Archive for May 9th, 2017

Hilma af Klint De tio största

As readers of this blog will realise, I struggle with abstract art, especially if it’s too chaotic or too pared back. However, prompted by a friend on FB I visited this article by David Langness on the Bahá’í Teachings website, and watched Hooper Dunbar’s video at the head of the post. It caused me to pause and reflect that I may have been too impatient with the best of abstract art to understand its value: time to give it another go, perhaps! The article is well worth a read and the video is wise, moving and beautiful. It’s shifted my perspective, for sure. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

Lots of theories exist about abstract art: it’s a reaction to the realism of photography, it tries to express the quantum sciences, it depicts feelings rather than objects.

But when you get past all the theories, abstract art—the non-representational use of color, form and line—has an even more interesting spiritual history that might surprise you.

While we tend to think of abstraction as a modern invention, it actually began to develop with the very first artists we know of, the indigenous cave painters in the Paleolithic era. These unnamed artists, who started making their art 40,000 years ago, created expressive and sometimes stunningly beautiful works on the walls of caves or on exterior rock faces. They drew and painted art and pictographs that resembled animals, Venus figures, the shapes of human hands—and abstractions called finger flutings that formed shapes, signs and symbols.

Contemporary rock art and cave painting experts believe that much of this art was created by shamans to portray their spiritual visions. The South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, who has extensively studied modern hunter-gatherer societies and their relationship to ancient cave paintings, concludes in his scholarly work that many of the oldest and most inventively abstract cave paintings were made by Paleolithic shamans to portray their spiritual visions.

As you might imagine, describing a spiritual vision doesn’t always lend itself to representational, figurative images. Also, since humans are the only living beings able to think in abstract ways, it stands to reason that we would create symbols that stand for our innermost thoughts.

That may be why, in the mid- to late-19th century, painters and artists all over the world moved away from traditional representational styles and returned to abstraction, to better express their own inner visions. Of course, society changed dramatically during that period and so did art. The industrial revolution; the rapid growth of urban centers; the frantic, accelerating pace of modern life; the advent of film and photography and its hyper-representational potential; the increasingly abstracted relations between peoples and nations; and the intellectual and scientific abstractions science continually discovered all contributed to the rapid rise of abstract art. For many artists, abstract art seemed like the only way to capture the true reality of the modern age.


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In the light of yesterday’s link to Sharon Rawlette’s review of Leslie Kean’s book Surviving Death, it seemed worth republishing this link as well. Below is an extract from an excellent article by Gideon Lichfield summarising the current state of research on NDEs: it manages, in a balanced dispassionate way, to express the author’s scepticism without offending those who believe in an afterlife. For Lichfield’s full post see link

Near-death experiences have gotten a lot of attention lately. The 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real, about a young boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery, grossed a respectable $91 million in the United States. The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, who writes about a near-death experience he had while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, who had her NDE while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident—have spent 94 and 36 weeks, respectively, on the list. (The subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, published in 2010, recently admitted that he made it all up.)

Their stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of books and in thousands of interviews with “NDErs,” or “experiencers,” as they call themselves, in the past few decades. Though details and descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body. Many NDErs report that their experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, “more real than real life.” They are profoundly changed afterward, and tend to have trouble fitting back into everyday life. Some embark on radical career shifts or leave their spouses.

Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also, commensurately, grown. The causes posited include an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma. NDErs dismiss these explanations as inadequate. The medical conditions under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.

Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians, describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions. Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study, involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October. And the recent books by Mary Neal and Eben Alexander recounting their own NDEs have lent the spiritual view of them a new outward respectability. Mary Neal was, a few years before her NDE, the director of spinal surgery at the University of Southern California (she is now in private practice). Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who taught and practiced at several prestigious hospitals and medical schools, including Brigham and Women’s and Harvard.

It was Alexander who really upped the scientific stakes. He studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a deep coma during his NDE, and his brain was so completely shut down, that the only way to explain what he felt and saw was that his soul had indeed detached from his body and gone on a trip to another world, and that angels, God, and the afterlife are all as real as can be.

Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquirequestioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.

Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real, the sensations of having been there certainly are.

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