Bishop was describing what happens to her in the presence of a 1969 Mark Rothko canvas in the SFMOMA collection. “I could describe its color and its shape and its size,” she went on. “But there’s nothing that can approximate the experience of standing in front of that painting.”
The connections that paintings and dance performances, movies and novels and music make to us beyond our conscious perceptions of them are primary and transporting. Our unconscious, deep-seated responses are what bring us back to the arts for more and more, nourishing and renewing us just as food and air and water do. At the same time, we’re carried away from our sensory and analytical selves, lifted or plunged into a web of emotion and association, a fretwork of glinting filaments radiating out in so many directions.
For some, this becomes a linking to the divine, to something ineffably transcendent. For others, it opens pathways to a shadowy and only fleetingly accessible territory in themselves. It may be a means of communing with an artist’s own unconscious essence or of riding the mythic tides that flow timelessly through the arts. It may be a key to cultural codes or the workings of a particular artistic medium. It may open the deepest wells of delight and terror. Or it may be nothing so mysterious at all, but rather a function of physiological events in the brain and nervous system that may someday be thoroughly describable and understood.
“We have multiple minds that are processing things in parallel or interacting ways,” according to Samuel Barondes, professor of neurobiology and psychiatry at UCSF. “That’s what allows us to enjoy art on multiple channels.”
The notion of an aesthetic bandwidth that operates with extraordinary speed and complexity is an enticing one in a digital age. The unconscious, like the Internet, can be seen as a vast interwoven fabric of data about ourselves and our connections to one another and the world. In his influential book “Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious,” University of Virginia psychology Professor Timothy D. Wilson argues that we all possess “a nonconscious filter that examines the information reaching our senses and decides what to admit to consciousness.”
We can only sense the workings of the unconscious, after all, through signals that we can register and at least partially decode. The arts, with their uniquely rich fusion of beauty, emotion, imaginative identification and thought, can tap our unconscious natures in particularly powerful ways. Whether by some alignment of specific circumstances and conditions or by sheer serendipity, certain works of art at certain times make that happen.
San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley attended a performance of “Die Walküre” in Washington, D.C., not long ago and found himself strangely transfixed by a second-act encounter of Fricka, Wotan and Brünnhilde. Gockley has taken in numerous performances of this Wagner opera over the years. This time, the scene’s “conflict between love and power, between being self-protective and building a wall around yourself at the expense of others” struck him with heightened immediacy and force.
Gockley can draw on a lifetime of thoughtful and self-reflective operagoing to explore his reaction. He spoke of the ways that opera — and especially Wagnerian opera — musicalizes primitive and archetypal emotions. He discussed the ability of music to enrich a dramatic situation by expressing something different and deeper than what the characters are saying. “Lighting can also be part of the mix, with its subliminal way of modulating mood and feeling,” Gockley added. But analysis only went so far. The scene had opened this “huge existential question, especially for men,” said Gockley. “When I saw all that played out this time, something happened that was so gut wrenching and real that I knew I was seeing and hearing something beyond what I was taking in on a conscious level.”
I had a comparable experience with the recent Brice Marden exhibition at SFMOMA. Returning for a second and third time to the show, I kept roaming through the galleries hung with Marden’s ravishingly beautiful abstractions and trying to fathom why these paintings held me in such an exhilarating, paradoxical grip.
I felt excited in their presence, filled with a chattering whir of commentary about the undulant ribbons of color on the walls. I could almost hear my own synapses firing as I kept telling myself — or hearing myself told — the things Marden’s art was summoning from somewhere in me. Thoughts of brushy undergrowth and highway overpasses surfaced. Capillaries and stained glass. Lace and curved steel. I thought of things unfurling in some enormously expansive space and of the tiny pieces from a board game, Rivers, Roads & Rails, that my daughter and I played when she was a young child. Marden was working on me like an Rorschach inkblot, pulling out associative data as some skilled forensic psychologist would.
At the same time, and especially on my return visits to the show, I felt a deep silence rising up to envelop all of that. The paintings were all those things that I still kept seeing, the sum of them but also none of them as well. The connection I felt to these patterns of pigment on canvas, which seemed to run deeper now that I finally stopped talking back to them, began to assert itself all over again. I felt I was seeing these paintings for the first time, and still not seeing them at all. The more consciously aware of all this I became, the more distinctly Marden’s art seemed to register in some thrilling, alarming, inchoate way. Meaning, whatever that meant, was irrelevant. There would never be enough time to take these paintings in and yet they seemed perfectly clear in an instant. I was finished with them and just beginning.
Great art leads us toward places that we can never fully inhabit or navigate. The unconscious is a realm without any clear roads in or out, and no map when we’re there. The ways in which we talk about the connections between art and the unconscious may tell us more about who and where we are, culturally speaking, than about any fundamental truths.
The shadows in Plato’s cave can be seen as an early metaphorical image of the unconscious, lit by the fire of consciousness. Novelist Leo Tolstoy took a socially grounded view in the 19th century: “Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of historic, universal aims of humanity.” The French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) called art “a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” Musical style for contemporary composer John Corigliano is a product of “the unconscious choices I make.”
Attempts to analyze the unconscious processes of artistic creation may often say more about how art is received than how it is made. In a strange and fervent book published in 1927, with Freud’s influence in full flower, music critic Ernest Newman set out to explore “The Unconscious Beethoven.” Likening musical composition to “some consuming parasite in the body of a host,” Newman traces a pattern of three ascending notes from an early piano sonata to the Ninth Symphony that occurred whenever Beethoven “opened the floodgates of feeling.” Here, declares Newman, were unmistakable musical “finger prints” that marked “the unconscious and indivisible part of the communication from creator to listener.”
But the more the critic argues for the “uplift,” “tension” and “yearning towards a height of soaring resolution” that Beethoven unconsciously embedded in that three-note phrase, the more we learn about Newman as a listener. “The Unconscious Beethoven” is finally a book about a man trying to understand the power of what he hears.
Today, we tend to think in more scientific, ostensibly objective ways. Researchers study “subliminal perception” with an instrument called a tachistoscope. Others investigate implicit memory, information processing and hypnotic alterations of consciousness. One fascinating study, which suggests a corroboration of our fundamental conscious-unconscious duality, involves sighted patients who are unable to identify geometric shapes but can select and manipulate those shapes confidently by hand. Such “visual agnosia,” or disconnect between perception and meaning, demonstrates distinct visual “streams,” argue Melvyn A. Goodale and A. David Milner in “Sight Unseen.” One stream, the visual registering of the environment, functions as a survival mechanism and the other as a phantom-like analog of reality. “Much of what our vision does for us,” the authors write, “lies outside our visual experience.”
That may be as compelling an image as any of the way the arts work, drawing us toward the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious in our divided selves. Seated in a movie theater, with moving images, story and sound washing over us, we willingly invite the medium’s synchrony to both amplify and occlude our conscious awareness. Opera, rock music, poetry, the theater — they all possess the power to awaken what Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington calls “the sound of your mind.”
The arts make us witnesses to who we are, gratefully helpless when it happens. They wake us up and silence us, sharpen our senses and hurtle us away from sensory reality. “People think if they can’t see it or hear it or describe it, then it doesn’t exist,” said painter Naomie Kremer. That, in fact, may be the point where we begin to encounter the nature of our own existence in the fullest sense.
One night in April, I arrived a few minutes late for a Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra performance of the Handel oratorio “Belshazzar” at the Herbst Theatre. I was breathing hard from my jog down Gough Street and across McAllister and feeling acutely self-conscious as I sat down partway into the first scene. The woman next to me gave me a discouraging look. A large man in front of me shifted heavily in his seat. Nitocris (soprano Dominique Labelle) was singing about God in “boundless space.”
For quite a while, contented as I was to be there and hearing Handel expertly performed, everything seemed distinct, separate and clear, like shiny beads on a bracelet. The singers’ trills, the timbre of the strings and burbling harpsichord, the sumptuous poise of the music itself, the back of conductor Nicholas McGegan’s head, a jacket that fit countertenor William Towers a little too snugly — everything ticked through my consciousness.
And then, late in the second act, Labelle began an aria (“Regard, O son, my flowing tears”) that went through me like light through glass. The spun-silver phrases, the soft tides and surges of the orchestra, one exquisitely wrenching interval all poured in, weightless and shining. It went on and on, and was over before it started. “The unconscious is the ocean of the unsayable,” the writer Italo Calvino once remarked. I was out there, afloat. That’s all I can really tell you about what happened that night.