What kinds of things exist?
Introducing Whitehead's categories of existence
with help from the art of Keith Puryear
by Jay McDaniel
Many of us in the JJB community are influenced by the philosophy of Whitehead. We know that his philosophy can be an inspiration to artists and musicians and we also know that art and music can communicate Whitehead's ideas as well, and perhaps sometimes better, than words. Keith Puryear's art does both.
It begins with what Whitehead calls the withness of the body, with experience in the mode of causal efficacy. When you see Keith Puryear's art you want to touch it. You want to feel the crevices and textures, to know it in a tactile way. Ultimately his is an appeal to a certain kind of synesthesia, with all the senses combined. Whitehead calls it concrescence, the process of the many becoming one.
I am sure that for Keith Puryear as for all artists, the process of creating the art is synesthetic, too. You can smell the paint and touch the canvas. That is part of what it means to be an artist. It is a bodily experience.
And it is creative. For Keith Puryear as for Whitehead, art is not simply the outcome of a creative process; it is also the process itself, of which the work of art is an outcome. Sometimes we think of art as a noun but it is also a verb. It is the activity of creating art. Three points come to mind:
1. The process is always one of the many becoming one. The many include previous works of art and their traditions, the larger historical and social context in which the artists works, the personality and training of the artist, and, of course, the materials at hand: oil paint, blue, canvas, glue, and twine, for example. And the many also include what Whitehead calls non-actual realities: that is, possibilities both abstract and concrete. All are among the many that become one in the act of creating an outcome.
2. The process is always aiming at something. Keith Puryear tells us that he is aiming at harmony and novelty and truth. The harmony and novelty are obvious but we get the sense that, for him, the truth is equally important. That is part of the reason he turned from representational painting to abstract painting: "What I took most from the reading Whitehead," he says, "was a validation of the need to move beyond representational expression into abstraction in order to get at a deeper truth.'
Of course there are many kinds of truth: the truth of the moment, the truth of a particular period in history, the truth of immediate sensation, the truth of human ways of interacting with the more-than-human world, and metaphysical truths concerning the relation of space and time. Keith Puryear is interested in all of them.
Moreover, in the spirit of Whitehead, he is willing to take flights of the airplane in his imagination and also in fact. He is willing to imagine the world from many different points of view in order to get at these truths: "I took a visual cue from the bird’s eye view of the earth from the windows of an airplane, with all of the divisions of land up against undeveloped terrain. I have always thought that this is a striking visual example of man’s imposition on nature."
3. The meaning of a work of art is also in process, forever subject to the impermanence of life and to the ongoing interpretation of the work itself by others. Some people equate the truth of a work of art with what it means. Given this definition, then the truth of a work of art is in process, because the meaning of the work is always being interpreted by others and from many points of view. The truth is multiple. But this is really only one kind of truth. The truth can also be in the sheer presence of the art to those who behold it, quite apart from meaning. This is the truth of the moment. It, too, is in process, because moments are different at every moment.
To the three ideas just identified, many more can be added. Indeed his art illustrates many of Whitehead's ideas in a visual way, complementary to Whitehead's more verbal way. Here some explanation is in order:
In Whitehead's philosophy ideas are called propositions or "lures for feeling." They are one of eight kinds of existence of which Whitehead speaks in Process and Reality. We might call them eight opportunities for mindfulness. A visual illustration is offered below, in a diagram created by a Chinese colleague in the process community, Haipeng Guo at United International College in Zhuhai, China.
All of these come to mind as we enjoy the work of Keith Puryear.
Eternal objects are the most abstract of the kinds of existence. They are pure potentialities for objective and subjective form: that is, for spatial arrangement and emotional qualities. We can think about them intellectually but usually we find them embodied or actualized in the world in this arrangment of objects or this emotional tone.
Keith Puryear's painting communicate particular arrangements on a canvas with help from particular materials, glue and twine and oil paint and they also communicate or evoke a particular mood - a combination of stillness and awe, surprise and wonder. These moods are subjective forms.
Actual entities are the most concrete kind of existence. They are energy-events that emerge all at once within the depths of an atom and also the immediate moments of experience in the life of a human being as he or she experiences the world. The are actual in the sense that they have power and agency and they are entities in the sense that, once they occur, they affect other things. But they are by not means static. They are filled with what the Chinese call qi or continuous creativity.
Creativity is the activity by which the pure potentialities are actualized in immediate moments of experience. It is a process by which many realities -- actual and potential -- are gathered into the complex unity of a single event, a single happening. The most immediate example is a single moment of human creativity. In human life it is often conjoined by what Keith Puryear calls a pursuit of novelty: that is, an act of gathering the multiplicites of the world into an experienced unity in a novel way.
Nexus are are public matters of fact -- physical realities that we see with our eyes and touch with our hands -- that are aggregates of actual entities. A given painting by Keith Puryear would be a nexus. It would consist of actual entities interacting with one another in ways that we can see with our eyes. It is a public matter of fact: you can see it and I can see it. A painting simultaneously reveals another kind of existence: contrasts, and contrasts of contrasts, and contrasts of contrasts of contrasts, of color and shape, mood and design. And their variations, within a given work of art but also among them, remind us of still another kind of existence: multiplicities. His work invites us to attend to what one Chinese friend calls the beauty of the plural.
As they do so they also evoke within us moods, which are still another kind of existence: subjective forms. And in viewing them we experience them in a direct way, which is still another kind of existence, namely that of feeling or prehending, as when we prehend a work of art. To prehend something is to take it into account from a subjective point of view, which inevitably involves a perspective. Keith Puryear's art is an invitation to consider and explore the myriad perspectives available to us, and into which we are sometimes thrown, in human life.
It is also an invitation to consider a fundamental truth life. We humans tend to compartmentalize, to break things down, to divide and try to conquer. We impose ourselves. Sometimes this truth can best be communicated in words but in visual images. "I took a visual cue from the bird’s eye view of the earth from the windows of an airplane, with all of the divisions of land up against undeveloped terrain. I have always thought that this is a striking visual example of man’s imposition on nature."
Is there a way -- is there a need - to gentle the imposition, to relax the hold, to organicize the digitalized, and dance forth into a more rounded movement? We learn that Keith Puryear is married to a dancer. There is already something moving in Keith Puryear's art. Whitehead calls it creativity and says that it is always aiming at intensity or, perhaps better, harmonious intensity. Everything see around us is the result of such aiming. Nothing really stays still, not colors, not rectangles.
Is this part of the truth revealed in Keith Puryear's art? In Whitehead's philosophy the aim at intensity is not simply human or psychological. There is an eros toward intensity in the whole of creation. Even the stars aim at it. Is this part of the metaphysical truth revealed in his paintings? Or is that much, much too simple?
A Process of Becoming
The influence of Alfred North Whitehead
on my development as a painter
by Keith Puryear
I first came upon Alfred North Whitehead while researching the “Abstract Expressionists”. I was studying Drawing and Painting at the University of North Texas almost twenty years ago. I had long been intrigued by the Abstract Expressionists, namely the New York School that was active in the 1940’s with painters like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Clifford Still, Barnett Newman and in particular Robert Motherwell. I had honed in on Robert Motherwell mostly due to the fact that he wrote a lot. Where most of the others rarely spoke of their intentions, Motherwell filled the Void.
I poured through a book titled “The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell”. Every now and then the name Alfred North Whitehead would pop up, usually in connection with some deeply profound thought on the nature of abstraction. He references Whitehead, saying “abstraction is a process of emphasis and emphasis vivifies life.” Motherwell had studied philosophy at Harvard where Whitehead had taught. He said of this, “Though Alfred North Whitehead had retired the previous year , his presence permeated the philosophy department at Harvard, and that through tracking down, in his scattered writings a paragraph here or there, I came to understand the philosophical nature of abstraction, which was a crucial idea for an aspiring young modernist painter in the 1930’s to apprehend, saving me those years of doubt and confusion that most painters of the period had to go through in slowly breaking away from the representational modes in which they had been trained… Who could have guessed that in the graduate school of philosophy at Harvard I should come across perception by a professional philosopher and mathematician that would play a crucial, though far from the only role in my development as a painter.” I was, of course, intrigued.
I was taking studio painting classes under Vernon Fisher and the late Rob Erdle. I, myself, was at an impasse. I knew that I didn’t want to paint representational paintings, but I was unsure of how to approach abstraction, so what I had read of Whitehead through Motherwell kick started a revolution of sorts. The first text that I found was “modes of Thought”. In retrospect, actually, “Process and Reality” was next to it on the bookstore shelf, and just flipping through it I was intimidated. “Modes of Thought seemed much more accessible, not to mention, it was quite a bit cheaper. For the next few years this small but dense book became a constant companion, returning to it time and time again, taking from it inspiration, elucidation, and often confusion. What I took away most from what I read was a validation of the need to move beyond representational expression into abstraction in order to get at a deeper truth, and through the process of painting, pay homage to Whiteheads “Ultimate Creativity” by pursuing harmony and novelty in my own processes as a painter. I, of course later returned to the bookstore for “Process and Reality” which I still continue to chip away at to this day.
Although I have read “Process and Reality” in its entirety, I cannot say that I have ever really finished reading it. I suppose that this would be because as Whitehead would say “we never cross the same river twice”, so it is never the same book, nor am I ever the same reader. Though at many times I was utterly confused , I would sometimes catch a momentary glimpse of sheer enlightenment, so I persisted… slowly, sometimes contemplating a single paragraph for weeks .Keep in mind please that this journey began long before I had any kind of easy access to the internet, so I was pretty much on my own. I took what I could grasp and fashioned my own philosophical approach to painting.
As far as my “mode” of expression, the process and materials I use and the language I have developed, all in some way, have their roots in Whiteheadian thought. The materials are the result of a pursuit of novelty that has become a group of things that I feel combines to synthesize a voice unique to my process. Primarily, my use of glue, twine, collage and oil paint have come from years of experimenting with various materials and choosing what works best for me.
The language, the forms and shapes I have chosen come from an attempt to speak as abstractly as possible. Organic forms, in contrast to rigid geometric shapes (typically squares or rectangles), are an attempt to speak of the conflict between man and nature. In a previous series I took a visual cue from the bird’s eye view of the earth from the windows of an airplane, with all of the divisions of land up against undeveloped terrain. I have always thought that this is a striking visual example of man’s imposition on nature.
As my study of Whiteheadian process theory has taken on a new life over the past few years, having read “Adventures in Thought”, “Science and the Modern World”, “Religion in the Making”, as well as supplemental literature such as “Process-Relational Philosophy: An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead” by Robert Mesle and “A Key to Whitehead’s Process and Reality” by Donald W. Sherburne, The forms of my paintings have recently evolved to represent what whitehead calls “Actual Entities” in various states of “Nexus”. Through color, I hope to attain a novel harmony among these nexus or societies, not unlike chords on a piano.
Through this journey, this “Adventure of Thought”, Whitehead’s process philosophy has not only helped me develop a philosophy for painting, but it has helped me shape a deep and intensely felt philosophy of being.
Keith Puryear: https://www.facebook.com/KeithPuryearArt