How does the shown object point to a better world?

Birch bark with black water­col­or. Found in sum­mer 2020 at Ball Club Lake near Grand Marais, MN, USA.

On vaca­tion in sum­mer 2020 I was look­ing in the forest for birch bark to paint on. I had been writ­ing about Hofstadter’s “strange loop” concept and how it relates to Calvino’s Six Memos. (A strange loop is the idea of cyc­lic­al pro­cesses that “cross levels” and integ­rate diverse ele­ments to cause self-ref­er­en­ti­al­ity and aware­ness through time, includ­ing intel­li­gence.) I believe that Six Memos refers to Hofstadter’s “Goedel Escher Bach” (GEB) by its uncom­pleted final sec­tion “Con­sist­ency” which maps to GEB’s chapter IV “Con­sist­ency, Com­plete­ness, and Geo­metry,” because both dis­cuss uncom­pleted art­works and the “uncom­pleted” nature of art and con­scious­ness. I cre­ated the mill­stone image painted on the bark in sum­mer 2018 for an annu­ally recur­ring “stone circle” install­a­tion piece about Six Memos called “Sol­s­tiz­io Calvino,” a ref­er­ence to the pre­his­tor­ic idea of astro­nomy as a mill as described by San­til­lana who is quoted in Six Memos. I found sev­er­al good pieces of birch bark lay­ing on the ground and dry for paint­ing, includ­ing a small piece nat­ur­ally curled into a mobi­us form as dis­cussed in GEB. The mill­stone image is related to the Mis­sis­sippi river and how flour mills helped build the city of Min­neapol­is. Find­ing and paint­ing this object was uto­pi­an for me because it was serendip­it­ous and helped me feel hope­ful under­stand­ing about a new hypo­thes­is I cre­ated in sum­mer 2019. This hypo­thes­is states that the Mona Lisa is a cyc­lic­al image of plan­et­ary com­plex­ity in which water flow, geo­lo­gic time, and the flow of the his­tory of tech­no­logy (sym­bol­ized by the stone bridge and gar­ment) as it relates to human exper­i­ence express a vis­ion of hope and pro­gress that Leonardo designed as a spe­cif­ic com­mu­nic­a­tion to the world’s present moment, a mes­sage still cru­cially unre­cog­nized five hun­dred years later.

This is how I imagine a better world:

By way of research into the rela­tion­ship between neur­os­cience and med­it­a­tion, I have come to believe that med­it­a­tion (under­stood in many dif­fer­ent ways by many cul­tures, often in aes­thet­ic terms) is fun­da­ment­al to the neuro­plas­ti­city and func­tion­al net­works which under­lie brain func­tion, includ­ing learn­ing, impro­visa­tion, and adapt­a­tion under­stood as core func­tions of con­scious­ness and intel­li­gence. There­fore med­it­a­tion is fun­da­ment­al to both sci­ence and art as human activ­it­ies, on the levels of both the­ory and of prac­tice.

A plan­et in which med­it­a­tion, too often severed into war­ring sys­tems of doc­trine, could be stud­ied and prac­ticed more widely might be less sub­ject to the destruct­ive rav­ages of and time lost to hate, fear, and per­petu­ated trauma in both the human and nat­ur­al worlds. The plan­et could even become uniquely empowered to reduce these harms going for­ward and repair their accu­mu­lated dam­ages.

West­ern art and sci­ence is try­ing to catch up with the neur­os­cience of med­it­a­tion but pro­gress is some­times too slow, in part because the inter­re­la­tion­ships to be mapped and con­cepts to be integ­rated form a fab­ric that is too com­plex to be under­stood quickly and eas­ily and too trans­dis­cip­lin­ary to have been taken up by the increas­ingly com­part­ment­al­ized pro­fes­sions of expert­ise. Attempts to engage with and under­stand this com­plex­ity is also some­times seen as destabil­iz­ing to soci­ety, and jeop­ard­iz­ing of tra­di­tion, des­pite being the core mes­sage and mis­sion of almost all of these same tra­di­tions! Leonardo under­stood these dilem­mas at the begin­ning of the mod­ern age and we are still caught tightly in their grip as we near its end.

Since focus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar and illus­trat­ive example can some­times help cata­lyze changes of per­cep­tion, the Mona Lisa could be espe­cially rel­ev­ant to our present day. Leonardo schol­ar­ship is vast, and writ­ing about the Mona Lisa is volu­min­ous, yet it has nev­er con­sidered that the mean­ing of the bridge in the back­ground of the Mona Lisa may be a meta­phor of the flow of the his­tory of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, and human arti­fice over long timespans. (The bridge is thought to sym­bol­ize and express exactly noth­ing, with the pos­sible excep­tion of Carlo Starnazzi’s 2008 view that the bridge rep­res­ents Leonardo’s engin­eer­ing work to con­nect two river sys­tems by a nav­ig­able elev­ated canal, and Robert Zwijnenberg’s 2012 com­ment that the bridge con­nects the mac­ro­cosm to the micro­cosm per link below.)

To open up dis­cus­sion of the pos­sible mean­ing of the bridge as A) an emblem of human activ­ity in the prim­or­di­al land­scape which oth­er­wise depicts none, B) a con­nec­tion of the back­ground mac­ro­cosm to the fore­ground micro­cosm, and C) a sym­bol of tech­no­logy through his­tory which flows into and “weaves” the “gar­ment” of the tech­no­lo­gic­al present does not fit into any agenda of Leonardo schol­ar­ship past or cur­rent. How­ever, such a dis­cus­sion is con­ceiv­able and achiev­able if “bar­ri­ers to entry” of such ideas can be sur­moun­ted (per­haps by dis­cus­sion in non-tra­di­tion­al ven­ues, by non-experts, wel­com­ing of course input from experts but not can­cel­ling the dis­cus­sion simply because of expert dis­agree­ment). Work by Mar­tin Kemp regard­ing the flow dynam­ics expressed by the gar­ment, rivers, geo­logy, and human ana­tomy in the paint­ing can be applied to the bridge as a start­ing point.

Con­tras­ted to the technology/engineering/history fab­ric of the bridge and gar­ment is of course the key sub­ject of the paint­ing: the act­ive human con­scious­ness of the sit­ter and, by mir­ror­ing on both neur­al and con­cep­tu­al levels, that of the view­er. Leonardo wrote extens­ively on “Exper­i­ence” (or “Exper­i­en­tia”) which he felt was the key prin­ciple and pro­cess at the heart of art and sci­ence (thus integ­rat­ing them togeth­er). The Mona Lisa can be under­stood as an alleg­or­ic­al por­trait of Exper­i­ence (com­par­able to the alleg­or­ic­al por­trait Leonardo pro­posed for the Duke of Mil­an as anoth­er abstrac­tion, Good For­tune).

Quo­ta­tions about Exper­i­ence from Leonardo’s note­books include:

“Though I may not, like them, be able to quote oth­er authors, I shall rely on that which is much great­er and more worthy — on exper­i­ence, the mis­tress of their Mas­ters. They go about puffed up and pom­pous, dressed and dec­or­ated with [the fruits], not of their own labours, but of those of oth­ers. And they will not allow me my own.”

“I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause cer­tain arrog­ant per­sons to think that they may with reas­on cen­sure me, alleging that I am a man without let­ters. Fool­ish folk! Do they not know that I may retort by say­ing, as did Mari­us to the Roman patri­cians: ‘They who them­selves go adorned in the labour of oth­ers will not per­mit me my own?’ They will say that, because of my lack of book learn­ing, I can­not prop­erly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my sub­jects are based on exper­i­ence rather than the words of oth­ers? And exper­i­ence has been the mis­tress of those who wrote well. And so, as mis­tress, I will acknow­ledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evid­ence.”

“Many will think they may reas­on­ably blame me by alleging that my proofs are opposed to the author­ity of cer­tain men held in the highest rev­er­ence by their inex­per­i­enced judg­ments; not con­sid­er­ing that my works are the issue of pure and simple exper­i­ence, who is the one true mis­tress. These rules are suf­fi­cient to enable you to know the true from the false — and this aids men to look only for things that are pos­sible and with due mod­er­a­tion — and not to wrap your­self in ignor­ance, a thing which can have no good res­ult, so that in des­pair you would give your­self up to mel­an­choly.”

“These rules will enable you to have a free and sound judg­ment; since good judg­ment is born of clear under­stand­ing, and a clear under­stand­ing comes of reas­ons derived from sound rules, and sound rules are the issue of sound exper­i­ence — the com­mon moth­er of all the sci­ences and arts.”

“Exper­i­ence, the inter­pret­er between form­at­ive nature and the human race, teaches how that nature acts among mor­tals; and being con­strained by neces­sity can­not act oth­er­wise than as reas­on, which is its helm, requires her to act.”

“Wis­dom is the daugh­ter of exper­i­ence.”

“Nature is full of infin­ite causes that have nev­er occurred in exper­i­ence.”

“Exper­i­ence nev­er errs; it is only your judg­ments that err by prom­ising them­selves effects such as are not caused by your exper­i­ments.”

“Exper­i­ence does not err; only your judg­ments err by expect­ing from her what is not in her power. Men wrongly com­plain of Exper­i­ence; with great abuse they accuse her of lead­ing them astray but they set Exper­i­ence aside, turn­ing from it with com­plaints as to our ignor­ance caus­ing us to be car­ried away by vain and fool­ish desires to prom­ise ourselves, in her name, things that are not in her power; say­ing that she is fal­la­cious. Men are unjust in com­plain­ing of inno­cent Exper­i­ence, con­stantly accus­ing her of error and of false evid­ence.”

“Every instru­ment requires to be made by exper­i­ence.”

How does this bridge-gar­ment-exper­i­ence hypo­thes­is relate to the mobi­us form of the bark, the mill­stone image, Calvino, and Hof­stadter? Chiefly by way of the vor­tex form seen in the shawl of the sit­ter, which ref­er­ences the many detailed stud­ies of water flow in Leonardo’s note­books. Leonardo felt that vor­tices were essen­tial to water’s abil­ity to cause erosion and explained its beha­vi­or when it encountered obstacles. He saw them as a prime cause of erosion, and hence the geo­logy of moun­tains and rivers. Under­stand­ing and man­aging water flow through engin­eer­ing was key to his work as “Mas­ter of Water,” a title gran­ted him by the city of Florence, includ­ing the pre­ven­tion of erosion, flood man­age­ment, nav­ig­ab­il­ity engin­eer­ing to provide trans­port, and energy dis­tri­bu­tion to the city’s mills. Leonardo saw par­al­lels to water vor­tices across vastly diverse phe­nom­ena such as aero­dy­nam­ics, plant bio­logy (such as leaves, roots, branches, etc.), the curl­ing of hair (Kemp), the man­u­fac­ture of wool yarn and tex­tiles, and the math­em­at­ics of geo­met­ric­al knots.

It is there­fore quite reas­on­able to com­pare Leonardo’s approach to vor­tices and “braid­ing” (as expressed by Hof­stadter as the “etern­al golden braid” of con­scious­ness) to the concept of the strange loop (described in GEB ch. XX as “a vor­tex where all levels cross”). On a more per­son­al level, it was Calvino’s obser­va­tions about Leonardo as a writer of thou­sands of pages of manu­scripts, and not only a visu­al artist, on pages 77–80 of Six Memos which promp­ted me to view the Mona Lisa with fresh eyes and to con­sider the bridge as a sym­bol­ic, them­at­ic, and visu­al ele­ment, cent­ral to the work and dir­ectly related to Leonardo’s note­books, rather than just a pic­tur­esque back­ground detail. Leonardo said “Paint­ing is poetry which is seen and not heard, and poetry is a paint­ing which is heard but not seen. These two arts, you may call them both either poetry or paint­ing, have here inter­changed the senses by which they pen­et­rate to the intel­lect.” The Mona Lisa exem­pli­fies this inten­tion­al and con­scious tran­scend­ence of medi­um and form. Dia­gram­mat­ic­ally, the mill­stone image is a cross-sec­tion of a water vor­tex (com­par­able to the yin-yang, unit circle, etc.), and I believe that Leonardo is sug­gest­ing that Exper­i­ence itself is a “braid” of human­ity with nature — a com­plex vor­tex in which we integ­rate with envir­on­ment­al real­ity and “become ourselves” as a dance or dynam­ic pro­cess of inter­ac­tion through time (per­haps expressed by Leonardo as “Neces­sity is the mis­tress and guard­i­an of Nature”). Visu­ally and ima­gin­at­ively I now see sev­er­al loop- and vor­tex- based forms in the Mona Lisa: the flow of the rivers, the curls of the hair, the flow­ing of the spir­al shawl, the flow­ing canal-bridge cross­ing the river on the right, the braided embroid­ery of the garment’s neck­line, the spiral­ing folds of the sleeves, the “loop” I feel when shar­ing eye con­tact with the sit­ter, and the oscil­la­tions of the sitter’s renowned facial expres­sion.

The cent­ral and integ­rat­ive role of med­it­at­ive exper­i­ence in the the­ory and prac­tice of art, lit­er­at­ure, neur­os­cience, and net­works could become a trans­form­at­ive ele­ment in devel­op­ing a Hip­po­crat­ic mod­el of anthro­po­cene agency. The mor­al emphas­is in the Mona Lisa is to place human Exper­i­ence in a lived and embod­ied present at a pos­i­tion of high­er value than the man­u­fac­tured, engin­eered tech­no­lo­gic­al envir­on­ment (des­pite its fre­quent mag­ni­fi­cence). As its cre­at­or and dis­cover­er, Exper­i­ence should be val­ued more highly than tech­no­logy or its products. The lat­ter should be a help or sup­port to human­ity (a bridge or gar­ment) not to be con­fused with human­ity itself nor placed in a pos­ture of dom­in­a­tion over the human cap­ab­il­it­ies of vis­ion, ima­gin­a­tion, cre­ation, dis­cov­ery, and under­stand­ing. This par­al­lels the idea of “human-centered design” but takes it to a much more rich and com­plex space with cul­tur­al, bio­lo­gic­al, and tech­no­lo­gic­al dimen­sions. All this is informed by Leonardo’s fas­cin­a­tion and admir­a­tion for liv­ing organ­isms in all their diversity across all realms of Nature.

As the Anthro­po­cene age suc­ceeds the Mod­ern age — i.e., the age in which humans are “new” sub­sides into one in which our pres­ence has become mature and shapes our plan­et total­ist­ic­ally — a Hip­po­crat­ic concept of agency is clearly called for. Med­ic­al paradigms have nev­er been more ger­mane to our glob­al real­ity, wheth­er it be the pan­dem­ic of virii, cli­mate change, or resur­gent eth­non­a­tion­al­ist hatreds. Leonardo wrote that “I am nev­er weary of being use­ful” and “In serving oth­ers I can­not do enough.” These beliefs can inform a new kind of agency for each of us as artists and sci­ent­ists in our own capa­cit­ies. The unselfish­ness, prag­mat­ism, evid­en­tiary basis, and hol­ism of the Hip­po­crat­ic meth­od can become more than a pro­fes­sion­al credo for health care, and can illu­min­ate a path toward new con­cepts for eco­nom­ic, aes­thet­ic, social, and per­son­al agency. It is the logic­al adapt­a­tion to an age defined by the patho­lo­gies inflic­ted on the plan­et­ary envir­on­ment by our own human pres­ence. The health bene­fits of med­it­a­tion are well-estab­lished, and the Mona Lisa can be use­fully com­pared to and aligned with health-ori­ented paradigms as diverse as Buddhism (includ­ing the smile of Buddhist sculp­ture), Hel­len­ism (includ­ing the smile of archa­ic Greek statu­ary and the med­ic­al the­ory embed­ded in clas­sic­al tragedy), indi­gen­ous tra­di­tions of the trick­ster­/shape-shifter, sac­red hoop, and astro­nomy (such as the Ana­sazi Sun Dag­ger), and oth­er stone-circle tra­di­tions such as Stone­henge Rus­si­an mam­moth-bone struc­tures extend­ing into pre­his­tory.

As of 2020, there is no pub­lished or cent­ral organ­iz­a­tion work­ing on these hypo­theses — “no place” as it were — so they must be explored and embod­ied by each of us in our own lives, in how we express ourselves, talk with friends and col­leagues, and so forth. That is very much as it should be!

Links and ref­er­ences:

Kemp, Mar­tin. Mona Lisa: the People and the Paint­ing, 2017. Video from Aspen Con­fer­ence 2017.
Star­nazzi, Carlo. Leonardo from Tuscany to the Loire, 2008.
Hof­stadter, Douglas. Godel, Escher, Bach, 1979.
Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Mil­len­ni­um, 1985.
Aus­tin, James. Zen and the Brain, 1998. Chase, Chance, and Cre­ativ­ity, 1979.
Sporns, Olaf. Net­works of the Brain, 2010.
Jou­anna, Jacques. Hip­po­crat­ic Medi­cine and Greek Tragedy, 2012.
Cajete, Gregory. Look to the Moun­tain, 1994., Zwijn­en­berg p. 9

Leonardo images:,_Canal_bridge.jpg‑schematised-plan-of-florence,_Drawings_of_Water_Lifting_Devices.jpg,_Leonardo_Da_-_Ornithogalum_(Star_of_Bethlehem).jpg,_Portrait_of_Isabella_d%27Este.jpg,_Recto_Studies_of_vortices.jpg,_c.1510–15.jpg,_INV_2247,_Recto.jpg‑v

Key con­cepts and phrases:

The Mind­ful Mona Lisa
The bridge-gar­ment-exper­i­ence hypo­thes­is
Hip­po­crat­ic Anthro­po­cene Agency
Right hand “point­ing” to the left sleeve in a graf­ted spir­al
Calvino’s unwrit­ten sixth memo “Con­sist­ency” refers to GEB chapter IV