POLYSEMY
A Manifesto On The Nature of Artwork



INTRODUCTION
The contemporary painter Mark Rothko famously said that "art is a type of communication", and of course some artists continuously make inquiry into the potential depth and span of their artwork's perceived message. [1] Some artists like Bob Dylan claim little to no responsibility for how their artwork is interpreted, or even self-comprehension of what their artwork's message might be. The artist/writer/teacher Suzi Gablik, on the other hand, has long advocated that artists consciously reinstate in their artwork some kind of moral message that is engaged with the larger world's issues (whether social, economic, political, environmental, and so on). Well-regarded painter/professor James Elkins has openly asserted that contemporary artists that seek to mix art and religion/spirituality faces nearly insurmountable obstacles, and perhaps can only succeed if they fashion an integration rather unconsciously, whereas Sufi musician Hazrat Inayat Khan wrote that music "raises the soul of man even higher than the so-called external form of religion".

So the message, or content, evoked by artwork is far from a settled matter. Artists have their own intentions, or needs, that heavily factor into what flows through their art. But what if we simply allow, as Rothko suggests, artwork to be a type of communication, with a range of possible content? That admission would open the door to consider what potentially that range, or depth and span, of an artwork's messaging might be, at least for the purposes of discussion, or even perhaps as inspiration for artists. Of course content is not simply a matter of mere artist choice or wish for their artwork to be about this or that. In a statement many are still unpacking, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that the medium is the message; many forget that he offered the important corollary, that the content of every medium is another medium, or mediums. As the many studies of children's artistic creations (see Lowenfeld) suggest, the development of cognition (and its related dynamics, all of which for ease I call 'consciousness') is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, unfoldings that have direct correlation in, essentially, the depth and span of an artwork's content ('content' in the most general terms and contours; 'meaning' is what is generated on the audience side of things). R.G. Collingwood suggested as much when he wrote that "consciousness and artwork are so wedded so as to be nearly inseparable."

Interestingly, in the field of music there is the notion of 'total music' or 'totalism' discussed by commentators (such as Kyle Gann), which as a theory suggests a completeness on the surface of the art object, as well as a deeper aesthetic logic beneath the surface that also satisfies musical connoisseurs who look for complexity, subtle conceptuality, ambiguity, mental paradox, and other such intellectual weave. In this two-level formulation, we see that St. Bonaventura's 'eye of flesh' and 'eye of reason' are the basic core of even for contemporary musical totalism theory (the eye of flesh disclosing the surface; the eye of reason disclosing conceptual underpinnings. For an example in the public sphere that offers clear meaning perceived on these two levels, see Coltrane's A Love Supreme, as well as artwork in other mediums that exhibit totalism—Pollock's paint explosions, Ginsberg's Howl, or Chihuly's glass extrusions. However, as aspects of these pieces of art suggest, we can explore artwork in a manner beyond materials and beyond concepts. Exactly what lies deeper is a subject of some discussion, but whatever 'it' is, or whether it is an 'it' at all, one thing is clear: 'totalism' is not, by itself, actually total at all, and in fact it is rather limited.

The animation of forces, on the part of artists, apparent to the 'eye of flesh' in the creation of artwork creates a formal decadence (Camille Paglia's 'chthonian/Dionysian') of various degrees of the representational. To the eye of flesh is added (as I said) the more discreet eye of reason (or eye of mind) that lays witness to, for example, the animation of conceptuality and intellectuality latent in much of contemporary art, for which Duchamp forcefully paved the road. And then, following Bonaventura, to both of these eyes is added the still more discreet 'eye of essence' (or 'eye of spirit'), which perceives in various kinds of symbolic configuration a manner of pure being in the world. Boundaries cease as convenient illusion; the finest vibrations are shared at the core of humanity.

Via these three modes (more inclusive than 'eyes') of perception, the artist creates in the artwork 'signs' (or 'metaphors' in the broad definition), which animate different angles, content, and perspectives. I assert that the more perspectives the artist has the capacity to inhabit, the more beauty the artist can evoke in artwork. If a theory of 'totalism' is anything useful, it ought be indexed in some way to the perceptive modes (in my words) of the material, conceptual, and essential in artwork; each which considers and contemplates beauty along various gradations of density; each of which is a perspective upon artistry and the creative process (see Postscript for more on 'material, conceptual, essential' and the 'surrender' that is part of the creative process).


POLYSEMY
Polysemy means, literally, 'many signs'. I employ that term fundamentally for my integral art philosophy. This is because the term, for all useful intents and purposes, transcends and includes the absolutist mono-meaning approach of pre-modern/traditional representational artwork, as well as the detached and/or ironic 'non-meaning' conceits and subversions of modernist and late-modernist (or postmodernist) artwork. If there is one idea which unities the disparate array that is the contemporary age of art, I believe it is this: there is no one meaning, or one true perceptual response, to an artwork, universal for everyone in all cases and contexts. The various worldviews and sub-worldviews present in our age, filtered through individuals' particular experience and varying capacity for aesthetic response (see Housen, as well as my essay on her work), yield different meanings, different truths, different personae, and different perspectives, found in artwork. All of which is to say in simple terms that artworks exhibit multiple signs. To approach the task of art creation/production with the knowledge of multiple-meanings/multiple-signs (without necessarily knowing the details of each sign/meaning, which are infinite in nuance) is, I believe, to approach artwork's capacity fully informed. And it is to approach artwork production as a form of polysemy.

Artwork is polysemy of a particularly creative, intuitive kind, closely associated with the mystery at the heart of art. As a principle I see applicable to working artists of any medium, polysemy also lends itself to expansion and technical delineation according to the models of spectrums of consciousness currently in play in the philosophic sphere. [2] An artwork's signs, or structures and substructures of meaning, are perceived objects, which stand for or represent (like all such objects) phenomena that initially reside as a kind of impulse in the human subjective. Conscious awareness on the part of the artist drives the realization of subject into object (microgenetically); hence my working assumption—that the unfolding of awareness (via experimentation and artist practice) drives the emergent representation of signs in an artist's visionary productions. The dynamic is much like this: As the puppeteer becomes more experienced, and thus more aware of the possibilities of the marionette, the legs believably walk, the hands believably wave, and a puppet can be manipulated so as to appear to have a living, breathing heart. These are all signs within the overall artwork production (the puppet play) that emerge as awareness and technique likewise unfold. Consciousness brings forth artistic animation in form.

Carried forth through the duration of the creative process, the piece of art is considered whole (or 'finished') usually because it satisfies something internal to the artist who created it; there is a resonance of the object with one or more interior 'signifieds' or 'referents' particular to the artist's consciousness. Formal fullness is evoked as far as the artist's sensibilities are concerned. As when one knows when sex with a partner is finished, so too does the artist just know when the artwork is whole. To continue the 'finished object' is as fruitless as continuing the obviously finished sex-act. Intuition, felt as an interior phenomenon based in mystery, drives the artist to evoke and preserve the state of intuition in objective form (via its syntax), then display the object in an appropriate venue and witness the responses to it by audiences (its semantic persuasion). [3] Referents are transferred from the artist through the object and into a cultural/semantic space in which the syntax of the artwork triggers referent-based re-connections in individual audience members—thus, a true re-cognition, soul to soul in intersubjective unity, because referents and signifieds belong to no one person?for the smallest human unit is not one, but two.

Polysemy, part of a overall theory of many-referents, many-levels, many-signs, many-states, many-personae, many-meanings at play in the artwork, clears the way to unfurl an investigation of the panoply of referents/signifieds potentially available to artists to pour into their work, to utilize intuitively, semi-consciously, or even consciously. [4] By 'investigation', I mean through the use of various methodology (behavioral experiments anchored in modules of practice) that can activate consideration of these referents in one's imagination in a healthy, sustainable manner (see The Artist's Breath for more on integral artist practice). The concept of polysemy is thus rightly seen not as a constriction upon the messaging of artwork, but as the outline of the horizon up ahead, and behind your every breath, in every moment, in what an artwork can evoke coherently for others. If humans have the capacity to take the perspectives of material, conceptual, and essential, then so does our artwork's communication, as extended representations of that spectrum, which nothing but our own humanity, in both depth and span.


THE EXEMPLAR OF MUSIC
I've long always had a particular love for music that makes you move your body, wind your rational mind, and light up your most elemental core—all simultaneously in a single composition or piece of music, the feeling of which often is, "I don't know what is going on, but I sure do like it." [5] Music of this kind is a full-meal—for the ear, the body, the mind, and everything. It provides, as some say, an 'ear-gasm'. And in this way, music can work as polysemy, because the essential template of sign representation is triggered in the experience. Because music easily demonstrates potential polysemy, I use the following explication as the general template where I distill my theory of musical semiotics into a theory for all of artwork.

My favorite music simultaneously fulfills three levels of semantic/cultural perception. The music entertains, educates, and enlightens. Whether forcefully or passively, directly or with nuance, through simplicity or complexity, the essential semantic/cultural capacities of art is that it can Entertain—to occupy through amusement; Educate—to impart knowledge; and Enlighten—to stimulate essential illumination. Some examples from the American Big Band tradition—such as Ellington's and Kenton's best work—often exude these dynamics. Some Nigerian Juju music (King Ebenezer Obey and King Sunny Ade) does as well. The Beatles, Talking Heads, U2, Saul Williams, and most recent Wilco are examples from the contemporary pop world. Bach's Cello Suites are examples from European Classical (a tradition that has tended to de-emphasized the bodily-response aspect of music, at least officially). Indonesian Gamelan, at least those works that are accompanied by dancers, exhibit semantic polysemy. [6] Of course there are a whole lot more.

In such cases, musicians and/or composers hone and polish in order that their music exhibits the characteristics, or signifiers, of a range I summarize as funk, fugue, and flash. Funk—in that the music's aspects stimulate bodily motion and non-intellectual pleasure/emotion; Fugue—in that aspects utilize contrapuntal juxtaposition of musical and conceptual lines; Flash—in that aspects evoke unmistakably powerful/joyous emotions that dissolve the boundaries between artist, music object, and audience. These characteristics, on each level, are found/experienced when one considers the art object's formal aesthetic moments that the materials, features, utterances, and marks of the artwork foster coherantly.

But musical works function not only as whole, but also as parts of a larger environment where all works of art are tempered within an interobjective system that determines the requisites for formal completeness of harmonious arrangement. [7] Just as the boundaries for allowable narrative and non-narrative structures (fiction, nonfiction, poetic writing) evolve over time, so to do the boundaries for allowable 'completeness' in any kind of artwork evolve. But there are basic patterns that I highlight here. The syntactical range of social, serious, sacred is useful (for artists) in the eventual consideration of societal contexts that each import unique institutional resonance. In other words, the musical whole (song, composition) is so in three essential ways: Social—which is a popular/bodily syntax; Serious—which is a mental/conceptual syntax, and Sacred—which is a contemplative/essential syntax. It is easy to see that these kinds of syntax form the basis for institutional dynamics (i.e., cafe, museum, church) in the brick-and-mortar houses of display and presentation that act as irrigation of signs perceived by audiences—for certain institutions favor or emphasize certain kinds of syntax (as well as marginalize others).

And of course, artist consciousness is a primary force for the creation of artistic/creative signs in the artwork. I represent the levels of signifieds as inspiration, insight, and intuition. [8] Inspiration—the creative engine that excites artist and audience out of the state of inertia; Insight—the mental cognition that penetrates interior fog/confusion to grasp ideas/themes central to the artwork; Intuition—the guide of moment-to-moment decision-making and overall contours of construction. One, two, or all three can drive the emergence of a particular art object. Each level is a gradation of timeless, human will.

And so, after the truths offered by Schopenhauer, McLuhan, and Paglia, I suggest that we can say that this: The artwork extends into form the artist's timeless will, tempered by particular dispositions and gradations of sexual, psychological, and spiritual personae; the more gradations extended into formal representations, the more signs in the artwork, and thus more meaning and fullness that enriches human experience through art. In this way, worldviews can be evoked through intuitive/experimental artwork that expertly dances upon and beyond the lines and signs of the familiar and the unknown.



What all this means is that we have a map. But not just any map—this four-part extension of broad semiotics outlines a transdisciplinary map. It is a map that, I assert, applies to the overall condition of artwork, no matter what medium. What I present here is a stable touchstone of working signposts (based in common-sense evidence and anecdote of what actually happens in the overall arc of the creative process, from a 'nothing' into a 'something'). And as a touchstone, it is best used as a reservoir for the development, on the part of the artist and artist collectives, of new inquiries that then lead to new artistic experiments, artistic results, new or refreshed perspectives, and the even more experiments, inquiries, results, and so on and so forth through the eventual body of an artist's work, as the individual and collective Muse leads the artist to face fear and leap into the novelty of creative emergence and resonance, over and over again.


LEARN TO EARN THE RIGHT TO BURN
The working hypothesis of polysemy (and, thus, integral artwork theory) is this: A skillful manufacture of artwork can synthesize the full-spectrum of consciousness (or signifieds) into a single piece of coherent artwork that blows the doors of perception in the audience wide, wide open, in ways that audiences (importantly) are able to react to while being rather stunned by the display and the emotional alchemy. Great art stubbornly surprises and the method to create great art can never be predicted or prescribed. Yet when artists know that polysemy is available for audience absorption, when polysemy is part of their overall consideration/education as artists, a practical and lightly outlined 'target' becomes available to their private study and craftsmanship. The artist can attune their own intentions and technical skills to push their work further to allow more and more artistic light to illumine the artwork. The details of how to accomplish polysemy in each medium of art I prefer to leave open at this time, though I will say that experiments in methodology along the four spectrums of integral artwork are already under way and we will likely see the results within a couple years.

More generally, I believe that artists who are educated, informed, and able to manage their own areas of fear at their edges simply let 'er rip in order to intuitively scan for novelty and novel audience response to artistic gesture. In preparation for this 'letting-go'—Charlie Parker's famous dictum to practice rigorously in order to be able to just play on the bandstand—the artist can choose to anchor his or her artistic study or practice loosely around the touch-points suggested by my theory of integral artwork, and thus over time increase one's cognitive, emotional, and technical capacity to operate with mastery in their areas of art. And, again, so that they can let it all go on the stage of their work's presentation.

'Post-conventional' in the context of artwork production means the artist learns, and then transcends, the various conventions (small- and large-scale) that make up the artist's medium. Transcendence of convention must be earned. Polysemy, a part of my theory of integral artwork (which can also be viewed as a kind of 'art/media studies'), is rightly considered knowledge to learn and then subsequently burn. In whatever manner post-conventional art manifests, it undoubtedly requires of the artist a large degree of experimentation, trial and error, and disciplined study. Fundamentally, I assert that the study of polysemy is a stable method (or yoga) that actively supports the creation of post-conventional art.

An artist's ability to communicate through art is an organic process that must live, breath, and be washed by the juices of experienced life and culture. The artist must always overcome the fear of being in the world as a creative individual. To the extent that our fears 'die', we cease being controlled by such contractions. Our artwork steps into novelty when, having earned our experiences, we confront and then embody the mystery that lies beyond the lines drawn by our contemporary conventions and ancestral roots. We die to whatever emerges in this informed and intuitive perceptual clearing. Polysemy functions as a map of conventions that act as caisson for the building of artwork that seeks to transcend, include, negate, preserve, and push beyond any such map, and ultimately do what artists naturally seek to accomplish—to make something both meaningful, resonant, as well as authentically fresh.


POSTSCRIPT: TO SURRENDER AS A DEATH
An 'essential death' (as opposed to a 'material death', and a 'conceptual death') acts in its own way with regard to the artistic process. What it feels like is a full surrender. It is an acceptance of deep identity born of acceptance. It is an agreement with boundary-less awareness. With a material death, you release your artwork from a predetermined plastic shape/form. With a conceptual death, you release your art from 'the idea', or intellectual (and thus restrictive) underpinning. Whereas with an 'essential death', you die to your contracted self, during the process of artwork creation. Your body remains, your emotions remain, your ideas remain, everything remains.

But you, deeply, are not any of those forms. You, deeply, swim in any direction. You, deeply, ride electricity from its resonant source, wherever and whenever it pops forth. It feels light, as if in an expansive field. Creativity itself comes from boundary-less space, and to here it must return, through the created artwork, which is thus a kind of circuitry out of then back into the mystery, through form, that the artist irrigates.

When you die essentially, you and your artistic intentions are reborn immediately as energy, which can be channeled anywhere, and signaled in your artwork through discreet but wholly discernible. It is as when you witness all of life's essence in a single drop. The precious vial of humanity and sentience lives within your heart. Life breaks the vial, but faith restores it. Your essential death instills the vial in your central core of being.

In a radical moment, while you make you art, or perhaps just before, you are your Self. Your Self is my Self is everyone's Self. There are no boundaries. And when you die, or surrender, in his way, you feel a harmonic expanse that has no limit or earthly restrictions. You are the field of potential electricity; or rather, the electricity is you, with 100% efficiency, and thus flows through your awareness purely and without filter. The pregnant bed of potential is the bed where you fall awake.

Intuition, as the acceptance of impulse, or the will-to-live, which lies beyond inspiration and insight, leads your decisions and the formal contours of your artwork. Intuition is you and also not you; it is trans-you. This is the source of all sources. It is a simple place; more simple than we initially want to believe. The voice that we have long ignored, yet stubbornly persists all these years, lives here. When you listen to that voice, which is the outward sheathe of your most discreet creative river, all your own yet radically everyone's as well, you are in unison with all of human resonance.

And so it is this: To create at the essential level requires an essential death, a surrender to your being, however it is, which brings forth an untempered emanation of your own calling, there all along, and fearlessly blown through the actual form and shape of your artwork, for all to witness, feel, and experience. You die so that all can live at the discreet level of their own native, but transcendent, intuition.

MD
Chicago, Illinois
November 2005


Endnotes

[1] From The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art. Mark Rothko. Yale, 2004: p. 10.

[2] Polysemy simply assumes that human consciousness is a dynamic of structures and states of some variety. The essential truth of 'art as polysemy' is unchanged no matter which particular model of consciousness is employed in the background.

[3] I adopt the signified/signifier/syntax/semantic configuration of 'broad semiotics' from Wilber's brief mention of it in his endnotes to The Eye of Spirit, ch. 5. For a far deeper exploration of semiotics, see Handbook of Semiotics, by Winfried Noth.

[4] Though we are rightly skeptical of artists who are too conscious of what they create.

[5] Not only dynamics of the music, but also conditions of openness on the part of the audience members, brings forth the polysemic perception.

[6] It bears note that musical beauty is such no matter what structure of objective polysemy. As Mathieu reminds, the soul connectionof music belongs to everyone, no matter the culture.

[7] Thus every artwork is a holon, a whole and a part.

[8] What I describe as the full spectrum of signifieds loosely aligns with 'body, mind, spirit', or other post-Piaget models of development, including those of Wilber. It is accurate to say that I apply polysemy as 'integral polysemy' or 'integral art semiotics', though I prefer just 'polysemy' on the grounds of easy of use, as well as to be still-applicable to any technical model of human psychology. No matter the model of consciousness, artworks can still exhibit 'many signs'.


SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
select essays/manifestos by the author, available at his website
The Artist's Mind: An Integral Art Manifesto. Dallman, M.
The Artist's Breath: Prone to the Muse. Dallman, M.
The Integral Canvas. Dallman, M.
The Flows of Art and Fear. Dallman, M.
To Suspend Disbelief. Dallman, M.

select books/dissertations of relevance by others
Has Modernism Failed? Suzi Gablik.
On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Elkins, James.
The Mysticism of Sound and Music. Inayat Khan, Hazrat.
Creative and Mental Growth. Lowenfeld, Viktor.
The Principles of Art. Collingwood, R.G.
Minimal Music, Maximal Impact. Gann, Kyle.
Bonaventure: The Soul's Journey into God, the Tree of Life, the Life of St. Francis. Cousins, Ewert.
The World as Will and Representation. Schopenhauer, Arthur.
Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan, Marshall.
Sexual Personae. Paglia, Camille.
The Listening Book, and The Musical Life. Mathieu, W.A.
The Eye of the Beholder: Measuring Aesthetic Development. Housen, Abigail.
Handbook of Semiotics. Noth, Winfried.
The Eye of Spirit. Wilber, Ken.





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