The Art of Looking

When I was four we acquired in our house two red books that were a gift from a relative. They were part of a set of encyclopaedia. Our relative had tried to be fair by dividing the books between us and my father’s brothers. We acquired P to T. I have never figured this out, as my father only had two brothers. Something obviously went wrong in the accounting.

Luckily our lot included the “R” section, containing a piece about the artist, Rodin. In it was a small reprint of a black and white photograph of one of his sculptures. I had never seen anything like it. I loved it. I called it “The Man Without His Head” and I regularly begged my father to find it for me. I admired it for hours, gazing upon its muscular marble flesh. Eventually the page began to wear away, and The Man Without His Head began to resemble a page from an ancient text.

This was my first of many experiences deriving comfort and well-being from focussing my eyes and perceptions on a great work of art. I was yet to discover the existence of hundreds of thousands of cultural artefacts upon which to feast my eyes. The process of contemplating beauty is a profound meditation. When those artefacts are the product of the development of the society I am part of, the process gains both depth and breadth. Our western forebears, the Ancient Egyptians, invented the aesthetic that has dominated western art for fifty centuries (Johnson, 2003). They understood that the eye could bypass the brain and give us direct access to deeper truth. The love of looking is their legacy.

Right Eye of Horus, Ancient Egypt.

At the age of twenty-eight I returned from years of adventure overseas. While travelling I encountered galleries holding the most important and profound works in the world, and was also witness to the agony and suffering of the human condition everywhere I looked. My eye was saturated, but my soul was fragmented, and I was ready for formal instruction. I decided to entrust my journey to the best elders and wisdom-bearers western civilisation has turned out, the universities.

Naively, I believed that the highest institutions in the land were depositories of five thousand years of scholarship, and that they would bring this to bear in assisting me, and my fellow students, to make meaning of this montage of experience and find my place within it. What happened in actuality was that I became part of a dilemma, a dilemma much much bigger than us as we went about the business of photocopying “text” and trying to interpret the cryptic remarks of our academic instructors.

The dilemma, as I understand it, began in about 1650, the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment. This is distinct from the kind of enlightenment some hope to attain by holding yoga postures for a long time. It was during this period that scores of intellectuals began to stand against the abuses of church and state that were based on beliefs that had reigned since medieval times. Many philosophers were willing to risk their own lives to call for accountability based on a shared understanding, or a universal truth. This meant relying on empirical means, which are based on observation and experience, rather than superstition or the decree of those with power. Many were oppressed and persecuted. Science was born and civilisation was changed forever with the invention of the printing press to disseminate the new truth. It was a heroic time (see Richard Tarnas “The Passion of the Western Mind).

With the magnitude of achievements in this era, so began the renunciation of thousands of years of magical rites and sacred texts, denounced as superstition. A new form of persecution was born. A long tradition of babies being thrown out along with bathwater was pursued with a vengance. It seems the crucible of the human psyche cannot contain the pendulum swing of opposite beliefs for long. A backlash was inevitable. What happened during the Enlightenment, and the backlash to it, caused a schism that has never been rectified.

Within one hundred years a backlash movement, Romanticism (or the counter-enlightenment), was in full swing. Romaniticism is still the dominant philosophy today. This movement has it’s intellectual foundations in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant argued that the human mind is fundamentally incapable of knowing reality and is limited to a world created by the mind’s subjective filters. He declared the attainment of objective knowlege an impossibility.

As with any reactionary movement intent on the repudiation of a previous canon, the Romantics attempted to subvert the achievements of the Age of Enlightenment. Emotion replaced reason as the means to true knowlege. While previously education had been seen as a civilising force cultivating the animal nature of the “naked ape”, Rousseau’s notion of the “noble savage” held that society and culture are a corrupting influence on the human psyche, which is born intact and therefore in need of no influence other than that of “nature”.

Fast-forward two hundred years to a modern university, and you will find these two competing, equally valid, ideas of human nature have never been reconciled. Like dysfunctional parents intent on repressing their fundamental irreconcilable differences, their offspring becomes confused and disoriented, unable to decide which parent to trust. We limp out of university into the world clutching our bits of paper and accept that the world is never going to make sense to the likes of us. With luck we have the means to make a living and this becomes enough.

This schism is reflected throughout society in many different levels, not just the education sector. We need to begin with the underpinning philosophies that are the unconscious road-map for our path through the world. They need to be examined and rectified in order to make sense of our past and create for ourselves a meaningful future. I believe all the information and experience we need to do this is contained in five thousand years of human art, culture and scholarship. It is my intention to take a look.


Johnson, P. (2003). Art A New History. New York: HarperCollins.

Tarnas, R (1997). The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books