The Vital Image: Interview with Michael Evans and David Parker
by R. Whittaker/Rue Harrison, Aug 24, 2009
In 1938 Max Beckman could declare that all the important things in art had always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of being. People could say things like that in those days, and then everything changed.
The work of English painters David Parker and Michael Evans is rooted in this deeply problematic question: Is it still possible today for an artist’s work to evoke real contact with the sublime, the numinous? Contemporary language—including the visual language of painting—stumbles in its attempts to enter such territory.
In the late 1970s, Rosalind Krauss pointed out that one could not, without embarrassment, include “art” and “spirit” in the same sentence. Jacob Needleman, author of A Sense of the Cosmos [to pick just one of his many works] put it this way: what is most repressed today is any feeling for the metaphysical.
Today one predominant and reductive explanatory trope is that things are basically information. Another one goes like this: "x came to be this way because it provides an evolutionary advantage." Science dazzles us with its power. And yet today realities at the cutting edges of physics are beginning to sound a lot like theology. There are mysteries out there [and in here, too] As James Hillman said in a 1998 interview, “Yes, there are chromosomes. Yes, there’s biology. Yes, there are environment, sociology, parenting, economics, class, and all of that. But there is something else, as well” (London 1998, np). As an artist, I struggle with the “something else.”
Last May, British artists Michael Evans and David Parker spoke at the C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco’s Art & Psyche Conference. Parker quoted Nietzsche’s statement from The Birth of Tragedy: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified.” Further on Parker writes, “Both Michael and I approach painting with a desire to access what I can only describe as a deeper truth based on a practice that appears to be a form of transcendence through aesthetic transformation.”
Here were a couple of artists I wanted to meet. They are swimming upstream, and I suspect James Hillman would give them his blessing. Rue and I caught up with them a couple of hours before they had to catch a flight back to England.—RW
Richard Whittaker: I’d like to ask you, David, about the Nietzsche quote concerning the fundamental importance that the aesthetic aspect of life holds for us.
David Parker: That stuck in my mind when I last read The Birth of Tragedy. My understanding of that word includes more than just mere beauty, which is the common understanding of it. I think what Nietzsche was getting at there is that the aesthetic is a kind of total emotional response to the world and that we need to hold onto and retain that constantly in the way that we subjective individuals deal with the world. It’s that aesthetic response stimulated through the phenomena of the world that provides a balance. I’m interpreting the word justify in that sense, really. It creates a sense of balance in how we deal with the world. I don’t know whether that gets to what you’re asking.
RW: It does. One thing I’m hearing is that, if I encounter the world in its aesthetic sense, it touches my feelings.
DP: Yes. And as James Hillman has often said in his writing, that aesthetic response is not always pleasant. It’s a vital engagement, which means it moves us. And that movement might even be toward the not-pleasant. It might be disturbing. It might even scare you in some way. But the very act of disturbing is important because it might actually put one in a position where one then has to move beyond that point.
I think it’s connected with notions of the sublime, which, in essence, is a feeling of being in the presence of something greater than the individual, subjective human self. I just felt that the Nietzsche quote underscored what I was trying to articulate in my paper about the practice of painting. Obviously it’s about our dealing with the world, but in my case, dealing with the world as a painter making paintings and with what is happening in my imagination as I am keeping the channels open so to speak, in the process. Through the medium, through the feeling of the medium, I am trying to touch that sublime feeling or numinous feeling in some way. What I think I said in the paper is to get what I would call the “vital image” so that it is transformative for me and, ideally, so it can resonate in the same way for others.
RW: So the aesthetic dimension is something that can touch me in a vital way. In this sense, it’s a word that signals a connection on this more real level. Heidegger has this term das Man, which refers to the general day-to-day level of living where one is out of touch with authentic being. And he also says, poetically man dwells, which speaks to this more authentic level of being. But mostly, we don’t reach this condition of actually being in touch with the truth of being here, which is not necessarily a comforting experience when we are.
DP: Yes. Absolutely. What you’re saying seems to be echoing what I’m trying to say, yes.
RW: Michael, you mentioned in your paper something about doubt, about uncertainty—especially at this moment in our cultural life. We had Modernism back in the twentieth century [laughs]. Then along comes Postmodernism. Would you say something about how you find yourself as an artist wanting to do meaningful work at this moment in time? What are we up against? What are you up against? It’s a big question.
Michael Evans: I suppose what I was trying to say in the paper refers to the process of secularization that has taken place. You have Marx, Freud, Darwin, and Nietzsche as well. They’re all blows to any kind of religious possibility or spiritual possibility or transcendental possibility. The fact that I have trouble using the word “spiritual” is indicative of the times we live in. It becomes increasingly difficult to discuss or access that realm of experience.
What worries me is that we’re beginning to lose the language for it. It’s actually gradually being eroded. I didn’t say it in my talk, but there’s a little comment that Abraham Maslow made once about peak experiences. When people were told about peak experiences, they suddenly became aware that they were having them. I started thinking about that sense of meaning. Once we lose that kind of deeper sense of meaning, once we lose the language for it, I begin to wonder if we can access those states of experience at all. I was using Francis Bacon as an example with his nihilism—and then his hedonism. Because he had no deeper sense of purpose, he was just left with drugs, sex, and gambling, I suppose.
I’m rambling a bit, but what I’m getting toward is one-by-one you could see Romanticism as a withdrawal. Already we’ve withdrawn from really believing in a divine Beyond. Then Romanticism starts to see the divine in nature. Then there’s a withdrawal from that to maybe seeing the divine in the imagination with Surrealism. Expressionism becomes wrapped up in the imagination of the individual and then the Unconscious, maybe, when you get to Abstract Expressionism. As I said earlier today, it’s a bit like the polar ice caps, which we see are retreating.
I begin to think we’re standing on this tiny little bit of ice waiting for it to disappear. That sounds very dark. But there is a more positive outlook as well.
I try to distinguish between two types of Postmodernism. Suzy Gablik has done it in The Re-enchantment of Art. I agree with her that there are probably two types of Postmodernism. She calls it Deconstructive and Reconstructive, I think. But within the Deconstructive approach, I think there is something actually positive. I quoted Lyotard in my paper, trying to make his point that withdrawing from the previous certainties—not wanting to be certain, finding difficulty naming things, interpreting things, tipping everything upside down like that—could, in a sense, be the occasion for opening up thought for new developments. It could be revitalizing and move us toward the capability of living with a sense of the mysterious in the world again. That’s what I was trying to go toward. So I actually think doubt might be a good thing.
I was hinting at that when I was talking about Pollock. Does that work still have power? And how long does it have power? As a painter, I couldn’t just go and paint another Pollock. If I went out and painted a Pollock, I’d know exactly what I was doing. It wouldn’t be deeply unconscious or any of the other words I might use. I need to find a way of being uncertain again. So it’s moving beyond the language that’s given to try to encounter a sense of otherness or strangeness. I think Postmodernism, viewed in a more positive light, might enable people to do that.
RW: I like how you are putting that.
Rue Harrison: I have a question just to build on this idea of making a space for questioning, for doubt; for me, doubt implies a weakening or negativity. So for you, is painting a way to strengthen your question? To give strength to a dialogue with the unknown, something like that?
ME: I welcome the unknown. I embrace it. I suppose I’m not looking for certainty. It’s interesting: When I’m talking to people about meaning in painting I mean it in a different way. I talk to students and say, I don’t mean “meaning” in terms of what a painting means—I mean the experience of meaningfulness, not a literal meaning.
I can be certain I have experiences of meaningfulness and have absolutely no clue where they come from or what they are. It seems that there needs to be an element of surprise, of difference, of strangeness, of otherness in order to have that feeling.
A really great artwork may keep surprising me, but I was trying to play devil’s advocate in the finishing session, where I quoted Duchamp who said an artwork has thirty years and then we’re too familiar with it—something like that.
It is a problem for a painter working now, how you don’t repeat the art of the past. To try and find the sense of unfamiliarity—that’s my struggle. I was just trying to bring that in. We were obviously talking a lot about how Jungian psychology moves forward, but as painters we need to worry about how painting moves forward, too. How we reinvent the language to find the same things, perhaps.
RW: David, do you want to add anything to this question, what does the artist face now who wants to make meaningful work? Meaningful, not in the sense that it’s fashionable, not in the sense that it’s just clever or ideological, but in this old- fashioned sense in which art used to be spoken of in the phrase “art, philosophy, and religion.” What are the problems for the artist who is really still searching for that kind of art making?
DP: A word comes to mind that I think I first picked up from the painter Alan Davie. He talks about being in search of the miraculous. That rings true for me as well. The idea of the miraculous is what I think Mike is trying to articulate, and it is where we certainly meet this search for something that is meaning-full.
That seems to be located somewhere, but it is something beyond the human in a way. It is a kind of divine. I’m using religious terms here rather cautiously. I am not a religious person, but what the word implies for me, as a painter, seems to be important. It is that sense of otherness, the term Mike is using.
With the proliferation of visual images through mechanical reproduction, with which we have to deal consistently in our high technology age—the ability to trans- mit images by the millions across the globe—I think the difficulty for painters, for any artist, is how do you find a visual language that can either use those images or find another kind of significant, vital form that doesn’t use imagery that has already been put out into the world? An artist is in a difficult position because you have to be able to avoid repeating past languages. That is what I said in my paper. And that is the project, really. How we do that is an open question. And I think it’s just struggling through the practice and the discipline and the medium—that engagement—and finding that kind of material and spiritual interaction. In a funny sort of way, it seems to involve not being who we are as individuals.
What I mean is that the experience I get when I make paintings, being able to retreat into that space, is that it’s an incredibly meditative space. It seems that the I—in the sense of the ego—is not there. I don’t know who I am when I’m painting, and it’s not important.
RW: Is there something inherently meaningful in experiencing that state?
DP: Yes. It’s being able to let go and actually allow something else to make a painting. I don’t want to sound too spooky about that. It’s just very much about being in the flow.
RW: There’s a reference from Rosalind Krauss in Michael’s paper, a quote from her, “It’s unbearably embarrassing to use the words art and spirit in the same sentence.” What do you think of that?
ME: Inadmissible is the other word. It’s like a courtroom kind of word, isn’t it? Like being cross-examined in some way. I think the spiritual has been cross-examined and condemned and locked away somewhere. But I found it—well, I just disagree fundamentally with such a proposition.
Something just popped into my mind when you were talking. In regard to that connection between religion and art—as an artist, sometimes I want to step in and say, “No, it’s not that art has similarities with religion: They’re both aspects of something else. They’re just words to describe a certain kind of encounter.”
I can’t even say “states of mind” because I’m not saying that I’m sure it exists only in the mind. I don’t like to close that door. When I say “otherness,” I really mean other- ness. The Unconscious may be just an aspect of that experience as well. Is it the conduit or the place where something happens? I’m not sure, and I never will be. So yes, I completely reject Krauss’s statement. It just sweeps things aside.
DP: I would call it a “theoretical defense.” Inadmissible—it’s a strange word to use, because it’s denying a human attribute.
RW: She speaks, apparently, with a great sense of authority—and where does that authority come from?
ME: Well, I just find it interesting. To say religion, the one word, what do you mean by that? That’s not a cut-and-dried thing. Then to use the word “spirit.” Well, what do you mean by that? It raises more questions than it answers.
You have to say the art world, theory-wise, has been fairly well dominated by Marxist and post-Freudian theory, two critical poles, for quite a while now. Even Greenberg had a reductive, materialist agenda, talking just about objects and surfaces, and he didn’t talk about psychological states very often. He certainly didn’t talk about spiritual concerns. It’s kind of interesting when you start looking back through the history of art criticism. You see there haven’t really been so many people who have opened up that dialogue—certainly in recent times.
RW: You mean the dialogue concerning the spiritual in art?
ME: Yes. It’s kind of shrunk anyway.
RW: Since Kandinsky?
ME: Yes, since then.
RW: Well, how did the two of you end up being here, presenting at this Jungian conference on Art and Psyche? Would you mind saying a little about that?
DP: It was through me, I suppose. Mike and I work together. We share ideas together. We’re both painters. We teach the same courses. So obviously, we have a close interaction.
RW: Where do you teach?
DP: We teach at the University of Northampton in the U.K. The more we talked of things that are of concern to us, the more we began to understand that we’re engaged with very similar issues even though we’re coming from different theoretical backgrounds.
For my own part, I’ve had an interest in Jungian ideas for some time. My master’s degree, some years ago, in art and psychotherapy, was where I first came across Jung’s ideas. They seemed to ring bells with me. At that time I was drawn to that course in particular because I wanted to understand more about what was motivating me and where the images I was making (which are quite different from what I’m doing now) were coming from. They fascinated me and I had no theoretical handle on them then. I knew they were transformative for me in some way. So I was drawn to investigate these issues through a program of study.
So, two or three years ago, there was an invitation to submit a paper for a conference of the International Association for Jungian Studies at Greenwich in London. I put a proposal in for that, and it was accepted. Since then I’ve been a member of the IAJS and regularly in the loop for that organization. It was in a flyer that this conference was posted as coming up. I knew that Mike had some interest—there was our joint exhibition, “The Abstract Unconscious”—so I said, “Come on, Mike, let’s go.”
RW: Is there still a strong interest in Jung in England?
DP: Well, obviously, in the therapeutic community, but I would not say there’s a strong interest, as far as I know, in the art community. We’re quite odd in that respect. It would be interesting to do a poll to see exactly if that is really true or not.
ME: Do you think in the art community or the academic community?
DP: Probably both, certainly in the academic community. I think Jung has never sat very comfortably with academics. That’s constantly being expressed within the IAJS. I think one of its tasks is to try to get the academic community to embrace and value what Jungian Studies has to offer. I’m not quite sure what the big difficulty is. It’s probably something to do with the implicit core of Jungian thinking and its link to notions of spirituality. Again, that’s a problem for the academic community.
RW: Clearly you accept the concept that there’s a conscious and an unconscious. I know that in the 1950s and 1960s that was an honored idea. Of course, there’s Freud. But how do you think the idea of the unconscious is faring in current thought?
ME: That’s interesting. Someone just commented on that recently, saying that I needed to think about my use of the term “unconscious” because there are moves in neuroscience that might actually start people questioning whether they accept that at all [laughs]. But I’m not able to comment on that in any way.
DP: That’s a difficult one, isn’t it? Most people would agree with the notion of the conscious.
RW: I like the way you put that.
DP: The notion of “the conscious.” That is not a problem. We all intuitively, presumably, understand that. Yes, I’m here. I’m awake. I’m talking with you. I’m seeing this. I’m seeing that. This is conscious. This is immediate experience. It’s what I can grasp. I know. I am familiar.
We then are in a position to ask, so if we talk about something that’s “not-conscious”—let’s use that instead of “unconscious”—do we also have a not-conscious part of our being? And without getting technical, why would that be difficult to imagine? Because there are many instances where we do things that are not conscious. I can drive a car down the street and be thinking of something completely different and unconsciously driving. That’s a simple answer.
So there’s part of our neural processing, if you want to get materialistic about it, that is not conscious. So it’s not a question of saying there is an unconscious as a thing. It is not a thing. If we want to use that word to explain something about our experience, I don’t have any problem with it.
RW: You’ve used the word otherness. This is an important concept or an important reality. I wonder if you’d like to say anything more about that, the other, or otherness? Which term do you prefer?
ME: You can use either. I used a quote from George Steiner based around that because I don’t come from a Jungian background. I really felt caught out on a limb coming here. But I was interested in the George Steiner quote because he speaks about the unconscious being a secular phrasing for an experience for what he calls alterity, and then he goes on to say, “or otherness.” But at another point in that quote, he says it’s not really the nomenclature that’s important. It’s the experience of vital excess.
That was a term that I used quite a lot through the paper. I thought, all I can be certain of is that I have this experience. I can’t be certain what it’s called. I can’t be certain where it comes from. I can probably, having been brought up in secular age, entertain the notion of the unconscious. It’s about the best word I can find. I can conceptualize that. But I’m not sure I can ever understand the content of it or the structure of it.
I am interested in reading different people’s accounts of it. We both read Anton Ehrenzweig (1967/1993) who developed a different notion of the unconscious from Freud by thinking of it as having different levels. I think he says that aesthetic experience has a place in there somewhere.
DP: Yes. If I can jump in here, Ehrenzweig talks about unconscious scanning. He uses that phrase quite a lot. In the process of art-making the artist, when he or she is at an involved point in the making of a piece of work, there is an area of mental activity that he calls “unconscious scanning.” It has a structure of its own that’s more holistic than what’s happening in any detail. The unconscious scanning part is taking in the whole matrix of the frame of the canvas or paper and organizing the space.
In my teaching, talking with students about whatever they’re doing, I tell them to try to hold, like a musical conductor, all the space of the painting. That’s your theater, I tell them. What you do here matters as to what happens here, or here. Part of the skill of this craft is learning, in that fluid moment, to keep that engagement. I’m obviously saying this to them consciously, but the hope is that by repeated training in putting paint on canvas, that they begin to access the area of their unconscious, if you like.
RH: The way you were using your hands as you spoke, it seemed to me that the unconscious scanning was maybe not just taking place in your mind, but the act of painting could create an expansion of experience that might include the material, the canvas, the body . . .
DP: I would agree with that.
RH: Can you say more about that?
DP: Yes, I think you picked up on my instinctive response, which is to have to do it physically. Words are not enough. Maybe, in the process of standing with a student, I would be doing this [gestures] because this is a body experience. It’s not just a mind experience.
Painters know this like dancers know this, like musicians know this. It is a physical experience. It is a relationship to that material. I think it is a part of that unconscious scanning—and I hadn’t thought of this before—but it must be connected to the fact that we are physical beings. Initially we understand the world through physical con- tact, from the moment we’re born. How do we begin to make sense of the world before we have language?
ME: I try not to get too fixated on Ehrenzweig because he’s just one person. I’ve mentioned Viktor Frankl. He believes in a spiritual unconscious. So he’s another per- son who would disagree strongly with Freud. He’s an existential psychologist. But they all have elements that seem to ring true, for me anyway. They all have elements of truth, but they’re all faced with something that is ultimately not reducible.
I don’t know, I like to face it with some humility and think no one will ever encompass that unknowable mass of whatever it is. So if I use the term otherness, it’s because I really think we don’t know what this thing is, where these experiences come from. I didn’t put it in my paper, but in the original draft I was going to describe myself as a failed atheist [laughs].
RW: One of you wrote that the artist who’s interested in this search for connections with something that’s outside of this ego-self—that this artist is going to be marginalized. The thrust in the art world is toward entertainment. And also, there’s a thrust toward being “an expert.” You get your MFA and come out knowing semiotics, etc. But these other realms, the renewal of really standing in front of this mystery, that artists with this focus are going to be marginalized. Was that the word?
ME: Yes. That’s a quote from Ian McKeever. He wrote a beautiful book called In Praise of Painting (2005). It’s a short thing and really difficult to get a hold of. But it’s brilliant. Yes. He obviously feels that really keenly. He’s what I’d call oppositional to popular culture.
RW: Well, you must resonate with that.
ME: Yes. You have to work hard being a painter. I don’t want to go back to Modernism. There’s nowhere to go there. But equally, I don’t want to throw everything away.
RW: Say more about that.
ME: What was vital about it wouldn’t be vital if you just revisit it in the same way. The question is how to re-engage the deepest aspects, the best moments of it, as with Rothko and Newman, Pollock, Reinhardt, there’s a whole list of them for me—Ian McKeever, Gerhard Richter . . .
RW: Gerhard Richter had a big show here in San Francisco awhile back, and I was really moved by his work. His work conveyed, for me, someone standing in front of very deep questions.
ME: Absolutely! And there is a fascinating moment where he has an argument with a Marxist critic, Benjamin Buchloh. It’s in The Daily Practice of Painting. They transcribed the whole interview there and have a massive argument about what does painting mean? Because Buchloh is saying, well, you’re in the death throes of painting, aren’t you? You’re simulating all the past possible styles. And Richter ends up saying, what kinds of questions are these? Why would I do that? It’s about what possibilities lay ahead. That’s what I’m interested in.
I don’t want to be lumped in the past because you can’t visit any of these sensations via the language of the past. But I can totally sympathize with McKeever (2005), and I have to try and keep one foot in the present as well. That’s why I mess around with technology. I’ve done stuff with digital images as well because I don’t want to divorce myself from the present.
McKeever talks about painting giving us back time. He obviously has a notion of accelerated culture. There’s a line in Ezra Pound in which he says “The age demanded an image / Of its accelerated grimace” (1920 II, lines 1–2). We do live in this very, very fast and increasingly shallow age. And in the art world you don’t want to appear old-fashioned and pit yourself against multimedia sorts of things. And I’m not against them. It’s the lack of depth that bothers me in the art world—and the obsession with youth.
We were talking about that on the flight over. That’s another thing that’s happened in Britain. Maybe it’s happened in America, too. You’re seen as having something valuable to contribute when you’re probably about twenty-two. And if you’ve not sorted something out by the time you’re thirty, you’re gone!
I was saying to David, that is the sign of an old culture—a very old, decrepit culture. It obsessively values youth and speed and technology, compensating for its own lack of vitality—like these are going to compensate for the inevitability of death in a sense. I’m sort of paraphrasing Donald Kuspit here (2000). Just think about other cultures where they think that maybe as you get older you might achieve wisdom, or you achieve skill in your craft [laughs]. Do we not value these things anymore? It’s a peculiar state of affairs.
RW: It is indeed.
ME: I hope that’s not too negative.
RW: Well, I agree with you. And there’s the money side of it, too.
ME: It’s a market enterprise.
RW: But here’s something. Let’s say there are 800,000 people in San Francisco. A significant percentage will do some kind of artmaking. Maybe they’re Sunday painters. Maybe they sew or do some woodworking. Let’s say the Sunday painters get a great deal of joy out of their flowers and so on. What do you think of that? The art world doesn’t think anything about that. None of that counts. Very few artists exist in the art world. They don’t exist until they’re embraced by a part of the art world. So what about all this real human experience going on in this humble, sort of undercover art-making?
ME: I suppose that experience is slightly different from the level of art-making being done with some attempt to grapple with its place in culture and within the history of fine art. You’re taking on bigger issues. It becomes highly cultural and quite intellectual at times. It’s complex, wondering what the hell you can still do with it.
That’s a different type of activity than someone working away. I suppose they’re not in a relationship where they’re questioning their medium and the potentials of it all the time. But it doesn’t bar them from having a meaningful experience with it. Of course not. It can be a contemplative activity, and there may even be moments where they engage through the materiality of it.
But do you choose to take it further and look at larger cultural questions and how it fits into what I call “the professional fine art world”? They are similar, but different activities, and I would add one thing. I often say to my students that painting is the most democratic medium. Anybody can pick up a paintbrush and make paintings. But not everybody can afford to have a great white shark pickled—like Damien Hirst [laughs]. Not everybody can afford an army of technicians to do this and do that. Not everybody can do these things.
RH: This idea of levels is interesting because there were several presentations at this conference by people who were coming at it as therapists. They wanted to explore their inner worlds and produced a different kind of art, and it was in a different kind of cultural context because it was very psychological. So you’re talking about having questions in a more philosophical or artistic arena.
ME: And I don’t mean that in a horrible, elitist way. I just think you have to recognize they’re different types of activity. I’m with James Hillman on that one. He was very clear on that [laughs]. It might be a bit controversial, but he makes an interesting point about art therapy. He says you shouldn’t call it art therapy because there’s no art involved in it. It’s using materials and it’s making pictures, but art is something completely different! I thought it was quite bluntly put, but very interesting. I kind of know what he means. I like to play the guitar, but I’m not a musician.
RW: Well, that’s a big subject. What is art? Do either of you know Allan Kaprow’s views on that? He’s interested in non-art-like art.
ME: There’s a book by Donald Kuspit, The End of Art (2004), he quotes some stuff from Kaprow.
RW: Do either of you adhere to the idea that there are any kinds of universals? Duchamp says an artwork can last thirty years, but what about the pyramids? What about Rembrandt’s portraits? There are endless examples of art that still touches people centuries after it was made. So what’s going on there? How? Why?
DP: I think there is a difference when you get to Modernist art and how long that lasts, because a lot of it is based on this newness and this sense of shock and its being avant-garde and using some language that didn’t exist before. If some of its power comes from that, once it becomes familiar, does it become diminished? But yes, I do believe great artworks talk across time.
RW: How do they do it? [both laugh]
ME: I mean, that’s why it’s art. What did de Kooning say? The art bit of art is the bit you can’t talk about. That’s a misquote, but something like that.
RW: Oh, that’s good.
DP: I agree. If I knew why, I could probably be making really great art.
RW: You’re both artists aware of the cultural milieu—and you both intend to participate in that—and you’re both making art that aims to reach people on the aesthetic level, as you’ve described earlier. Do you have any way of knowing whether the work succeeds in this way?
DP: I think the only way we can know that is from the responses of people viewing the work and whether they get enough depth from what we do and then let us know [laughs]. That’s my first response.
ME: If I get something from it, I put it out there and just wait and hope that other people do, you know [laughs]. Who do you make art for? I say to my students that I make it for other people who think like me.
DP: I think, to be honest, I make it for myself first; it has to work for me, anyway. However, I might get tired of self-congratulations! It’s certainly not that. If it speaks to me, hopefully, it has worth for others.
ME: Well, it’s if it holds your attention, isn’t it?
DP: Yes. If it holds my attention.
ME: If you get something where you genuinely don’t understand what is going on, but it does something.
DP: Yes. Then I leave it alone.
ME: I think the measure, ultimately, is when you’re kind of at a loss for words about it really. Richter says something about his painting being more intelligent than he is. He gets to this stage where he doesn’t understand his painting because he has actually been moved outside of what he already knows. I would very much echo that. As soon as I do something where I think—that’s interesting to me, and it’s not just an ego thing—because as I was trying to say in my talk, for me the important stage is when you feel that you haven’t made it.
ME: Like it’s a slice of reality. It’s a slice of something separate from you. When you get that feeling, I’m happy to leave it alone, to leave it on the wall in the studio. Then I send it out into the world and wonder if anyone else will feel that way.
DP: I’d endorse that. That’s absolutely the point there. It’s that feeling when you look at whatever you’ve done, when you look at the painting and the painting has a life of its own. It’s not yours. It’s kind of been “born.” If it’s registering as a living presence, and it’s mysterious or entrancing enough, then it’s doing its job.
ME: It used to be the same when I was a landscape painter, before I moved into abstraction. I used to feel the same about rocks in the landscape, or trees: I’d be looking and I’d think, why that one? Why is that one captivating, and this other one completely tedious? It drove me mad for years [laughs].
DP: I can totally relate to that. I even collect rocks. Not any old rocks. They’re very special rocks, and I have a little line of them on my windowsill in my kitchen. And they have to be set just right. I get a lot of pleasure from just looking at those rocks and their little presences.
ME: That’s what I strive for in an abstract painting! I want it to be as interesting to me as an interesting rock.
DP: Yes! [general laughter]
ME: I mean, so many people have floundered on the rocks trying to describe that. Endlessly, people have tried to describe that. To me, that’s like trying to describe the unconscious. You’ll flounder forever. It’s slightly beyond what you’re ever going to get to conceptually.
RW: That’s good. One of you said that painting, as an activity, is a process toward meaning—that it’s an act of faith in existence.
ME: I think that was me. Rather flowery. Well, it’s difficult not to use words like that.
RW: You needn’t apologize to me for these words. I think it’s a beautiful statement. But I guess that’s the situation we’re in.
ME: I’m a bit obsessed with this (sometimes overlooked) English writer Colin Wilson. He’s always been very positive in his outlook. He’s tried to rework Existentialism and bring it into a much more positive position, and many academics in Britain seem to have a problem with him. You’re not allowed to mention him. He always emphasized that, in a sense, even the darkest artwork is still an act of affirmation. You’re still creating something. On one level, you can’t have negative artwork. Even with Francis Bacon, he went on painting. He must have derived some pleasure from it. I still think there is something significant there. Peter Fuller, an art critic, now sadly dead, is another person people don’t talk about much now in Britain. He talks about how you can have the most harrowing images in a painting and yet it can be incredibly uplifting looking at them because of the way they’re painted. I think he calls it “redemption through form.” That’s always been a really big phrase for me. I can look at Edvard Munch paintings, and the idea there can be horrific, but I love the paintings. I just like the paint. I like the color. There’s something about them. They’re still acts of affirmation.
I think I was talking about process painting and pouring paint. It’s a celebration of matter. You’re almost childlike. Just enjoying watching this stuff move around. On one level, that’s very life affirming, I think.
RW: In a way, with the artist moving the paint around, my relationship to the paint is the same as the viewer’s, except that I’m the one moving it around. Would you agree with me?
ME: I think you are your own viewer. I find myself like that quite frequently. I’m looking at my own paintings in the studio but not thinking that they’re my paintings. I can relate to looking at them as these alien objects that are on a wall and wondering why they’re interesting. This one is, and that one isn’t.
DP: I can agree with that. And I think, in an ideal scenario, when a painting is working for a viewer who is not the artist, the degree of attention is important. When someone chooses to really engage with a painting, they will scan the painting in many different ways. Close up, from a distance. They will appreciate the marks, the colors, the forms, the textures—all the formal elements—not for their own sake, but because all those qualities are implicit in a kind of message, if you like, that the painting is trying to give you as an aesthetic experience.
We were just talking about this earlier. One of the things we need to be careful of in a teaching situation, and I usually make a point of this, is that you must see paintings as a painter. You cannot learn painting by just looking at the slides I show you or in a book or on the Internet. You have to go and put your nose next to the painting. Otherwise, you’re only getting a fragment of what a painting carries. And that’s a cultural issue. Because of the nature of the trafficking through technology, whether it’s via the Internet and/or printed matter, the scale changes. It’s not the same. We have to always be aware of that.
What comes to mind is an artist who has perhaps suffered a lot from that, Mondrian. His abstractions look hard-edged when they’re printed and reduced, but when you see a Mondrian, of course there’s handling in it, even though it’s a reduced handling. There is a handling in there.
ME: I’m thinking of Rothko, too—and Monet. I couldn’t believe how physical Monet’s paintings really are! The thickness of the paint!
DP: Yes. There was a major Kandinsky exhibition a year or two back in London, and I was absolutely stunned. It was the first time I’d seen some of his major pieces. I remember standing in front of one of them and it absolutely sang to me. It was nothing like seeing it in a book. It had to be on that scale. I thought, what a magnificent painting! To have made that at that time! Everything was still alive in that painting. The space was alive. You could never get that experience from just looking at it in a book, no matter how good the reproduction was.
ME: And, of course, lots of people end up looking at images that are worse than those reproduced in a book—digital images on a screen. I’m quite old fashioned in that I ask students to go to a library and look in books.
DP: Now who was the author who wrote The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction?
ME: Walter Benjamin.
DP: That’s right. He talks about presences, doesn’t he?
ME: Loss of aura.
DP: Loss of aura. Now he’s absolutely right about that, and that’s an interesting human phenomenon, isn’t it? Aura.
ME: But it’s interesting how some artists now turn that around and make paintings that look photographic. Obviously that’s quite near my art, another element of my work. That gets interesting for me, turning around that expectation and standing it on its head where you’re approaching a painting that almost looks photographic and then, vitally, isn’t at the last minute. It surprises you.
RW: My thoughts come back to aesthetics. There’s a Tibetan psychologist in Los Angeles, Lobsang Rapgay, and I heard him speak a few years ago. I don’t think he’s a Jungian. He said that aesthetic thought was difficult and mostly lacking in our culture. He said it is through aesthetic thought that the numinous can be brought down into circulation and that without it the numinous remains missing. I don’t really understand what he means by “aesthetic thought,” but it’s easy to imagine this would be the work of the artist. Does that bring up any thoughts?
ME: Well, we’ve both read Rudolf Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy (1917/1959). He really introduced the term numinous, although I’m sure it goes back further. He was very influential. Basically, his central idea is that the numinous is the mysterious core of all religions, but he gets very close to the sublime and also, I would say, to aesthetic experience, although he pulls back from that because he was a devout Christian.
DP: I think he sees the aesthetic as a way to—but not being in itself—the numinous experience. As Mike says, it’s probably to do with his particular Christian background, that you can only really experience it in that faith-based, devotional context. But I think he does acknowledge in his book that the aesthetic, the sublime—as an expression of the aesthetic—can be a route through to that experience.
We would argue that the aesthetic experience, in itself, can be and can possess—at its best—that feeling of the numinous or the sublime. In Jungian terms, for the individual subject, that’s transformative. Once you’ve experienced something like this, you’ll never be the same again. It’s part of that process of individuation, in Jungian terms.
ME: The person who wrote the introduction to my edition of Otto’s book made a distinction between Otto and William James. He says that William James is essentially psychological in his approach. But Otto remains quite set in the idea that there’s something external. So you’ve got two versions, an external and an internal one. That’s where I was hovering around in my talk. I’m not necessarily a Jungian, and I’d just like to keep the door open. It might be internal. It might be external. I’m not in the position to have knowledge. So that’s my answer [laughs].
RH: Could I just ask one more question? In your talk, you spoke about how you have to keep a sense of open-endedness and work with that—that somehow you have to facilitate within yourself that sense of open-endedness. Is that something that requires suffering?
ME: Yes, open-endedness is not always easy, but I enjoy that.
RH: You experience joy?
DP: Yes. It’s boundlessness, isn’t it? It’s freedom. I think the experience of keeping this openness is analogous to a child playing in a sandpit. It’s more complex but not really that far removed from the freedom with which a child uses his or her imagination instinctively and lets images come and go and also makes connections and lets them come and go. The difference between that fantasy world and the reality world, if you like, is very permeable as a child. It’s only as we get a little older, and through social necessity, that we begin to separate our imaginative world from our real world or our objective world. You get psychosis when you can’t separate these, so it’s important that you can. But I think the skill of art practice is to be able to dip in and out and still keep the sense of being who you are and not to lose your sense of individuality.
ME: I think that people who are involved in religious disciplines do exactly the same thing.
DP: Exactly. I mean it’s not unlike someone who is committed to a faith through a religious structure. My frame is a literal frame with a canvas, in a sense. And my numinous experience, when it’s going well, is with that. But you need to be able to step back as well.
ME: I might be going off on a tangent, but somewhere I was trying to describe the Romantics and why so many of their lives ended in dire situations. The Romantics, for me, wandered off into an imaginative realm without any bit of rope attached to something in order to find their way back out of the maze and so reality then became the pale shadow. I started talking about losing a language or Francis Bacon not having a map anymore. That’s maybe where the Unconscious is a helpful concept because it gives you a location in our secular culture, perhaps, for some of these experiences.
This interview appeared in the Jung Journal: Culture & Psyche, 3:3 [Summer 2009] p. 87-115