarlo, 1993. Joseph Beuys. [Online] 196 [Accessed 19 October 2014]. Available at:
Richards, Mary, 2009. Marina Abramovic (Routledge Performance Practitioners). Oxford: Routledge
Rosenthal, Mark, Sean Bainbird, Claudia Schmuckli, 2005. Joseph Beuys: Actions, Vitrines, Environments. London: Tate Gallery Publications
Seppings, Belinda, 2014. Marina Abramovic 512 Hours. [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:
Sharp, Willoughby, 1974. Joseph Beuys – Public Dialogue. [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:
Stachelhaus, Heiner, 1991. Joseph Beuys. New York: Abbeville Press
Stachelhaus, Heiner, 2009. Teaching career and ‘social sculpture’. [Online] [Accessed 22 October 2014]. Available at:§ion_id=T008535.
Straine, Stephanie, 2011. Cross. [Online] [Accessed 20 October 2014]. Available at:
Strauss, David Levi, 1999. Between Dog & Wolf, Essays on Art and Politics. Brooklyn: Autonomedia. [Accessed 18 October 2014]. Available at:
Vitebsky, Piers.1995. The Shaman. London: Little Brown & Co.
Von Furstenberg, Adelina, 2006. Marina Abramovic: Balkan Epic. Woodstock: Skira.

List of Illustrations

1. Structure of Human Society. 2014. [diagram] Available at: [Accessed 04 October 2014]

2. Cave Painting. n.d. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 07 October 2014]

3. Clay Bison. n.d. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 25 August 2014]

4. Petroglyph Rock Art. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 11 October 2014]

5. Family. [Illustration] Available [Accessed 11 October 2014]

6. Clottes, Jean, 1998. The Shamans of Prehistory. [photograph]

7. Halved Felt Cross with Dust Image “Magda”. 1965. [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 19 October 2014]

8.  The End of the Twentieth Century. 1983/5 [photograph] Available at: [Accessed 22 October 2014]


The Ego’s Place in the Art World: Is There Such a Thing As “Egoless” Art?

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I would like to develop my understanding of the ego through the exploration of spiritual and philosophical ideas. I would then like to look at the art world(s) and find examples in which I think the ego is particularly evident in the process, meaning or reasons for the artwork. I would also like to try and find artwork where the ego appears not to have existed in the production, therefore tackling my query; is there such a thing as “egoless” art?

One of the early explorers of the notion of the ego was Sigmund Freud. (1856 – 1939) He described the ego as “the idea that in each individual there is a coherent organisation of mental processes” (Freud 1923: 8) He relates the presence of the ego to consciousness, whereby the external world is linked to our internal world through the ego (Freud 1923: 8) I am also in agreement with Freud on the link between the ego and human consciousness and before further defining the ego I would first like to touch on the theory of consciousness.

There are several meanings relating to the concept of consciousness. I however am concerned with consciousness as ‘mind.’ Whilst some definitions relate to behaviour and experience, I am looking at “our growing understanding of the neural basis of the waking state and the contents of our experience” (Zeman, 2002: 21)

A good example of consciousness and it’s relation to the ego is in Jacques Lacan’s (1901 – 1981) concept The Mirror Stage. Lacan uses Freud’s ideas on narcissism that occurs when a person becomes conscious of their own body and when “the libido passes through from auto erotism” their body then becomes their love-object, (Mc Feely, n.d) a love-object in this instance is an object to feel love for. (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 50) Lacan also works with Freud’s analysis of ego formation; the relationship between the theoretical super-ego and Lacan’s idea of the Ego-Ideal. We will explore Freud’s model of the Human Psyche later on.

Where Lacan disagrees with Freud, is that when a child recognises his or her own reflection in a mirror, alienation and discordance occurs (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 58) as opposed to Freud’s concept; that perception is organised by the reality principle (Benevenuto and Kennedy, 1986: 60) (The reality principle is the Freudian Theory of “striving to satisfy…..desires in realistic and socially appropriate ways” (Cherry, n.d) The discordant Lacanian view of the child in the mirror stage, referred to as meconnaissance; a French word meaning recognition, was used by Lacan to describe the imaginary image seen during the mirror stage being the ideal (or the “ego-ideal” (Cherry, n.d)) as opposed to reality. This means that the subject is forever striving for an unobtainable perfection. (Anon, 2013) However you look at the minor details, the development of the start of consciousness is evident in this experiment as well as negative effects such as anxiety, neurosis and psychosis. (Cherry, n.d)

Earlier I spoke about Freud’s model of the Human Psyche; I would like to discuss this now and then compare it to other theorists who have concerned themselves with the ego.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1


Fig. 1 is a visual representation of Freud’s theory. Firstly it deals with the levels of consciousness, whereby unconscious stands for repression and the inability therefore to become conscious. The second form of the unconscious has a capability of becoming conscious and this is referred to as “preconscious.” Finally there is the conscious, which is the perception of experience. “The conscious mind includes such things as the sensations, perceptions, memories, feeling and fantasies inside of our current awareness” (Anon, 2009) Within the unconscious lies the ego with its counterparts; the Id and the Superego (Anon, 2013) The Id is the psyche working to satisfy basic urges and desires. (Cherry, n.d) It works with the pleasure/pain principle; “an instinct seeking to avoid pain and to obtain pleasure” (Anon, 2014) The Id is with us from birth; however the Superego is a construct of social standards gained from our parents and society. It is made up of two parts – the Ego Ideal (rules and standards for good behaviour) and the Conscience (more concerned by things deemed as bad by parents and society) Floating between all three levels of consciousness is the ego. This works to satisfy the desires of the Id, through the control of the Superego. (Cherry, n.d) As discussed previously, this organisation is otherwise known as the Reality Principle (Cherry, n.d)

Jung had a different approach to the ego. He agreed that it was the bridge between the external and internal world, but was associated to different corresponding parts. These deal with the objective and subjective parts of the human psyche. The ego is the subjective identity, part of the conscious mind (which was defined by Freud) and Jung believed that the ego is intrinsically connected to the part of the psyche called “The Self” which is the objective identity (Edinger, 1972: 3) and is the “all embracing symbol of the unconscious” (Jung, n.d) The Self and the ego are paradoxically separate and yet also part of the same thing.

“We generally define the Self as the totality of the psyche, which would necessarily include the ego…..If we speak rationally, we must inevitably make a distinction between ego and Self which contradicts our definition of Self” (Edinger, 1972: 6)

Jung believed that the ego was one of three parts of the psyche, the second and third being the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. He groups the Self as an archetype of the collective unconscious. Archetypes are “innate, universal and hereditary. Archetypes are unlearned and function to organize how we experience certain things.” (Cherry, n.d) Other main archetypes are The Shadow which represents the parts of the personality that has been repressed, and also the Anima or Animus (gendered) which is the part of the personality that coaxes us out of our internal world, the narcissism of the ego and the comfort of our close family circle to experience the wider world (Stephenson, n.d) The last of the four main archetypes is the Persona. This is the “mask” that we use in different social situations (Cherry, n.d)

The dominant archetype is the Self; “it surrounds and contains them [other archetypes]” (Edinger, 1972: 39) Therefore any alienation between the ego and any of the abundance of possible archetypes is alienation between the ego and the Self; this relationship is called the ‘ego-Self’. Jung discusses the relationship between the ego and the Self at different stages of our life proposing that there is a potential for the ego and Self to become disconnected (Edinger, 1972: 6) see Fig 2. I would like to explore this as well as the ego-Self relationship more later on in the essay in relation to spiritual theory. I would first like to look at the development of consciousness as the development of discomfort. As the ego separates from the Self, consciousness develops. Jung uses the Garden of Eden myth as an example of this:

“There is a deep doctrine in the legend of the Fall; it is the expression of a dim presentiment that the emancipation of ego consciousness was a Luciferian deed” (Jung, 1959)

In Ego and Archetype, Edward Edinger further discusses this example as a representation of the birth of the ego and with it the discomfort of consciousness (Edinger, 1972: 17-21)

“They [Adam and Eve] sacrifice the passive comfort of obedience for greater consciousness. The serpent does indeed prove to be a benefactor in the long run if we grant consciousness as a greater value than comfort” (Edinger, 1972: 21)


Fig. 2
Fig. 2

Where Jung differs to spiritual theorists is the context in which the relationship between the ego and the Self is deemed successful. Edinger using Jungian theory, discusses that a complete separation of the ego from the Self, or a break in the ‘ego-axis’ as illustrated in Fig.2 can result in “emptiness, despair, meaninglessness and in extreme cases psychosis or suicide” (Edinger, 1972: 43) Without the attachment of the ego to the Self, the ego would be representing us from a completely subjective perspective without the control of the Self and the other contributes that allow our development and place within the external world “the ego is the Self’s representative in external reality” (Shepherd, n.d)

Buddhist philosophy celebrates the egoless state. “…a perfected one who had reached the egoless state of nirvana” (Fowler, 1999) The ego in Buddhist terms is “a collection of mental events classified into five categories, called skandhas” (Butler, n.d) Skandhas is a term for five types of existence – Form, Sensation, Perception, Mental formations, Consciousness (O’Brien, n.d) From the Skandhas the ego can then choose which of the six realms of existence it can manifest itself in (Butler, n.d) The six realms are heaven, humanity, angry gods, hungry ghosts, animal and hell. Although these are the realms that a soul can be reborn into during reincarnation, all realms are interlinked and humans can experience all realms. Whether it is the anger of the realm of angry gods, the craving and dissatisfaction of the realm of the hungry ghost or the ignorance of the animal realm (Anon, 2009)

Eckhart Tolle (1948) also discusses the different types of ego-based suffering. He calls this the ‘pain-body’ which is the emotional part of the ego (Anon, n.d) just as Jung denoted that the ego is the subjective part of the psyche.

“There is such a thing as old emotional pain living inside you. It is an accumulation of painful life experience that was not fully faced and accepted in the moment it arose. It leaves behind an energy form of emotional pain. It comes together with other energy forms from other instances and so after some years you have a pain-body, an energy entity consisting of old emotion” (Tolle, 2010)

All theories seem to agree that the ego is a link between the internal and external world. It is not however a complete representation of the human psyche or personality, but a part of the self which seeks pleasure and avoids pain and seeks to connect emotionally to the world. They all disagree on the particulars displayed by the ego, but all agree that the ego is the cause of internal conflict and discomfort. Freud and Lacan both spoke of object love “Instinct of love toward an object demands a mastery to obtain it, and if a person feels they can’t control the object or feel threatened by it, they act negatively toward it.” (Freud, 1923: 20) Lacan also spoke of the struggle to attain the Ideal-Ego and the negative psychological effects sometimes caused. Freud spoke of the conflict between different areas of the psyche in relation to instinctual desires our attempt to attain them in a socially appropriate way (the Id, the Superego and the Reality principle). More simplistically, Jung described the birth of the ego as the start of consciousness and the discomfort that this brings. “The biblical fall of man presents the dawn of consciousness as a curse,” (Jung, 1933: 99) He also spoke about the internal conflict between the Self and the ego. Buddhism aims for an egoless state, where Eckhart Tolle aims for awareness of the pain-body and the integrity of egoic traits. (Tolle, 2010) All theories agree that the ego causes emotional suffering. I would now like to explore some contemporary artist’s stories and discuss where this suffering is evident in their artwork as well as how they deal with the subject of the ego. I would like to make three case studies of artists that display the ego in different ways.

My first case is Andy Warhol. (1928 – 1987) Warhol’s childhood was a poor one. Growing up in the great depression, his mother struggled to put food on the table. He was struck down with a childhood illness which left him shy and reclusive, so his family kept him occupied inside with magazines, films and colouring books. These started Warhol’s obsession with popular culture and famous celebrities. The explosion of consumerism and branding that then transpired in the 1950’s further fascinated Warhol and when he started to make it big on the art scene he created a brand out of his own self-image. He was obsessed with fame and wanted to be famous himself. “Someone [Warhol] who wanted something very much, which was fame” (Anon, 2013) He was his own love-object in Freudian terms showing narcissistic tendencies. (Anon, n.d) In his reflection he saw what Lacan would describe as the Ego-Ideal. Warhol describes his own reflection: “self-admiring carelessness….The knobbly knees. The roadmap of scars. The long bony arms, so white they look bleached….The pinhead eyes. The banana ears…” (Warhol, 1975:10) Warhol however strived for his Ideal-Ego. He had a large collection of wigs that he said he wore so you can’t tell how old he is (Anon, 2013) He also had work on his nose “At one time the way my nose looked really bothered me…and I decided that I wanted to have it sanded” (Warhol, 1975: 10) The image that Warhol had created was in fact one of Jung’s four main archetypes – The Persona. Warhol’s artwork was an extension of his narcissistic obsession with fame, beauty and the creation of a brand. He created many pieces using famous icons such as Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley as well as brands such as Brillo and Coca Cola. Ultimately, Warhol’s idea which he executed throughout his career was to take things which you wouldn’t immediately think of as an object of beauty and turn it into a work of art (Anon, 2013); whether that was a soup can, a photograph or himself. He was striving for the Lacanian Ideal-Ego (Lacan’s “ideal ego” is the ideal of perfection that the ego strives to emulate (Anon, n.d) and therefore as well as being a product of the times, Warhol’s artwork was a product of his ego.

My second case is Tracey Emin. A lot of her work reflects painful past experiences and she uses her emotional ego struggles to create her artwork. She writes openly in a column for the Independent where we get an insight into her emotional states: “I went on a bit of a journey today. For at least half an hour my mind went into an upset, jealous rage, full of imaginary graphic detail” (Emin, 2008) Historically, Emin had suffered sexual abuse, abortions and miscarriages as well as bullying in her home town Margate. She revisits these experiences frequently throughout her work such her drawings about abortions and her films “Scream” and “Why I Never Became a Dancer.” This is reflective of Eckhart Tolle’s pain-body theory, where all the pain of Emin’s earlier life is carried with her and manifests itself as artwork.


Fig. 3
Fig. 3


“My Bed” Fig. 3 shows the effects of the pain-body. You could also relate Jungian theory to the emotional issues that she was having, where her past experiences may have created a separation between the Self and the ego. One of the symptoms of this, as we have discussed previously, being psychosis as is described by Emin in relation to the inspiration for the work “I was at a point in my life where I was pretty low and hadn’t got out of the bed for four days….drinking like an absolute fish….also I was in this weird nihilistic thing, where I thought well if I die it doesn’t matter.” (Emin, n.d)

Emin has admitted that “There’s parts of my [her] character that I [she] absolutely hate[s]…getting jealous, violent, paranoid..” (Emin, n.d) We can compare her in this instance to the five Skandhas of Buddhist philosophy where these emotional states are true of the realm of the angry gods. Her alcohol abuse was famously exposed publically and such would be true of someone experiencing the realm of the hungry ghosts.

My third case is Bill Viola (1951). I would like to step away from the negative effects of the ego and use Viola as an example of how the ego can take us on a journey of self-discovery. Like Jung, Viola agrees that the ego is the conscious part of the psyche whereas the Self is the unconscious and there is a separation between both, unless a gate is found whereby harmony is found and awareness begins. The gateway he uses is nature, which includes the human psyche (Anon, n.d)

In ‘Tactics of the Ego’ the ego is discussed in terms of “I,” “identity” and “individualism.” (Brockhaus, 2003: 8) Cornelia Bruninghaus-Knubel discusses Viola’s film “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like”:

“Man and animal, nature and technology, consciousness and subconsciousness are inseparably interwoven in the infinite cycle of birth and death, and the artist’s self makes sure of itself by his subjective perception of the outside world through the camera”

This piece is a typical representation of Viola’s exploration of self and its passage from birth through to death and beyond. Most of his work follows suit – “Nine Attempts to Achieve Mortality,” Five Angels for the Millennium,” and “The Passing” for example. David Morgan discusses “The Passing”:

“Without doubt ‘The Passing’ epitomizes a narcissistic attitude[…] For what could be more narcissistic than the opening up of one’s own private family album to a large audience of television viewers, to share in the joys and grief of lived human experience” (Usselmann, 2013)

As discussed by David Morgan Viola’s films can be taken as narcissistic exploitations of particularly sensitive subjects, however they are also simply examples of someone sharing their experiences of self-discovery through a medium that just so happens to be particularly graphic and real.

So we have looked at the different theories on and interpretations of the ego and explored where these different takes are evident in the art world. Artists are generally known for being emotive, troubled and somewhat narcissistic, and now we have an insight into the psychology behind these troubles.

“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” (Picasso, n.d)

“A new British study finds people with narcissistic tendencies are more likely than others to think of themselves as creative, and to engage in creative activities. If your opinion of yourself is unusually high, there’s a good chance you long to share your brilliance with the rest of the world.” (Jacobs, 2013)

I think in my conclusion I was hoping to find some pure, untainted artwork without a trace of humanity attached to it. Through my exploration of the ego however I have realised that the ego is an intrinsic part of being human and whether you are trying to communicate ideas on things internal or external to you, it will have to go through the ego first. So my answer to my original question “is there such a thing as egoless art?” would have to be no; although not all artwork has to identify with the discomfort and suffering that sometimes accompany the ego it still has come from inside us, through the human consciousness and the ego to the outside world.

“Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” Henry Ward Beecher (Beecher, n.d)

Consumerism: The Hungry Ghost Realm

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I have been particularly interested in Buddhism for a while. As part of my studies into the human condition with the hope of escaping it’s ailments I have found insight in its teachings. I have been looking in more details recently as Buddhism also seem to support the notion of the ego; a subject I am exploring for my next essay, and I have come across a particularly interesting  concept. One that seem to ring true to my woes. This is the six realms. The realms are the possibilities of the residence of the soul in its next life, but there are cross overs. Souls in the Realm of Humanity can experience other realms. One realm that I feel particularly familiar with, and I think a lot of people in this modern world would relate to it – The Realm of the Hungry Ghost. This realms inhabitants experience hunger, cravings and dissatisfaction. This sounds eerily like the consumerism and addiction suffered in the world today. If Buddhism can teach us to be less of a consumer, I think a lot of our discomfort would disappear. I myself find that I am unable to enjoy the simple pleasures in life because my mind is always wandering to what I can eat, drink or buy next. I think a meditation is in order tonight.


The 6 Realms, Buddhism
The 6 Realms, Buddhism

Finding Sublime Transcendence in the Artworld

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Bill Viola
Bill Viola


Finding Sublime Transcendence in the Artworld
An exploration of the work of Anish Kapoor and Bill Viola

This essay explores selected works of Bill Viola and Anish Kapoor discussing how they
explore the notion of sublime transcendence and whether they paradoxically provide a
sublime transcendent experience to me as their audience. This is based on the
understanding that the literal definitions of both ‘sublime’ and ‘transcendence’ can be
explained as a quality beyond the limitations of human comprehension.

I would first like to explain the contradiction of achieving sublime transcendence and why I
believe such contradictions are present, by exploring the different interpretations of their
meanings. I would like to take each word singularly and then discuss sublime transcendence
together as a field of inquiry. I will then be analysing and comparing selected works of
Kapoor and Viola in relation to sublime transcendence and discussing whether I think their
artwork provides a sublime transcendent experience.

The word sublime comes from the Latin word sublimis, where the prefix sub means “under,”
“below,” “beneath,” “just outside of,” and lime meaning “threshold.” (Kernerman Webster’s
College Dictionary 2010) Simon Morley in The Sublime whilst discussing the meaning of the
sublime explains that it is “addressing an experience with implications that go far beyond
aesthetics” (2010: 12). I would like to use the definition that sublime is an ‘experience’ for the
purpose of this essay.

The literal meaning of sublime is an experience that is “just outside of” the “threshold” or
boundaries of our known experience. This would therefore suggest that to represent the
sublime with visual or audio experiences would be paradoxical as the sublime is outside of
the threshold of our known experience yet seems to be experienced by many of us,
otherwise there would be no use for such a word. And as I will discuss later in this essay,
Viola and Kapoor do seem to attain an interpretation of the sublime in their artwork.
Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the
Sublime and Beautiful described sublime as being “productive of the strongest emotion
which the mind is capable of feeling.” Burke then discusses however, that he is “satisfied the
ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure” (1757:
53 – 54) so his interpretation of the sublime is suggestive of an unpleasant experience.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) in Critique of Judgement was also under the impression that the
sublime stemmed from the negative, but it is experienced as negative as a consequence of
our lack of comprehension of it: “The feeling of the sublime is thus a feeling of displeasure
from the inadequacy of the imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude” (1790: 141)
Robert Rosenblum (1927–2006) described the sublime more in terms of religion that to seek
the sublime is to “seek the sacred in a modern world” (1978: 218) On the other hand, the
artist Fred Tomaselli tells us that he has only ever been able to “access the sublime
chemically … It’s a major subject in the history of art and it also happens to be the major
component around drugs” ( 2002) In another example, artist Mike Kelley
relates the sublime to a psychotropic experience as well, but also a self-reflective

 “psychedelia was sublime because in psychedelia, your worldview fell apart. That
was a sublime revelation, that was my youth, and that was my notion of beauty. And
that was a kind of cataclysmic sublime. It was very interiorized, it wasn’t about a
metaphysical outside; it was about your own consciousness.” ( 2005)
It seems that the sublime has been used to define everything from pain to godliness, nature
to drug culture and everything in between. To discriminate the elements which constitutes
sublime from these many different sub-divisions I would like to look at the meaning behind
transcendence before looking specifically at sublime transcendence. (2008) advise that transcendence is: “the realm of thought which
lies beyond the boundary of possible knowledge, because it consists of objects which cannot
be presented to us” Whilst the American Heritage Dictionary tells us that transcendence is
“Lying beyond the ordinary range of perception” or in religious terms “Being above and
independent of the material universe” (2000)

Transcendence comes from the Latin prefix trans-, meaning “beyond,” and the word
scandare, meaning “to climb.” ( 2013) ‘To climb over’ is the literal
translation of the Latin equivalent both of ‘transcendence’ and ‘transcendental’ (Oxford
University Press: 2013) although Kant (1751) in Critique of Pure Reason differentiates
between ‘transcendental’ and ‘transcendence’ where ‘transcendental’ is more concerned
with the way our brain perceives whilst ‘a priori’; being able to apply a “process of reasoning
without reference to particular facts or experience.” ( 2003)
I am concerned more so with his definition of adjective version of transcendence
‘transcendent’ which Kant believes to be “that which goes beyond any possible knowledge of
a human being” So rather than being able to grasp something without necessarily
experiencing it, transcendence is beyond that possibility, beyond us as human beings and
the material world. This interpretation also compliments‘s religious
definition of transcendence.

From these definitions, I would like to present a calculated definition of sublime
transcendence (in order to discuss whether Kapoor and Viola achieve it) as an experience of
great magnitude never before experienced, outside of the material world and beyond the
bounds of human knowledge or understanding. This can be relative to aesthetics, religion or

We have heard Burke and Kant on fear and the sublime and I would like to look at how this
relates to the use of fear in Viola’s water videos and Kapoor’s voids. Burke recognizes that
“Infinity has the tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most
genuine effect and truest test of the sublime” (1757: 67 – 68) I would also like to discuss
Kapoor and Viola’s use of infinity in relation to fear and the sublime.
Fearful in itself, Viola’s early near death experience of drowning in a lake seems to have
influenced much of his work with the obvious use of water and figures submerged in water,
Ascension (2000) for example. Like Kapoor, these works of Viola’s use fear as an
exploration of the sublime. In Fire Woman (2005) we are confronted with a scene of
complete terror – a burning inferno with a black figure that comes towards us as then falls
into a pool of water that was previously unnoticed by the viewer. The flames are aggressive
and overpowering and the audio is equally powerful. The whole scene is an illusion and “you

we’re seeing from the very start an image of an image…this was someone disturbing their
own self-reflection and of course creating beauty and mystery at the same time…. things are
not what they seem” (Viola: 2010) As we heard from the American Heritage Dictionary
(2000) regarding transcendence consisting “of objects which cannot be presented to us” this
illusion transcends us from seen to the unseen, the known to the unknown.

Kapoors use of voids is a good example of how he uses fear. (Such as Descent into Limbo,
1992; a large room with what looks like an infinite black hole in the middle) Kapoor tells us
“What interests me however is the sense of the darkness that we carry within us, the
darkness that’s akin to one of the principal subjects of the sublime – terror” ( 2003)

Not only do Kapoor’s voids give a feeling of an experience beyond our material world; of
something that is not there “because of the lack of ordered structures or codes,”
( 2010) but their “darkness generates an illusion of the infinite, which is
intrinsically related to the sublime” (Crone & Von Stosch 2008: 26) This is also the case for
the continual loops of Viola’s installations such as Five Angels for the Millennium (2001)
where the sequences seem to go on infinitely in varying directions. The size and scale of
both artists work; of sizeable proportions generally, only emphasize the infinite experience.
They also evoke the sublime through their magnitude. Burke cites: “Greatness of dimension
is a powerful cause of the sublime” (1757:72)

As well as the physical and metaphysical, there are also obvious religious connotations in
both artists work. Religion is also talked about in relation to the sublime, as
has already defined; “concerned with religion or religious purposes,” (2013) We can also
relate transcendence; where the previously quoted American Heritage Dictionary defined
transcendence as “Being above and independent of the material universe;” (2000) a
definition that could happily define a deity.

Viola and Kapoor are both known for their religious backgrounds and although neither of
them overtly emphasize religious references in their work, they both admit that they are
there. Viola discusses his work in relation to spirituality: “I use the term spiritual, which I
know makes a lot of people cringe, you can call it anything you want, but it’s an awareness
of your place in a larger whole.” ( 2012)

Where Kapoor’s religious links are more subtle, Viola is recognised for the religious themes
in his work. He has won the Religion and Arts Award and also an award from the American
Academy of Religion and was commissioned to create a piece for St Paul’s Cathedral.
( 2013) The titles of the artists’ works illustrate how obvious the religious
connotations are; Kapoor need some explaining: “I showed a work at Documenta in Kassel,
in Germany, in ’92, in which a work called ‘Descent into Limbo’, after Mantegna – Christ
descending into the limbo of the nether world.” ( 2003)

Viola’s Five Angels (2000) directly references spirituality in its title, but it also uses religious
symbolism with regards to the ritual of baptism where the figures are submerged in water
“The action of Viola’s figures… encourages comparison with the Christian sacrament of
baptism.” ( 2010) Both artists also bring in eastern religious influences. These
highlight the transcendent qualities in their work: Kapoor (2012) talks about Cloud Gate
(2004): “I think about the kind of space that there might be in an image of a meditating
Buddha, where all attention is focused inwards” Viola “also cites Zen Buddhism, which he
practised during his year-long sojourn in Japan in 1980–1, as having a particularly strong
influence on his outlook and practice.” ( 2013) The main focus of Buddhism is
the journey to enlightenment and is parallel to a transcendent journey. To become
enlightened is to reach “a blessed state in which the individual transcends desire and
suffering and attains Nirvana” (American Heritage Dictionary: 2008)

I would finally like to discuss both artists’ exploration of death, which could be seen as the
ultimate sublime transcendence; a transcendence from this material world. Transcendent
also of our human knowledge as none of us know what it feels like to die. A lot of Kapoor’s
work appears to represent death and its associated components; blood and the body.
Kapoor tells us: “Red is a colour I’ve felt very strongly about….of course it’s the colour of the
interior of our bodies” (2008: 47) Examples of relevant works include his use of fleshy
looking, blood red in Svayambh (2007) and red pigment in To Reflect an Intimate Part of the
Red (1981) and the red, almost vein-like structures Taratantara (1999) and Leviathan (2011)
Kapoor also comments: “Somewhere in the work there is a real search for love and death,
blood and guts.” ( 2008)

Many of Viola’s work have an air of death lingering over them, but Nantes Triptych is
particularly haunting. It is a triptych of a birth, a figure floating in water (to represent the
suspension between life and death (Viola: 2010) and his mother on her death bed.
Non-space, fear, infinity, religion and death; these have all been discussed in relation to
sublime transcendence and these elements have been truly explored by Viola and Kapoor.
The magnitude and illusionary structures of Kapoor’s do seem sublime to me and Viola’s
bold and beautiful approach to death and religion and the fear that his work strikes in me
transcends me into the world of the unknown and fills me with awe. To answer my original
query on whether I think their artwork provides a sublime transcendent experience to me as
their audience however, would be to create another paradox. Like my exploration of the
literary world of definitions, my own personal experience of their artwork cannot be bound by
the limits of language; then again maybe in that statement you can find my answer. I can of
course only speak from personal experience as one member of their audience, so I will leave
you with quotes from others, who back me up with claims of their own experience of the
sublime or transcendence or both from Viola and Kapoor’s work:


“Anish Kapoor’s monumental Marsyas, made of stretched PVC, managed to convey

a more affirmative experience of the sublime – a kind of post-religious state of

emotional transcendence” (Morley: 2010)


In his art Viola is holding a mirror up to the viewer and is showing the full force of the
sublime.” (Arya: 2013)