The non-duality of self-expression

by Ellen Trezevant

March 19, 2011


This article explores the non-dual nature of the creative act in its essentially unitive or unifying aspect, based upon the revelations which can arise from an earnest self-inquiry.  This unifying creative action then is viewed as a response of the self to the entire gamut of human experience, i.e., waking consciousness, dream-state consciousness and deep sleep or meditative consciousness.  The visual vocabularies of realism, symbolism and abstraction - as self projective and self perceptive modalities - are compared and contrasted to the three dimensions of human consciousness.  The denial of the absolute reality of external form which naturally arises from the progression towards abstraction, can't be refuted. Nevertheless, the essence of the spontaneously creative act reaffirms itself through its irreducible yet vibrantly unifying quality, continuing to manifest on varying levels of material existence.


Self-expression as unitive consciousness


I recently completed the translation of a piece of text based upon the drig-drishya-viveka from the Indian Advaita Vedanta tradition. The thrust of that classical text is that the fundamental unity of being-awareness, previous to all conditions, is discovered by continually stepping backwards through each level of phenomenal conditioning to always discover the unifying quality of being-awareness on a preceding level. Its non-dual premise got me thinking about painting – and all the arts for that matter – as experiential examples of that unitive quality of consciousness manifesting itself through transparent action on varying levels of material existence.


To flesh that statement out, I can try to clarify what I now understand to be a main aesthetic principle. What makes a piece of art – art – is its own vibrant inner unity as the expression of an idea, feeling, sensation, movement or combination thereof. It’s not about – and never has been – a good, even excellent, depiction of some external reality. But rather it is about the consciousness-unity of the artist (subject) merging with his or her materials and subject matter (object) in such a way so as to reflect back a little piece of cohesive life to the consciousness-unity of his or her viewers. When it’s good, it’s magical. As viewer, or listener, we enter into the world of the artist and become transformed by the experience.


Additionally, and at this point in humanity’s knowledge of itself, it’s certainly not important that the final form of a piece of artwork be classically realistic.  Most contemporary artists prefer at least some level of abstraction. But modality aside, what makes a work of art eloquent is the unity of the intent expressed through the materials on into the final form. Perfect, we say, form = function, function = form, in an aesthetic sense. Thus, the only rule is that a piece of art must be true to itself, whatever that self is. Looking at artistic creation from this point of view frees both the artist and his or her audience from any formal constraint, allowing modality, medium and message to coincide by simply remaining true to the original impulse. 


Self-expression of the multi-dimensional Self


I'd guess that most artists in their creative act intend to hint at what they experience as ineffable. If they could say what they wanted to say with words, they would do it, but shapes and images, music or dance often speak more eloquently to and from a level that is non-verbal.  For the artist, in the visceral interplay between sensation, perception and action, a creative discipline is chosen which resonates with their sensibilities, whatever they may be. Additionally, to the extent that artistic expression can be seen as a response to the interaction of self and world, that response must be recognized to arise from the whole gamut of human experience.  Thus, there is a response of and to the self/world of waking state consciousness, of dream state consciousness and of deep sleep or meditative consciousness.  Artists who attempt to explore and express their response to these different dimensions of human experience find themselves choosing a visual vocabulary which resonates accordingly, be it realistic, symbolic or abstract. Thus, there appears to be a relationship between the multi-dimensional experience of self-world and the choice of a particular stylistic creative modality.  If so, what is it?  Let's take a look.




Realism offers the artist a visual vocabulary for exploration of the objects which daily present themselves to the senses within the waking state of consciousness. It's an exploration and discovery of the phenomenal world surrounding an individual who essentially considers himself/herself as separate from these external objects or forces.  For most people in the Western world the contents of the waking state of consciousness constitutes their sense of reality. When realism is most successful, the artist is able to both intensely experience and viscerally convey through their materials a sense of inner unity with these external objects or forces, thereby offering others a chance to experience their own reality in a similar way. 

[Figure 1, Rembrandt self portrait]


Take, for example, the high level of realism in a powerful work by Da Vinci, Rembrandt or Van Gogh. A recognizable external reality is certainly depicted, but it’s charged with an inner unity, often radiating with great intensity. Much of the history of Western art – at least previous to the twentieth century – has spoken this language. Psychologically speaking, such work can reflect a personality in varying modes of relationship to the surrounding phenomenal world, a world furnished with the external forms perceived within the waking state of consciousness. Its realistic depictions can range from polished, to symbolic, to naïvely abstract. The best works containing a mixture of all three.




In contrast, symbolism as a methodology, offers the artist carte blanche for the exploration of his or her own dream-world consciousness.  Graphically there is usually a simplification or reduction of external objects to their inner essence.  It's an aware rediscovery and expression of personally significant images or forces arising from their own dream consciousness.  The symbolist then, no longer sees themselves as completely distinct and separate from the formerly external objects of waking consciousness, but rather understands themselves to both contain and manipulate - or even be manipulated by - these projections.  The artist's sense of self expands through exploration of this dimension, as humanity's knowledge of itself (both individual and collective) also expands through recognition of this sphere. Thus, when this mode of creative expression is most successful, the artist is able to recognize this level of being-experience within themselves and viscerally convey its (often archetypal) contents to others, offering the viewer a chance to perceive themselves and so their own reality in a new and different way. 


[Figure 2, Odilon Redon]


Consider, for example, the mythic gods and heroes of Jung’s Red Book, the dream world of lucid imagination à la Odilon Redon, the powerful haunting entities of Dali’s surrealistic almost shamanistic inner journeys, or Picasso’s African masks. These are powerful images evoking associations to sub-conscious human experience-memory. Psychologically speaking, such imagery resonates on the level of the unconscious mind – both individual and collective. The end of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, in particular, celebrated this “new” kind of visual vocabulary in Cubism, Fauvism, Symbolism, Primitivism, Surrealism, and Expressionism, although, of course, the art of primitive cultures has always contained such imagery.




Contrary to the two previous modes, abstraction opens the doorway towards the realm of being-experience which extends far beyond the sphere of a separately existing person within the world of external forms.  The artist can use this mode as an attempt to get to the absolute essence of experiential forms themselves by questioning his or hers (and so also the viewer's) own sense of reality. It delves into the expansively open space of the deep sleep or meditative consciousness where no person exists.  For subject matter, there is none, not really, but rather the structures of perception or the medium itself is explored and examined in a familiar and often playful manner.  When it's successful, the artist is able to recognize this level of being-experience within themselves and reflect back with an economy of means its lack of phenomenal content to the viewer.  Perhaps that is why abstraction as a form is both so difficult yet sublime, so condensed yet expansive, so negating yet fulfilling - and ultimately so unapproachable by the rational mind?


[Figure 3, Mark Rothko]


This demolition movement of graphically meaningful symbols is illustrated through the movement towards pure abstraction in the latter half of the twentieth century with Abstract Expressionism, Color Field, Minimalism, Hard Edge, Lyrical Abstraction, etc… Here it seems that the artist’s intent focused on a visual vocabulary speaking to and for the ineffable non-phenomenal world, always, already present within the human being, and assumed that by avoiding representational elements altogether, the artist could more effectively suggest the sub-symbolic level of being-existence. There have been a number of artists successfully visualizing this level, Mark Rothko being one of my own personal favorites. Pure abstraction, then, as a psychological projection of no-self portraiture, transcends traditional Western psychology and moves into the trans-personal spiritual world of Yoga psychology: exemplified by the deep dreamless sleep state of consciousness (turiya) or the deep trance-like peace and calm of a meditative state.


Self-expression as self-projection and self-perception


The subject matter of what an artist creates is often an intimate projection of their own self-image, whatever form that image may take at any particular time in their journey through the world.  The essence of the creative act itself being an existential yet temporary unification with both subject matter and medium.  Who am I? is expressed in the spontaneous projections of different levels of being-experience. Through the projective objectification of some aspect of themselves the artist turns around and says "Yes, that's me". Yet simultaneously, through that same act of creative objectification, it's also abundantly clear "No, of course, that's not me".  This same dialectic can be pursued within the traditional self inquiry of Advaita Vedanta: recognizing, aligning with and then negating the form of any particular aspect of perception through affirming the pre-existing nature of the unifying conscious awareness which perceives it.


The realistic painter feels themselves especially drawn to particular people, landscapes or objects and uses his or her tools to both explore and express the sense of intimacy he or she feels for these external forms. This self-projection moves towards symbolism when the inner significance of these external forms is recognized. Then these subtler personal meanings acquire a stronger sense of reality than the external forms themselves, including and expanding the artist's sense of self.


This process continues on as the abstract artist attempts to discover the absolute essence of external forms themselves and in so doing often reaches the form's and/or the medium's existential limits. When mind pursues this direction to its logical conclusion it pronounces, "Form is dead".  How true.  But what has really happened is only this: mind has died, just as in self inquiry when the constrictions of the "person" finally dissolve and die.  Form is dead, but the one who discovers that fact cannot be. Within artistic activity the effervescence of creativity itself did not die and it never will.  Experience tells us so.


Unity consciousness as the creative act


The final answer is this: nothing is. All is a momentary appearance in the field of the universal consciousness. Continuity as name and form is a mental formation only, easy to dispel.

- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj [pg. 415, I AM THAT]


Thus, there is the ultimate discovery - in art as in life - that there is no absolute object which can be pointed to, no thing which can be specified, no person to be delineated, but rather there is a living vibrant, ineffable consciousness which has the particular characteristic of spontaneously, joyfully creating multiplicity from unity and vice versa: creating a unified vital form from multiple elements.

 [Figure 4, Question mark]


What’s interesting now, is that the 21st century has art historians scrambling to find an “ism” for the art world of today. There is no definitive style and anything goes. What’s up for the future is anyone’s guess. And yet for the individual human-being-artist if, after spending decades analyzing the symbolic content of Jungian/Freudian dreams, or alternatively sitting on top of a mountain peak in meditative abstraction, if then there is not a humbled, yet enlightened return to the marketplace of non-dualistic realism, I’d personally be surprised. My own bets are placed on an integrated approach to making art, one in which the realistic, symbolic and abstract levels of the visual vocabulary are all transparently operating. What will that look like? Who knows, but won’t it be fun to find out?  And isn't that what we are already seeing now anyway?  


1.  Pg. 415, I AM THAT, by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, The Acorn Press, Durham, North Carolina

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Ellen Trezevant "The non-duality of self-expression". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 23, 2011, Published: March 19, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Ellen Trezevant