The Validity of Post Modern Art Theory:

The Conscious vs. the Unconscious Mind

George Sakkal

August 2008

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We are living through a period in American culture where the status quo regards art that is visually composed and retinally conceived to be out of date and out of fashion.  We are advised that we should cease believing that human intuition and the unconscious mind play a significant role in achieving artistic creativity. We are told that we should no longer assume that the search for composition as employed in the visual – retinal method of two dimensional painting is valid. This process where art was molded, shaped and guided by the eye of the artist to evolve into a finished piece is methodology that has fallen from grace. Indeed, we are informed that painting itself, a form of expression dominated by the retina, is passé 1. We have entered the 21st century with a different outlook regarding art…one shaped by ideology not methodology.

Today the respected artist is seen as one who conceives of art through his conscious mind. We are told that creativity derives from ideas and concepts. Marcel Duchamp, who is regarded as having the greatest influence on the rise of conceptual art 2, believed the conscious mind offers complete personal, intellectual and artistic freedom. To think of art consciously, Duchamp theorized, would set the mind free to act on its own 3. For Duchamp, art was always an embodiment of the idea coming first 4, not the visual. Duchamp made a point of criticizing artists who he regarded as retinal. For example, a “house painter’’ is how he referred to Claude Monet. One, “…who painted for the pleasure of splashing greens and reds together” .Duchamp criticized Monet’s work for relying on methodology indicating it lacked a cerebral, conscious mind quality. He denounced it as being,  “…just purely retinal” 5.

There was a time in the early 20th century when reliance on the use of the unconscious mind as a creative resource was accepted as being central to human creative expression. Surrealism, an art movement inspired by the unconscious, was founded by the French poet Andre Breton. It was influenced by the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud which were gaining favor in Europe at the time. In 1924 Breton published the “Manifesto of Surrealism” that explained the relationship of art to the human unconscious. Stimulated by the research and published works of Freud, surrealistic art came to epitomize the notion that the unconscious mind represented a vast storehouse of repressed feelings and emotion that when unlocked could give vent to a new form of visual expression. An interpretation of dreams and automatic word writing techniques were employed by the surrealists to gain access to the repressed feelings that they believed resided just below the surface of human consciousness.  Breton believed, the unconscious mind, filled with traditional morality that imprisoned it in guilt could in the hands of the creative artist expose human irrationality, and change life for the better. 6

Breton had a great admiration for Duchamp. He employed his services whenever he could and sought to solicit his support in his cause. Duchamp however had serious reservations about art that derived its creativity from the unconscious mind. In 1967, a year after Breton’s death, he would say of Surrealism, “I myself have never had a part in any such group explorations of unknown lands, due to that something in my character which prohibits me from exchanging the most intimate things of my being with anyone else.” 7  At the time that Duchamp made this pronouncement the unconscious mind was largely regarded as what Freud had defined it decades earlier to be, a guilt laden storehouse of repressed experience…a place where we hide our deepest fears 8. Respectable society had come to believe it best to keep their unconscious motivations and feelings hidden 9. With repression central to the basis of accepted understanding, it is no wonder that Duchamp would seek to distance himself from the unconscious. For Duchamp the passage to creative freedom was strictly by way of the conscious mind.

Duchamp’s approach, theories and writings that singled out the importance of relying on the conscious mind for creating art has had a dominant effect on Western culture in the second half of the 20th century that continues into the beginning of this, the 21st.  The theory that the human capacity for creating art is best served by a conscious, conceptual act rather than an intuitive, unconscious one is now a fundamental postulate accepted by the status quo. Since his death in 1968 Duchamp’s influence set in motion a series of art movements that include Pop, Minimal, Conceptual, Performance, Process, Kinetic, Anti-form, and Multimedia art 10.  This body of “idea” inspired art we have come to collectively define as “Post Modern”.  Post Modern is an ideologically based, preconceived conceptually, conscious mind driven art era dramatically distinguished from the former “Modern” methodologically search based, retinal, unconscious mind driven period 11.

Beginning in 1913 and continuing into the 1920’s Duchamp introduced the concept of instant art 12.  According to Duchamp by conceptually identifying and signing objects that were already created for other purposes the artist could establish art instantly. This art of the “Readymade” became an accepted form of creativity by the 1960’s. The notion that art could be instantly created by decree would come to have a significant adverse affect on conventional wisdom that believed that art followed an evolutionary developmental continuum. If art was everywhere and it was understood that the artist’s preconceived idea could decide absolutely what was art, the belief in the developmental evolution of art was at an end.  How could art evolve if the act of determining art could occur instantly by the mere decree of the artist?

Another noteworthy influence of the 1960’s would come from Ad Reinhart’s series of black blank canvases. With the introduction of this work, Reinhart would seek to reduce art to its very essence…and by so doing negate everything retinal in art. Reinhart applied the logic of art’s evolutionary continuum to minimize over time the visual in his work to absolutely nothing…as his followers would claim…to bring art to its very end 13. Caught between the conceptually formed, absolutely determined ‘readymades’ and the nihilistic notions of the end of developmental art, the theory of Post Modernism would disparage the evolutionary continuum of art and set a new standard.  Both the avant-garde and the academies would join together to champion, embrace and steward a Post Modern art theory formed from ideology…as the new status quo.

All movements, eras and the beliefs upon which they are based, no matter how deeply entrenched… in time become objects of scrutiny. The discovery of new knowledge…important findings that are tested and proven to be valid… often drawn from other areas of learning… when applied to unintended fields… offer startling insight to challenge accepted rules and standards. Every now and then when a challenge to the norms of accepted behavior overwhelm the forum of debate …it sets in motion the forces of revolution where the former order disintegrates and another rises to replace it.

Let us turn our attention to a time long ago… a time when it is believed that the unconscious mind first appeared on the evolutionary plane of human development.  Anthropological findings 14 reveal the emergence of the unconscious mind to have occurred about 200,000 years ago when the specie of homo erectus evolved to become modern man, the specie of homo sapiens.  For nearly all of the 200,000 years since… evolutionary growth of the human brain has focused on the development of the unconscious mind…a mind that over this span of time would vastly increase in complexity and sophistication and come to significantly influence human behavior. By contrast the emergence of the conscious mind can be traced to the relatively recent period of Greek philosophy, less than 3,000 years ago 15. The 3,000 years of conscious mind development, relatively minuscule, as it is, was not steady development. For nearly a period of 500 years conscious mind development was interrupted during the “Dark Ages” when self awareness went into hibernation 16.

Perhaps more striking than the 200,000 years of evolutionary advancement of the unconscious mind is the development of the human eye which has been experiencing evolutionary growth for millions of years beginning with the emergence of the early primates.  The development of the eye evolved to a heightened level of sophistication well in advance of the development of the unconscious mind. As visual color and stereoscopic, 3-D vision aptitudes evolved they affected development of the brain enabling it to sort out increasing volumes of sensory data which in turn played a major role in stimulating the unconscious mind’s evolutionary development 17. For over a million years communication was dominated by the visual…you came to understand your surroundings by visual imaging. By contrast it was relatively recently …only 45,000 years ago…that speech made its presence 18. Until then for millions of years prior the eyes and visual imaging were mankind’s means for understanding the world. It was this long period of extensive development that has lead to the miraculous sophistication of the human eye.

The retina of the eye is a masterpiece of enormous complexity. It contains over one hundred million photoreceptors that enable the transfer within a nano-second of one high resolution image after another all performed by the human mind working unconsciously. What we see through our retina involves about one third of the entire human cerebral cortex… more than a billion nerve cells. We take in 11,000,000 pieces of information per second unconsciously. Our eyes alone receive and send 10,000,000 signals to our brain each second all performed unconsciously. By contrast science has determined humans possess a capacity to process only about 40 pieces of information per second consciously 19.    

We should not be misguided in our understanding of the very important roles played by the retina of our eye and the unconscious mind of our brain in governing our lives and our creative capacities. . Freud misunderstood the unconscious mind. He relegated the unconscious mind to the status of a warehouse of repressed emotion. In recent years new psychology research reveals an unconscious of a much greater magnitude…a place where all human emotion, feelings and impressions reside…recorded from the day of our birth to the present moment. For purposes of artistic creativity this research reveals that the human perceptual system operates largely outside of conscious awareness 20. The vast, storehouse of human experience resides in the unconscious. If we are to believe that art is the creative manifestation of the human experience, than maximizing creativity occurs by way of the unconscious mind. Methodology, assisted by the sophistication of the retina and a visual, unconsciously functioning perceptivity through compositional search is what provides the means to access, to interpret and to apply stored human experience…the true pathway to achieving artistic freedom.

In contrast…new research in the field of human psychology reveals the conscious mind to be entirely dependent upon the presence of the unconscious mind. Furthermore, much of what we had assumed we could conceptually envision with the conscious mind has been determined to be unseeable 21. The unconscious mind does virtually all the work. Conscious will may be nothing more than an illusion 22. It is now understood that if one were to rely conceptually upon the conscious mind to serve as the generator of creative expression, the relative result would most certainly be drawn from an infinitesimally minute part of the human creative capacity and thereby reflect artistic worth accordingly. Art conceptualization demonstrates the micro idea of intelligence or awareness at its most simplistic level. Rather than brilliance, the resulting expression borders on the realm of ignorance 23.

For those who espouse the theory of Marcel Duchamp, who insist that by way of the conscious mind and ideology one can arrive at artistic mental freedom… they may be best served by what Nietzsche had to say, “…those who plunge nature into the abyss of annihilation by dent of their knowledge must themselves also suffer the disintegration of nature” 24. For much too long society has been made the victim of Post Modern art theory. As a consequence cultural self awareness over the past several decades has digressed to the extent that it may have once again slipped backward into hibernation.

The Post Modern art  theorizes retinal conceived art to be dead. It is not that this form of art is dead, rather it is Post Modern… through its profound flawed understanding of the forces that govern and shape human behavior and creativity…that has annihilated itself upon the altar of conceptual conviction.  Post Modern art theory was invalid to begin with. Claude Monet was always right after all.






1  Crimp, Douglas, “The End of Painting”, October, Vol. 16, Spring 1981, p. 75

2  Tomkins, Calvin, “Duchamp”, New York:  Henry Holt, 1996, p.12

3  Ibid., p.13

4 Ibid., p.159

5  Goldfarb Marquis, Alice, “Marcel Duchamp: The Bachelor Stripped Bare, Boston:  MFA     Publications, 2002, p. 277

6  Tomkins, p. 261

7  Ibid., p. 267

8  Dickerman, Leah, “Dada…”, National Gallery of Art:  Washington, D.C., 2005, p. 29

9  Wilson, Timothy, “Strangers to Ourselves:  Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious”, Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2002, p. 7

10  Tomkins, p. 12

11  Kuspit, Donald, “The End of Art”, New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 97

12  Goldfarb, p. 95

13  Danto, Arthur, “Ad Reinhart”, The Nation, Aug/Sep., 1991, p. 240

14  Morwood, Mike, Sutikna, Thomas and Roberts, Richard, “The People Time Forgot”, National Geographic, April, 2005, p. 15 Bodmer, Walter & Mckie, Robin, “The Book of Man”, New York:  Scribner, 1994, p. 154

15  Norretranders, Tor (translated by Sydenham, Jonathan), “The User Illusions”, New York:  Penguin Putnam, 1998, p. 314

16  Ibid., p. 320

17  Lampon, Christopher, “New Theories on the Origins of the Human Race”, New York:  Franklin Watts, 1989, p. 70

18  Bodmer, p. 159

19  Wilson, p. 24

20  Ibid., p. 10

21  Ibid., p. 15

22  Ibid., p. 5

23  Norretranders, p. 133

24  Sarfianski, Rudiger, “Nietzsche”: A Philosophical Biography”, W.W. Norton, 2002, p. 83