Art & The Artist: The Mill of Meaning

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Marimekko fabric patterns based on the magical Sampo or mill from the Finnish saga the ‘Kalevala’

The ‘technology’ of our consciousness has the extraordinary ability to grow meaning. And it can do this because of the relationship between inner and outer ‘worlds’ or between the implicate and the explicate. The generative nature of consciousness is what makes it possible for us as human beings to see the world differently, and come up with original or newly synthesized forms. This is where our creativity begins, and what lies behind our great art — in all its aspects — and why we value it.

The British abstract sculptor Barbara Hepworth spent half her life in the small fishing village of St Ives on the north coast of Cornwall, the westernmost part of Britain. Anyone who knows that coastal region, particularly the wind beaten rounded moors of West Penwith, threaded with the parallel lines of telephone wires and stacked with weather- or neolithic-man-smoothed stones and the ruined engine houses of tin mines cannot miss the forms and atmospheres that helped give rise to her art:

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Chun Quoit North Coast West Penwith; Photo by Jonathan Guilbert
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View across moors and fields, West Penwith

There was an interaction, in the creative field of her consciousness, between the landscape and her inner aims as an artist, and out of that interaction were created these marvelous rounded stone or wooden forms, curved, hollowed, strung with wire or string, satisfyingly at rest and in motion, complete in themselves, but acting as gateways into deeper meaning.

The landscape of West Penwith is transformed into a sculpture, the sculpture when we look at it, is transformed into insight, new possibility, into a direct perception, or experience of the synthesis of the two realms and of the way meaning arises from that synthesis. A work of art has a meaning that is inherent because it is a product of, a result of, the relationship between the two realms. It embodies this relationship and holds this meaning whether we recognize it or not. Therefore, as Christopher Alexander writes, the beauty of art, like great architecture or certain places in nature, also has a way of piercing us back into relationship with our deeper selves.

A work of art has a meaning that is inherent because it is a product of, a result of, the relationship between the two realms. It embodies this relationship and holds this meaning whether we recognize it or not.

In the ancient Finnish epic poem the Kalevala, there is a magic mill or ‘sampo’ that is able to bring wealth. This magical object is the forerunner of many magic grinding mills, including the one that fell into the ocean but kept on grinding, turning the seas into salt water. Salt was at one time a precious commodity, and so symbolizes wealth, and wealth, more than money, symbolizes meaning.

A salt mill is an encased circle of metal that turns against another circle of metal to grind salt crystals into powder. The salt crystal is transformed through the turning of the mill into a finer texture, and is then used to give flavour — another aspect of meaning — to food. The turning circles recall once again the intertwined circles of the ‘vesica piscis’, and their depiction of the movement via the field of conscious awareness back and forth between the two dimensions. The turning of consciousness, the two-way motion of perception transforms meaning into subtler levels of meaning.

The landscape of West Penwith, the farthest tip of Cornwall, was the raw material that got transformed by Hepworth’s mill of consciousness into her sculpture. This raw material was not itself necessarily beautiful, at least in anyconventional sense (whatever that may mean). The trees are small and bent over from the wind, the moors are slightly forbidding, the coast line is rugged, sheer, the sea wildly beating on it. There are a few abandoned tin mines, huddled grey stone villages. Very often not only the Atlantic surf but the abundant rain that the westerly winds bring beats down and across the whole area for days, curtaining it off in veils of grey. But an artist doesn’t necessarily need to have beauty in order to create it. The impressionist painters made us think of cornfields, village scenes as beautiful. Today we pattern umbrellas, T-shirts, mugs with their ways of seeing France at the turn of the 19th century. But at that time, those things were not necessarily considered beautiful either. Fields were places of hard labour, villages were muddy and poor.

Meaning has to do with purpose, with value, with significance.

Meaning has to do with purpose, with value, with significance. Mostly it is an intangible quality. Certain objects that have meaning to us can become worth a lot of money — works of art among them. But even though Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ sold for $54 million (20 years ago), everyone knows that the real meaning and worth of the painting cannot be measured in money. On the other hand, the fact that it sold for so much will give it meaning in the eyes of those who might not otherwise consider it meaningful.

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A pair of scissors have meaning to us because they are extremely useful in a practical sense, and they do not cost very much. It is a different kind of meaning. Scissors are mass produced, manufactured from a fundamental design that can be reproduced endlessly. But there will only ever be one (original) canvas of the ‘Irises’.

Many decorative objects, such as jewellry, nick knacks or souvenirs are not valuable either in dollar terms or practical terms. Their value and significance is defined primarily by the meaning they hold for us personally (unless the jewellry has the inherent value of gold and precious gems). Some one we love gave them to us, or they bring back — ‘souvenir’ means literally to come back — a pleasurable, or intense experience — a holiday, or rite of passage. They are leaves in the book of our life, episodes in our own story. They remind us of people and events that have deepened and enriched — brought new meaning to — our experience of life, and as we look at them, we give that meaning back to them. Often these objects may be meaningful, even beautiful to us, but not to anyone else. A work of art, however, will for the most part convey meaning and beauty to a whole culture or society.

An artist doesn’t literally transform the landscape, the raw material, but they transform its meaning. They create a new way of seeing it. Bohm thought that the act of seeing anew is itself a creative act — whether we make a work of art or not:

‘I would say that a perception of a new meaning constitutes a creative act. As their implications are unfolded, when people take them up, work with them, and so on, the new meanings that have been created make their corresponding contributions to this reality. ..[and] the situation changes physically, as well as mentally.’

David Bohm ‘Unfolding Meaning’

An example of this is when some one sees a house in a run down city neighbourhood in a new way. Underneath the old brittle layers of linoleum is a hardwood floor, a marble fireplace is hidden behind plasterboard. Potentially the street could be a great place to live, it has good access to the downtown center. Soon others are buying property in the area, the price is still low, and they renovate and add value to their homes. The next thing you know, the neighbourhood is the hottest new real estate area, and the prices have soared. East Williamsburg in north Brooklyn is an example of this syndrome.

The tin mines that are features of the West Penwith landscape are left-overs of the 19th century tin mining industry. Only one or two of the mines are still operated. Sitting on the tops of cliffs, their stone engine houses with their single tall chimneys look like pointing fists:

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Photo: by Diana Durham

Most are semi-ruins, and there are ringed off areas on the cliff tops where the mine drops down into the caves below. As a child, I remember throwing a stone and listening to time passing before its distant splash into the subterranean, tide flooded cave. To me they seemed scary, grim, sad: redolent of hard work, harsh lives. At one time they would have meant employment, wages, a way of life. Their meaning was utilitarian. If accidents occurred, they would have been dangerous, sinister. But now they are picturesque, one of the visual symbols of the north coast landscape. Their meaning to us has evolved over time, but the different meanings they have held are layered within our perception of them, including the stories and lives of people from the past.

So meaning can arise out of a transformative act of seeing, or it can accrue and slowly change over time from our associations, like coral building up from the millions of exoskeletons. The personal memorabilia that decorate our homes. Old military and industrial buildings — castles, tin mines, cable stations — become parts of the landscape themselves, museums, iconic symbols of place and history. It’s hard to imagine some things being transformed this way. Will we ever come to view the ovens and remainders of the gas chambers at Auchwitz as picturesque? I doubt it. Some things that we have made, as opposed to what nature has made, cannot be transformed. They will always serve to remind us of the lack of meaning, of the destructive capability of human consciousness.

To be creative is to add meaning, build relationship, express beauty. It is to be the creator, to operate from the full circuitry of consciousness. The partial identity operates on a partial circuitry. Meaning is extracted only from what already exists; and from schemes to control and shape what exists into one’s ‘likeness’. Persecute whoever is not ‘like’ us, they are the cause of all our ills. The idea and the extermination schemes are monstrous, but the intellect, now deluded and under the control of fragmented belief, cannot see this. It has become in-human. It has lost the sense of the whole.

The attempt to control other people and events is a substitute for true creativity. No matter how powerful some one becomes in this way, they are unable to participate in the creative process. They are unable to transform, to bring meaning. And in this way, they lack joy, they lack the generative power of the magical mill of consciousness.

We are happiest when we feel creative. This is the most satisfying activity of being human. And we don’t all have to be artists in order to be creative. We can see in the discarded waste products of our machine age, and the paralyzing monotony of suburbia the raw materials of new possibility. Like the architects who turn shipping containers into offices, the social entrepreneurs who plan for solar-powered railway lines alongside the interstate grid. And we can connect to the real in people even when they do not know it themselves.

There is never a lack of meaning and therefore of new possibility while the circuitry of consciousness is working.

There is never a lack of meaning and therefore of new possibility while the circuitry of consciousness is working:

‘..we have to constantly see afresh. For the present we can say that creativity is not only the fresh perception of new meanings, and the ultimate unfoldment of this perception within the manifest and the somatic, but I would say that it is ultimately the action of the infinite in the sphere of the finite — that is, this meaning goes to infinite depths.’

David Bohm, ‘Soma-Significance and the Activity of Meaning’

The action of the infinite in the sphere of the finite — this is the possibility open to us when we allow our consciousness to work as it is designed to. The movement through us of perception, inspiration from the transcendent into the manifest and back again is intensely fulfilling. This is the creative process that underlies the creation of all things — whether works of art and literature or new inventions or just great ideas about anything.

My experience of growing meaning using the mill of my own consciousness is predominantly through the art and craft of writing. I have often thought of it in terms of the fairy story about the young maiden who was expected to sit in a palace room, surrounded by straw, and spin it into gold. She was helped by Rumpelstiltskin, a mischievous magical figure. The straw represents the circumstances, the raw material of our perceptions of the world around us. But where does the gold come from? How does the straw turn into gold? Where do the new synthesis of thought, the fresh images come from? Writing is like extruding something new out of nowhere, and the more it is extruded, the more there is. We feed straw in, and with the help of the magical inner dimension, the spinning wheel of consciousness spools back gold.

In the Kalevala, the ‘sampo’ or magical mill is made by the great shaman, Väinämöinen. The figure of the shaman of course is the archetype of the guide between the worlds, the magician, the artist, the creator — the one whose consciousness can move and translate between the different levels. And the symbol of the ‘sampo’ or magic mill also evokes the shaman’s patterned tent with its central pole as well as the stellar dome turning round the polestar. The infinite depth of space and the infinite depths of being are linked by the magical mill of our consciousness.

Written by

British/American poet and writer who draws on archetype to explore our identity. Author ‘Coherent Self, Coherent World.’

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