Capacity of Thought

What are the implications of considering art as process? One implication is that exploring the capacity of thinking itself ultimately becomes the core creative process. Art has evolved from being primarily based on the material object to becoming more centred on process and the conceptual or cerebral. This is frequently categorized by establishing a polarity between form and space opposed to content and time. An implication of art based on process is that it dissolves these differentiating categories by instead focusing on thinking and thought as the point of reference. Thought is an ephemeral entity, existing independent to either space or time. The mind is not a brain; rather it is the accumulated recordings of thoughts, conclusions, decisions, observations, delusions, and perceptions of a person throughout their entire existence, and the continuous processing of this available data. An occurrence of perceiving is not the same as the capacity that makes those instances feasible.

In this essay, I will argue that in the case of four specific conceptual artists (Smithson, Burgin, Hesse, Beuys), thinking about the process of thought becomes the content used as a passageway into a greater understanding of human awareness.

First I will proceed to define these key words used to support my argument: Art, Evolution, Material, Conceptual, Cerebral, Form/Space, Content/Time, and lastly Thinking/Thought.

  • Art – is a social activity that investigates human experience and human relationship to existence
  • Evolution – is a process of change continually occurring at different rates over time
  • Material – is the specificity of an object that occupies space
  • Conceptual – is a thought in the form of an idea about something
  • Cerebral – is an intellectual activity existing only within the realm of thought
  • Form/Space – is the combination of objects, and that which is not an object, which comprises the material dominion of existence; space is defined by the position, size, and shape relationships of the objects that it (space) contains
  • Content/Time – content is the meaning resulting from association between the material and the cerebral over time; time is interval, and specific references of event positions within a durational continuum
  • Thinking/Thought –is the mental processing of stimulations informed by memory; a perceptual assignment; a composite cognitive activity

Now with these definitions in place, I will present evidence that thinking about the process of thought is ultimately the process of conceptual art. Before considering each artist under review, in an effort to support the premise, a quick look at space and time is in order. In many theories of art, categories used to aid in understanding have situated space and form contrasted with time and content as modes of differentiation. Such a schism is frequently employed to separate modern art from post-modern art. A deeper understanding recognizes that space and time are mutually dependent. Time needs space as a stage, and space needs time for its formulation. It follows that space and time coexist in all art. Thinking about the implications of knowledge claims, and cognitively being aware of the thought process itself, opens up the doors of perception. The first artist we will consider in this discussion is Robert Smithson. Smithson uses “abstract geology” (Smithson 877) as a way to explore cerebral progressions. With beautiful poetry, he relates processes of planetary erosion to an awareness of the “turbidity of thinking” (Smithson 877). It is important at his juncture to discuss the material in art relative to the cerebral. In conceptual art, it is not necessary to eliminate the material, as the material works as a mechanism to both inform and allow for a manifestation of thought processes. When an artist works conceptually, exploring how thinking functions in no way excludes perception of the material as a stimulus source. Smithson clearly demonstrates this, centering his practice on the materiality of the earth, yet always approached cerebrally. In fact, by centering on the mind and how its processes may affect understanding, conventional limiting categories melt away.

With his drawings, earthwork projects, and gallery installations, Smithson recognizes external geological processes as correlating to internal mental processes. “A bleached and fractured world surrounds the artist. To organize this mess of corrosion into patterns, grids, and subdivisions is an aesthetic process that has been scarcely touched” (Smithson 877). One can argue that the underlying human thought process is directed at establishing order. This means the exterior reality which we all experience is an infinitely complex and chaotic jumble of energy acting on matter in space over time. To navigate this magnitudinous random conglomerate, we must use our own thought processing ability to reduce and organize, thus restricting our field of operation by imposing a fabricated order.

Furthermore, Smithson contemplates thought functioning at different levels, with the lowest level having considerable artistic clout. “At the low levels of consciousness the artist experiences undifferentiated or unbounded methods of procedure that break with the focused limits of rational thought. When your mind is functioning in a ‘primary process’ you can make contact with matter” (Smithson 877). Once again we see the relationship between matter and mind. As we begin to better understand our own internal processes, we are in a position to more effectively respond to all that is external. Furthermore, we can begin to understand that thought itself is complex, and a way towards enlightenment is facilitated by stripping away this complexity, to work a lower, more basic processing level.

Smithson himself looks to other creative minds to learn how to think about thought. He quotes Allan Kaprow, “Most humans, it seems, still put up fences around their acts and thoughts” (Smithson 878). To the extent that an individual is unaware of the existence of these fences, that individual is limited without the possibility of expansion into other, perhaps richer and more rewarding, realms of behavior.

In this regard, Smithson argues that the artist must overcome innumerable mental conventions, conventions that if remain unchallenged will restrict our existence “within narrow bounds” (Smithson 878), just as social structures contain limits and boundaries that confine art. By considering thought as a process, it is possible for an artist to find constraints that are self-imposed, and make adjustment under their control – to exercise agency.

“The fact remains that the mind and things of certain artists are not ‘unities,’ but things in a state of arrested disruption. The refuse between mind and matter is a mine of information” (Smithson 879). By focusing on the art object alone, Smithson believes the artist deprives his experience from the existence of both mind and matter. That the mind, analogous to the earth, engages in an “uncertain disintegrating order” (Smithson 880) which functions to transcend the limits of rational conventions. He says, “The brain itself resembles an eroded rock from which ideas and ideals leak. The present … must go into the places where remote futures meet remote pasts” (Smithson 881). So his relationship with matter is not based on its autonomy, but rather its collaborative utility within the processes of thought. Furthermore, the concept of time is interposed into the conversation as necessarily a thought process. For both the future and past can only referentially exist in the realm of thought, connected at the instantaneous moment of the physical material present. Our next artist under review is Victor Burgin. Burgin posits art evolving through mental attention to both the conditions under which objects are perceived, and attention to the processes by which aesthetic status is attributed. Thought about thought occurs in what he designates as perceptual fields.

“Perceptual fields are not experienced as objects in themselves. Perception is a continuum … event fragments decaying in time, above all a process” (Burgin 895). Once again see the inevitable relationship of objects and thought. Without the processes of thought, objects can have no meaning. And the process of thought itself is the mechanism by which meaning is assigned. Such a vein of logic is quickly extrapolated to time. ‘Visual information concerning duration is gained … by shift in perceptual field … a complex of shifting appearances” (Burgin 896). In other words, it is only by the apparent change occurring on the material, as directly experienced in the instantaneous present, that we can construct an understanding of time. Thus it is the material that functions as the process catalyst to formulate durational understanding, understanding that is only cerebral.

Central to his argument is the temporal order of how consciousness unfolds. “Time is a visceral identification with change as a subjective interior transformation … a consciousness of perception” (Burgin 896). By concentrating his argument on perception, he is exclusively dealing with mental constructs. He proposes that to “distinguish between ‘arts of space’ and ‘arts of time’ is literally unrealistic” (Burgin 896). This of course directly supports my earlier contention, namely that space and time are inseparable. As a final point, Burgin claims art is justified as a behavior directed by thought, forming a composite process. “Art is the proliferation of a complex of activities united as products of artistic behavior.” As art philosophers, we are essentially focused on questions of being, knowing, and acting. Our actions are that which we control, but those actions are driven by thought. Reviewing thought as a process can change behavior” (Burgin 896).

Hesse was interested in exploring processes in relation to materials, which inseparably combined both art and life. “I am interested in solving an unknown factor of art and an unknown factor of life.” “.. my idea now is to counteract everything I’ve ever learned or been taught … to find something that is inevitable that is my life, my feeling, my thoughts” (Hesse 901). Her understanding of the creative impulse involves an iterative exchange between progress and thinking. Working on a piece, the process reveals the potential. “As you work, the piece itself can define or redefine the next step, or the next step combined with some vague idea …be completely free to let that go and change .. the process” (Hesse 901). In a search for total freedom, thought is the freest commodity, unbounded by material existence. Thought is the essence of spirituality. “I don’t want to keep to any rules, just freedom and willingness .. to walk on the edge” (Hesse 902). She also recognizes the importance of thinking processes that embrace polarity, contradictions and oppositions. These thought processes give rise to abundant absurdity, which is a means of reconciling the inevitability of mental antagonism. She thinks about her artistic production in terms of a sequence of change and maturation, a temporal process, with “repetition as a mode for exaggeration.” (Hesse 903). Her ultimate goal is the extension of her artwork,”…into something that doesn’t exist yet” (Hesse 903), and that must therefore be generated from the internal thought processes of her spiritual existence.

Beuys desired to change the world through artistic example, while considering creative potential as a universal construct. Hopeful of reaching this potential, he was interested, just like us, in formulating the question. “Everyone must build upon the basis of his own aim and then express it in a question so that something is cleared up. Refuse any pre-ordained theme. Put your own theme forward, then the conversation is about how this fits in with theoretical principles” (Beuys 904). In direct concurrence with thinking about the process of thought, Beuys says that “Thought and speech are seen as plastic … a composite of thought and action.” (Beuys 904). In fact, “Art comes from intelligence” (Beuys 905). His understanding recognizes that judgments cannot possibly be made outside the terms of reference of the artist’s thought process. Interestingly he makes the case for an economy of thought. “In a work overloaded with content, no overall formal coherence emerges” (Beuys 905).

Widening the concept of the artistic field, he calls for complementing art not just through intelligence, but also through thought processes associated with “the organs of sensory and emotional experience. Every man is a plastic artist who must determine things for himself” (Beuys 905). So each participant must contribute their piece of the puzzle, from the resources of their own thought process. The artistic element must be embodied in every subject unconstrained, and then art can “develop freely when all restrictive mechanisms are gone” (Beuys 906).


In this essay, I have argued that when considering art as a process, ultimately exploring the capacity of thinking itself becomes the creative process. In this context, thought becomes the content used as a conduit into a superior consciousness. In conclusion, art is a human activity that investigates what it means to be human. It does this by close observation of the exterior through received sensory information that must always be perceived. Perception is the cognitive mental process of formulating meaning out of raw sensual data. Thus, the thought process itself is a critical component of understanding, and the study of thought as process represents a high order of artistic opportunity.

Works Cited

Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood. Art in Theory, 1900-2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2003. Print.