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The Becoming of Consciousness
5' x 4' - Mixed Media with Acrylic Binder on Canvas
Collage with Vermeer's Milkmaid
Lila Cohen Collection


In his powerful rumination on the state of science and genetics, Consilience, Edward O. Wilson tells us that consciousness is a specialized part of the mind that creates and sifts scenarios, the means by which the future is guessed and courses of action are chosen. Not a remote command center, consciousness is part of the system that is intimately wired to all the neural and hormonal circuits regulating physiology. It preturbs the body in precise ways with each changing circumstance, as required for well-being and response to opportunity and challenge, and helps return it to homeostasis when challenge and opportunity have been met. In another recent characterization of consciousness, Philosophy in the Flesh, Lakoff and Johnson tell us that conscious thought is just the tip of an iceberg where at least ninety-five per cent of all thought lies below the surface of conscious awareness. Without this hidden presence giving shape and structure, there could be no conscious thought. Conscious thought and reason are crucially shaped by the peculiarities of our human bodies, the details of neural structure of our brains and the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world.

These summaries square with Whitehead, who, about seventy years ago wrote that consciousness is a resolution of physical, conceptual and propositional feelings streaming into awareness. These feelings flow from the reservoirs of our body-mind via our embodied experience expressed in casual efficacy, such as my awareness of my body as a perceiving self, or my knowledge that informs the sight of our slender, curvaceous bottle for salad dressing which the cork pops out by itself  every meal or two. My wife and I are invariably find this event amusing, as do guests. It is as if a hat or head has flown off the anthropomorphic figure of the bottle. The sound of the pop also adds its appropriate references. Thus perceptions are received not neutrally, but with emotional and purposive subjective forms of reception. Consequently, perceived data are prehended as emotional feelings that are initiated by the act of perception. My understanding of Whitehead is that consciousness can only illuminate those elements of experience that have been considerably simplified and integrated, and that these elements have been processed by prior emotional and subjective forms.

When we survey the chequered history of our own capacity for knowledge, does common sense allow us to believe that the operations of judgment, operations which require definition in terms of conscious apprehension, are those operations which are foundational in existence either as an essential attributes for an actual entity, or those  operations which are foundational in existence either as an essential attribute for an actual entity, or as the final culmination whereby unity of experience is attained!

The general case of conscious perception is the negative perception namely, “perceiving this stone not grey.” The “grey” then has ingression in its full character of a conceptual alternative… Consciousness is the feeling of negation: in the perception of “stone as grey,” such feelings is in barest germ; in the perception of “the stone is not grey,” such feeling is full development. Thus the negative perception is the triumph of consciousness. It finally rises to the peaks of free imagination in which the conceptual novelties search through a universe in which they are not datively exemplified.

The creative use of the negative perception that is described above by Whitehead can be illustrated by Malcom Kirk’s photograph of the painted face of a New Guinea tribesman, which I have used as the centerpiece of a not-yet-finished collage painting, A Man in the World. The stunningly painted face, surfaced with clay and color, is a vivid statement of cosmology at one with human body, and elicited in me a nagging negative perception. The eyes of the man are looking into the camera. They have glazed, faraway look,  as if indicating distancing and estrangement from the fierce, bright, beautiful face, as if the mind of the man is in existential limbo or expressing inner distress over posing for a camera and  a culture that is largely incomprehensible to him. Anthropologist and neighbor Jim Meyers notes that the rules of war for these tribesmen call for a halt to battle at the onset of rain to protect their body paint from dissolution. I found the look of the tribesmen eyes so at odds with the presence if iconic paint that I felt compelled to darken them and smudge their spot of bright reflectivity in order to harmonize conceptual novelties arising from their look with novelties arising from the painted face. If I had enough imagination I would have left the eyes untouched and designed mediating forms that could catch the existential dilemma that characterizes the actual event recorded by the photographer.
The following analysis of Vermeer’s Woman Pouring Milk, which is included In my collage,  The Becoming of Consciousness, takes up several of Vermeer’s painted gestures in order to show something of their subtlety and power. Our response to them draws on the subconscious-conscious continuum. The milkmaid as Earth Mother, transcending that worn cliché, belongs with Vermeer’s highest artistic achievements. The realism of the textures, colors and outlines of the forms in the painting is assured, and gives us open and accessible pleasure. Yet almost every shape and color seems to call for significance that lies beyond conscious apprehension. We feel an urge to search for this significance.

A milkmaid has become a prosaic subject, but Vermeer has endowed his milkmaid with a timeless mythos. She is a powerful Earth Mother whose strength and being convey a sense of nurture, sustenance and caring. These are archetypal images partly explained by Wilson’s concepts of epigenetic necessity- how genetic dispositions such as bodily security, warmth, sustenance and curiosity or understanding the world, are developed through culture into symbols of a deified nurturing Earth Mother.

The milkmaid’s body is carefully positioned. Her head turns into her shoulder/arm, which leans toward the pitcher’s black orifice, the table and the breads. Her body curves with continuity and a feeling of concern, as if she is administering with her protective power. A thin stream of milk (a wide stream would disturb the feeling of tranquility) lies within the focus of this orchestration. The complexity of thought and feeling stemming from this thin stream of milk is characteristic of Vermeer’s ability to charge every dicrete gesture and piece of the mise- en scene with a lure to consnciousness in search of conceptual novelty, as in the contribution fo the thin stream to a feeling of tranquility, and in the feeling of concern in the body language of the milkmaid.

The wall in back of the milkmaid’s figure is unbroken, allowing her monumental presence to dominate the space, adding to her power as a symbol. Her downcast eyes and parted lips are signs of sentience and obeisance. Her face suggests a mask hiding its significance, and also an icon that represents earthy roots within its manifestation of deity. It is separated from its surroundings by a deeply incised shadow, a black gap that sets off the face from the white coif. This gap emphasizes the sense of the face as a hieratic mask by its separation from the maid’s figure. It is among the first and strongest prehensions that I return to over and over, seeking to uncover significance. My sense of the entire picture if that it is a quiet yet powerful orchestration of archetypal aspects- “goodness,” and “sustenance”- and a receptacle for idealizations of a mythic, god-directed peasant anima.

The realistic white coif is painted as an epiphany of light. I feel deification in the super-intense light that the coif reflects. The thick, rolled up sleeves speak of physical work. The color contrasts of her forearm arrest us with pronounced physical and conceptual feelings. They remind us of Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox, with its representation of flesh and sinew, but in this Vermeerian context, no trace of death lingers. The arm is a detail that gives a visceral and conceptual surge to feelings of physical strength, the sensation of color, and to connotations of peasants that are suggested by the milkmaid.

The warm-colored breads and the resonating orange of the milkmaid’s jacket combine to suggest wholesomeness and goodness. Wilson cites research showing how the human response to color may be processed with other reference frames in the brain and is epigenetic in origin. I have read in a forgotten source of studies of human subjects that led to the use of muted shades of orange in restaurants for their décor and accessories to stimulate feelings of health and appetite. The prominent, black cleft that divides the jacket gives a sense of thickness and substance, and enforces the black of the pitcher’s orifice. Directed by prehensions of wholesomeness and sustenance, this cleft also reminds me of a great furrow in a harvest field of golden grain in a painting by Breughel that also projects wholesomeness and mystery. The incisiveness of the furrow is consonant with the depth of the black shadow that separates the coif for the face, the thick crusty breads, and the bulk of the women herself. Evocative harmonies are fleshed out by processing feeling of substance, sturdiness, defied light, bodily warmth, social value, and so on. The basket and bright metal container on the wall seem other conceptual novelty. 
Although this is difficult to see in the reduced scale of a reproduction, the woman’s face shows Vermeer’s use of open bulging curves to shape and qualify eyes, chin, lips, and nose. In context with the bulky body, the peasant costume, the rough-textured face and the breads, these shapes suggest a course, earthy, “peasant” character. At the same time, these circular shapes diminish to become spherical, pointillist beads of light, probably adapted from their appearance in Vermeer’s pinhole light box, with which he highlights and unifies  other features of the painting, such as  the breads, basket and pitcher. The resulting breads create a gamut or range of similar incidents to which one can attribute the unifying the conceptual feeling of “many into one.” The artful stage-setting of vessels, breads and the peasant garments interweaves other harmonies of color, shape and subject. For instance, the breads range from full rounds to small pointed loaves shaped like peasant wooden shoes.

Finally, I have omitted what is for me a major consideration in viewing this painting. The complexity of harmonies and inferences, and the sculptural power of the milkmaid’s figure and face, seem a unique accomplishment in art. I can think of no other artist who has created an invention so powerful, so different from his other work and so fully mysterious. After all that I can say by way of explanation, I am held by the work’s inexhaustible presence. Speaking for myself, Millet’s peasants and Rodin’s tragic burghers seem almost simplistic by comparison. My appreciation for the Vermeer is heightened by this propositional feeling. And yet mystery is the recurring feeling as I analyze this milkmaid. I do not believe that the painting projects a single originary message or overview. Rather, there is a dialectic of feelings moving through Vermeer’s intense expressions of the sanctified, wholesomeness, beatific light, sustenance, power, bodily life and so forth. For all the feelings of cohesion in the painting, to me, Vermeer’s milkmaid intentionally projects the idea that there are limits in our ability to consciously apprehend the world. This proposition forms a poignant and profound contrast to Vermeer’s ability to project “the light of the mind” as a rational yet mysterious presence, to borrow from Kenneth Clark’s praise of the View of Delft. This light, reflected in the concentration of clarity, order and sanctity amidst the projection of pervading mystery that surrounds the origins of meaning of such objects as the incisive shadow that sets off the face from the luminous coif, the beaded shoe-breads, and the deified peasant face, expresses the contrasts that make this work so special.

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