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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtYhVk7qsSI
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.
http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hosted/leonardo/newsmay2012.pdf, Zwijnenberg p. 9
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