The Warp and the Woof
Warp: strong and straight, from Old English weorpan, to throw, the cast of the net, the warp of the fabric is that across which the woof is thrown
Woof or Weft, drawn through with a shuttle, less strong, from Old English wefan, to weave
Is the unconscious the straight strong line along which a loose thread of reality is thrown? Or is “reality” the strong line along which the unconscious is loosely cast?
It occurred to me a while ago that some contemporary artists don’t seem to believe in the unconscious. That is, they are taught that the unconscious is socially constructed, which makes it a less mysterious space that is not turned to as a revelatory source for artwork. Instead, they put their trust in intentionality. If you don’t believe in or trust the unconscious, your decisions about creating an artwork are rationalized into an A-to-B relationship where every choice has a fact-based boundary and must be accounted for. Such artists would not say that a work came out of an image or a narrative in a dream.
I myself am dubious if someone does make such a claim. In general a person’s dream isn’t that interesting to someone else, and using the dream as a source is not enough to ensure that the artwork is interesting. In fact, artists associated with automatism and dreams, such as Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist artists, worked within historical, theoretical, formal, critical, and polemical contexts. They were very interested in the unconscious, but their interest was as much ideological and intellectual as it was emotively felt. But they did trust the contingent gesture within the creation of the individual artwork. Later, many became suspicious of the subjective as a source for art and sought objective structures for the painterly mark. Now, some contemporary artists choose the objectivity of the digital printer and consign the unconscious to the machine’s propensity for error.
The dominant role of intentionality in art makes me think about how sleep deprivation is an established form of torture. If you don’t sleep you may hallucinate, but you don’t dream. If you don’t dream, you don’t connect to that aspect of brain function termed the unconscious at the level of the individual. The irreducible human need for the refreshment of sleep is an intolerable intrusion of the atavistic into the contemporary. Our devices keep us awake, awash in blue light, information, and ready-made fantasies that substitute for the occupation of the mind in dreams, “occupation” used here to mean “job” or “task.” Sleep is individual, it’s a sacrifice, and it’s a form of resistance if no one wants you to do it, if you won’t yield to the utilitarian functions and conformity of 24/7 wakefulness.
In my teens and 20s I slept long hours and dreamt many dreams every night which I recorded in dream notebooks that I’ve kept next to my bed for over 44 years. The dreams had byzantine narratives and vivid images that were important sources for my figurative narrative paintings. An early work, “The Two Miras,” was a self-portrait of Gemini-like duality taken from a dream. Later I represented my dreams through language, with the dream transcribed in black ink and my analysis of the dream in sepia ink, overwriting the dream or in the margins, like a personal Midrash.
Now my dreams have emptied out. I don’t remember most of them and the ones I do remember are spare in imagery and narrative, and tightly bound to daily experience; they’ve lost the quality of “dreaminess.” In the past few years most nights are recorded in my dream notebooks as “can’t remember.”
The night after I wrote all the words you have read so far, I had a dream that I did remember: I am on the subway when I discover that I have an eye infection, pus seeping up out of the bottom of my eye.
Subway=unconscious, eye=I! Something like an unconscious was poking me in the eye saying, “Hey, I’m here whether you remember me or not.”
Leaps into the inexplicable may arise from the artist’s unconscious, however we conceptualize that, and maybe one can think of them as the artwork’s own dream life. They’re necessary to weave a set of constructs and propositions into a work of art. You have to trust the wild card.
MIRA SCHOR is a painter and writer living in New York. She recently received an AICA-U.S.A. award for her writings on A Year of Positive Thinking.