“A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension.” Oliver Wendell Holmes
This quote, for some reason, takes me back to the dawn of mankind. I imagine our earliest ancestors leaving the savannas of Africa and moving northward to Europe (and likely east and west by boat). At some point as the more independent nomadic lifestyle changed into a more communal form and rudimentary language emerged. From cave paintings to actual words, it took thousands upon thousands of years. This leap in human thinking occurred when our brains developed sufficiently to produce abstract thoughts.
The word “abstract” comes from a Latin word that means “pulled away” or “detached”. It refers to the ability to express an idea that is separate from a physical thing. It requires inductive thinking which allows the formation of concepts or generalizations from individual events or things. Scientists believe that abstract thinking was central to development of sophisticated language and, ultimately, human progress.
The simplest way to explain abstract thinking is by examining the use of numbers. As an example, the number “5” does not exist in nature, it is an abstract expression. At some point one human was able to tell another that there were 5 lions in the jungle ahead – this was a huge leap in communication effectiveness. It is one thing to grunt “lions”, or point to 5 lions on a wall, but quite another to say “there are 5 lions”. The number 5 became an abstract symbol that could be used for any number (no pun) of things.
As mentioned this faculty of reasoning allowed early man to make generalizations (about the world) from specific objects and events. This distanced us from our animal cousins who relied on instincts and experiences for survival – this accumulated practical “knowledge” did not include sophisticated language. Animals are not capable of inductive thought - the capacity to look, and talk about, a number of individual instances and arrive at theories or conclusions about what they mean in a broader sense.
This human characteristic of abstract thinking has developed exponentially over the millennia. Today it includes many pursuits that are far removed from what I’d call reality. This includes most forms of modern arts as well as theoretical discussions in science and philosophy. It seems the greater degree of “abstractness”, the greater the distance from concrete things. The movement of abstract art, as exemplified by Expressionist paintings, is a great example of this phenomenon. Looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock does not elicit any particular image that one would see in the natural world. His paintings are chaotic and strangely beautiful… purely subjective and somehow primal. “When I am in my painting, I’m not aware of what I’m doing”, he once stated. Somehow his wild process of pouring and dripping paints on his canvas on the floor using brushes and sticks, and even his feet and hands, to create his “non” images… yielded gorgeous results.
The totality of Pollock’s and other abstract works represented, I believe, a kind of transcendence in human progress. There was no going back to realistic painting which only mimicked or copied something else.
Expressionism and extreme abstract thought came directly from a person’s self – his or her subconscious. American artist Barnett Newman in his essay “The Sublime is Now” said “Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’, we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings”. And, there was something powerful in this approach and its effect.
My “understanding” of this kind of abstract form of painting, Expressionism, was a slow process. At first, it looked trivial. It was through the paintings of Mark Rothko that I finally “got it”. I had seen his work in New York city a few times and couldn’t really appreciate it. Standing in front of one of his works one winter day in Toronto I suddenly felt the painting… an extraordinary sublime feeling. It was something that I had only vaguely experienced years ago when seeing works by Matisse for the first time. The overall conclusion I drew from these experiences is rather paradoxical – the further the painting was from concrete pictures and images the greater a feeling of underlying visceral reality.
Going back to our original quote from Holmes, it seems that we can never go back to our original dimension, or our past. There is a refreshing liberating aspect to this progression. It can also be exhilarating. I like Rothko’s description of his method:
“Unknown adventures in an unknown space free from direct association from any particular, and the passion of organism”.
Perhaps he’s describing another leap in the evolution of humankind… a hopeful one… going beyond abstract thinking into complete subjectivity. Arriving in the nothingness that the great mystics describe. Pure self.