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Thesis: Literature Research

Updated: Dec 23, 2021

Notes from 7 publications to form a basic understanding of surrounding themes of thesis:

- Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader

- Let Line Loose, David Maclagan

- The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America by Daniel Belgrad

- Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity, R.Keith Sawyer

- Change and Continuity: The Influences of Taoist Philosophy and Cultutral Practices on Contemporary Art Practice, Bonita Ely

- Exploring The Secret Doctrine of H.P. Blavatsky, Pablo Sender


Experimental Cinema: The Film Reader

“Life beyond that offered by commercial cinema”

“Experimental cinema [...] is the domain of the person, rather than the corporate, vision. Ir is this individuality and uncompromising honesty that this reader explores and celebrates”.

Understanding the rise of avant-garde cinema. You have people rejecting the veneer of Hollywood making films that aren't commercial, that focus less so on narrative, more so on creative expression and reflecting the artists spirit; created out of play. Cheap too, using cheap cameras and film, often using discarded film by companies and editing them.


French surrealists and dadaists: John Cocteau, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, René Clair

Visual poetry and the artists' concerns took precedence:

- Le Retour à la raison, Man Ray (1923) Sprinkling S&P on putting thumbtacks etc on unexposed film and splicing photographs.

- Ménilmontant, Dimitri Kirsanov (1926) Two young woman struggling to survive in Paris slums, begins with the depiction of an axe murderer, in several shots, mimicking the act of violence, similar to the way Hitchcock handles Psycho.

- Ballet mécanique, Fernand Léger (1924) Loops of women climbing the stairs, repeated until the human body becomes a mere mechanism, a film that prefigured structuralist films of the late 1960s.

- Anémic cinéma, Marcel Duchamp (1926)

- Entr'acte, René Clair (1924) funeral procession - chase - roller-coaster ride (absurdist leaving the audience to divine the filmmaker's true intent)

Liberation - international screenings - ciné clubs in the US, which inspired independent filmmaker's with their freedom.

"[E]ach filmmaker was guided solely by her and his own vision, not by the desire to create a film for an audience. Each filmmaker had an individual style and approach to the material that made her or his films uniquely that filmmaker's alone. Thus, these films resist categorisation and do not fall within the confines of established genres. The independent filmmaker creates films because of an internal drive to do so; the films discussed in this volume are the unique creations of artists who fought to express their vision on the screen, using whatever equipment came to hand, working on nonexistent budgets."

Women in avant-garde cinema

- Germaine Dulac

- Maya Deren first independent filmmaker to successfully exhibit her work. Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), sexual mediation on the role of women in the domestic sphere of 1940s America.

- Agnès Varda - Chantal Akerman

- Trinh T. Minh-ha

- Marie Menken, Dwightiana (1959), Hurry! Hurry! (1957) - human sperm die in the attempt to replicate human life, set to a soundtrack on continuous bombing. Glimpse of the Garden (1957), lyrical and graceful, bird flying through garden

- Mary Ellen Bute, first filmmaker to use electronically generated images (cathode ray oscilloscope: "abstronics".

- Sara Kathryn Arledge, Introspection (1941-46), What is a Man? (1958) - "depicting sexuality as a basic human fact rather than relegating physical desire to the pornographic zone of the forbidden [...] human sexuality though the mediation of her humanist gaze".

this filmmaking, free from imagistic and narrative constraints led to a liberating new wave, into post War America (Beat Filmmakers of the late 1950 and 1960s)


You basically had 2 types of avant-garde filmmakers:

1920/30s: We are cineates, we are film amateurs, unlike professionals (who work in Hollywood), we strive for the cause of film art, we are experimental cross-medially (film, criticism, painting, photography).

1950s: Personal expression no.1 We reject commercial collaborations, we are independent filmmakers, we make art. This turned into we are professionals. Which turned into, we can get funding from universities to finance productions and can exhibit.


Beats - rejected materialism on post-WW2: poets, musician, painters, sculptors, filmmakers.

Archetypal films

- The Flower Thief (1960), Ron Rice. "A paean to the plight of the outsider in a world that is both unresponsive and unyielding.

- Lemon Hearts (1960), Vernon Zimmerman "Absolute innocence in a hopelessly corrupt universe".

- Flaming City (1963), Dick Higgins

- Christopher MacLaine's short films: Beat (1958), The Man Who Invented Gold (1957), Scotch Hop (1959), The End (1953)

1960s: counterculture, reassessment of 1950s values

- Figures

- Allen Ginsberg

- Timothy Leary

- Lenore Kandel

- Abbie Hoffman

- new distribution and screening outlets: anyone could be a member, no censorship or selection criteria, disregard to specific content, style, production values.

- Filmmakers' Cinematheque in NY

- Canyon Cinema in SF

- Figures in film

- Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising)

- Stan Brakhage

- Jack Smith

- Carolee Schneemann

- Robert Breer animations; structure free-form affairs - abstractions that gradually take on recognisable form, or single images that together have no obvious correlation.

- Images by Images 1 (1954)

- Jamestown Baloos (1957)

- A Man and His Dog out for Air (1957)

- Homage to Jean Tinguely's Homage to New York (1968)

Line animation:

- Inner and Outer Space (1960)


- Blazes (1961)

- Horse over Teakettle (1962)

- Pat's Birthday (1962)

- Breathing (1963)

- Fist Fight (1964)

- 66 (1966)

- 69 (1969)

1960s: Shirley Clarke and Maya Deren

Storm de Hirsch's Trap Dance (1968) images scratched directly onto the film with surgical instruments. (Reflecting the theme and subject through the medium)

Stan Vanderbeek

Anticipated many techniques we use today.

Early films, using collage cutout techniques to satirise the American consumer dream

- What Who How (1957)

- Mankinda (1957)

- One (1957)

- Astral Man (1957)

- Ala Mode (1958)

- Three-Screen-Scene (1958)

- Science Fiction (1959)

- Achoo Mr Keroochev (1959)

Ben Van Meter (series of films celebrating the human body)

- The Poon-Tang Trilogy (1964)

- Colorfilm (1964-1964)

- Olds-Mo-Bile (1965)

- Acid Mantra:Re-Brith of a Nation (1966-68)

With a lot of these filmmakers, "issues of sexuality [were explored] with a candor that seems revolutionary even today".

The Structuralist Movement (1960s - early1980s)

Took "precedence over the more anarchic, romantic 1960s experimentalists.

Warhol's motionless work and the "star" system

"Form became content"

"The editorial and visual method of presenting the image often took precedence over the content of the film itself"

- Michael Snow: Wavelength (1967) - huge impact, One Second in Montreal and Back and Forth (1969) and La Region Central (1971) - camera attached to crane on mountain - 3-hour motion

- Hollis Frampton

- Ernie Gehr

- Warren Sonbert

- Joyce Wieland.

Punk, Feminist, and Lesbian Cinema

Backlash to Structuralism

"[S]elf-consciously brutal and anarchic films" on the 1970s-early 1980s punk cineastes (Super 8mm filmmakers Beth B. and Scott B., Nick Zedd etc.

Nihilist attitudes echoed in the arts - Patti Smith, The Ramones etc.

Deliberately alienated and/or enraged the viewer.

Cheaper than 16mm and were shot with lip-synchronous sound.

Not as clear but added to appeal: Raw, unrefined, confrontational. NYC-based

Nick Zedd's "trash" films in Super 8mm

Beth B and Scott B.'s Letters to Dad (1979) Letters read to viewer, addressed to Dad revealed as letters read to Jim Jones before the mass suicide at Jamestown

Bette Gordan:

Exchanges (1979) - represents "woman as sexual subjects not objectified by a male gaze." "women exchange clothes with one another in a performance that displaces voyeuristic pleasure as it deconstructs the representation of the striptease.

Empty Suitcases (1980) multidimensional female subject

Variety (1983) constructs a woman voyeur of male voyeurs (woman obsessed with pornography)

Yvonne Rainer - filmmaker dedicated to feminist countercinema since 1960s

Lives of the Performer (1972) Comment on “traditional cinema’s positioning of women as object and man as spectator.

Barbara Hammer “I Was/I Am” (1976), inspired by dream imagery of Maya Deren’s films. “Diary films of lesbian sexualities”.

“Hammer’s erotic films were some of the first images of lesbian lovemaking made by and for lesbian spectators.

Rainer and Hammer both inspired by the post-structuralist work of Michel Foucault; the Panopticon and the role of the spectator.

Sadie Benning

Su Friedrich

(blurring boundaries of autobiography, documentary, and fantasy

Benning: A Place Called Lovely (1991), Living Inside (1989), It Wasn’t Love (1992)

Su Friedrich: Sink or Swim (1990), The Ties That Bind (1984), Damned If You Don’t (1987).

Alternative Cinemas

African-American women filmmakers: “the desire to represent images that are oppositional and corrective to Hollywood stereotypes, silences and omissions”

1930s: Eloyce Gist Hell Bound Train (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1932-33)

Zora Neala Hurston breaks down the usual form of the documentary and “interacts with her subjects as a coparticipant”

Camille Billops, personal documentary: Finding Christa (1991), Suzanna, Suzanne (1982)

Michelle Parkerson, Storme: The Lady of the Jewel Box (1987) female-male drag king, Storme DeLarverie

Black female representation explored in film by:

Alile Sharon Larkin, A Different Image (1979)

Maureen Blackwood (who cofounded Sankofa, a black British film collective), Perfect Image? (1988) exposes stereotypes

Ngozi Onwurah:

And I Still Rise (1993) critiques colonialist documentary practice

Coffee Colored Children (1988) and The Body Beautiful “explore black corporeal space as they blur boundaries between experimental, autobiographical, and documentary cinema”.

Queer Cinema (1990s)

Gay collectivism, activism, fight against AIDS.

  • Derek Jarman informed the 90s with 1980s and 90s highly personal and experimental films

  • Isaac Julien and Marlon Riggs

    • Kobena Mercer essay, Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film:

      • “Identities are not necessarily biologically constructed, but rather culturally performed.


Line Let Loose: Scribbling, Doodling and Automatic Drawing, David Maclagan



Automatic drawing: "A complex sequence of behaviour carried out in the almost complete absence of conscious awareness"

Originating in the context of 19C Pyschopathology

- "actions carried out under the influence of hypnotic suggestion or to fugues or escapist episodes, sometimes quite prolonged, of which the normal personality had no recollection".

- "used in cases of hysteria or psychosis as a way of explaining the irruption of unconscious psychic material so startling that it did not seem to belong to the subject's normal frame of reference and that, because of its degree of organization, was often ascribed to some other agency, such as an alter ego or even a messenger from the world of spirits"

Pierre Janet: L'Atomatisme psychologique (1889) Writing and verbal, not pictorial, is mentioned

Talks about a distinction between total and partial automatism

- Partial: "a part of the psychic apparatus is split off from the conscious awareness but is still experimentally accessible", e.g. automatic writing

- "the divining rod, spiritism and mediumism, obsessive impulses, fixed ideas and hallucinations of psychotic patients and finally... possessions, that is, the attitudes, act and feelings of the individual being controlled by a subconscious idea".

- The subject is aware that they are writing/drawing but not aware of content

Found in psychotic and spiritualist art: Psychotic: Governed by forces beyond control, Spiritualist: Submitted willingly to influence of spirits. Both without plan

Psychotic artists:

- Adolf Wölfli: worked without premeditation, outside to inside; worked ceaselessly until this materials ran out

- Aloïse Corbaz: spontaneously, treating her images as independent characters

- Martín Ramírez:

Knowing whether they were unconscious during the whole process is unknown - complicated by a third party: "the contribution of the ongoing drawing process itself" - Submitting to the elaboration of a drawing; submitting to its momentum.

- Emma Hauck: "desperate and compacted written pleas"

- Paul Goesch: intricate

- We see the same characteristics of automatism in different subjects: "repetition or permutation, for example, or elisions between different genres"

- "to what extent does calling such work 'automatic' also depend upon the specific conditions of execution we associate with the term, such as being in a trance-like state?"

- from a psychiatric POV: created in an irrational state - "obscure compulsion and its graphic compression (labelled horror vacui, the need to leave no empty space), along with its disordered and delirious character (often labelled as 'hallucinatory'), give the impression of its having been created without much deliberation or restraint". So like Wölfli's work.

but on the other hand, there is work by artists such as August Natterer, Josef Heinrich Grebing and August Klett (or Klotz) - whose work is formal and diagrammatic - where "it is hard not to imagine some degree of deliberation".

A possibility of 'a certain amount of humour, irony or satire in some psychotic art', although unprovable. So these works still have an element of automatism but in 'a diffuse[d] or obscure form'.

Jean Debuffet: Art Brut

- "The ideas that the psychotic artist is independent of any tradition and draws almost exclusively on an inner world"

- in accordance with the writing of Hans Prinzhorn:

- on 'schizophrenic art': "These works really emerged from autonomous personalities who carried out the mission of an anonymous force, who were independent of external reality, indebted to no one, and sufficient solely unto themselves. The inborn primeval process of configuration ran its course far from the outside world, without plan but by necessity, like all natural processes".

Ida Maly: spiritualist - 'a state of reveries or self-absorption that would be close to automatism' - a result of boredom or desperation from confinement? (psychotic disorder)

Automatism most dramatic form in the mid-19C milieu of spiritualism. 'Recently deceased personalities, previous incarnations and spirit guides often appeared to be responsible for a wide range of phenomena, including automatic writing and drawing". Occasions of performed automatism. Examples of xenolalia; Hélène Smith's Martian alphabet

Fernand Desmoulin's portraits of dead people

Mediumistic work of the period:

Spiritualised abstraction - symbolic, almost diagrammatic

Georgiana Houghton

Hilma af Klimt

Jeanne Tripier - using blots and stains, the process of drawing itself was a form of divination,, and this way she would obtain her message. 'The contribution of the drawing process is deliberately invited and colluded with'.

Spiritual automatism:

- 'sought to open a passage between the realm of the living and that of the dead [and] open the way to unconscious inspiration' - as seen in Surrealism (and other modernist adaptations)

- "modern European versions of the shamanic communication with spirit worlds practiced in tribal cultures.

- Native American shamanism: a combination of 'legerdemain, theatrical performance and genuine trance phenomena'

Hard to know the boundary between 'conscious invitation, contrivance and complete surrender.

The performance of spiritual automatism:

- Private, internal performance - even in this, there is 'a keen sense of addressing an invisible, interiorized audience.'. There is often a lack of choice in the performance - 'many artists describe watching their hand at work, almost as if it belonged to someone else'. One part of the personality 'is inviting the another part to convey messages or invent forms'.

- A real audience

Late 19c spiritualism: 'scientific investigation of unconscious psychological processes.' - psychoanalysis

Freud was sceptical of the occult but Jung wasn't - he researched with his medium cousin, Hélène Preiswerk and composed his Red Book 'out of material that has been dictated to him by figures that certainly belong to the same family as spirit guides, even if they are more self-consciously archetypal [...] copiously illustrated with symbolic scenes, many of which derived from elaborated unconscious fantasies, but whose careful painting seems far from automatic.' His mandala drawings (1917) 'are more spontaneous and bear some resemblance to some of Af Klimt's automatic seance drawings from the 1890s'.

Raphaël Lonné:

- 'drawings and writings were dictated by spirits'

- 'worked from top left to bottom right "like a page of writing"

- 'varied territory of textures out of which an astonishing range of forms emerge'

Similar to Ferdinand Cheval, 'animal and human figures are lodged like fossils in a suggestive texture, but in Lonné's case you can catch them appearing and disappearing.'

Laure Pigeon: introduced to spiritualism after separated from husband 1933. 'Lived on her own and drew in secret for more than 30 years' (~500 drawings)

'Until the mid-1950s Laure's drawing was loose and linear, with plenty of open spaces in which there were occasional suggestions of faces and words, it consists for the most part of a tracery of densely layered lines that are sometimes so thickly overlaid that the surface of the paper is shiny in places.' Blue ballpoint; sense of fluidity; hair, currents of water, feminine profiles, embroidered names; swooning sensuality.

Similar mediumistic artists with densely woven textures:

Jane Ruffié and Madame Bouttier

Compacted organic textures with a 3D element

'High degree of rhythmic elaboration and some suggestions of spatial depth'

'May well have been created in an auto-hypnotic or trance-like state, or else produced in a more diffuse absent-mindedness' - some form of automatism, an unconscious form creation.

Anna Zemankova:

'The work is known to have been carried out in a trance-like state, with little or no conscious intention; its creators felt that someone or something was dictating it; and the work itself has a strong sense of fluency and is crowded with forms that have a bewildering variety.'

In literature:

Gottfired Keller's Der grüne Heinrich

But hardly had I drawn half an hour and dressed up a few branches with uniform needles, when I sank into a deep sleep of dissipation and scribbled thoughtlessly at the edges, as if I were testing a pen. In time an endless weave of lines attached itself to these scribbles which I continued to expand every day when I began work, until the monstrosity covered the great part of the surface like a huge grey spider web. but when one looked more closely at the confusion, one discovered the most praise-worthy cohesion and diligence, in that it formed, with a continuous line, a labyrinth of pen strokes and curved which produced perhaps thousands of yards, and which could be followed from beginning to end. Occasionally a new method showed itself, in a sense a new epoch of work: new patterns and motifs, often tender and appealing, surfaced... Only occasionally were there smaller or larger hesitations, certain knots in the wanderings of my confused, depressed soul, and the care with which the pen sought to extricate itself from the embarrassment proved how the dreaming consciousness was caught in the net".

Chapter 5: Automatism, the Unconscious and Modern Art


Inspired by psychological automatism and mediumistic outpourings

André Breton, Louis Aragon and Théodore Fraenkel had backgrounds in medicine and psychiatry.

- Manifesto: "pure psychic automatism by which it is proposed to express, either verbally, or by writing, or by any means, the real functioning of thought"

Early days: Automatic writing, dream accounts, contagious group trace states

- 'self-induced trance, disinfected of its spiritualist connotations, and what was inspired by their (mis)understanding of the psychoanalytic technique of "free association"' - resemblance to techniques of Janet and his 'investigations of partial automatism

Automatic writing: Les Champs magnétiques, 1920, Breton and Soupault, included automatic scribbles but automatic drawing wasn't common in early Surrealism

They needed a way to get that recognisability that came with automatic writing, but they needed the spontaneity, so they used a number of techniques:

- Ernst's collages and frottage

- Oscar Domínguez's decalcomania

('textures out of which landscapes and figures could be mined' - like Alexander Cozen's ink blots more than a century previously)

André Masson's automatic drawings (mid-1920s) closest to pictorial automatism

- "Physically, you must make a void in yourself, the automatic drawing taking its source in the unconscious, must appear as an unforeseen birth. The first graphic apparitions on the paper are pure gesture, rhythm, incantation, and as a result pure scribble... When the images appears one must stop"

'it ties together the physical energy of the scribble, the unconscious rhythms of the doodle and the visionary qualities of automatism'.


- Surrealism's essential discovery is, in effect, that without preconceived intention, the mobile pen that writes or the mobile pencil that draws weaves an infinitely precious substance, which cannot be substantively or commercially defined, but which nevertheless appears to be charged with everything within the writer or painter that is emotional"

Surrealism's essential discovery is, in effect, that without preconceived intention, the mobile pen that writes or the mobile pencil that draws weaves an infinitely

Types of unconsciousness that may be involved in automatic drawing:

- Kinaesthetic unconscious: 'spontaneous drawing is likely to reveal subliminal habits of the drawer's hand in much the same way as handwriting does, even when scribbled in haste, and these signature features can be seen as unconsciously expressive of the author's character.

- Symbolism (unconsciousness in a psychoanalytic sense): 'repertoire of disguised sexual forms: but these yield only a fairly restricted and impersonal range of meanings', as seen in the analysis of doodles. - Archetypes and the collective unconscious: Put forward by Jung; 'mythological and transpersonal dimension'.

Effects of Art:

- Surrealists and Freudian symbolism, and Abstract Expressionism from Jungian imagery. - You have artists using automatism to access unconscious imagery in a knowing way, like Dalí and Robert Motherwell, to see the unconscious forms 'as a way to generate new and unpremeditated images, where formal invention was more important than unconscious content.'

Anton Ehrenzweig:

- "Wholly automatic and completely withdrawn from conscious form control are the chaotic forms of 'technique'; in 'technique' forms appear to be even more accidental and unintentional that the sketchy background form. We can hardly make out any structure at all and cannot even say whether the forms are superimposed or overlapping... The nervous and erratic quality of a good technique could never be achieved by conscious effort. The nervous hand movements guiding the brush oscillate without aim and appear - wrongly - as accidental"

Diffuse attention: 'disarming or bypassing their conscious supervision of the drawing process' - 'there are forms of structure other than those associated with consciously controlled composition'

A third party to the agencies responsible for automatism - external (spirits) internal (mind's eye) - 'a feedback loop between emerging work and the artist who is creating it'.

Debuffet believed that the mediumistic artists were aware of what they were making and had a certain agency over exercising the creative autonomy - skeptical of disassociation

After Surrealism came Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism (Pollock)

Pollock was heavily inspired by automatism (writing and drawings) and Jung

Motherwell: 'a dialectic between the conscious (straight lines, designed shapes, weighed colour, abstract language) and the unconscious (soft lines, obscured shapes, automatism)"

- although this could easily become a stylistic idiom though.

Pollock sought to show images of the unconscious as a vortex "a whirling rush of energy both refusing to yield its own content - pulling them even further from the reach of consciousness - and threatening to swallow the viewer who dares to peer too closely" (Michael Leja)

Fluctuating consciousness during automatism, could be seen as liminal (neither conscious or unconscious)

Consciousness can also be altered/self-awareness diminished, through intoxication.

Psychedelic art of late 1960s - style being a 'direct result of what Aldeous Huxley called "opening the doors of perception" through the use of mind-altering drugs such as LSD"

conscious control is surrendered, familiar outlines dissolve, surfaces come alive and there is a constant, usually curvilinear, shifting between forms.'

Eg. Henri Michaux - 'drug-induced disturbances of thought and perception, right up to their dissolution or vanishing point' However the altered consciousness that get in the way of executing the drawing. There is also what is called a diffuse stylistic 'acid' idiom, which is not a result of 'tripping' but similar in style.

Theres a question as to whether it is the drug itself that is causing these drawing but rather the cultural shift in the permission of these altered states that is widening the unconscious mind.

'the "surge of unfettered creative imagination that happened in art of the 1960s and thereafter" was due to what the author calls a "psychedelic consciousness", which was not necessarily the literal result of taking psychotropic drugs but a kind of general cultural permission that he attributes to the seismic shift in consciousness that came in their wake".

and so now there is psychedelic art that is 'cut loose from its drug-induced origins'

Chapter 6: Meta-doodles and Other Elaborations

Paul Klee: 'A line goes out for a walk, so to speak, aimlessly, for the sake of the walk' - it goes for a walk of its own accord, not taken.

Gottfried Keller: describes semi-automatic drawing

Meta-doodles are like a doodle but not restraint by the activity you're escaping or lack of time and space. They have the same trance-like or compulsion as an automatic drawing. Aren't preconceived, improvised but can be structured.


Augustin Lesage

Marc Lamy

Eugene Andolsek

or Scottie Wilson

who started his meta-doodling after trying out a fountain pen (a scribble)

cross-hatching overlaid with coloured crayon, often containing figures (some called, 'Greedies' or 'Meanies')

or Unica Zürn and Otto Wols

'free-floating and "organic" proliferation of different shapes' - this way forms could emerge

'Figures play hide-and-seek, textures grow and then get overgrown, and lines pursue their own career or get swept into a melee or tangle. It is almost as if, with their complications and permutations, such meta-doodles are constantly teetering on the edge of legibility: forms may swirl around restlessly, generating suggestive textures and promising endless possibilities but seldom fulfilling them'

'The meta-doodle as a kind of ground or field that is ploughed over and tilled by the drawing process itself, out of which forms that may be more or less recognizable appear, and into which random marks or textures can be interrogated and made to deliver messages or tell stories.'

This kind of technique was used by Jeanne Tripier: It's more so through the drawing process than a pre-existing mental image in the subject, that these forms are created.


Basically once these methods of unconscious production entered the Art world, they were 'exploited' by artists to break free from the restraints of the Art world, and so the distinction between scribbling, doodling and automatism became more complex - and meta-doodling appeared within that spectrum. Abstract Expressionists artists like Cy Twombly and Willem de Kooning often spent hours staring at their work and then suddenly 'attacked'. Regardless of the level of consciousness during the process, there is a level of fluidity and fluency that is reminiscent of automatic drawing. The level of consciousness during the creative process *especially in modern art* is impossible to tell, but it seems to lean more into the meta-doodling realm. 'shifting mixture of the instinctive and the familiar, the subliminal and the intensely focused.' It 'hovers on the edge between submission to anonymous forces and the release of an individualized freedom.'


The Culture of Spontaneity: Improvisation and the Arts in Postwar America by Daniel Belgrad


Gestalt therapy

Jungian psychology (psychologists: Carl Jung, John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead)

Zen Buddhism

Surrealist 20s --> Counterculture 60s

"subjective epistemology privileges dialogue over logical exposition".


- 'Counter-aesthetic to the hegemony of capitalism, corporate liberalism, and mass culture.'

- 'Interaction of body, emotions, and intellect OVER traditional mind/body dualism of Western philosophy and culture.'

---- Wendy Martin, review.

The Milieu:

(Quoted from book)

Spontaneity in the 1940s and 50s:

Three meanings motivated and define spontaneity:

1. Alternative to the rational progress of Western civilisation (which threatened human life and freedom)

2. Battled against the culture of corporate liberalism

3. Challenged cultural hegemony of privileged Anglo-American "insiders", giving voice to artists and writers from ethnic and social backgrounds remote from the traditional channels of cultural authority.

Spontaneity values the unconscious mind in an ideologically restricted world of consciousness.

Based in 1920s modernism:

- Disillusionment with Communist left and corporate-liberal centre as WW2 began

- Advertising that acted as the cultural vanguard of bureaucratic capitalism. Information management strategies or corporation and government. Rejected propagandistic populist art form of 1930s.

Spontaneity emphasised "honesty", "awareness", and "authenticity". 'An alternative means to cultural authority more accessible to aspirants from immigrant, working-class and minority backgrounds.


Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity, R.Keith Sawyer, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58, No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts (Spring 2000), pp. 149-161 (13 pages)

5 characteristics of improvisation

1. An emphasis on creative process rather than creative product

2. An emphasis on creative processes that are problem-finding rather than problem-solving

3. The comparison of art to everyday language use

4, The importance of collaboration, with fellow artists and with the audience

5. The role of the ready-made, or cliché, in art.

How Dewey and Collingwood relate to this:

A theory of the creative process as improvisation

Clement Greenberg: '"the avant-garde imitates the processes of art" rather than imitating nature' - 'the processes of art of a given stage in history are the proper subject of art for the following stage'

The distinction between process and product was a central theme of American pragmatism:

Dewey: "The product of art... is not the work of art" - It's a psychological process; it is "active and experienced. It is what the product does, it's working". Art is the experience, and by extension applies to spontaneity and improvisation: It's the navigating of the unexpected that makes a work of art. While the product is rooted in the culture of the time, the product is not just a recognition of the time but an individual perception of the time.

Collingwood: "The painted picture is not the work of art... [However] its production is somehow necessarily connected with the aesthetic activity, that is, with the creation of the imaginative experience which is the work of art". More individual action

On problem-finding in the production of art:

Dewey: "A rigid predetermination of an end-product... leads to the turning out of a mechanical or academic product." "The unexpected turn, something which the artist himself does not definitely foresee, is a condition of the felicitous quality of a work of art; it saves it from being mechanical".

Clement Greenberg on Middle Ages: "Precisely because his content was determined in advance [by patron] the artist was relieved of the necessity to be original and inventive in his 'matter' and could devote all his energy to formal problems".

The role of spontaneity in modern art:

Belgrad talks about the 'cultural and historical locatedness of the post World War II "impulse to valorize spontaneous improvisation".

This not only relates to art, but to aesthetic theories of the time. Some art was deliberately made to look spontaneous - artists like Kline and de Kooning - the aesthetic of spontaneity. Links to the 'appropriation' of automatism in modern art.

On the role of the ready-made in improvisation

Looking at cliches and material artists use to 'jumpstart' improvisation

Collingwood believed that 'art proper' (as opposed to false art) had to be 100% original and not rely on cliches; if reused, it is false art: 'Artistic activity does not 'use' a 'ready-made language', it 'creates language as it goes along'.

"The dead body... of the aesthetic activity becomes a repertory of materials out of which an activity of a different kind can find means adaptable to its own ends. This non-aesthetic activity ... uses means which were once the living body of art ... It is not art, but it simulates art'.

Dewey on cliches: "No genuine work has ever been a repetition of anything that previously existed. There are indeed works that tend to be mere recombination of elements selected from prior works. But they are academic - that is to say, mechanical - rather than esthetic." - Art only exists when the artist creates his/her own experience, 'otherwise, there is not perception but recognition'.

'In recognition we fall back, as upon a stereotype, upon some previously formed scheme.'

These thoughts don't really add up:

Howard Becker (sociologist), 'shared conventions are always used by the artists to aid in the communicating with their audience'

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (creative researcher), 'all creators on a domain, a shared body of conventions, techniques, and historical knowledge, as they create novel works.

Nothing is 100% original and create work based on the constructs of the subject itself (paint, paintbrushes, scores, scales) and cultural climates. Both Collingwood and Dewey acknowledge this later - that "[Artists] become poets or painters or musicians ... by living in a society where these languages are current" and that "Every culture has its own collective individuality ... this collective individuality leaves its indelible imprint upon the art that is produced"; "The subject-matter is charged with meanings that issue from intercourse with a common world. The artist in the freest expression of his own responses is under weighty objective compulsions'


Relation to thesis:

Clement Greenberg: The avant-garde repackaged the process of improvisation as an aesthetic. The avant-grade can refer to both the movement, ending in the 1930s, as well as the resultant movements in the late 20th C.

Its about the process of creation being just as much the art as the product, if not more - Links between spiritual art of Jeanne Tripier and conceptual art of the 60s.

--- backed by Dewey: The product of art... is not the work of art" - Its a psychological process; it is "active and experienced. It is what the product does, its working" "A rigid predetermination of an end-product... leads to the turning out of a mechanical or academic product. "The unexpected turn, something which the artist himself does not definitely foresee, is a condition of the felicitous quality of a work of art; it saves it from being mechanical". Art is the experience, and by extension applies to spontaneity and improvisation. Being free to improvise, not knowing the next step, is pure creative expression and the process of original art. Links between improvisation in art and metamorphosis.


Tangent from Thesis: exploring the 1960s further...

Pulses of Abstraction: Episode from a History of Animation, Andrew R. Johnson.

1960s: The decade of 'chronophobia'. A culture of "almost obsessional uneasiness with time and its measure"

Cultural shock due to an information overload and large and swift technological change from the 'displacement of one understanding of technology' and the rise in computational technologies. - Talked about in Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, 1970

Orson Welles in Alex Grasshoff's 1972 doc: "The premature arrival of the future" (future shock)

Shared temporality that assaults the sense and rhythms of life: "for the vast majority of people our perceptual and cognitive relationship to communication and information technology will continue to be estranged and disempowered because of the velocity at which new products emerge and at which arbitrary reconfigurations of entire systems take place". Explosion of information causes social homogenisation and 'disaffection'.


Eastern philosophy with ties to process philosophy and Western 'flux'

Change and Continuity: The Influences of Taoist Philosophy and Cultutral Practices on Contemporary Art Practice, Bonita Ely, Doctorate Thesis, 2009

'The relevance of Taoism's abstract concepts at a tipping point in Western history as a non-absolutist model towards considerations of non-humanist philosophy after the devastation of the Second World War, and the methods, or processes, deployed to embody these concepts in visual language'.

--- look to David J Clarke's The Influence of Oriental Thought on Postwar American Painting and Sculpture (1988)

Artists who expressed interest in Taoist, Zen Buddhist and Hindu principles and practices - a synthesising of 'concepts and forms with Western tradition to achieve innovation'

"Infusion" of Eastern with Western

Looking at the influence of Buddhism on Taoism - 1st and 2nd centuries of Christian Era in China, from India. Very compatible in theories, rapidly intertwined by the 4th C. Naturalism heavy in China found interest in Buddhism, 'desire to penetrate the secrets of nature from which humanity is inseparable, though meditation, master of breathing (pranayama, chi, qi) and other practices such as yoga, and the t'ai chi "as a means to spiritual concentration and longevity".'

This formed Ch'en in the 8th C. Borrowings from Taoism into Chinese Buddhism - known as Zen Buddhism in Japan.

Indian Buddhism - disciplined practise over years to be able to stop thinking to reach enlightenment.

Ch'en Buddhism - 'sudden enlightenment achieved through system of exercises aimed things "as they are" through direct experience.'

'Taoism principal of the inability of language to define the qualitative metaphysical dimensions of the Tao' influence Ch'en Buddhism and so often answers to questions were 'esoteric or nonsensical, improvised', to shock the questioner into 'lateral thinking, to achieve sudden insights'

Ch'en: preached the 'return to intuition, spontaneity and nature, and novices were provoked to do their own thinking, be open to unexpected cures, detach from the habitual and security by leaving their monastery to encounter the everyday, to wander homeless in search of knowledge, to come to sudden experiences of insight into their own "original nature".

Ch'en Buddhism brought to Japan from China in 552 CE. Japan did not have an indigenous writing system so Chinese calligraphy was used and so Japanese lexicon developed from the Chinese and Ch'en became Zen. This is during the Sung period in China, when Ch'en cultural creativity at a height of achievement. The artistic methods of Ch'en and ways of attaining enlightenment were appropriated from Taoism and introduced to Japan.

links to art practice:

In Tao and Zen, mundane activities along with art are forms of meditation

“Brush work is therefore an ideal vehicle for conveying … enlightened vision ... with its hallmarks of simplicity, naturalness, harmony and precision … the elimination of all that is unnecessary, so that nothing stands in the way of the intuitive grasp of reality”. (Clare Pollard, Zenmind: the Development of Zen Buddhism, catalogue essay for the exhibition, Zen Mind Zen Brush: Japanese Ink Paintings from the Gitter-Yelen Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006.)


Influence of Eastern philosophy during the psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s:

In film:

- Samadhi, Jordan Belson (reproducing ta transcendental expereince)

- Harry Everett Smith (raised by Thesoophists)

- Stan Brakhage and Beats (Ginsberg: Bleakean dimensions and Whiteman frame of Hinduism and Buddhism)

From Edward Said's Orientalism:

The modern Orientalist was in his view, a hero rescuing the orient from the obscurity, alienation, and strangeness which he himself had properly distinguished.

The specific Orientalist techniques -lexicography, grammar, translation, cultural decoding - restored, fleshed out, reasserted the values both of an ancient, classical Orient and of the traditional disciplines of philology, history, rhetoric, and doctrinal polemic. But in the process, the Orient and Orientalist disciplines changed dialectically, for they could not survive n their original form. The Orient, even in the "classic" form which the Orientalist usually studied, was modernized, restored to present: the traditional disciplines too were brought into contemporary culture.

Basically, what the Orientalist exported from the Orient was dependant upon what the Orientalist understood. And so decoding the Orient, automatically meant reconstituting the Orient.


Exploring The Secret Doctrine of H.P. Blavatsky, Pablo Sender, The Philosophical Research Society, Youtube

On her trips around the world, she was met by a man who she had envisioned as a spirit growing up. She was instructed by him to bring the Eastern teachings to the West. This would enlighten the West and in-turn attribute more "value for them in the colonised countries" (as mentioned by Gandhi and his newfound respect for Hinduism, what he had previously believed to be a superstition until he met Blavatsky in London).

She wanted to know where, who and what God is, and who had seen the immortal spirit of man, 'so as to be able to assure himself of man's immortality?'

1856 and 1868 went to Tibet to be trained by 'yogi's' (the 'sages of the Orient')

She was taught by the sages that 'combining science with religion, the existence of God and immortality of man's spirit may be demonstrated'

Science, religion and philosophy as a way to demonstrate the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul - religious, scientific

1873 - sailed to US

1875 - founded the Theosophical Society

1888 - published The Secret Doctrine (vol1, evolution and symbolism of cosmos, vol2. evolution and symbolism of man; anthropogenesis) and in both how science contrasted with the secret doctrine.

The Book of Dzyan mentioned in Isis Unveiled the book was constructed from the teachings of the Divine Beings through a language before Sanskrit, known as Senzar.

When she was in Tibet she learned Senzar and translated stanzas into English for the first time, in The Secret Doctrine

- The Night of the Universe:

- Space is the Eternal Parent

- Time does not exist, instead duration (duration as a concept unknown in our language, but probably understood as timelessness), because the existence of time depends on the changes in consciousness.

- Intelligence is in the very fabric of the cosmos, but when there are no beings to manifest intelligence, intelligence is latent. When an entity appears, that entity expresses intrinsic intelligence that that particular organisation can.

- Unconscious but all-presence: A paradox in the state unknown to us. The absolute state is beyond our reality.

- The Awakening of Kosmos

- The Sun veils reality with the blinding light - The Sun removes the veil to present the essence of the Sun (representing the Deity), which is the same essence in us.

In Vol. 2

3 New Propositions:

- Simultaneous Evolution of 7 human groups on 7 different portions of our globe

- expressing different aspects of the divine.

- Creation of the First Root-Race

- The great Chohans (Lords), called the Lords of the Moon, of the airy bodies.

"bring forth men, (They were told), men of your nature. Give them their forms within. She (Mother Earth or Nature) will build coverings without (external bodies). (For) males-females will they be. The astral bodies form the mould in which Nature could build the physical body. Explaining the evolution more physically (the descent of the astral body before the physical body exists.)

- Evolution: 'The breath (human Monad, or spirit) needed a form the Fathers gave it. The breath needed. A gross body; the Earth moulded it. The breath needed the Spirit of Life; the Solar Lhas breathed it into its form. The breath needs a mind to embrace the Universe.' The Sons of Wisdom allocated certain amounts of Wisdom to different groups of humans depending on how ready they were to receive it. The souls who received the wisdom are the sages, those with a spark are the mass of humanity and those who didn't were left mindless. The apes come from the latter human forms. From the beginning of evolution there were humans from different levels, depending on the evolution of the souls and the cycles of incarnation.

The Book of Dyzan: 'Knowledge through meditation'

- Trans-intellectual means

- Using a scientific method to gain spiritual information

- Research of non-material realms

The adepts taught Blavatsky to train her spiritual perception in order to learn spiritual truths of the universe.


Absolute reality beyond thought (comparison and relativity). The mystic search to beyond good and evil,

Absolute universality - the universe is a cycle. Within every cycle, there is another cycle on a higher plane.

Obligatory pilgrimage

Each one of us is an individual experience of the whole - we experience our own experiences, while we conflict and collaborate with each other. Through pilgrimage, we raise our consciousness to recognise the whole; Experience life in a separate forms through which we develop a sense of who we are. Knowing who we are, we understand that together, we are whole. We can only reach the end of incarnation when we realise the truth of the our nature, the truth of the universe, that we are part of the whole.

----- More on Spiritualism and Theosophy:

This spiritual mediumship was largely practiced by women as a method of subverting the patriarchal systems and gender dynamics of this time. A method of directly accessing absolute authority and overcome the marginalisation of their voices. Mediums - religious positions and politic activism -- women's rights movements. Spiritualism allow women to circumvent impediments. (Hilma af Klint: Painting for the Future, Julia Voss: p. 130)


Wiki: Theosophy originates in US - follows Buddhist and Brahmanic theories (e.g. pantheistic evolution and reincarnation. A religion based on mystical insight. Purpose is spiritual emancipation. Reincarnation through Karma.

1800s: Formed at a time of imperialism and exploitation

- Indian spirituality (Chakras, karma, kundalini)

- Neo-Platonism (Twin falmes)

- Judaism (Kabbalah)


Theosophy was informed by a myriad of spiritual teachings but one mustn't ignore the cultural appropriation that came with the very creation of Theosophy, by critically examining the distillation of the esoteric by a culture rooted in imperialism, Orientalism and exploitation.

- Aleister Crowley and Rudolf Steiner were anti-Semititc and racist

- Blavatsky: 'designed a whole story that implied there was a hierarchy of races that ended with white Europeans being at the pinnacle' --- 'Antlantean and Lemurian race theories that were taken from writings of Plato and repackaged as Theosophical teachings with new framing for old musings'

Founders of Theosophy picked and chose from spiritual teachings they resonated with (by-passing the deeper understanding of these ideas), which were reinterpreted and packaged within bigoted, racist and Euro-centric agendas. A bastardisation version of an amalgamate of concepts.

While Blavatsky had a deeper understanding of these ideas, Theosophy itself, as with much Western esotericism is a reductive and selective spirituality created in collective bias, drenched in white supremacist ideals that, in turn, by-passes much of the very fabric of the source material.

Blavatsky believed that many of the world’s religions have their origins in a universal ancient religion, a “secret doctrine” that was known to Plato and early Hindu sages and which continues to underpins the center of every religion’. Believed in the unity of science and religion. She believed that this ancient religion world be revived and spread, replacing dominant world religions. ‘The Theosophical depiction of Buddhist and Hinduism, however, drew criticism both from practitioners of orthodox Buddhist and Hindu traditions, as well as from Western scholars of these traditions, such as Max Müller who believed that Theosophists like Blavatsky were misrepresenting the Asian traditions’.

  • The universe is an outward reflection from the Absolute - the world as humans perceive it is illusory, or maya - drawing from Asian religions.

  • Human evolution is tied in with planetary and wider cosmic evolution.

Theosophy and spiritual art; Hilma Af Klint:

The way of thinking in Spiritualism is being receptive to effects of the art - allowing time for the importance or gravity of such work to wash over the viewer is paramount to understanding it. (idea from Josiah McElheny during the discussion between Christine Burgin, Leah Duckerman, Lisa Florman, Josiah McElheny, RH Quaytman and Amy Sillman, moderated by Helen Molesworth, on Hilma af Klimt)

Hilma af Klint and information on her religious and spiritual influences:

- Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism

- Writings of Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, Franz Hartmann, Carl du Prel.

(the belief that religions shouldn't compete, they enrich one another, and that religious thought should be supplemented by the latest scientific knowledge)

Helena Blavatsky: 'Modern science is every day drawn more into the maelstrom of Occult'

Franz Hartmann, Magic, White and Black: The Science of Finite and Infinite Life (1886):

'a single point, a line, or any geometrical figure, may convey a vast meaning'.

(a new search for the universal language of symbols and signs)

- The Five (De Fem): spiritualist discussions and automatic drawings starting in 1896. Took to role of medium in 1903.

- First turned her automatic drawings into paintings, after being 'entreated by Amaliel, one of the High Masters' (a key figure they would contact in the séances), in 1906. This would lead to the creation of 193 works entitles The Paintings for the Temple, from 1906-1915.

Linking to levels of consciousness in production:

1907, The Large Figure Paintings - 'The painting were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawing and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless, I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brushstroke.

1907, The Ten Largest - 'It was not the case that I was to blindly obey the High Lords of the Mysteries but that I was to imagine that they were always standing by my side'

1906, Primordial Chaos - 'Amaliel draws a sketch, H[Hilma] then paints'.

When Klint returned to painting The Paintings for the Temple, in 1912, she was in conscious control, no longer created by external spirits that passed through her. She held a more 'active authorial position'. After 1916 she stopped producing mediumistic art. Understood that she became more empowered by her own thoughts and conscious, as what happens with spiritualists who become known publicly. Fluid lines decrease, basic shapes become the containers of more complex developed structures, taking inspiration from Christian and Theosophical iconography. In her later years she had mastered her artistic voice, which had been formed through Spiritualism, and sealed with increased agency.

Swedish national identity focused on rationality and practicality, rejecting the 'perceived elitism of aestheticism and spirituality in art'. So with this, af Klint knew her contemporaries were not ready for nonrepresentational art - and anyway, af Klint wasn't really interested in positing a new Art style - a re-imagination of Art like Kandinsky and Mondrian - she was on the quest to understand 'existence on a fundamental level through the means of art'. She believed herself a conduit rather than inspired.

The milieu of scientific discoveries beyond the visible - later 19 C.

Hilma af Klint: 'Like a modern micrographia, the work veers between the intricate and small, with tiny signs encrypted within them, and a huge -and hugely opaque - symbolic edifice of cosmic proportions.

Science and the Occult

The atom and evolution are important motifs

- The first subatomic particles discovered 1897: Lead to discovery of ray, waves, elements (electromagnitism, Xray, radioactive decay)

The multiplicity of realms

At the same time as Charles Darwins, Theory of Evolution.

And wireless communication

For af Klint, the spiral meant evolution (and involution), from Theosophy meaning the purification of the soul and "the link between the human and the divine".

In the Art World: modernist poetry, avant-garde, Futurism (Marinetti: "Time and Space died yesterday")

Spiritualism: Mystical, esoteric and occult: Ideas of the 4th dimension and hyperspace (from mathematics) had an influence over Russian Suprematism and abstract artists, eg. Malevich. Movement, ether, vibration --> Futurism and artist Kupka.

The communication of X-rays (communication between realms) prompted questions about possible communication with further realms (living and dead) 'Were artworks like thought forms, vibrating to a viewers mind, as Kandinsky supposed?'

Annie Besant key figure in bridging these fields (2nd-gen leader of Theosophical Society) - "studying the atom was not an end in itself, but a path to acquiring cosmic knowledge"

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