Art and the quiet mind

I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic of how our internal state of mind affects our art. But first, take a look at these two pictures.

Milan Doumo Some building

At the left is a photo of Milan’s Duomo (originated in the 14th century). The second a modern skyscraper (I’m presuming it’s an artist’s rendering.)

Yesterday I was commenting on the constant interruptions of daily life. The phone calls, the nagging emails, our screaming, annoying children, television blowhards freaking out about this or that etc. Those are, of course, external distractions. But we’ve got internal distractions as well. I was just reading an old interview with the stress doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who sums these up nicely.

A thought comes up and you’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got to do this,” and you run to do that. Then the next thought comes, and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that,” and you run to do it.

From “Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers

I read this and thought, “Boy, that is exactly how I think.” Then I thought, “Shit, I’ve gotta check for that email!”

So we’ve got two different kinds of distractions: external (which we have limited control over) and internal (which we have – one hopes – some control over.) I would also surmise that our internal state is “trained” by our external environment. If we are constantly being interrupted in the “real world,” soon our own mind will only be able to focus for short periods (because it’s anticipating the interruptions it’s so used to.)

Now, as I was saying yesterday, in the past we had less external interruptions. In 1450, there wasn’t much to do. If you wanted to write a piece of music (and were lucky enough to have your sustenance needs taken care of) you could sit and write for hours/days without phone calls, emails, facebook updates, television blather, etc. And I presume this lack of external interruption led to “quieter” minds that were less prone to self interruption (of the type described by Kabat-Zinn above.) As a result of all this, people could really focus on producing artistic media with tremendous detail: 12 foot tall paintings with all sort of hidden objects and figures (and obtuse religious connotations), ornate, sky high cathedrals covered with miniature statues of golems and maidens, 20 minute sonatas in which themes are developed via endless variation of tempo, melody, harmony etc.

And a calmer mind isn’t required just to create this art; it’s required to even appreciate it! I get about three minutes into most 20 minute sonatas and my mind is already wandering. I usually don’t have the focus to stay with it.

To recap: in earlier eras people had calmer minds. But, as time went on – as society industrialized, as we became better able to keep precise measurement of time (and thus create the great evil that is the daily organizer), as communication methods expanded from a single town crier to pony express to telegraph to telephone and then instantaneous email – our minds became more and more deluged with interruption.

So how did that affect art? Well, take a look at the above pictures again. The second building is much less ornamental, much simpler, much easier to digest. You can look at that building from a distance and basically “get it,” as opposed to the Duomo which you really have to view up close to appreciate the detail.

Now, if you landed on an alien planet and saw that second building you might think, “Wow, this such serene architecture; I bet these aliens are calm, peaceful creatures with minds devoid of incessant inner chatter.” But I’m thinking that the exact opposite is true. As the mind gets more cluttered, art gets simpler. Why? Because we don’t have the time to focus on creating detailed art, and frankly, we don’t have the time to appreciate it.

Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not knocking minimalism. I like minimalism and I’m not a great fan of ornamentalism (though I’m not virulently opposed to it.) But my larger point here is that what goes on “in here” (pointing to head) has an effect on what shows up “out there.” And it’s an inverse effect. Busy minds = simple art and vice versa*. To examine the history of art is to examine the changing state of the human mind. (To put it another way, “Art history is a subset of psychology.”)

*Obviously this is a broad statement with many exceptions. I also realize that simple, minimalist art is not that simple. But you get my point.

5 Responses to “Art and the quiet mind”


  1. John Saleeby

    That’s an interesting theory. But I can’t do any serious thinking right now cause this cold I have is giving me a terrible headache. Anyway, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like to have a “quiet mind”.

    One interesting thing that this reminds me of – The Beatles produced their most complex work “Sgt. Pepper” while zonked out on HEROIN. They were buying these little glass tubes with single hits of sleepy powder and snorting them in the studio. That’s not very “Psychedelic”!

  2. Wil

    Interesting… my understanding is that J.S. Bach wrote the Brandenberg Concerto while on PCP. So it all makes sense.

  3. John Saleeby

    No, no, that was Sebastion Bach and “Eighteen And Life”. And it was Pepsi, not PCP.

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