Artistic expression and the unconscious

Several years ago, I spent an afternoon at Museé D’Orsay, a museum in Paris that had been a favorite of my parents and mother-in-law. The collection was wonderful, but what most remained with me was a quotation from Henri Matisse, posted beneath one of his works: “Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.” (1)

“… the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.”

“Inspired by reality” couples perceptions of reality with subjective reflection, described here as if it were a dream. We experience reality through a complex web of sense impressions. And then through an unconscious reflective process, we respond as if drawing from a dream-like state. The artistic creation is a response to sense impressions mediated by one’s unconscious.

I wondered whether Matisse’s meaning was that one pondered the experience, as if sleeping upon it. Yet on another occasion, Matisse spoke of prioritizing the immediacy of sense impressions. He observed that his task as an artist was “to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing,” adding, “The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature; the shock, with the original reaction.” Shock – experiencing something as if for the first time. The response may be a reflective process, yet it must contain the immediacy of the initial perception. It is like drifting into an instantaneous dream-like state, out of time, yet responding in the moment. To “translate an observation” might be more akin to a rational explanation of an experience that is ephemeral and not fully knowable.

I read Matisse in part through the lens of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who once wrote:

“My field of perception is constantly filled with a play of colors, noises and fleeting tactile sensations which I cannot relate precisely to the context of my clearly perceived world, yet which I nevertheless immediately ‘place’ in the world, without ever confusing them with my daydreams. Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perception.” (2)

It is not that I believe that experience or the making of Art takes place outside of social, political, or cultural contexts. Our perceptions are shaped in important ways by our social existence, and by what we know, understand, and experience within the context of social status and political power relations. There are experiences to which some people may gain – and lack – access, due to their economic, racial, or cultural location in society. Cultural, social, historical, and political context are important shapers of our perceptions and, particularly, how we speak of and act on our experiences. Yet there is an important aspect of our perceptual encounters that is elemental, unconscious, and immediate. Our artistic response is something that the artist does not fully comprehend: why that shade of color, why that particular musical note, why that physical gesture shape or direction.

Matisse addressed the unknowability of one’s own artistic response, when he wrote:

“A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed. It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility…” (3)

Indeed there is a magical quality to artistic expression. It brings the artist intimately in contact with experience that is less mediated than rationality, prose, religious and/or political structures and strictures would allow. It is not surprising that monotheistic religious traditions have often been wary of the arts beyond the realm of highly structured, prescribed ritual function. The rabbis of the Talmudic period (3rd-6th centuries C.E.) and their contemporaneous early Church fathers were suspicious of instrumental music, associating it with pagan cults that may have interwoven music, wine, and sexuality.

The second of the Ten Commandments “do not make a graven image/idol, or any likeness /  image [of any-thing] that is in the heavens above, or in the earth below, or in the water under the earth” was understood as a proscription of representational Art. (4) American Jewish author Chaim Potok argued that this prohibition was a core element of monotheism (it was the subtext of a talk of his I attended in the late 1980s) and it became the focus of his novel My Name is Asher Lev. (5) In the book, Potok’s protagonist is a artistically talented Hasidic young man in Brooklyn who is drawn to representational painting. This eventually includes a crucifixion scene. Asher struggles with the ultimately irreconcilable conflicts between his artistic drives (which win out) and his ties to community and family. Personally, I believe that the second commandment can be read as a rhetorical response to idolatrous practices in the ancient world, real and imagined. Even then, the presence of representational mosaics in early synagogues suggests that figurative Art never ceased.

There is an element of Art that is potentially idolatrous because the artistic process can bring the artist more closely in contact with the natural world, unmediated by interpretive traditions or rational discourse. Direct sense impressions, when trusted as valid experience could lead one to worship nature rather than the Source of nature as understood within monotheist traditions. Yet this apprehension is based upon a misunderstanding of Art, for the artist seeks not to deify the focus of one’s experience but to commune with it. It is the immediacy of that experience, and then one’s instantaneous reflection upon it, that is at the heart of Art making. The goal is not a fixation or objectification. One can be transfixed but not leap to conclusions about its potential divinity. Merleau-Ponty writes:

“Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world’s basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical.” (6)

Often it is within mysticism that monotheistic religions reconcile the primary experience of perception with interpretive traditions. The theological shift occurs by situating God within rather than outside of creation. A immanent theology generally (7) stops short of Spinoza’s identifying God with the world. For instance, with Judaism, the early Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl held that “God’s glory is manifest in His many garments; the whole earth is a garbing of God. It is He who is within all the garments.” (8) In this formulation, God infuses creation yet is not equivalent to it. The Cherobyler Rebbe implies that religion needn’t be an opponent of the primary experience of perception – to the degree that it is possible to perceive. Religious expression can in a spectrum of ways, celebrate the wonder of the natural world. (9)

To return to Henri Matisse: “A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows...” (10) If the artistic impulse is essentially beyond comprehension, how can we learn about our perceptions and understand something about how we translate them into Art?

This discourse was until recently dominated by the assumption that human beings are the only artistically expressive species. Yet, just as European artistic practices have ceased to be seen as universal paradigms, so too have assumptions about human artistic exclusivity. The context for understanding musical expression has in recent years expanded to a broad spectrum of human and animal cultures and intelligences.

An inquiry about musical perception and practices seems more challenging than Matisse’s visual model. Music, when limited to notes (as opposed to recorded sounds) has less referential  potential than visual Art. Musicians most often draw upon perceptions or ideas about existing music to create new music: (11) the improvising jazz musician crafts a melodic line within the musical tapestry of collaborators, the African drummer who adds a layer of rhythmic patterns upon other drumming patterns of fellow drummers, the western Art music composer who notates two contrapuntal lines, however original, drawing upon previous concepts of melody and juxtaposition of notes. There are musicians who draw upon sound models found in nature (for instance, a songbird motif), yet generally, musical motifs, at least in Western traditions, lack representational qualities, and are not capable of conveying semantic ideas. If music references anything, with the exception of lyrics, most often the object is other music.

Returning to Matisse’s paraphrase of a musician: “In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows…” Performers of fully notated understand their task reasonably well, despite mystifying language about the music moving through them, and depictions of pianists as “poets.” (12) The task is interpretive, giving sonic life to a work that has been conceived in detail in advance. Yet, the more spontaneous the music making, the more unknowable becomes our understanding of its nature. Our ability to describe it weakens. Despite centuries of philosophical writings about musical aesthetics, musicology, and cultural anthropology, music making becomes mysterious, bordering on the magical and ephemeral.

We all know the experience of “becoming lost” beyond thought while playing music. (13) In those moments, we allow ourselves unscripted musical episodes, akin to the early playful childhood musical experiences that we may fleetingly recall. I have been thinking a fair bit recently about the nature of unconscious processes during musical performance. It is now the topic of a book I am working on. The focus is on the ways that musicians translate the somatic aspect of playing an instrument into (unspoken) metaphors that influence the sonic outcome. Work on this project has led me into fascinating learning about the nature of consciousness, about metaphor, and embodied perception. Yet all explanations about that unconscious process of making music will never truly answer the question of how musicians create. If words could articulate musical ideas or processes, what would be the point of making music? At the end of the day, artistic creation remains substantially unconscious, and that is what I love most about being a musician.



  • (1) Jack D., Flam, ed. “Interview with Jacques Guenne, 1925.” Matisse on Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • (2) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. London and New York: Routledge (1945/1962) 2005, xi-xii.
  • (3) Henri Matisse, Jazz,translated by Sophie Hawkes, George Braziller (1947) 1992. Matisse continues: “… white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one’s experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one’s instincts.”
  • (4) Book of Exodus 20:3.
  • (5) Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972.
  • (6) Merleau-Ponty, xv.
  • (7) The founder of the Lubavich Hasidic movement Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady took a more radical perspective, declaring “alles ist Got” (everything is God).
  • (8) Menahem Nahum, (Arthur Green, ed.), Upright Practices; The Light of the Eyes. Paulist Press, 1982,
  • (9) The religious transnaturalist tradition of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan reflects a distinctly religious humanist formulation; its focus is on human character, particularly within community, less than it does the place of human beings within the spectrum of nature: “Transnaturalism reaches out into the domain where mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values and meanings dwell. It treats of the good and the true. Whether or not it has a distinct logic of its own is problematic. But it certainly has a language of its own, the language of simile, metaphor and poetry. That is the language of symbol, myth and drama. In that universe of discourse, belief in God spells trust in life and in man as capable of transcending the potentialities for evil that inhere in his animal heredity, in his social heritage, and in the conditions of his environment. Transnaturalist religion beholds God in the fulfillment of human nature and not in the suspension of the natural order.” Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958, 10.
  • (10) Henri Matisse(1947/1992). Matisse continues: “It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one’s experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one’s instincts.”
  • (11) Certainly, visual Artists regularly reference other artwork, artists, and traditions of art making.
  • (12) For example, a press release announcing a 1999 performance by a pianist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill quotes music critics: “Alan Weiss ‘penetrates to the very core of the music,’” The Daily Telegraph wrote of the pianist’s London debut in 1982; as a musician, he is ‘a poet,’ reported Le Soir of Brussels.” Accessed May 19, 2018.
  • (13) This can be true of all music, including music with functional qualities or intentions, like work songs, religious hymns, or folk songs composed to be sung in groups, to strengthen social bonds or convey political ideas.


~ by bobgluck on June 5, 2018.

4 Responses to “Artistic expression and the unconscious”

  1. Bob,I really enjoyed these thoughts and perspectives on the artistic process. Especially the quote from the Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum and note #9 on Transnaturalism as the language of metaphor, poetry and symbol and more clear explanation about TNLM. Thank you.

  2. Bob, I’m interested in the topic(s) addressed here and the upcoming book on “the unconscious process during music performances” which I’m already in line for. But I also have a question that part of this article raised for me. MP is quoted: “The immediacy of the experience, then one instantaneous reflection upon it is at the heart of art making.” My question is that I wonder if this could be too sharp a dichotomy between the two? We’re bombarded at any time by myriads of perceptions, all possible competitors for our attention to land on,(the immediacy of the experience), so why do some “grab” us and not others and can’t this choice, if it is a choice, be also based on unconscious and other factors, even before the reflection,(dream like reflection) kicks in which is the point where this discussion seems to say unconscious process begins ? Couldn’t it be a rather arbitrary distinction between the “initial observation/perception” or “the first shock of the object” and the response which, as you say, “may be a reflective process yet must contain the immediacy of the initial perception.” Meaning that of all the possible colors, noises, felt(touch) sensations, why is your attention drawn to or even “recording” “being shocked by”, these and not those?Where’s the sharp demarcation between the two? Most of reality exists on a continuum.
    It may be sort of analogous to how historians could make a distinction between facts and a storyline/history. But of all the myriad facts occurring in and hour, day, month, how does one decide which are relevant to record even within one culture and even vastly more in a different one. It’s totally irrelevant, usually, to record what teach person ate or not in a country on any day, unless it’s Gandhi eating nothing as a protest for freedom. And many people all over the world went out for a walk on 3/25/65 and most irrelevant except for MLK’s. And there are for sure those of different persuasions today who would rather have this walk not recorded as though it was just one of those many other irrelevant ones. (On second thought, maybe this history issue is not that parallel, but will leave as a thought in itself.)

    • Miriam, I’m inclined to agree with you – and maybe disagree with M-P. Where I am actually taking this in my new book is towards an exploration of metaphor and what Mark Johnson refers to as schema (drawing upon Kant), mental structures by which we order and interpret our experience. I actually think that we experience music (my writing is directed towards players rather than listeners, but can apply to both) through these processes. You’ll see. I’m working on it steadily and intently now. A book I read last week (taking copious notes) by Michael Spitzer treats this from the perspective of a listener experiencing classical music, whereas I’m interested more in improvisatory processes. You’ll see.

      • Thanks Bob for getting back and so fast.. Now I can’t wait for the book! I think definitely, for the players, improvisational work would be much more interesting to your topic and also to me as far more spontaneous and therefore more directly and intensely related to their personal makeup. But performers of “set” music also interpret/feel in their own way to some degree as well as listeners in their choices at different times in their lives and even at different times in the same day! And the book is getting more interesting by the minute as I also love metaphor.. it was Professor Bernie Kaplan’s (I recall from Clark U.)enduring interest too.. he must have written some books on it, though I never searched. I just recall him as brilliant. Michael Spitzer’s book sounds interesting too. Better let you get back to that book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: