Friday, August 23, 2013

Art Therapy: Hellenistic Style

Sextus Empiricus, the Skeptic philosopher from the 2nd century CE, recounts this story of Apelles, a famous Hellenistic artist:

“The Sceptic, in fact, had the same experience which is said to have befallen the painter Apelles. Once, they say, when he was painting a horse and wished to represent in the painting the horse's foam, he was so unsuccessful that he gave up the attempt and flung at the picture the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints off his brush, and the mark of the sponge produced the effect of a horse's foam.”
(Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book1:Chapter 12)
Skepticism, from Sextus Empiricus' version, encouraged a suspension of judgment through the psychological technique of always  presenting opposing thoughts and perceptions to consciousness and holding them in our minds until we become mentally paralyzed. Only then could a person finally achieve ataraxia (<a(not) &  tarassein (to trouble)). Ataraxia was a state of tranquility, or untroubledness, through the breaking out of the box, like the effect of contemplating a Zen koan. Apelles' art therapy resulted in his state of ataraxia by his giving up on visually representing the horse's froth through detailed reconstruction. Rather, he spontaneously developed the technique of "action painting" through tossing a paint-laden sponge onto his picture.
Apelles was our first action painting abstract expressionist, predating Pollock and de Kooning by over 2000 years. Sometimes skepticism, which seems these days to be heavily intellectual, can instead nurture a spontaneous, impulsive and non-dogmatic creativity.

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