Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “Ken Wilber”

What Is Art? (Part 1.5): An Integral Approach

In a delightful twist of fate last week, an email appeared on my computer screen (via my subscription to the Core Integral newsletter) that advanced and expanded the concepts I attempted to shed light on with my last blog post, about what art is and how to use it as an effective communication. So, in an impromptu Part 1.5 of my ongoing inquiry, here is the text of that newsletter with a link to the lecture it refers to, followed by a brief review of its major concepts.

“Think of a piece of art that you are particularly struck by. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a painting, a piece of music, a film, or any other expression of beauty that you find yourself impressed with or inspired by. Visualize the piece in your mind’s eye—or, if you like, open a new tab in your web browser and Google it, so it’s right in front of you. As you admire your preferred object of beauty, ask yourself a simple question: how can I tell what this means? How do you answer?

  • a) The meaning can be found in the original intent of the artist. If I want to know what a piece of art means, I should simply ask the artist.
  • b) The meaning can be found in the artwork itself. The artwork is a whole unto itself, and everything I need to understand it is fully present in the actual piece of art.
  • c) The meaning can be found in the response of the viewer, which means that a single piece of art can have multiple meanings, depending on who happens to be observing it.
  • d) The meaning can be found in all the social circumstances surrounding the artist, since no artwork is created in a vacuum. If you want to know what a piece of art means, you need to consider where and when it was made, its historic and techno-economic influences, etc.
  • e) All of the above.

If you answered “all of the above” there’s a very good chance this talk is for you. But here’s the weird thing: people don’t always know that’s even an option. In fact, it’s still overlooked most of the time. Most artists, philosophers, and critics have devoted their entire lives and careers to just one of the first four choices, while passionately trying to negate the others. Listen as Ken describes each of these major schools of interpretation, how they originated, and how they all fit together into a more cohesive vision of art and aesthetics.”

(An audio file of Ken’s talk can be streamed here.)

In this hour lecture, leading Integral philosopher Ken Wilber talks about the various schools of artistic interpretation that have arisen in the past few hundred years, and how each used in isolation is inadequate as a means of reaching the deepest or most comprehensive appreciation of visual art. He gives the historical and cultural context surrounding such movements as Formalism (too dismissive of an artist’s intention), Romanticism (too dismissive of external social forces), and other useful but incomplete -isms that have made major contributions to the art world. Ken argues that one must integrate as many of these schools of thought as possible, in order to build a more complete framework for understanding (or creating) art that accesses knowledge from each of the “4 Quadrants” that comprise reality (interior, exterior, individual, and collective).


Ken Wilber’s theory states that all art is created by a combination of all 4 quadrants of reality, and therefore can only be fully understood with knowledge derived from all 4 quadrants.

He refers to the concept of artistic intention quite a bit, which I was thrilled to hear from a non-artist, since increasing the level of intentionality that I paint with has been one of my areas of focus for the past few years (which I mentioned as part of my internal dialogue in Part 1: Self Inquiry). What intention requires, as Ken eludes to, is knowledge and context: a framework of understanding broad enough to shed light on all the different choices an artist can make. The opposite of intention is what I’ve experienced as “the manifestation of indecision,” a state of ignorance or naiveté in which the art-making process resorts to blind instinct and shot-in-the-dark crapshoots that one merely hopes will look good or manage to communicate something in the end.

What Ken doesn’t mention is that understanding all of this, of course, requires a level of motivation (to spend time learning) that perhaps only the most dedicated artists or enthusiasts would possess. So while I thoroughly appreciate his critique and advice, I feel it’s a bit of wishful thinking–if not a bit patronizing as well–and in being “over the heads” of many laypersons, it therefore still won’t solve the great debate for most.

But if you’re an ultra art nerd like I am, and have a quiet hour to devote to a dry intellectual oration, you will love the complex yet logical perspective Ken offers as his answer to the questions “What is art?” and “How do we make sense of it?”

“You really need to have a comprehensive philosophy of reality if you’re going to [effectively] interpret the meaning of art, because all of these dimensions impact an artwork, and therefore are part of the art’s meaning. And if you’re going to unfold that meaning, then you have to have a really rich, comprehensive philosophy of contexts.”

–Ken Wilber

Escape From Flatland: Apostasy Redux

Last week while reading the work of my newest fascination Ken Wilber, I stumbled quite happily upon an eloquent explanation of one of the central themes of my ongoing series, The Apostasy.

Wilber’s brilliant writings have been a huge influence as of late, on both my life and the conceptual side of my art. His staggeringly comprehensive, “post-postmodern” philosophical synthesis of every major tradition of human knowledge is called Integral Theory.

The Quadrants: insides, outsides, singular, and plural.

One of the central tenets of Integral is the quadrant system, which is a way of describing literally every aspect of reality (which Wilber calls the “Kosmos”), including ourselves and our perception. The usefulness of the quadrant system lies in the user’s ability to critique a person or movement who may be falsely claiming absolute truth based on partial or inadequate knowledge. That is, limited knowledge hailing from only one or some of the 4 quadrants, rather than comprehensively stemming from (and thus integrating) all of them.

“The Kosmos” means everything.

Enter here the postmodern reign of materialism and its hallmark of scientific reductionism, which flattens all of reality to merely what can be perceived, charted, or quantified with the physical senses.  This phenomenon, while leading to remarkable advances in the physical sciences and Western/allopathic medicine, has ironically also led to devastating consequences on human health and happiness, as well as on the Earth and its fragile ecosystem.  Ken Wilber has accurately dubbed this phenomenon–this mental paradigm–Flatland.

This ripe contradiction, and the spotty veil of incomplete truth that the postmodern materialist worldview presents, were the fertile ground for many of the concepts I’ve attempted to portray through this series of paintings.  Reading the words of Ken Wilber, which so succinctly summarized my intentions, inspired another revisitation of my central theme.

Wilber describes the Flatland process as such:

The flattening, the leveling, the collapse of the Kosmos. The universe was pushed through a strainer of objectification, and the result was thin soup indeed. All that was left of a richly multidimensional Kosmos was simply the sensory/empirical exteriors and outlines and flatland forms, much as if a sphere had been projected onto a plane surface, producing only a series of flat circles–all span, no depth–at which point we say, “What sphere?”

In short, depths that required interpretation were largely ignored in favor of the interlocking surfaces that can simply be seen (empiric-analytic)–valueless surfaces that could be patiently, persistently, accurately mapped: on the other side of the objective strainer, the world appeared only as a great interlocking order of sensory surfaces, empirical forms.

This…”view from nowhere”…could not prove itself–but rather was taken, literally, on blind faith, a faith blind to the entire Left half of the Kosmos.

(Wilber, Ken. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. Boston. Shambhala, 2000)

This excerpt, when considered in relation to my artist statement which equates modern science with religion, sheds further light on these concepts:

 Surgeons and scientists alike have become the new priests of a material-industrial age, in which living organisms seem to be regarded as no more than an assemblage of mechanical parts…Science is the new religion, Big Pharma is the church, the doctors are priests, pills our Holy Communion, and sickness is our only hope of salvation when diseases are dollar signs that fortify the edifice.

And lastly–moving from theory to reality (I think I can hear snoring already…)–here’s a progress shot of the latest and largest yet, at 48 inches square:

Influences 2

Light Shines Through was a painting I completed in 2010 for a group exhibition memorializing artist and tattooer Monica Henk, whose life was tragically cut short in a still-unsolved NYC hit and run incident. Featuring a surreal depiction of one of Monica’s favorite pieces of jewelry, this piece is about the persistence of hope, and a belief in the triumph of mankind despite the potential for monumental sadness and suffering inherent in the human condition.

Light Shines Through, oil on panel, 2010, 12in x 12in

One of the original inspirations for my choice of theme and symbolism in this commemorative painting was the writing of pioneering logotherapy psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. A Jewish holocaust surviver, whose harrowing memoir of life and death in a Nazi concentration camp is a moving description of the unbreakable human spirit, Frankl’s work has been an ongoing influence in my art. Throughout Man’s Search For Meaning he describes his observations, and concludes:

We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.  For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.  When we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.

Reiterating his powerful analysis, Frankl again poses the question and answers:

How…can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?  After all, ‘saying yes to life in spite of everything’…presupposes that life is potentially meaningful under any conditions, even those which are most miserable.  And this in turn presupposes the human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.  In other words, what matters is to make the best of any given situation. … That is, an optimism in the face of tragedy and in view of the human potential which at its best always allows for: (1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; (2) deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better; and (3) deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.

Though the hardships I’ve faced pale in comparison to his plight, my paintings have always been part of an over-arching narrative searching for meaning in suffering, and the process of finding hope through often difficult personal transformation. As such, I believe Frankl’s work appeared in my life quite auspiciously via energetic resonance rather than random coincidence (this, of course, in observance of the universal “law of attraction”).

To my delight, this quantum phenomenon reared its head again when my recent foray into the Integral work of Ken Wilber revealed an unexpected connection to the symbolism of this painting, inspiring me to revisit and feature it here. Specifically, it was Wilber’s use of a poignant Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, which features the title of the painting and summarizes it perfectly:

From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.