[updated 9 May 2002]



Charles D. Laughlin (1)

Abstract: The quality of abstraction in both traditional and modern art has long been a topic of interest to both art theorists and symbolic anthropologists. This paper offers an explanation of the process of abstraction in spiritual symbolism and art grounded in biogenetic structural theory. While not denying the importance of the studies of the history of art styles, this model provides an alternative a-historical, developmental and neuroanthropological perspective on the process of abstraction which pervades all forms of art, including all forms of so-called "representational" art. The type of abstraction in symbolism depends upon the focus of the artist along a continuum ranging from object orientation to orientation upon the artist's internal structural processes and properties. If one moves far enough "inwards" in reflexive art, the concern for the external object may drop away. A neurocognitive model is developed that essentially supports Wassily Kandinsky's contention that abstraction is the expression of an "inner necessity." Highly abstract themes in traditional and modern art may actually be the veridical expression of internal structures encountered during spiritual experiences.

Keywords: biogenetic structuralism, anthropology of art, abstraction, spirit, brain

The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.

                                                                    Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art

When I paint a picture of still-life objects, I concern myself with one shape hitting another, and I think abstractly the whole time. Everything realistic is abstract.

                                                                                                    Beverly Hallam (1995)


While I was doing ethnographic research among the So of Northeastern Uganda in 1969-1970, I stumbled across a curious fact. Some So elders had been encouraged by a local white proprietor to make soapstone carvings to be sold in his shop. The shop owner did not train them in any way. He just showed them some examples of art done by other East African tribes. The So had previously only fashioned wooden handles for their spears and adzes and carved stools from wood to sit on. They had also done sundry crafts like leatherwork and beadwork. They had never carved anything like objects d'art to be sold for cash. The curious fact is that from the very beginning, their soapstone carvings, although depicting people and cattle and other common forms, were both beautiful and distinctly abstract . There is no evidence that So artists ever developed through a stage of realism, or a concern for the realistic representation of objects in their art (see Plate1; see also Coates and Feldman 1973). Realizing as I did at the time (for I too was an artist) that virtually all traditional art is abstract (see Redfield 1971), this observation was for the me the beginning of a quarter century of reflection on the nature of abstraction and the neurocognitive processes that lie behind it.

Plate 1:  So soapstone carvings.  On the left a cow and her calf, and on right a male cattle herder.

In this paper I want to pursue the nature of abstraction in symbolism and art. I want to develop a model of abstraction and apply it to an understanding of traditional and modern art, especially with respect to the relationship between abstract symbolism and spiritual experience. In particular I want to explain why the process of abstraction is: (1) inherent in all symbolic processing, (2) associated so closely with both the expression and the evocation of spiritual meaning, (3) immediately and naturally comprehensible to traditional peoples everywhere, and (4) difficult to comprehend in modern art for most people in contemporary Euroamerican society. Furthermore, I want to develop this model within the context of the anthropology of art, because within that perspective we may both avoid the influence of Western ethnocentricity on our understanding (see Graburn 1976b:3-5), and at the same time carry the development of ethnological theory of art a bit further.(2)


An understanding of the process of abstraction among peoples outside the Euroamerican cultural context is problematic, especially where the process seems to be a spontaneous expression of some inner drive, as was the case with the So and their soapstone carvings. Even among ethnographers, there is a tendency to presume that the abstract ideas expressed in traditional art derive inevitably from some kind of Lockeian (3) rational analysis of similarities and differences among experienced objects in the environment. Eliminating this cultural bias, so characteristic of materialist cultures, will enable us to better understand the way that traditional systems of art, as well as some schools of modern art, are able to express spiritual experiences, as well as adumbrated essential forms and properties of "normal" experience (Burnham 1971:45).

Our brain is that organ of our body that is specialized for detecting sensory patterns in the extramental world and purveying these patterns in experienced reality. Moreover, our brains build a system of knowledge based upon numerous cognitive associations related to such patterns. This is what is going on at the neurological level when we construct a "meaningful" world. What we know is blended with sensory forms to produce our holistic experience of things. Our experience of anything in the world is thus both abstract and symbolic , from initial sensory input on through to thought, intuition, feeling and imagination. Culture of course has its greatest impact at the highest levels of cognitive and imaginative associations. That is, our culture is the impact of social influences upon the significance and action we bring to our experience.

The actual, extramental world - henceforth referred to merely as "the world" - is far more extensive and complex than our capacity to abstract patterns from it. The sensory patterns we do abstract propagate - or penetrate (4) - into our central nervous system and become organized within symbolic packages that provide the experience of both beauty and meaning. This is evocative penetration -- the penetration of sensory patterns encountered in the world into the physiological structure of our own being. For instance, the form I see before me has to be apperceived as "a cup" and become associated with all the knowledge I retain of the nature of cup-ness before I am able to use the object appropriately.

Of course, as with all things neurophysiological, the process is reciprocal. Consciousness is fundamentally a feed-forward system. We operate in the world as if the objects we require are there. We anticipate them and act accordingly. I utilize the cup unconsciously anticipating that it will exhibit certain attributes - attributes that are part of my internal model of cup-ness. In this way our internal symbolic processes seek correspondences in the outside world, and through participation and action they penetrate into the world, thus completing themselves in perception and action. This is fulfilling penetration . We seek patterns in the world (things and events) that fulfill our expectancies as constituted by our nervous system and thereby meaning comes to pervade the abstract sensory patterns we seek in the world. In other words, our inner structures fulfill themselves by finding matching instances in the world. The meaning is there before the object. I desire a cup of coffee and I go in search of a cup. When I find the appropriate object, the loop is completed and the expectancy fulfilled. But the extramental world is real, not merely a projection of our minds. It has an obdurate nature that may be nonetheless altered by our actions. Not only do we seek patterns "in the world" that fulfill our expectations, we fill the world with them . We express our internal selves both actively and symbolically in our encounters with the world. We thus expressively penetrate the world outside of ourselves, and intentionally or unintentionally alter the world by our expression. We thereby reveal the nature of our inner structures and their operations by producing symbolic representations, which, in the case of speech, may be ephemeral, but in the case of plastic art leaves behind durable signs and artifacts.


The interplay among neurological systems is fundamental to the sociocultural institution that we in the West call "art." With respect to the individual, art objects are part of the world that is created by way of expressive penetration, and affects consciousness through evocative penetration. But there is also a social dimension to symbolic penetration. The linking of evocative penetration and expressive penetration between people constitutes the communication of meaning - which of course is integral to art. Let us for the moment center our attention on visual art. Visual art may be seen as a form of expressive penetration into the world, coupling the inner psychological world and the "outer world" of perception. We expressively penetrate the world as we have constructed it for ourselves -- projecting back into the world the cognitively elaborated patterns we have abstracted from it. Expressive penetration fills, changes and symbolically enriches the world outside of ourselves in a form that is potentially meaningful to others via expressive penetration.

The artistic process is essentially this interpenetration of selves through transformations in the world. All art, therefore, depends upon abstraction, the elaboration of abstraction and the expression of the artifacts of abstraction. (5) Two interesting questions arise: (1) What is the degree of abstraction being expressed and, (2) what is the nature of the source of the abstraction being expressed? The degree of abstraction expressed in art can be seen as a continuum from a concern with representational abstraction of patterns discerned in the external world to a concern with associational abstractions of wholly internal processes. If I set up a simple still life scene with my coffee cup, I may be concerned with painting the cup as it appears "out there" [describing the cup as I see it (representationalism)], or I may be focusing on one or more of the various internal psychological processes that produce my experience of the cup [e.g., relations of form and color (impressionism), multiple points of view on the cup (cubism), my emotional experience of the cup (expressionism), etc.]. Of course the object may be dropped altogether in favor of sole concern for internal processes (e.g., abstract expressionism).

Art of all the various kinds may be seen as lying along this continuum which relies at every point upon the abstraction of patterns adumbrated from our total field of experience either of the external world, or of our own internal processes. Art falling toward the associational pole will tend to reflect phenomenological reflections upon the very abstractive processes themselves. In other words, position along this continuum will reflect the extent to which a particular piece of art expresses (1) how the nervous system is fulfilling itself through perception, or (2) how the nervous system is fulfilling itself with its own introspected properties. With respect to communication, the reception of the art as intended will require some degree of social coordination of meaning so that the type of abstraction involved is understood by the viewer. Indeed, in modern society, much of the misunderstanding of abstract art derives from the failure of the culture to prepare the viewer to receive the art as intended. That is why all forms of art require some degree of education for the intended impact to be felt.


But of course the role of artist in modern society is often antithetical to that of educator, or for that matter, of social spokesperson. The much vaunted iconoclasm of modern art is true only in relation to the materialism of 19 th , 20 th and 21 st century Euroamerican culture. Modern artists have been in reaction to mainstream cultural styles and have had recourse to their own experiences and insights which they have communicated using new and often esoteric symbolism (see Redfield 1971:47-48, Read 1960). This iconoclasm is tantamount to a "creative mythology" (Campbell 1968:4) which is no longer constrained by the conservatism of received styles and standards.

The same may not be said though for associational abstraction in traditional systems of art, for traditional art is typically spiritually iconic, a fact that social theorists as far back as Durkheim (1912 [1995]) have noted as significant. Traditional art is often an expression of deeply held sacred knowledge about nature, and especially about the hidden forces that impact upon human events. Most of this knowledge is incorporated in a world view that has been transmitted through innumerable generations of story telling, lore and ritual performance.

Sensate, Idealistic and Ideational Cultures

To make the socially unique character of modern art clearer, it would perhaps be useful to introduce another continuum -- this time one proposed by Pitirim Sorokin (1957, 1962) who taught that sensate cultures like ours are extremely materialistic in their mode of adapting to reality. Sensate cultures tend to be outer directed and to value systems of knowledge that rely heavily upon rational thought and the expression of knowledge through the medium of natural language. Intuitive ways of knowing are usually held suspect, are rationalized or merely ignored. Societies way out on the extreme sensate pole tend eventually to compensate by swinging back toward a balanced view in which rational knowledge appears more integrated with knowledge from the spiritual mode (he called these more balanced societies idealistic cultures). There appears to be movement in this direction in mainstream North American culture at the present time with the rise of charismatic movements, increased use of alternative healing systems, conversion to Asian religions and the growth of various New Age movements like neo-shamanism.

However, cultures are dynamic and never stand still, and the balance found in one generation between rational materialist and mystical/spiritual/intuitive ways of knowing may be lost to subsequent generations in the swing toward the opposite pole, that characteristic of more mystical or ideational cultures. From the point of view of people in an ideational culture, what we might consider "mystical" knowledge or experience is not mystical at all. It is simply "the way things are."

The swing back toward the mystical/spiritual mode of knowing in modern society is clearly evident in the apparent iconoclasm of modern art, especially in the art of the surrationalist (6) movements that have forsaken any semblance of "realism." Surrational art is often the product of a self-conscious exploration of the unconscious, of the hidden depths and unknown processes of the psyche. The creative eye of the artist probes inwards for a deeper well of intuitive understanding -- a quest for direct apprehension of spiritual realization through the praxis of the artistic moment. This quest is in reaction to the lived experience of most people in modern society whose preoccupation with making a living and raising families is done within a system of (for them) very commonsense materialist values. 

Plate 2: Jackson Pollock, Lavender Mist , 1950, National Gallery of Art.

For most people the "drippings" of Pollock and the palate knife strokes of Jean-Paul Riopelle are "pretty" at best and noise at worst, and the meaning of these works, if there is any for them, will be limited to the critical comments about the art read in newspapers or museum brochures.

Plate 3:  Jean-Paul Riopelle, Pavene , 1954, National Gallery of Canada.

Art as Portal Within a Cosmological Cycle of Meaning

But the products of associational abstraction are hardly iconoclastic to people reared in more traditional, ideationally oriented cultures. Very often art is both highly abstract and powerfully evocative in a profoundly meaningful way -- in a way often exceedingly difficult for Western people to appreciate. There is a seeming ease of access to meaning found in these living traditions of art, and an avenue of access that does not require deconstruction or demythologization (Ricoeur 1962). Ideational peoples are used to understanding art as icon. Everyone knows what the art around them means, for they have perhaps been exposed to examplars from childhood, may well be artists themselves, and have learned the repertoire of meanings associated with forms of drama, dance, masks, paintings, and so on, which are part and parcel to a traditional society's mythology (Burnham 1971, Dissanayake 1988).

Traditional art is typically quite conservative in style (Redfield 1971:48), and artists within these traditions are limited as to the degrees of freedom they may enjoy in creating new forms of expression. We as outsiders cannot fully appreciate the meaning of traditional art and symbolism unless we make the effort to understand the cultural context within which they are embedded (Whitten and Whitten 1993). This conservatism of style and cultural-specificity of meaning tends to loosen up considerably, of course, when traditional artists turn their skills toward exploiting the possibilities of commercial art, but here we are concerned only with the "inwardly directed arts" (as Graburn 1976b:4 calls it) that traditional societies produce for their own consumption.

The Cycle of Meaning

The power of art for ideational peoples is due in part to the fact that the art-as-icon is part of a much greater system of culturally-conditioned signification, a system that may be called a cycle of meaning . Ideational cultures typically understand the world as a cosmology -- that is, as a vast living system within which everything is embedded, has a role to play, and accrues its meaning. The world is understood to be a single dynamic monad comprised of relations between all things big and small, apparent and hidden, momentary or enduring, including human beings and their social relations. This cosmological understanding is expressed in the culture's mythopoeic symbolism (myth, ritual performance, drama, art, stories, etc.) in such a vital way that it evokes direct experiences (see Figure 1). The experiences and memories that arise as a consequence of participation in the mythopoeic procedures are interpreted in terms of the cosmology in such a way that they both bring alive and confirm the culture's world view. A living cycle of meaning would seem to be a delicate process, and one that requires change or "revitalization" (Wallace 1966) over time in order for meaningful dialogue to continue between a people's world view and their everyday lived experience.

I must emphasize that the interpretive phase of an ideational cycle of meaning is not one of deconstruction or rational re-formulation. The tendency of Western analysts to demythologize native art in an attempt to understand it is a common failure in ethnology, as well as art criticism. As Charlotte Otten notes, "...in asking the 'meaning' of an art event, we are asking for a translation into discursive mode, embalmed in a tradition of literacy, a translation which (as all artists are acutely aware) cannot be achieved..." (1971:xiv). Rather, the apprehension of meaning is typically one of immediate intuitive comprehension (Cardew 1978:18). Realization occurs as a rapid association of the experience with the mythopoeic context that evoked the experience, and via the mythopoeic symbolism to the underlying world view of which the symbolism is an expression. It should be mentioned that a shaman or other specialist may act either to supervise the ritual circumstances, or as an interpretive agent linking the experience with the world view, as is the case with Moroccan professional dream interpreters or the shamans officiating at a Sundance in some Plains Indian cultures.

Many ideational cultures encourage their members to attend experiences had in alternative states of consciousness (through dreams, visions, meditation states, drug trips, trance states, etc.) and interpret those experiences according to culturally recognized systems of meaning (Read 1955:87, Winkelman 1986, 2000:117). This process of individual exploration of multiple realities combined with social appropriation of the meaning of these experiences within a single cycle of meaning is definitive of what I call a polyphasic culture and is the reason why art is so commonly linked to ritual and play in traditional societies. Art objects are poignant mnemonics to the underlying spiritual realizations expressed in the culture's symbolic system. In this sense, art "makes special" otherwise mundane contexts (Dissanayake 1988:98). The art-as-symbol is both a reminder of the hidden spiritual dimension, and may well operate as an actual portal into an alternative reality by participating as a ritual driver leading to alternative states of consciousness (Winkelman 2000).

There is much evidence that most ideational cultures are also polyphasic to some extent in their attention to experiences of multiple realities (Bourguignon 1973, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990, Winkelman 2000). And of course their art products frequently depict imagery related to experiences of multiple realities (e.g., demons, gods, spirits, power animals, etc.). For example, the Huichol peoples of Central Mexico ingest psychoactive peyote in their religious rituals, and their yarn paintings (Plate 4), beadwork, basketry and weaving incorporate imagery depicting themes encountered during psychedelic episodes (MacLean 1992). 

Plate 4:  Huichol yarn painting.  The imagery and color patterns derive from peyote visions.

Other cultures will use their art products as portalling devices -- as mnemonic icons that penetrate to neurocognitive systems mediating extraordinary experiences or intuitive knowing (see MacDonald, Cove, Laughlin and McManus 1989 on the process of portalling and portalling motifs in art). Tibetan Buddhists, for example, will commonly use sacred scroll paintings (thang ka), usually of particular deities, as objects of veneration and devotion (Plate 5). They may also use these paintings as foci of meditation and visualization, especially during the esoteric foundation practices (sngon 'gro) in which meditation on the refuge tree and guru are important (Jackson & Jackson 1984:9-13).

Plate 5:  Tibetan scroll painting of the deity Chenrezig.  Such images are used as foci for visualization practices.


Art itself is a metaphorical activity, finding (rather than seeking) new symbols to signify new areas of sensibility.

                                                                                                    Herbert Read, Icon and Idea

I take for granted, based both upon the anthropology of art, and upon my personal experience as a contemplative working in a variety of traditions, including Tibetan Tantrism, the Esoteric Tarot, and Jungian dream work, that there occur extraordinary experiences of what might be termed a spirit realm (see e.g., Young & Goulet 1994). There is within the psyche a level of esoteric knowledge that is universal to humanity (Laughlin & Throop 2001) -- what C.G. Jung (1968 [1934]:3-4) liked to call the "collective unconscious" -- and which is expressible only through abstract symbolism. I have elsewhere worked out a model of the possible the relations between conscious brain activity and quantum level interactions with the cosmos (see Laughlin 1996). In brief, I have suggested that the organization of the fetal and infant brain (an initial, genetically controlled organization I call neurognosis (8) ) provides each of us with rudimentary knowledge about the world from two orientations, the local and the universal. Each of us develops our complement of knowledge grounded upon these initial models (what Jean Piaget, Andre Malraux and others would call "schemas"). Local knowledge is of the sort that develops in adaptation to each individual's extramental reality -- that part of the universe that is proximal to, and obdurate in relation to the developing organism, and to which the organism must adapt in order to survive. Universal knowledge provides a rudimentary cosmology -- it provides nascent knowledge of the universe as a whole system, as a monad or a totality.

Neurognosis, which is "wired-into" the organization of every human brain, is not merely a replica of the cosmos, but is itself a part of the cosmos. There is suggestion from many quarters that neural cells may derive information directly from interaction-at-a-distance with the totality of reality. This latter suggestion remains as yet a scientific speculation, but there are many scientists today looking for the mechanisms for direct neurophysiological-quantum field interactions (see e.g., Ron Wallace 1993, Deutsch 1985, Penrose 1989, Lockwood 1989, Laszlo 1995). Direct brain-quantum interaction may account for many of the anomalous findings in parapsychology such as remote viewing and certain curious machine-consciousness effects. I do not have the space here to go into this aspect of the matter in detail (see Laughlin 1996 for discussion in depth). The point is, however, that there is a real possibility that the "inner necessity" (to use Kandinsky's phrase) driving abstract artistic expression, especially in the various forms of surrational art, derives from super-individual, brain-quantum processes. In other words, some abstract art may be an expression of the cosmos channeled through the activity of the individual artist -- or via the particular style of particular traditional cultures. C.G. Jung (1966:71; see also Read 1960: Chapter 3) suggested as much when he noted that the artist often seems to act as a medium for a "supra-personal" expression of spirit.

Conditioning the Expression of the Transcendental

Sensate societies tend to rear their young in such a way that local knowledge is valued and encouraged to develop while universal knowledge is neglected or negatively sanctioned. This socialization process reproduces generation after generation the characteristic materialistic, rationalistic and anti-mystical values of adult sensate cultures. In the more balanced idealistic cultures, the development of both types of knowing are encouraged, while in extremely ideational cultures, great emphasis is placed upon developing universal/mystical knowledge. But as I have said, cultures never remain static, for there is a built-in complementarity within the psyches of society's members. Because I was born with the neurognosis requisite to both the local and universal perspectives, the pole that is neglected in my development tend to assert itself and will result in individual and social movement back toward the alternate, less developed pole - thus leading to a kind of pendulum effect from sensate to ideational and back again.

This historical alternation may of course be anticipated by changes in artistic style. The swing back to the balanced ideational range, which is currently represented by the New Age movement and alternative religious and healing systems, seems to have been anticipated by the various modern artistic movements during the late 19 th and early to mid-20 th centuries. Artists like Breton and Picasso, Borduas and Kandinsky, have made statements to the effect that the new styles evident in their art are but a reflection of a greater revolutionary change in their way of life -- a new perspective on life value and social process leading to often profound spiritual repercussions. (9)

Shifts in art styles have often presaged sociocultural change. In an earlier age, art signaled the shift toward the increased individualization and rationalism of the sensate pole in Euroamerican culture. It was during the waning of the Medieval period and the beginning of the Renaissance that European art began to exhibit what one normally considers truly "representational" features. As Andre Malraux (1953: 217-239; see also Herbert Read 1955:93) notes, the Gothic art of the 12 th and 13 th centuries begins to represent human figures as more humanized -- as exhibiting distinct personalities and evincing more mundane human emotions. This is also the period of our history when the full development of the individual ego comes to the fore. As Malraux says, Gothic art is "man unmasked" (ibid:221), and there is a concomitant loss of the more esoteric "archetypal" meaning in its symbolism (ibid:232). Gothic art takes on the personality of real humanity "unlike the art of antiquity, which had never humanized the abstraction of its sacred figures by giving them individuality" (ibid:243).

Spiritual Energy and Its Container

As I have said above, traditional cultures typically place severe constraints on the creativity and flexibility of style allowed in artistic expression. A highly prescribed traditional style will function to do a number of socially useful things. First, culturally prescribed art may facilitate social learning and communication. Everyone comes to understand the meaning of their community's art, and the products of artistic creation become icons which often carry a heavy symbolic load. They become "pregnant" with popular meaning, to use Ernst Cassirer's (1957:202) apt term.

Second, highly constrained iconography acts to "contain" the focus and force of spiritual energy -- the power of the collective unconscious if you will. Icons become a shorthand expression for the way a culture experiences and comprehends the domain of spirit.

Third, the art-as-icon may actually operate as a portal into the spiritual domain -- to paraphrase Paul Ricoeur, the art "invites" transpersonal experience. Because the exoteric meaning of the icon is rigidly conditioned and well understood by everybody, the symbolism may evoke profound and essentially transpersonal/transcultural experiences, including ecstatic visions, lucid dreams, and in company with other drivers like visualization practices and psychotropic drugs, profound altered states of consciousness.

Fourth, social control of artistic styles may constrain the range of knowledge and experience to a repertoire valued by the society. This is the conservative effect of art, and the function that brings artistic expression into line with the dominant value orientations of the culture, be those values sensate or idealistic or a blend of the two. Moreover, such conservatism assures that experiences attained by individuals are easily integrated within the overall cultural frame. Experiences tend not become anomalous and thus do not bring the society's world view into serious question.

And fifth, culturally prescribed artistic style operates to maintain the congruence between the art people produce, and the iconic value of the art within its greater ritual context. This is especially true for art products that bear significant religious and magical connotations. For example, the religious scroll paintings of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism are highly prescribed by appropriate texts and traditions of apprenticeship as to their content, color, form and general geometry. Traditional scroll painters were quite limited in the freedom of their expression or interpretation of text-based instructions.

Stylistic prescriptions thus operate as formulae for symbolic expression. And as we have seen, these formulaic constraints allow art to do a number of socially useful things. But there is a down-side to the social control of artistic style. These constraints also tend to severely limit the range of individual spiritual explorations to those within a circumscribed cycle of meaning. Because the art may be embedded within very powerful ritual contexts, the force of social conditioning may propel an individual into the range of experiences and interpretations required by the world view of the society, and away from alternative experiences that may contradict or broaden the world view.

Culturally controlled iconicity may also constrain the potential for exploring alternative domains of experience. Individuals may become interpretively stuck at the received exoteric level of meaning such that the art actually operates as a hindrance, as it were, at the "portal." People's understanding of their culture's art-as-symbol may be excessively literal, and limited to the textual knowledge associated with their iconography. People may not be able to "see beyond" the received view of the art, and the art thus may not "come alive" as an object of contemplation and evocation in the crucible of direct experience.

The Utility of Abstraction

Traditional art, as well as modern art, is abstract precisely because it reflects internal, often neurognostic, and usually spiritual domains of experience. As Northwestern American abstract painter Morris Graves once noted, "Works of art can strive to clarify the spirit" (Ament 2002:3). Moreover, it is precisely the abstract quality of art that makes it so powerfully evocative. Abstract art penetrates to and fulfils the spirit in those who are in some degree open to experiencing that vast domain. Abstraction in art invites projection from the depths of the psyche, and because of this property, it is typically an aspect of a spiritually rich cycle of meaning.

Yet, as we have seen, although all art is abstract, some styles are more representational, more outer oriented than others. The utility of abstraction is its capacity to better evoke the memory of a transpersonal experience once had, or to penetrate to the potential for transpersonal experiences that remain latent in the neurognostic structure of the inexperienced person. Meanwhile, the advantage of some degree of representational style is that it affords an easier explanation or interpretation of experiences in terms of culturally prescribed meaning (i.e., easier integration of the art within the greater cycle of meaning). Representational styles provide an initial or rudimentary portal for the relatively inexperienced. They are easier to focus upon and perceptually engage. There is a more immediate frame of objective recognition (e.g., ; e.g, the image on the house front or button blanket is Raven or Killer Whale). While abstraction offers greater potential depth of spiritual experience, representational symbols have greater public appeal, range and consensus apperception. The uninitiated can more easily identify with and relate to more representational icons. But in terms of the depth of experience, abstraction appeals to deeper, more universal structures of the human psyche. It invites more profound and energetic projection from the unconscious, and perhaps even from the quantum universe by way of the unconscious.

Modern abstract art can evoke a response from the very depths of the unconscious, but the nature of the fulfillment is diffuse and without a clear-cut iconic "container." There is no generally prescribed cycle of meaning to impose an easy interpretation of experiences welling up from the depths. To a great extent, the individual who is deeply moved by modern art is on his or her own. Furthermore, although the modern artist has available a powerful medium of expression of intuitions from the depths, he or she may not find a hearing within the greater community. Thus modern abstract art furnishes a conundrum -- it is simultaneously maximally evocative and maximally expressive, but it is ever only diffusely fulfilling. Socially speaking, the energy from the transcendental has nowhere to go. The diffuseness of fulfillment occurs in the context of a sensate cultural system of values and meanings, and is difficult for most people to integrate into their everyday lives. This is not to say that abstract art may not operate in the individual or a small group to fulfill the spiritual dimension. Indeed, this can occur for both for the artist and for his or her audience. But the experiences associated with the art tend to remain isolated from other aspects of the being -- a being that may be highly conditioned by life in a sensate world. Representational symbolism in art, while not so evocative of depth experiences, is nonetheless easier to integrate with other aspects of the being. Extremely representational art is paradoxically less likely to contribute to an actual evolution of the being.

Abstraction and the Archetypes

The problem of abstraction is comparable to that of the Jungian archetypes, and the misunderstanding that surrounds them. For present purposes, the archetypes may be seen as the extreme abstractions -- as pure neurognosis itself -- the portrayal of which in visual form might look much like the productions of expressionism, especially abstract expressionism. The archetypes themselves are, however, rarely understandable to individuals, so the brain expresses its own archetypes for itself within its own symbolic imagination. The archetypes -- the living neurognosis -- speaks to the consciousness in a form that consciousness can (at least potentially) understand, through imagery, intuition and movement.

Here again we are faced with the container problem. Jungian discussions often confuse the symbolic expression (be it visual, emotional, auditory, whatever) with the archetypes themselves. (10) The approach by consciousness to the archetypes moves from the literal and local to the abstract and universal through some kind of portalling experience. The movement inward is one of withdrawal of projections from the more representational expressions ("outer" objects) to expressions that are increasingly abstract and non-figurative (lights, geometrical forms, etc.). In our culture, this amounts to the pulling away or the de-centering of consciousness from the sensate pole, and an opening to experiences derived from the more ideal or universal pole. At the greatest level of abstraction, Jesus, Buddha and Vishnu eventually dissolve into the One. (11) In this sense, abstract art may operate as an advanced portal into the transcendental. That is why relatively few people understand the depth of meaning that may be evoked by abstract art, especially the more non-figurative abstractions.

Abstract Art and the Movement to Post-Rational Consciousness

The inherent drive of the conscious brain is to understand what it experiences, and to integrate what it experiences with its understanding. There is thus a hermeneutic necessity for people to comprehend their experience of abstract art. But their understanding of art will be correlated with the level of consciousness they have either received via their cultural conditioning, or reached in terms of their own personal development. At the lower levels of development, the individual will typically experience art through extremely conditioned cultural filters. The need for a socially prescribed cycle of meaning will determine their eventual understanding of the art. But this need for the cultural filter will lessen to the extent that the experiencing state of consciousness transcends merely mythological or purely rational modes of interpretation. Interpretation produced in the mythical mode will tend, if an experience is evoked, to reduce the experience to the mythic level of comprehension -- that is to say, centered in the body, permeated with emotions and integrated with other iconography associated with the evocative art. The experience of the art may even be reduced to mere sentimentality and uncritical significance.

Comprehension in the rational mode will tend toward the vernacular type of understanding -- toward what has been called "demythologizing" hermeneutics. Spirit is reduced to reason and words. There will be an emphasis upon technique, text and the social or historical context relevant to an interpretation. Focus may be on the functions of the art, and the social or philosophical statement signaled by the art.

However, the post-rational consciousness will experience the abstraction expressed "as such," as signifying something ineffable -- "beyond reason" -- and as something that becomes aliment to feed the soul. Few people in modern sensate culture are capable of this freedom from socially conditioned cycles of meaning. Even in traditional societies, our ethnographic evidence suggests that few ever rise above mythic participation in their society's iconography. While the shaman may know that the "wind" is a metaphor for the ineffable, his or her clients usually do not. (12)

The post-mythological consciousness in idealistic cultures can absorb the evocations of abstract art more directly. This is a consciousness that may have repeatedly had the experience of the art-as-portal, knows the experiences arising are beyond reason, knows that this domain of experience is largely ineffable and knows that it is reduced by the attribution of categories or labels. The consciousness pertaining to art has become somewhat "state-specific" in its understanding, to use Charles Tart's (1975) apt expression. Audiences at this level understand in some sense that the experience related to art can only be assimilated and understood within the developmental limits of one's own internal structures. (13)

Within sensate cultures the problem is somewhat more involved than simply transcending some kind of participation mystique. The nature of evocation and fulfillment in sensate cultures is more complex. Rationalist interpretations involve a process of intellectualization, externalization and the concomitant de-potentiation of symbolic penetration. And it is precisely here that abstract art plays its personal and cultural role. The evocation resulting from abstract expression reflects itself -- penetrating to a region beyond the canvas and to something more fundamental and subtle. It points to a greater fulfillment than is possible by way of reason or mere text, and effects signification by confounding the intellect. Abstract expressive art acts as a potential portal, evoking a deeper neurognostic (or archetypal) level of processing, and at the same time projecting the psyche toward a more transcendent state of being. The intellect in effect becomes stretched. The art fosters in a receptive audience the desire for a spiritually more developed fulfillment, a fulfillment that is actualized in a more advanced state of individuation. Such art may create a disquieting yearning for "something more." Penetrating deeper than mere reason, its effects can thus extend further. Confounding the intellect, it can expand the intellect well beyond its conditioned constraints. Thus abstract expression in art may participate in feeding the evolution of consciousness toward a greater capacity for spiritual engagement and comprehension. Abstract expression is profoundly revolutionary in a very fundamental way.


Modern abstract art is a mode of artistic endeavor particularly suited to a sensate culture that is in desperate need of spiritual revitalization. As such, it is a kind of much needed compensation. In sensate cultures the effect of such art is diffuse and it contributes to the necessary chaos required for spiritual transformation. In more spiritually oriented, idealistic cultures the portalling effect of art can be more potent, continuous and pervasive. There is little need for radical shifts in artistic style to produce transpersonal experiences in at least some of the audience. Culturally sanctioned styles of abstraction can portal the mind beyond its limitations in a way that is congruent with the culture's cycle of meaning.

It seems that it is within sensate cultures that the greatest need of spiritual development exists, and the greatest number of people who stand in need this development. In modern society there are the greatest number of candidates for spiritual evolution, for here reason has its greatest foothold. As paradoxical as it may seem, it is reason that is required for this progression, for it is necessarily through the stage of reason that the mythic reaches the truly spiritual. It is in the breaking up of the purely rational understanding that allows for the mind's reformulation in a new mode where the spiritual is no longer the domain of extraordinary, exotic or transpersonal experience, but is the world and self "as such." After all, there is a considerable difference between an experience and a realization. The latter evokes a new mode of being. The neurognostic base upon which we all begin our life course, the archetypal images through which we all must refine our perceptions and understandings, have evolved to yet another level, penetrating further and further into the world -- a world that now incorporates an entire universe.

Modern art is pattern without constraint penetrating into a mind with too much constraint, thus jarring the consciousness into movement, transforming the things of the mind into processes of mind. Modern art may act to re-connect sensate rationality with its energetic roots and use that energy to develop past its current state of being. This transformation in turn necessitates the development of a new cycle of meaning, transcending the purely rational, fragmented world view while maintaining rational comprehension coupled with the new spiritual forces that modern art has set loose. Truly, the modern artist, whether knowingly or not, is a major engineer in the construction of a new form of consciousness and in the ineluctable movement of sensate culture back toward the ideational mean. He or she is providing the means, not only for the loosening the hold of reason by confounding it, but the complementary vision necessary for the synthesis required for the next step in the evolution of consciousness and culture on this planet.


1. Charles D. Laughlin is an emeritus professor of anthropology and religion in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6 (e-mail: <claughlin9@aol.com>). The author wishes to thank Professor Michael Winkelman and Dr. Hope MacLean for their suggestions and support on this project. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C., November, 1997.

2. What I am interested in is the structure of those forms of symbolism and imagery that we in the West perceive to be abstract art, or the quality of abstraction in art. To be interested in the structure of art means that one is asking questions about how the human mind works among diverse societies and cultures, and during every era (see e.g., Burnham 1971:3-6). It is a commonplace in the anthropology of art that people of widely divergent cultures and eras may appreciate the quality, style and meaning of any particular artistic tradition (Whitten and Whitten 1993:3-5). More particularly, what we wish to understand is: What are the universal properties of neurocognitive processing that account for the phenomenon of abstraction so often observed by ethnographers in the art of other cultures, and documented from long dead cultures by archaeologists? The perspective I will be using is from the body of theory known as biogenetic structuralism (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990), a school of thought that brings together cultural anthropology, phenomenology and the neurosciences in the study of symbolic processes involved in consciousness, culture and social behavior..

3. One of our most famous thinkers, John Locke, revealed this culturally-loaded, commonsense view of abstraction in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which he argued that all abstract ideas derive from comparing the similarities and differences among the objects we encounter in our environment. The emphasis in Locke's notion of abstraction is the movement from external particulars to inner abstract ideas. The notion that some abstract ideas may derive originally from internal structures of the brain and that these structures develop as they are instantiated in experience was quite foreign to Locke, as it is to many thinkers to this very day.

4. On the topic of symbolic penetration, see Laughlin, McManus and Stephens 1981, Laughlin and Stephens 1980, Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990. In our work, penetration is the technical term we use to refer to the influence one physiological system has upon another. For instance, if I decide to pick up a coffee cup, the activity of the higher cortical processes that constitute my will must be translated into the activity of muscle systems by one physiological system after another becoming entrained into the activity. We would say that the decision to pick up the coffee penetrated to the muscle systems controlling grasping. Symbolic penetration then is the neurophysiological process by which, say, the perception of a visual form evokes the meaning associated with the form.

5. Paul Devereux (1992) has suggested that the first spiritual icons in our evolutionary past were simulacra - rocks, mountains and other natural features that reminded people of mythologically important figures. It was only later in evolution that people began to alter the natural forms in the world gto make the symbolism more explicit. People continue to project meaningful images upon natural features which may be treated as sacred.

6. Paul-Emile Borduas, the leader of Montreal's Automatist movement during the 1940's and 1950's, distinguished three types of "automatism," one of which is surrational (7)

7. The suffix sur- means above, over, super or up. Ortega y Gasset (1968:35-36) distinguishes between surrealism of metaphors and infrarealism, the latter diving below reality to get at its details -- he notes the publication of an entire book on breasts.

8. The initial organization of our brain's neural models is determined by our genetic code. I call these initial cellular organizations neurognostic models, or simply neurognosis. I initially experience the world as neurognosis. That is, our initial experience is conditioned by the first, primitive organization of our brains -- an organization that emerges while I are still a fetus and infant (see Laughlin, McManus and d'Aquili 1990, Laughlin 1991, 1996 on the concept of neurognosis).

9. See for example the 1948 manifesto of the Montreal Automatist movement entitled Refus Global, or Total Refusal (Ellenwood 1985)

10. See Laughlin 1996 on this issue.

11. See Bharati 1975 on this aspect of spiritual symbolism.

12. Years ago, Paul Radin (1927) made the important distinction between the relative handful of "philosophers" in any particular culture and the more numerous "men of action" that comprise the bulk of culture-bearers. Paul Ricoeur (1962) has also noted this kind of distribution in the participation and understanding of people in their cultural symbols. Both men were pointing to the possibility that a society may produce individuals who transcend the level of the mystique of participation. They have become essentially post-mythological or post-rationalist in their comprehension of their culture's art.

13. The advanced practitioners of Judaism or Hinduism did not require the names Yahweh or Vishnu to understand their experience of the transcendental. Such experiences are understood to be essentially beyond naming. But the majority of people require such labels which may act as portals to some kind of collective, ritualized experience that in turn enriches the meanings of the labels. This was the important understanding that Emile Durkheim (1912 [1995]) came to with his notion of "collective effervescence."


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