Transpersonal Experience and the Role of the Artist

George Inness, "Indian Summer,"
George Inness, “Indian Summer,” 1894, 30 x 42, Private Collection

As a young person, I always had big questions about my experience of the world, my personal role within this world, and how these two concepts are intertwined. Because of this innate curiosity, I end up majoring in philosophy at Fordham University. Specifically, Phenomenology, which studies human experience in order to answer some of those big questions or at least provide a thread of insight.

Characteristically, the artist uses visual perception to discover the world for themselves and, secondarily, to reveal that personal vision to others so that they might share that vision. But the artist doesn’t just “see” nature; they feel it affectively through their body.

“I not only saw, but felt in my body all that I saw.”

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backwards, 1960, p. 214.

The artist feels through their body what they perceive. When viewing a landscape that I am painting, I have found myself not only perceiving the objects that I am painting, field, tree, and sky, but I find myself venturing up that hill and experiencing that long grass by running it through my fingertips, smelling its earthy smell and observing its color and forms up close. I have not left my painting position. But I have opened myself bodily to what I am experiencing visually and emotionally. I have broken through that wall that separates me, the subject, from nature, the object. This bond formed in me between what I see and feel and the object before me is called a transpersonal experience.

Walt Whitman expresses this so eloquently in “Salut un Monde,”

What do you see Walt Whitman?

Who are they you salute, and that one after another salute you?

I see a great round wonder rolling through space.

I see diminute farms, hamlets, ruins, graveyards, jails, factories, pal-aces, hovels, huts of barbarians, tents of nomads upon the surface.

I see the shaded part on one side where sleepers are sleeping, and the sunlit part on the other side.

I see curious rapid change of the light and shade…

Walt Whitman

Whitman rises above the earth bodily and looks down at what he sees. He is experiencing the activities of man from a distance, seeing them as diminutive compared to the rolling mass of the earth and the action of the sun. He takes on a cosmic role, not because he is an egoist, but because he embodies a unity of vision between himself and nature. Every artist does this, whether consciously or unconsciously. “But how is this possible, unless there is a bodily felt participation in things, an emphatic inhabiting of things, an openness to being touched by things, even at a distance?” (David Levin, Transpersonal Phenomenology: The Corporeal Schema, Northwestern University).

George Inness, "Landscape, Montclair,"
George Inness, “Landscape, Montclair,” 1894, Private Collection

As a painter, this interrelationship between feeling and perception is directly transferred to the canvas through the painting gesture, the brushstroke. I felt what I saw and felt what I painted; the gesture, the bodily movement of my arm and hand conveys all that I see, all that I am embodying in the moment, conveying a transpersonal experience through an open reverie. I am no longer separate and isolated from my subject. The subject and I are one and the same. This bodily attunement puts me in the presence of all things with no fixed boundary and leaves me utterly open to a newness and timeless encounter. Levin believes every person can reach this heightened and interpersonal connection to the world, but many lack awareness of this connection or cannot make the emotive leap. Levin states, “Transpersonal development restores the aliveness of this primacy, which tends to get subordinated, during our socialization, to the structural identity of the ego.”

The artist’s role is to be aware, attentive, and open to a transpersonal encounter. The artist, who is constantly practicing and immersed in self-reflection, paves the way for this experience even before they commence the painting of an image. There is a fluidity of engagement in the very practice of one’s art. The artist participates in a sympathetic relationship with their subject, attuned to the “spell” of the object and the emotive emanation elicited from the object to the artist. This desire carries us out of ourselves and changes us. And it is the very thing we share through our work.

George Inness‘ painting exudes this fluidity of engagement. Many of Inness’ late works contain vast spaces on the canvas with minimal variation in the color or paint quality. He flicks random strokes on the canvas, not necessarily identifiable as an object, creating spontaneous marks that add an aliveness. Inness gives us an experience of the transpersonal, an open engagement with the world. We imaginatively add to these passages, delving into Inness’ experience as if it was our own. This open, highly imaginative structure is one of the greatest achievements of painting. We are transformed and renewed through our perception, feelings, and embodiment of the subject- a transpersonal experience.

A New Way of Being in the World

Walt Whitman Examining a Butterfly

Skill is something an artist understands intimately. It is the very means by which we convey our intentions and express meaning in our work. It is the method by which the very sensations that I feel or am compelled to feel by my subject are transferred to the viewer. Without this skill I am almost mute. As a poet is able, with few words, relate a wealth of feeling, so too must the artist, visually touch on the same poetic nuances. The artist through their skill, their craft, their hands and vision embody reality in a singular way.

The artists’ engagement is a type of embodiment in the world. I am present, I am engaged and I am open in mind and spirit. The artist takes on this role of embodiment and presents a new way of conceiving the world and one’s place in it. This skill, this sensitivity of one’s hands to craft matter creates a connectivity between myself and all living things. And this sensitivity provides an emotional framework that opens one up to envision reality in a new way by placing things in their proper relationship of meaning. This is not a rational knowing but an intuitive knowing that is more intimate, more personal.

Objects in the world carry an emotive logic that connects to my humanness. My body and those animate and inanimate objects in the world, share an intertwining of substance (we are made of the same atoms), a moment in time (which we presently occupy together), and a spacial proximity (a physical relationship). But this is not something that we can possibly be always conscious of. Most times we are unaware of this connection. The meaning has been obscured, our eyes glaze over. But the artist through his practice and engagement- his attentive gaze- establishes an awareness, a re-connection, between himself and the life force that makes this world a living, breathing thing. It is the only reason that the artist keeps at it.

Because of the artist’s willingness to take on an attentive posture, re-engaging with objects in the world, art becomes a humanizing act both for the artist himself, as well as, all those that may see his work. Through this tactile skill and open awareness I become more human, more empathetic, more emotionally tied to others, more open to the unexpected- to things too subtle to see outright. I am most human, most alive, when empathy becomes a pattern of being and enriches my creative engagement allowing me to become highly attuned to those images that are seeking to find material form, to find an embodiment in the world.

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