The art of consciousness

By | Art & Design
The phenomenon of being conscious has been food for thought for many painters. Credit@False Memory

In his legal writings, Cicero often refers to a concept which he calls conscientia and which in a juridical sense means someone has witnessed the deeds of somebody else. The term derives from conscius, formed by the prefix con- (“together”) and the verb scio (“I know”), which means certain knowledge is shared with another person. Through French (conscience) the word appears in the English language – one of the early uses is in Leviathan (1651) by Thomas Hobbes: “Where two, or more men, know of one and the same fact, they are said to be conscious of it one to another.”

Being the source of so many concepts applied in the thinking of the modern man, Descartes (1596–1650) is also the first philosopher who coined the term conscience in the sense which is close to the one used today, poetically juxtaposing it with “internal testimony”. Further development of this notion occurs in Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) by John Locke, where it is defined as “the perception of what passes in a man’s own mind”. In more recent times, the phenomenon of being conscious has become a research topic in disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology and neuropsychology.

It also was a theme for artists – prominent examples are the modernist writers like James Joyce and Marcel ProustIt has been food for thought for many painters as well and examples of this might be seen at the exhibition States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness, which is open from 4th February 2016 to 16th October 2016 in the Wellcome Collection on 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE. 

Histological slide. Credit:Cajal Legacy

Histological slide. Credit:Cajal Legacy

It displays various works by artists and also by psychologists, philosophers and neuroscientists, which illustrate the understanding of consciousness and examine the possible differences between consciousness and unconsciousness. It features paintings, historical material, drawings, notes, objects and an evolving programme of contemporary art installations.

The first one, Science/Soul, includes works like ‘The soul hovering over the body reluctantly parting with life’ by Luigi Schiavonetti and aims to deal with the concept of dualism: the recognition stating mind and body are two separate substances, as Descartes suggested. The section includes drawings by Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the founder of neuroscience, accompanied by the notes of Francis Crick, biologist, biophysicist and neuroscientist, famous for co-discovering the structure of the DNA molecule.

Vladimir Nabokov's Alphabet in Color.  Credit: JeanHolabird. Wellcome Collection.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Alphabet in Color.
Credit: JeanHolabird. Wellcome Collection.

The painting Alphabet in Colour by Jean Holabird illustrates Vladimir Nabokov’s experience of perceiving letters as colours and thus gives a popular example of synaesthesia — a condition where one sense perception involuntary aims to triggers another. On the whole, the Science/Soul section explores how matter and mind interact and how a biologically objective brain creates a subjective reality.

The second section, Sleep/Awake, examines the terrain between two basic states of the human consciousness – sleep and wakefulness. As illustration serve scenes from The cabinet of Dr Caligari, a 1920 silent film, historically notable for the German Expressionist cinema, about a hypnotist who commands a sleeping man. The Nightmare, a painting by the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, depicts the opposite condition: sleep paralysis, where only the body sleeps and the mind is awake.

In Language/Memory, works like Mary Kelly’s Post-Partum Document, which displays how the relationship with her son is gradually changing as he develops speaking skills, show the Wittgensteinian importance of language in the phenomenon of consciousness. On the other hand, the fourth section deals with conditions such as anaesthesia – the closest state to brain stem downfall – and such as the moral controversy of care, rehabilitation and euthanasia aims of people who are minimally conscious.

States of Mind: Tracing the edges of consciousness is open from 4th February 2016 to 16th October 2016 in the Wellcome Collection on 183 Euston Road, London, NW1 2BE.

How does art supplement philosophy, psychology and neuroscience in illuminating the understanding of consciousness?

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