I hear people sometimes say that someone has ‘a lot of experience’. In the art scene this may mean that this person has worked for many years and met many artists and read many books. So his
scope of experience about art is very wide. Talking about experience in this way, as a layering process that somehow provides stability and richness to someone’s life or judgement, is quite
common. It is also probably usually thought to be something positive and good.
I am interested in adding another type of analysis to this. Rather than talking about the accumulation of many experiences, it is also possible to talk about single unique or intense experiences. Actually we do hear this for certain experiences. The more common ones may include the experience of war or some incredible survival (survivors of concentration camps) or perhaps some personal trauma including surviving an accident or illness. These single experiences may be so important in someone’s life that they are included in a person’s biography.
The first type refers to a general sense that someone has experienced many things over a long time, whilst the second type refers to some singular or intense experience that cannot be ignored.
When I think about experience I tend to think about this second type of experience. I suppose that most people have experienced some profound moment or trauma or epiphany which they always remember. I do not think that it is so unusual. Having studied mysticism for my post-graduate studies, I know for example, that many people have investigated so called ‘religious experiences’ or ‘mystical’ experiences among the general population. One of the most well known books in this field is Marghanita Laski’s 1961 book titled ‘Ecstasy. A Study of some Secular and Religious Experiences’. In this very interesting book Laski claimed that many ordinary people had experiences which could be called mystical. Many of these experiences occured in non religious settings and many were ‘triggered’ by common things like walking in nature, listening or looking at art, entering architecture, and excercise like running.
What is the experience which lies on the very edge of your experience horizon? What is the most intense and memorable experience which you have had? Was it self induced or spontaneous? Was it something beyond your control?
Have you ever thought that your subjectivity or your sense of self may be shaped by your exprience horizon? I often wonder if my sense of right and wrong or my aesthetic judgements are somehoew closely related to my experience horizon. This horizon surely has some kind of ‘edge’ where your experience has extended out. I think this is why people put such strong emphasis on ‘foundational experiences’, like someone’s experience of war or intense trauma or survival. These experiences somehow inform a person’s entire subjectivity. They are that person’s ‘experience horizon’.
This quest for ‘foundational experience’ is clearly an important factor in mystical practices, from Zen Buddhism, ordeal practices in many tribal cultures, shamanism to Christian and Muslim traditions. Most of these traditions have strict rules and conventions to follow about what to wear, eat, when to wake up and go to sleep and what to speak.
Outside conventional mystical traditions there are many ways to induce or trigger intense experiences too. I studied this secular aspect of contemporary mysticism for my MA, looking at subcultural practices such as rave dancing, psychedelic cultures and the relationship between modern art and mysticism. I even decided to continue studying and did a PhD in this relationship between modern art and mytsicism, researching the American painter Mark Tobey who was a convert to the Bahai faith and studied for some months in a Zen temple outside Kyoto in 1934. For Tobey, his mystical practice was important in developing a language of abstraction called ‘white writing’. Tobey returned to the United States where he became known as one of the ‘Northwest Mystic’ artists alongside Morris Graves, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan.
Most art history and theory taught today pays minimal attention to this kind of approach. The impact of post-structural thinking has been huge in criticising ideas about ‘spirit’ and ‘the transcendental’ in relation to art. It is rather difficult today for an artist to claim a sense of sublimity through their art, as was done by artists like Mark Tobey or Mark Rothko in the 1940s. There is a more rigorous sense of criticism and questioning today that has been very positive in many respects.
When I think about my own ‘horizons of experience’, I think about a number of things that have remained very strong in me and which probably continue to inform my judgements about art and the way that I create my sense of self. They include experiences of intense dance and music, experiences of monastic life at Zen temples and vivid experiences with entheogens such as psilocybe. These experiences somehow remain very ‘present’. They seem different to memories, which are recalled. Perhaps they serve as kinds of measuring sticks against which subjectivity is constantly created. These experiences also offer points of resistance against certain kinds of logic or reasoning, like theories. I cannot claim anything more for these experiences than that they remain very real psychic formations for me.
Entheogen - a psychoactive substance, mostly derived from plant sources, used in religious, shamanic or spiritual context.
Psilocybe - mushroom genus common throughout the world known for its psychedelic or hallucinogenic properties.