The concentration of attention on light as one of the essential elements in art, science or philosophy tends to dissolve the solidity and independence of both material objects and individual observers and to involve them as components in a complex mesh of interacting events.
Thus in art: when a person actually begins to look at the light instead of only through it, he acquires both a different philosophical world-view marked by a blurring of metaphysical distinctions between different logical categories of objects or between objects seen, observer and events of seeing, and simultaneously he enjoys a qualitatively different perceptual experience (so to speak, a different picture of the world). That which he actually sees radiates, glitters, glows, dazzles, flickers. For example, what he sees is not a man in a red pullover walking down the street but a moving shape of red slightly blurred at the edges moving across a multi-coloured field of glowing light. Such a sensuous experience corresponds to (induces or can be induced by) an un-commonsense mode (or mood) of thought. Thus the quality of sensation given body in different types of art parallels the different possible metaphysical relationships between the elements in the act of vision.
In philosophy turning the attention from the objects seen towards the light in which they can be seen displaces the focus of interest from the relations of independent material objects to the more complex and self-conscious inter-relations between subjects, objects, necessary conditions, mind, sensations and perceptions—i.e. to epistemology. For instance, material objects might dissolve into possible acts of perception, or in other logically complex ways the thing seen and the seer might lose their separate static identities and merge as opposite poles into the process of seeing.
Within physics a parallel shift takes place between Newtonian mechanics, in which objects move along their mathematically defined courses with the stability and hard independence of billiard balls, and modern physics—relativity and quantum mechanics—wherein the velocity and paths of moving objects are related to the light by which they can be observed. When light thus becomes one of the operative elements of physics, indeed the only constant velocity in the relatively moving universe, the mass or solidity of material objects dissolves according to the formula E = MC2 into energy and velocity of light. Objects with mass can be transformed into radiating energy, and light, hitting particles, can actually move them. Into this fluid network of paths of light defined by the curvature of space and time, particles acting like waves and electromagnetic waves acting like particles, the observer is plugged as a moving and operative part. The picture of the universe is transformed into the fluidity of an immense happening within an elaborately curving space-time structure wherein nothing is independent from the light by which it can be observed.
This redrawing of the physical world-picture is paralleled in detail by the transformation in art once attention is focused on the location and function of light. Thereupon the observer is plunged into an elaborate space-time continuum—into a fluid medium, the light, flowing between objects—or (to be more precise and extreme since the objects too are dissolved within the light) flowing between events that happen to it and within it. Art thus loses its concern with static objects externally related to each other (subject depicted, object of art, artist and observer as relatively static individuals) and is progressively assimilated to a happening in a continuum where light travels with the ‘velocity of light’. Within this continuum one can clarify the internal relationships between those activities of light which partially constitute the subject of the work of art and those which enter into its creation and its perception—the light falling on and illuminating the landscape, or the light getting into the painter’s eyes and dazzling him, or the light travelling from the painting to the observer’s eye, or the light stimulating electrical impulses moving along the observer’s optic nerves into his brain. It is possible to plot the trajectory of the path of the light from its source among these deflections, absorptions, refractions up to and even through the eye of the observer by means of a geometrical structure and to arrange various kinds of art at definite positions along this trajectory of light according to the locations of light in each of them.
Along its path from its source to its ultimate absorption in being seen light travels and has adventures. Light’s adventures begin with its emission from a source, which itself need not be seen. Prom its source it falls (through the transparent, invisible or translucent, troubled visible medium of the air) upon the landscape or other subject matter of the painting, affects it, illuminates it and is affected by it. It is partially absorbed and partially reflected, may be diffracted, polarized, scattered or focused. After this encounter it traverses the clear or murky medium of the air between subject and painter, again modified and carrying modified information. Thus refracted, reflected and absorbed by landscape and atmosphere it reaches the eye of the artist. At his pivotal point he may choose to represent any part of this path—the light coming directly at him from its source, or the path of light between source and object seen from the side as falling beams of light, or the objects as catching the light, or the dazzling or murky light between the landscape and himself. Or else he may turn completely around and paint or construct an object which will act as a source of light directed at the observer. Whatever his choice, the light then proceeds to the eyes of the observer, where it reaches the end of its path as light strictly speaking, but continues its trajectory physically transformed into an electrical impulse travelling along the optic nerve into the brain. When this electrical impulse reaches its physical destination at the appropriate receptor in the brain, it has reached the end of its spatial path. There it causes (or is correlated with in some metaphysically mysterious way) either a perception, which is referred to the shared spatial world of extended objects ‘out there’, or a sensation, which is ‘in the mind’—within the private space of unlocateable individual sensations or hallucinations. At this final stage the experience of light takes place physically as well as metaphysically ‘inside the observer’: inside his skull and inside his mind. When the light has thus reached its spatial terminus inside the observer the geometrical structure representing its path can undergo a topological inversion which transfers that which was inside to the outside and that which was outside to the inside. The structure of the possible locations of light in art is thus turned inside out in a way scarcely to have been anticipated, giving rise to a whole new range of possibilities—almost, one might say, a new dimension. Thereupon the location of light in art is physically outside of the observer and surrounding him, falling on and illuminating his body as an object, and he is within the changing light. This happens in the most avant-garde, almost still nameless ‘light environment art’, as well as in the ancient art of stained glass windows illuminating people within the cathedrals.
Thus at one extreme of the trajectory the light comes unnoticed from outside and is only the necessary condition of seeing; then it gradually approaches the focal point within the observer; passing through this point it spreads out and surrounds the observer, who becomes himself an object within the light. These geometrical shifts are accompanied by shifts in the metaphysical status of light—between being real, represented or induced.
This paper will examine how such shifts in the location of light— systematized in the geometrical structure of its path here sketched— embody complexly diverse metaphysical relationships between material objects, objects represented in works of art, observer, perceptions, sensations, events, media, etc., and how they simultaneously produce diverse sensuous qualities in the work of art itself (It will be noticed during the course of this paper that such shifts are so pervasive that they entail changes even in style of writing about them.) In such a way the geometrical structure of the path of light sketched above might function as a discoverer of the intrinsic relations between the concrete aesthetic quality of the work of art and the abstract philosophic framework in which it is created and seen.
Before this preoccupation with light transfigured art, the painters of the Renaissance, such as Piero dclla Francesca, were concerned with objects—their clearly defined shape, solidity and measurably ordered relationships in space. Light, falling from the normal and unnoticed source millions of miles outside the picture’s range—the sun—being neither excessive nor inadequate nor in itself visible, drew no attention to itself but remained a modest and unstated presupposition of the painting. It served only the subsidiary function of a stage light illuminating objects with precision and clarity and was in no way itself an actor on the painting’s stage. (When one speaks of the quality of light in Piero, one refers primarily to the extreme precision and clarity of the objects. Its virtue was transparency—its own imperceptibility.) Objects, light and observer were all externally, mathematically related to each other by perspective, which formulated the laws of light travelling unimpeded in straight lines, not as something to be seen but as the abstract condition of seeing.
With Rembrandt this unseen condition of seeing became part of the actual subject of the painting. The activity of seeing was emphasized by being thrown into doubt or made difficult by the flickering inadequacy of the light rendered in chiaroscuro. The source of light in many cases was brought within the painting—light emanating from a candle or a lamp or a holy face—or else its direction and path from outside the painting were made evident as falling shafts. In terms of the geometrical scheme outlined above, light is viewed obliquely falling in shafts from its source upon the object illuminated. It is seen from the side, as it were from a right angle to the direction of its path. This light defined space as perspective had done in the Renaissance, but whereas perspective had related external objects in a precise and rational way with respect to an observer standing outside the picture at the exact focal point of the convergent rays, this chiaroscuro delineated space in an ambiguous, flickering, irrational way which partially merged the objects with each other and involved the observer’s act of seeing with difficulty. It simultaneously illuminated and darkened objects so they appeared to float, partially dissolved, within a rich engulfing darkness. Perhaps the light was present, not so much to clarify and illuminate the structure and relations of objects, as the objects were present to catch the play of the light. Not only did this palpable light fall upon the objects but it penetrated their surfaces, revealing the nature of their various rich materials in the manifold ways they interacted with it—the jewels which catch and hold and throw back light in their different ways, the soft absorbency of furs, the hard shine of white satin. The objects glowed and glittered and glimmered and had sheen, were translucent or transparent or opalescent. A multitude of the constituent textures of matter were displayed in an exploration of the intricate ways in which light can be refracted, partially absorbed and reflected. The rich physical qualities of these objects were depicted by means of overlaying layers of scumbles, glazes and thick impastos; so the painting as an object became heavy and encrusted with elaborate substance.
This intricate materiality, so elaborately realized in the layered material of the oil paint, contrasted drastically both as subject and as surface with the insubstantial light. From this contrast arises the dialectical tension between the immaterial light, which by its own radiating nature tends to dematerialize objects, and the solid material of the oil paint which represents it and the solid materials of the opulent world which it illuminates. Light struggles with objects, tending to dissolve them within its fluid waves, and objects struggle with light, tending to catch and hold it, to violate its moving nature and make it static. Light’s immateriality is the antithesis of the rich matter, rich people and rich paint brought together by Rembrandt’s elaborate technique.
Simultaneously with the material-revealing function of light there developed an expressive function which was almost its contrary. Light took on a symbolic function as the light of consciousness or of the luminous soul within fleshly bodies. It acquired a spiritual meaning as it emanated from the holy persons involved in the dramas which it illuminated. Illumination both in a literal and a metaphorical sense glowed out of the mysterious dark. The dynamism arises from the balanced struggle of the space-creating light and darkness with the powerful material objects they tend to dissolve.
Following Rembrandt, George de la Tour systematized away this creative contradiction by concentrating the light source at a definite and explicit point in the picture while allowing the objects to remain clear and well defined in the surrounding three-quarter darkness. Thus perceptually” he conveyed too much information, and symbolically he lost the coalescence of light and existence which provided the metaphysical force of Rembrandt.
Turner short-circuited this path of light. In terms of the geometrical structure the path of light is usually in his paintings from its source (the often painted sun) directly to the observer, crossing the actively intervening medium of the atmosphere. The light comes frontally at the perceiver, like a sunburst. But what he actually sees is not the reified light itself radiating at him as in Baroque sculpture, but the light dispersed and lost and wandering through the thick, wet, windy medium that is the air of England. Between its dimly perceived source and the perceiver it has many traumatic adventures. It is dispersed, caught, whirled, scattered, refracted and reflected by the obstacles within the medium it must traverse. Its encounter with an object is only one incident among these adventures. It illuminates the object on which it falls, which is frequently dissolved and brightly obscure to the point of invisibility, less than the atmosphere through which it falls—wind, rain and speed. The path of the wind is made visible. Water-saturated, swirling air acts on the white light falling through it as an opal acts— breaking it up into iridescent, half translucent colours, dispersing it into an unsystematic rainbow. (The clear dry air the Impressionists breathed acted more like a diamond’s crystalline structure, breaking white light into orderly prismatic radiations.) The real subject of Turner’s painting is the dispersion of light in the huge three-dimensional chunk of dynamic atmosphere between observer and the dimmed sun. Falling through it, the straight paths of the light-rays are curved and swirled about, reflected and scattered by each moving droplet of water.
Thus light is transmuted into a dynamic fluid intermingling with the fluids of water, air and fire in a chaos of cosmic elements. Turner might almost have been painting the world-picture of some element-obsessed pre-Socratic philosopher—especially of Empedocles—the continuous interchange of independent struggling elements.
The Impressionists, in terms of the outlined structure, made another geometrical shift. In their paintings the light was neither viewed from the side in descending shafts nor coming directly from its heavenly source, but rather was proceeding from the objects on which it fell— landscape or cathedral which had modified it by absorption, refraction and reflection—directly into the observer’s eye. The subject of their paintings was neither the object illuminated nor the direct source of the light, but the light itself travelling from its encounter with the object straight into the eye of the observer. The painter had interposed himself as an ideal observer in this path. Through his activity the act of vision coalesced with the act of painting. He painted both the light modified by its intercourse with objects and the direct physical action of light on his own body—the dazzle, the indistinctness, the blurred luminosity and even the physically stunned impression of sitting too long in pounding sunlight. (As the trees which he is representing photosynthesize in the sunlight, so he becomes sunburned.) Vicariously the observer experiences through him the mixed-media impression of being in the centre of heat, perception and dazzle. Here the light functions both as the medium of perception and simultaneously, by its own excess, disrupts perception into insubstantial sensations. (As in Rembrandt objects merge and dissolve through the inadequacy of the light, in Impressionism they do so by its very excess.) Thus the information carried by the light and its active disorienting effects on the observer mingle in a single self-contradictory experience of being ‘blinded by light’.
In terms of physics what actually reaches the observer is not the perceived object located ‘out there’ (which of course remains where it is), but rather a medley of interfering light-waves which race up to his eye with the velocity of light and hit it. The process of vision is suspended and caught in action-like painting at the space-time point when light hits the eye as colour-filled fluctuating sensation before the mind can freeze and externalize it into nameable, neutral material objects. The act of painting coalesces with the act of seeing before the mind can interpret sensation into objects. Thus in the hands of the Impressionists material objects lose the static, self-contained independence commonsense commonly attributed to them as well as their Lockean primary qualities— definite shape, texture, solidity and impenetrability—and are transfigured (or perhaps seen for the first time) into insubstantial agents interacting with the substance of light. From being a mere secondary quality which arises subjectively, illusionistically in the perceiver, colour is elevated to the role of a constitutive primary quality. This paralleled physics,* for colour or its scientific correlate, wave-length, is a property more deeply intrinsic to matter than are size, shape, texture, solidity and impenetrability. These are mere surface macroscopic properties of aggregates of molecules, whereas the wave-lengths that can be absorbed or reflected directly depend on the frequency of the vibration of the constituent atoms. The information which light carries to the eye of the observer as colour is a product of this deep physical intercourse with the objects on which it has fallen.
* This parallel with the developments of physics—perhaps the feeling that they were getting closer to objective truth—gave impetus to the technical investigations of the Impressionists. Their techniques for mixing colours employed some of the properties of light. The juxtaposition of pure colours to create white by visual addition parallels the addition of all coloured lights into white light and is the opposite of the usual techniques of painting where the addition of more colours results in a subtraction towards black.
Once the attention is thus redirected through consideration of the physical nature of the light to the events involved in an act of seeing, a philosophical shift takes place from the logical structure involved in perception towards that involved in sensation. Whereas perception is a two-termed relation between the observer and an external independent object, light participates in an elaborate series of interdependent events which terminate in a luminous sensation at the space-time instant when the light hits the eye. Through such an analysis of the activities of light it is possible to abstract from the heavy, logical entrailments of perception (‘There is a stable, long-lasting object in a stabilized public external world which truly has the quality which this stable, long-lasting person perceives it to have. It could be seen by other persons. It will continue about the same for some time. It has a certain feel and sound connected with the perceived colour, etc.’) to the purity of the final sensation. One can thus concentrate attention on the immediate vivid experience freed from the additions of mind’s constructions. Philosophically this is one of the paths leading to the sense-datum theory.
Corresponding to this logical difference between perception and sensation there is a sensuous difference between a world of definite clear outlines, of precise three-dimensional location and shape and of minutely exact texture, and the world as it might appear to a practised sense-datum philosopher. This would consist of luminous, transparent, weightless colour-shapes happening across the surface of the visual field, varying in brightness and hue, undogmatic about outlines, ignoring the third dimension as a mere logical construction. This is very like the radiant and insubstantial world that dazzled the Impressionists as they learned to see it. Indeed Impressionism offers an exquisite sensuous correlate for the philosophical sense-datum position.
In terms of the structural diagram of the path of light, Op art moves the work of art still closer to the observer—right inside his head. With Impressionism the path of light reached its final goal as light at the observer’s eye. There it is converted into electrical impulses which continue their journey along the optic nerve into the occipital lobe of his brain, where it reaches its ultimate goal as an electrical discharge of a cell inside his skull. In any spatial sense that is as close as it is possible to come to an observer. But there at this ultimate physical extremity of the inward path the electrical event within the brain explodes into a sensation of light in the mind. The light experience leaps a meta-
physical gap, so to speak, into the mind. There—on the far side of this metaphysical chasm—the light experience of Op art is situated. This final extension is impossible to represent geometrically since the work of art as what is immediately enjoyed (or suffered) is not spatially located with respect to the external world, but is within the spatially independent world of hallucinations and private sensations. It has moved from the public external space-time system into a private internal space-time system which, while cohering in its own way, is logically independent from and unlocateable with reference to the public space-time. Where did my dream go? How far is it between my brain and my mind? What is the direction between an electrical discharge in a brain cell and a sensation of blue light? You cannot answer such questions. Perhaps you can’t even ask them. But there, wherever that is, arc located those light experiences which are the aesthetic realization of Op art. Op art is philosophically interesting because it combines in one concrete, immediate experience these logically independent space-time systems and the logically contrasting languages of perception and sensation. Normally one would consider the language of perception—’I see a red chair’—and the language of caused sensation—’An event in the external world causes a modification in the light; this falling on my eyes, causes an electrical impulse to pass along my optic nerve into the brain; this causes a brain cell discharge; this causes a red, chair-shaped light sensation’—to be alternative, more or less adequate and mutually exclusive, ways or describing the same situation. One would not think they could function in conjunction with each other in the description of one experience. But in an encounter with Op art part of the experience—seeing the picture—is normal perception and part is private sensation induced by looking at the picture. The experience is logically too rich for a completely consistent description of it within either language.
There is in the case of Op art a whole new complex of relations between the material object seen, the work of art aesthetically experienced, the observer as body and as centre of sensations, the public world of physical interactions and the private world of sensations and hallucinations, which must be disentangled.
Consider what happens when you look at Op art pictures. From the everyday street where you have been watching out to avoid cars and other obstacles like a sensible, self-preserving material object, you enter the gallery exhibiting Op art paintings and look around. At first you see other people, the walls of the gallery and on them hanging very precise, hard-edged, often brightly coloured, static paintings. It would be nonsense to say: ‘The pictures hanging on the wall cause me to see pictures.’ This is normal perception. The pictures are simply what you sec—but they are not yet what you are meant to appreciate. However this common sensible situation lasts for only a few minutes (its duration depending perhaps on the health of your eyes) and then becomes more complicated. For as you look or stare at Op art pictures their excessive precision and complexity fatigues the eye, and the eye reacts as an overburdened object which bas received too much information, i.e. by creating the opposite sensation. It is only then that you begin to experience the Op art thing as a work of art. (One might be tempted to say: ‘The things hanging on the wall cause me to sec things.’ Here the ambiguity of ‘things’ saves the statement from nonsense—barely.) The picture on the wall does not function primarily as an aesthetic object to be perceived, but rather as an external cause of complex light-sensations to be enjoyed (or suffered). It explodes inside your brain as a luminous, rainbow-like headachy happening. These sensations of light are shining and transparent, often brightly coloured, flickering and moving. Sometimes they remain superimposed on the picture; sometimes they are superimposed on the ordinary perceived world as you move your head. They have a visionary quality—or more accurately a vision-y quality—the sort of jumping flickering lights you see at the onset of a migraine. Should you see such Op art lights in the absence of an Op art object, it is not so much as aesthetic experience as a symptom. It strongly suggests that something is wrong within your body—in eyes, nerves or brain. But if, having closed your eyes for a while or rested them on some more restful subject, you can look back quickly and see—in the normal sense—the cause of your light sensations, you can feel reassured. (After you have looked hard enough at enough Op art paintings, you might go on seeing them for too long afterwards and what was not a symptom in the first place might become a symptom in the second place. They are visually aggressive.) The logical structure here is like that of pain. Thus two observers, looking at the same picture, logically could not see the same Op art engendered lights, as they could not feel the same headache although their headaches might be caused by the same excessively loud noise. As you cannot have my headache, so you cannot have my Op art experience (although you could buy my Op art picture and have it as moveable property). While it is tautologically true that two observers could not see the same Op art induced lights, it is a valid question to what extent their Op art experiences of the same object are similar. Other people might ‘see’ differently coloured and shaped light. Indeed if a number of spectators were to make animated cartoons of the sensations they experienced in front of the same object, it would be surprising if these were to coincide. Yet one would expect that there would be a structural similarity—their descriptions of their optical experiences should vary only within certain limits. If some people said that a certain Op art work caused them to ‘see’ red circular lights floating slowly upwards and others said it caused them to ‘see’ vertical green lights moving rapidly to the left, one would be led to question—what? Their veracity, or the state of their eyes, or their knowledge of English, or the efficacy of the picture? Perhaps they were not really having Op art light sensa-sations, but only imagining or lying. Who could say? How could he say? If I say: ‘This Op art picture has absolutely no effect on me. I see nothing but what is actually painted in it,’ is this is a criticism of the picture as not working, or a complaint that something is wrong in my circuits, or a boast that my eyes are stronger than this Op art object? (Suppose I say: ‘When I cut my leg, I feel no pain.’ Are my nerves paralysed? Have I got leprosy? Or can I really control pain through Yoga?) Compare the statements: ‘When I switch on the light, I see no light.’ ‘When you drill that tooth, I feel no pain.’ ‘When I look at this picture, I see no after images unless I try very hard.’ Is the connexion between an Op art object and its light sensation fixed and determined like an electrical mechanism, or fluctuating like the threshold of pain, or can will and intention alter it? There is here a whole series of possible explanations why an Op art object does not work, ranging from the most objective: ‘The electricity is turned off’ to the most subjective: ‘I am not trying hard enough.’ Statements about Op art and its effects shade from the language of perception through that of caused sensation to that of pain, but they all imply that the Op art object is not merely a static object on the wall but an active mechanism. In a way it is a machine for causing light sensations within my skull. To achieve the same effect it need not be a picture at all. One might invent electrical gadgets to attach to the skull to stimulate the sight areas of the brain. Such a machine could conceivably produce the same visual results as Op art paintings.* (Will this be the form of the art of the future when there will be no more room to hang pictures?)
* This has already been done in physiological laboratories. The aesthetic move would be to label such electrical stimulators ‘works of art’.
According to this logic of pain observers cannot share their Op art experiences. Consider how this reacts on the relationships between observers—what kind of a society it tends to create. Say there is a number of people wandering around inside the gallery. They see each other, the furniture and walls of the gallery, their own and each other’s clothing, the frames of the pictures and even for fleeting moments the pictures themselves. These are all shared experiences embedding them in one public world. But superimposed on all this are the fleeting, flickering, shining light-sensations induced by the literally intolerable brightness of the paintings. They are transparent, and one can see the public world through them, but they are brighter and more immediate and somehow they obscure the reality of the static things behind them. (The pictures themselves may even tend to disappear behind the superimposed lights which they have induced.) The people at the exhibition walk among each other and among material objects, taking unusual care not to bump into them, but each is immersed in his own world of private sensation. It is a bit like walking through a town, dealing with people and things, while having a headache which no one else can see or feel. The immediacy and personal belongingness of the sensation of pain veils the relatively abstract and impersonal experience of the external world. ‘I am at the centre of my pain, and others are out there, far away, unreal. My headache is more real to me than your head.’ Similarly each of the disoriented people in an Op art gallery is alone, isolated at the centre of his own sensations of light. They sketch a nightmare vision of a society whose members, immersed in their private sensations, are ultimately cut off from others, seeing them through a private veil of light as somewhat irrelevant objects to be avoided if possible.
Thus far in terms of the geometrical diagram .the location of light in art has moved progressively inward from a far away unseen external source towards objects illuminated to the eyes of painter, from painter to observer’s eyes, from eyes to brain, from brain metaphorically still inward to mind. There the possible inward trajectory of light ends. The only possible further displacement consists in reversing the inward direction of light’s successive locations—turning it outward. In geometrical terms such a transformation, which places inside all that was outside and outside all that was inside, is called a topological inversion. Such a mathematical transformation corresponds to turning a normal three-dimensional object—for instance a left-handed glove—inside out in the fourth dimension (thereby turning it into a right-handed glove). This four-dimensional transformation of the location of light in art, removing it from the ‘inside’ to the physical outside of the observer, corresponds to the new relations between art object and observer in the most experimental form of art developing at this moment. The art object might be said to swallow, even to eat up the observer. This form of art is now in the experimental, developing stage*—so fluid indeed that it has not yet solidified enough to have a label attached to it—but it might be descriptively called light-environmental art. While Op art works are realized as light experience inside the private theatre of the spectator’s skull, in light-environment art the skull (as well as the rest of the body) of the spectator is inside the light in a public theatre. Since this form is so new, it may be of interest to describe it here.
* Yet this form of art is not at all new, nor does this paper pretend to represent a historic progression. Stained-glass windows in Gothic cathedrals might be called an early form of light-environmental art. Within the contained environment of the Gothic cathedral there was a happening—the miracle of Mass. The coloured light from the stained-glass windows blended with music, liturgy, chanting and incense in a mixed-media experience of worship and communion. With the Renaissance this communal mystic light experience was lost in the clear light of individuality, and the windows were no longer stained with colours.
In some public auditorium where a light-art environment is to be performed or created moving, flickering lights, usually correlated with rhythmic sounds, arc projected into the contained space on to the spectators. The vibrations of light and sound are synthesized with other events —dance, kinetic theatre, happenings, incense diffusing or even the sharing of food, into an enveloping unified process. The light-art environment neither represents nor causes light, but is physically made up of light. Thus the dichotomy between the heavy, rich or hard-edged and stable art object and the vibrating, immaterial light disappears, for the ‘art object’ itself consists of light. As such the art object no longer fits into the logical category of ‘object’, i.e. it ceases to be relatively independent from what it does, from observers, from its space-time location, from the qualities it is said to possess. (It possesses nothing and cannot be possessed. One cannot buy it and take it home as one can an Impressionist painting. One cannot have it as one has a picture, but one can have it as one has a party.) It acquires the more apt logical behaviour of a complex event. (‘When is it?’ is as relevant a question as ‘Where is it?’ It is characteristic that such art is usually to be found, not in galleries, but at performances of avant-garde music—Musica Viva—or because like medieval cathedrals it transcends distinctions between high and low brows, in discotheques.)
In terms of physics, light shares with light-art this logical structure of an event more basic than the terms to which it happens . . . indeed even constituting the everyday objects which in everyday language may be said to act in events. The object-action distinction is transcended. Light travels in exact wave-lengths through no medium as a complex electromagnetic process happening to nothing. There is no more fundamental ‘thing’ to which it can happen. (In the nineteenth century physicists hypothesized a subtle object, the ether, for light to wave through in order to make it less uncomfortable to commonsensc, but by the twentieth century that, like many less subtle objects, had to be abandoned.) Mathematically physics describes this process of the propagation of electromagnetic fields in terms of complicated equations which are totally free from the object-acting presupposition which underlies the subject-predicate logic of ordinary speech. Whitehead metaphysically extended such a process-happening description used in physics to embrace all physical events—even events of immediate personal experience—in his poetic construction of ‘Process and Reality’. In its language what would in ordinary language be called material objects acting and interacting are redescribed as phases of a continuous fluid process.
A parallel dissolution of independent objects and egos into one almost organic process of experience occurs during a light-environment happening.* You enter the light-art environment as material, object-like individuals, as solid and separate as billiard balls; but once inside, surrounded, indeed bombarded, by throbbing light and sound, you begin to lose your separate identity and merge into the environment. Your outlines are blurred or shared or lost in overlapping vibrating areas of colour, and like an object in Impressionism you seem dematerialized by the light which illuminates you. Such blinking, wavering, expanding and contracting lights have the evanescent, transparent and shining quality of private sensations inside your head; but now they are outside, surrounding you. It is as if the theatre were a skull and the spectators were flickering sensations inside the same mind. (But whose?)
* Rauschenberg’s Pop art aim of making the spectators part of the work of art by attaching them crudely to the surface of the paintings with glue he realized in a subtler and more practical way as the light director of Merce Cunningham’s Ballets when he projected spotlights into the audience so they became part of what was seen. But it is more completely realized in light-environmental art.
As you wander among the other participants, sharing sometimes the same colour area with one, sometimes with another, the everyday barriers between individuals break down, to be replaced by detached friendship and a new sort of community, bound together by lines of sight, is temporarily created. (‘Love and Light’ as they say in California.) This works in the opposite direction from Op art, whose social effect is the isolation of spectators in separate worlds of private sensation. The light-art environment functions as a machine for creating a new society —a society wherein privacy (even of sensations) is not the most valued luxury, not perhaps even desirable. This might suggest a valid alternative way of living together in the overcrowded future. In this liberation from the enclosing shell of one’s own ego there might be seen a parallel with Oriental aesthetic experience, whose goal is the liberation from the individual self, or with medieval ritual within the stained-glass illuminated cathedrals.
Thus through shared sensations light-environmental art dissolves (or liberates) the object-individual into a phase of a continuous communal process. The experience of light-environmental art might provide a concrete realization of Whitehead’s metaphysical procedure of resolving objects into series (called ‘societies’) of interdependent events.
In this paper have been elaborated some of the multitude of correspondences between the concrete sensuous qualities of works of art and the philosophic systems implicitly embedded in them, their social effects, and their relations to the world of physics. Whether such parallels are actually generated by or only systematically correlated by the varying locations of light in art is a further question which might lead far out in several directions.