Sabbatical Leave Report 1975


Sabbatical leave every seven years is one of the benefits of being a tenured professor, which Kurt was at Sacramento State University. One wonders, however, what his Art Department Chair made of this report from Kurt about how he spent his sabbatical leave. Never one short for words, Kurt used the opportunity to expound on his favorite topics of the time - The Laws of Form and Vajrayana Buddhism. 


Report on Sabbatical Leave (1975/76)
Kurt von Meier, Ph.D.
Professor of Art, California State University, Sacramento

Sabbatical leave for the academic year 1975/6 provided me with the opportunity to review and to synthesize my research, writing, practice and teaching of the fine arts. Motivat­ing this work was a curiosity about the applicability of mathematical models to art history, theory and criticism, and to the study of the humanities in general. This might be called, "An Inquiry into the mathematical basis of cultural transformations," explained as a search for the most highly generalized form for expressing those laws, rules or principles which characterize both the temporal transformations (of works of art, of the stylistic develop­ment in the oeuvre of an individual or group of artists, of a national or period style), and the intrinsic quali­ties (formal, functional, esthetic, psychological, etc.) that works of art are understood to manifest and express. The teaching, practice and appreciation of art would be both deepened and clarified if it could be shown that certain mathematical relationships were illustrated by art, even if only in selected examples and limited circumstances. An ambitious categorical and comprehensive approach was declined in favor of the precise analysis of what is called a feed-back or self-referential function.

It is to our advantage that an extraordinarily profound and rigorous study of laws governing the formal relation­ships of mathematical propositions/equations expressing self-referential functions, called by convention "imaginary values," has been published by G. Spencer Brown. (Laws, of Form, Julian Press, New York, 1972). I participated in a conference on Laws of Form with Mr. Spencer Brown and others at the Esalen Institute in 1973. At that time I made a tape recording of the proceedings, and subsequently prepared a transcript, running to some 121 roughly edited pages. A copy of this transcript was placed on reserve in the California State University, Sacramento, library (Y 6472), and is currently available for inspection upon request. I introduced a course on the laws of form on an experi­mental basis at Sacramento during the Spring semester, 1975. A syllabus and bibliography for that course (Art 296) are appended to this Report. In collaboration with Mr. Walter Barney, I have also prepared a Book Proposal, based upon our study of Laws of Form, developed in the form of a pedagogical and fantastic novel.

A feed-back circuit may be either positive or negative, which can be represented as memory or oscillation. A self-referential proposition in logic is commonly called a paradox. The element of paradox in art is ancient and frequent. It appears at the beginning of classical Greek theater with the introduction by Aeschylus of the second actor; it is manifested in the strophe and antistrophe of the chorus, and it is revealed by both the structure and the style of Plato's Dialogues. Viewed as a limiting case of dialectical function, paradox is a recurrent theme in the history of Western thought. Thus the Dialogues of Gallileo are patterned after those of Plato, and indeed the "dialectical materialise of Marx, the syllogism of Socrates, the medieval disputatio, and the alchemical conjunctio oppositorum are all interpretive systems with a common mathematical basis in what is called Boolean Algebra. (It is incorrectly called "Boolean Logic" be­cause logic is only one interpretation of the mathematics). What G. Spencer Brown provides is the "Boolean arithmetic" underlying the algebra. Laws of Form is a complete and con­sistent calculus with which we may construct imaginary Boolean values. This enables us now to say something rather more precise about paradox: that despite the cultural bias against self-referential statements, contradiction and paradox, they can be shown to be essential for the mathematics (despite as well the so-called "Theory of Types" in Chapter 2 of Principia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead). And at its first appearance, at the fifth crossing from the void, the imaginary value may be conceived as "time."

Now what has perplexed art critics and historians, and confused their readers, is the temporal and eternal qualities of art and approaches to its understanding. Thus, the intrinsic esthetic qualities are thought of as "eternal," or as being in some sense "outside of time," or better, not of time. And yet as historians we place objective, concrete works of art into a fabric of imaginary temporality. The illusory nature of time has been argued by physicists from Newton to Heisenberg and David Finkelstein; it has been appreciated by art historians such as Erwin Panofsky and James Ackerman, too. But for the first time we may move from the order of opinion to that of theorem and proof.

These are no mere abstract speculations, but indicate con­crete proposals for the teaching of art history. We may now more fully appreciate the arbitrary and capricious way in which the discipline has insisted upon a chronological approach while imposing political biases in categorizing monuments. Of course, we do find it convenient to acknowledge the con‑ vention of the "flow of time," that things are thought of as happening before and after each other, that (David Hume and Vajrayana Buddhism notwithstanding) most ordinary people maintain primitive beliefs about cause and effect. However, the constraints of lineal, temporal thinking and their associated "tree logic," can now be seen as unnecessary biases of our own recent cultural past, part of the story--to be sure--but not the deepest and most beautiful, the eternal part. We are, with the fine arts, always participating in a revelation of the Mystery and the mystery is everywhere the same. Dante, Shakespeare, Joyce, Pound have all written of it, as have Gautama the Buddha, Lao Tzu, Moses and Muhammad invoked it.

Before our time no one has yet shown how it is that, taking for granted the English language, if we begin with the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, we may construct a system in the simplest way tokening imaginary values. In developing applications of this theoretical knowledge, I focused attention on those formal, frequently geometrical examples of graphic art called yantras or mandalas, in three dimensions. Many of these compositions are rigorously defined by tradition, with indications for their perception as well as for their construction. Together with a student, Brandt Whittaker, I produced Fourier Optic Transform Analy­ses, as 35mm color slide data records, for a series of yantras. The apparatus consisted of a Neon-helium laser source of illumination, diffused to pass through a 35mm slide of the datum (e.g. slide of the yantra); this image was passed through a long focal length lens, and a new slide was made with the film plane at the focal point. The resulting new slide is a Fourier optical transform recorded as a spatial frequency pattern of light, each unique to its subject and containing all the optical infor­mation necessary for the image of the original datum to be reconstructed (technically possible if the principles of holography are applied, with a beam reference). Experiments were made with different exposure times and apertures in order to generate a model for a graphic matrix. Control slides were made of other works of art (e.g."Portrait of a Man" by Albrecht Durer) landscape slides, DaVinci draw­ings. Characteristic patterns appear, and suggest a deep visual grammar to be indexed. Although Fourier optics is well-established in the commercial and applied sciences, its use as a tool for analysis in the fine arts we believe to be a new contribution.

In November, 1975, I visited New York City to attend the opening of Nine Rings Gallery, which featured a series of yantras, each of which was accompanied by specific taped indications for viewing, relating consciousness to the appropriate parts of the body, and with corresponding mantras. These yantras are used by the Arica Institute in meditation and relaxation exercises. During the summer of 1976 I enrolled in a 40-day training sponsored by Arica, at Seabury Hall on the Island of Maui. There I Participated in various exercises, using especially the yantras called "Universal Logos,""Birth of Light," and "Hypergnostic." Together with the yantra called "Harmonic Consciousness," valuable new course material and teaching methods were gained from this training. The "Nine Hyper-gnostic Systems" provide inspiration for a new syllabus, some notes for which are appended.

Study of the Prajnaparamitahriday Sutra (The Heart Sutra) of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, and practice of Kargyudpa meditation provided a principal source of enrichment per­sonally and academically. On two occasions during the sab­batical I was privileged to study with the Venerable Lama Chime, Rinpoche, who is, among other things, director of translating manuscripts in Tibetan for the British Museum. From Chime, Rinpoche I received instruction in Heart Sutra meditation, Chenreze visualization practice, and mantram. In addition, I had the opportunity to practice with the distinguished Lamas Dilgo Khentse; Tsenjur, Rinpoche; Kunga, Rimpoche; Tinley, Rinpoche; Trungpa, Rinpoche, and above all, the Sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, His Holiness Ranjung Dorje.

I participated in a seminar, "Physics and Consciousness," At Esalen Institute in February, 1976. Throughout the academic sabbatical I met with fellow scholars and colleagues committed to the study of perception and the evolution of consciousness. These experiences indicated a heartening possibility to develop a new approach to the fine arts in the curricula of the university and at earlier levels of education, in order to reintegrate specific aspects of the esoteric tradition within the Western exoteric, scientific methodology.

Implications of this period of contemplation and exercise are currently being developed in my teaching activities, and in the preparation of new course material. Several programs of publication derive from the year's work, including the Spencer Brown transcript and the Fourier optical transform analyses. An outline for a text on the history of architecture in relation to the "Nine Hypergnostic Systems" is in preparation. This work seeks to explore the nature and extent of relationship between the visualization practices of Arica and of Vajrayana Buddhism, clinical evidence from process neuro-architecture and the psychology of perception, traditional examples of graphic art, theories and practices of contemporary artists and the traditions from which they have learned, in terms of the mathematical model expressed by G. Spencer Brown in Laws of Form.