Dreaming as Viewed Through the Prism of Wilber’s Theory Of Art Criticism

Perhaps the primary locus of the meaning of the dream can only be found in the responses of the viewers themselves.

Much of what Ken Wilber writes regarding the meaning of art, whether visual or literary, can be applied to dreams and dream interpretation. This is because dreams are innately an artistic production, an expression by dream consciousness of man’s inherent creativity. In art we find an easily accessible bridge between the waking delusion of dreaming and the dreamlike nature of waking life. Approaches to dreamwork basically fall into the same categories that Wilber delineates in art criticism in his essay, “Transpersonal Art and Literary Theory” (Wilber, 1996), and each strategy for making sense of dreams and dreaming has strengths and weaknesses that are similar to those characterizing various classical approaches to art criticism.

There are essentially four different basic answers to the question, “What is art?” that are represented by the various schools of art criticism. Each of these throws light on the question, “What is a dream?” In both cases, these four perspectives can be understood as expressions of one or another of the four quadrants of the human holon.

Dreams are Representational

Wilber’s interior collective quadrant is the home of culture, which interprets the events of the objective world in ways that create personal and collective meaning. Just as dreaming is a form of objectivity that is interior to the individual, so culture is a form of objective meaning that is interior to society. Art is imitative or representational and its meaning is to accurately portray its object. Therefore, in a literal sense, a depiction of The Last Supper by da Vinci would be more meaningful because it is a more accurate representation of a living person than the one in the picture above. This view dates back to at least Plato and Aristotle. The dreamwork correlate is to those schools that say that dreaming basically represents something else—waking life issues, the soul, repressed desires, biochemical reactions, and so forth—and that the worth of a dream, or its efficacy, comes from the clarity with which it does its representing. Dream elements are therefore symbols. This is the symbolic interpretive school of dreamwork, represented by dream dictionaries, Freud, Jung, Cayce, and their contemporary disciples. According to this approach to understanding dreams, in and of themselves, dream images have no meaning. Those waking or physiological events which they depict are what is meaningful, and a dream is significant only to the extent that it accurately depicts real, objective events. For instance, if a dream clearly depicts a health crisis, it is more meaningful than one that does not. If a dream clearly reflects or imitates the day residue which preceded it, it is more meaningful than a dream that distorts the events of the previous day. If a dream accurately portrays the future, it is more meaningful than one that misleads us about someone we are sure is our soulmate. If a dream is a real communication with a deceased relative or contains divine archetypes, it is more real than the average dream because it depicts real things in a representational and non-symbolic fashion. Dream symbols are representations of realities; literal dreams are accurate representations. In this approach, dreamwork is meaningful to the extent that it faithfully portrays the object of the dream.

But this assumes that we know what the object of the dream is when this is, in fact, basically conjecture. Clearly, to understand the canine depiction of The Last Supper, we have to start with the assumption that the artist was attempting to portray some realm of objective meaning that is different from that of historical Christianity.

Just as all approaches to art are not imitative or representational (for instance conceptual, expressionist, minimalist, surrealist, and so forth), all dreams are not imitative. In fact, it is an interior collective assumption that a dream is an attempt to imitate anything. Wilber points out that imitation for imitation’s sake makes documentary photography the highest form of art. Is it? It would mean that the dream that is an exact imitation of waking experience, not adding anything new, would be the most creative and artful dream. But then the dream would not offer anything other than a reflection of waking or mystical experience. It would not be a unique expression of creativity, but merely an approximation of waking awareness. Such a perspective does not accept a dream on its own terms, but instead demands that it not only represent something else, but those objects and values important to us. The worth of a dream is based on how much it conforms to our waking expectations of what is real and valuable and what is not. We thereby turn ourselves into Narcissus, finding in dreams only those things that validate our assumptions about reality, including our hopes, expectations, and fears.

While there are certainly representational aspects of dreaming, this view by itself is limited and reductionistic. Representational theories of dreaming assume that their value and meaning lies in the external individual and collective quadrants. It amounts to what Wilber calls a “flatland” approach which reduces the significance of a work of art or a dream to that which is valued by waking identity.

Dreams Express Intent

If a representational approach to dreaming and art is reductionistic, perhaps meaning lies in the ability to express the motive, personality and life of the dreamer or artist. This is the expressivist school or art, represented by such theorists as Benedetto Croce, R.G. Collingwood, and Leo Tolstoy. Art is not simply the imitation of an external reality, but the expression of an interior reality – the intentions and feelings of the artist. We can thus best interpret art by understanding the original intention of the artist. As an example, Wilber writes, “Collingwood made the original intention of the artist so utterly primary, that the inward, psychological vision of the artist was itself said to be the actual art, whether or not that vision ever got translated into public forms.” The expressivist approach to art interpretation gave rise to hermeneutics, still perhaps the most widespread school of the interpretation of art. It holds that the key to the correct interpretation of a visual, auditory, or literary piece of art is the recovery of the maker’s original intention, requiring a psychological reconstruction of the author’s or artist’s original intent in its historical setting.[2] Was the artist who created The Last Doggie Supper making a joke, deriding Christianity, turning dogs into deities, or something else? What was his/her intent? Proponents of this approach to art theory include Emilio Betti and E.D. Hirsch.

Artistic motivations are hardly a superficial matter. Since at least Freud and up to and including cognitive scientist George Lakoff, many people have accepted the idea that the great preponderance of human intentions exist out of our awareness. Even the Indian concept of karma assumes an expressivist interpretation of experience. The art critic, to be effective, must therefore be a psychoanalyst, psychic, or mystic who has opened his “Eye of Spirit,” someone who can gain knowledge of, recreate, and accurately communicate the true intentions of an artist. Is this even possible? The meaning of art becomes the particular set of unrecognized intentions thought to be affecting the artist, and so we may have racism, sexism, elitism, speciesism, anthropocentrism, androcentrism, imperialism, ecologism, logocentrism, or phallocentrism each put forth as the “true” meaning of the work of art. Feminists have made the case that the true intentions behind art are those of gender and that Marxists and other economic interpreters of art are driven by unconscious or thinly disguised intentions of patriarchal power. How is this anything other than the projection of the critic’s own pet theories onto not only a work of art but onto the artist themselves?

It is not very hard to find parallel approaches within the dreamwork community. For those taking an expressivist approach, the meaning of a dream lies in its ability to express the life of the dreamer. This usually means the waking life of the dreamer, and it is assumed that the dream has its referents in the personal waking experience of the dreamer, although group and transpersonal factors, such as the “real” existence of the “true” Self may be easily factored in as well. Consequently, in order to understand a dream, we therefore have to understand the original intention of the dreamer. But who is this dreamer? Do we have to ask, “What were you doing the day before you had the dream?” “What issues have been on your mind lately.” “What sorts of childhood traumas did you experience and how are they expressing themselves in your dream?” Such questions assume that the dreamer is waking identity. But if we instead ask, “What were you doing in your past lives?” “What are the purposes of your soul that are attempting to express themselves through your dreams?” “How does the collective evolutionary arc of humanity manifest in this dream?” – we have a set of entirely different intentions that are being expressed because the “dreamer” is defined in a completely different way. The assumption of an expressivist approach is that dreams are so inscrutable precisely because most of these intentions lie out of our awareness. There are all sorts of formative factors that come into play if the true intention of a dream is to be unearthed—archetypes, defense mechanisms, karma and dharma.

Just as in literary theory, the application of this approach to meaning has unleashed a flood of pet interpretive frameworks. The dream is symptomatic of adaptive challenges, cultural expectations, social roles, interpersonal dynamics, and so forth, and its proper interpretation requires that the dream interpreter know about these things. The dream is symptomatic of larger currents that the dreamer is largely unaware of—sexual, economic, ideological, cultural, spiritual, and developmental factors. A valid interpretation of the dream decodes and exposes the hidden intentions of the individual as expressed in it. Consequently, expressivist theories of both art and dream interpretation boil down to projection by the interpreter onto the dream of a particular agenda which the interpreter believes was the actual intent of the artist or dream. What is therefore disclosed is not the meaning of the dream but the prejudices, biases, and assumptions of the interpreter. The expressivist approach involves a projection of the values and meanings of the interpreter onto the motives of the artist or dreamer. As such, it reduces dreamwork to the interior collective quadrant of the human holon.

Dreaming is “Formalistic”

If there are problems with art as representation and art as the intention of the artist, perhaps its true meaning lies in the work itself. Wilber associates this approach to art theory with the formalist school, represented by Zola, Balzac, Flaubert, Courbet and the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Manet, Pissarro, Degas) who attempted to capture “immediate visual impressions,” with the intentions and motivations of the artist being quite secondary at best. Founded in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, this school is represented in music theory by Eduard Hanslick and in the visual arts by Roger Frey and Clive Bell and in literature by the American New Critics such as Wimsatt and Beardsley and by the post-structuralists (Derrida, Paul de Man, Hartman, Lyotard).

For formalism, the meaning of a text or an artwork is found in the formal relationships between elements of the work itself. A valid interpretation of the work involves the elucidation of these formal structures; the intention of the artist is irrelevant. The meaning of art does not lie in what it may represent about an object or express about the artist. Interpretation should center first and foremost on elements intrinsic to the artwork considered as a whole in itself. What is the nature of the relationship between the Husky and the other dogs? What is the nature of the relationship between the dogs and the humans? But such an approach assumes you can separate art from the consciousness and intentions of its creator and still make it understandable in some sort of objective way. Is this possible?

Theories of dreamwork that minimize external referents, such as content analysis of Van de Castle and the phenomenalism of Boss assume formalism. What is going on in the waking life of the dreamer or what the unconscious intent of the dream is, or what the dreamer is attempting to express, are less important factors. The emphasis is instead on an evaluation of the formal or structural relationships among the dream elements themselves, one to another.

While consideration of formal elements is invaluable, many find formalism too rational for something as visceral and affect-laden as a piece of art, particularly when that creation is a dream. Formalist approaches illuminate the dream by killing the dreamer, by reducing him or her to irrelevance. Such an approach can reduce dreams, extraordinarily subjective and internal experiences, to external and objective facts and their relationships.

Dreams are Interpretations

Perhaps then, the meaning of a dream is not found in the dreamer’s original conscious and unconscious intentions or in any specific features of the dream itself. Perhaps it is only found in the looking. Perhaps the primary locus of the meaning of the dream can only be found in the responses of the viewers themselves. According to this view, the nature and meaning of art is to be found in the history of the reception and response to the artwork and a valid interpretation of the artwork consists in an analysis of these responses. “…the interpreter, not the artist, creates the work.”[3] Adherents of this approach are Martin Heidegger and his hermeneutic philosophy, Hans-Georg Gadamer, one of the foremost theoreticians of aesthetics, and Jacques Derrida. Interpretation of art is therefore about the language and history, both personal and human, of the viewer. “The artwork is the sum total of its particular historical stream, not something that exists by itself, outside of history, isolated and self-regarding, existing only because it looks at itself; rather, the only way we know the artwork is by viewing and interpreting it, and it is those interpretations, grounded in history, that constitute the overall art.”[4]

So what matters is not what the piece of art or dream means, but what it means to us, the viewer of it. Do we find The Last Doggie Suppersacriligious, funny, stupid, esoteric, creative, or uplifting? By looking at the art or dream we are disclosing our meanings, not those of the artist or dreamer. This creates a highly subjective, almost solipsist, approach to both art and dreamwork. While honest in that it owns its projections and imparts no meanings or value to either the work or its creator, few would want to refrain from a thoughtful consideration of either the work in and of itself or of the consciousness which created it. Such projectionism is a very strong internal collective approach to dreamwork: “Only the meanings I project onto the dream can be accessed; they have to be the meaning of the dream, for none other is accessible.”

One problem with such an approach is that there are other accessible meanings of any dream. When we take the time to leave our solipsism and interview other art critics and, regarding dreams, dream interpreters and dream characters themselves, we find a multiplicity of other meanings that sometimes conflict with but always enrich our own.

If art theory is a spirited attempt to decide exactly what the center of art is so that we can locate the meaning of the artwork and then go on to develop valid interpretations of the art, then dreamwork theory is the attempt to decide exactly what the locus of a dream is so that we can locate the meaning of the dream and then go on to develop valid interpretations of the dream. Each of these views of what art is, what a dream is, may be seen as a context, with each different context conferring a different meaning on art and dreaming. Reduction to one or another approach is quadrant reductionism; like the Blind Men and the Elephant each insisting that an elephant is like a tree trunk, a wall, or a snake, we are insisting that art, dreaming, and life are centered on exterior objectivity, intent, relationships, or interpretations. It is not that any of these contexts are not true or useful, it is just that each is partial. Each context makes its legitimate contribution. The vanity, elitism, exceptionalism, and hubris descends when the part believes that it is the whole and knows the whole, containing the other views within it and transcending them. In Integral AQAL, which to its credit is cognitively multi-perspectival, this hubris is disclosed by the primacy of intent in the interior individual quadrant, which, as the Eye of Spirit, proclaims its ability to know and speak for all four quadrants. This is perhaps best demonstrated by Wilber’s determination to hold fast to a teleologically-based theory of evolution as “Eros as spirit-in-action” rather than seriously deal with the different conclusions of the vast preponderance of scientific opinion.

Why do we cling to one core perspective, interpretation, or worldview rather than another? The low hanging fruit is to rule out that it is not a defense against cognitive dissonance, the fear that we are nothing, that life is nothing, if the assumptions on which we have based our sense of self and the meaning of our lives is found to only be partial. However, instead of spiraling downward into postmodern nihilism and narcissism, with all meanings relative and indeterminate and all interpretations egoic projections, we can view each approach to art theory and to dreamwork as valid and truthful perspectives, each anchored and subsumed by yet more valid and truthful perspectives. Wilber’s Integral AQAL does see and honor this approach in its awareness that all four quadrants co-arise and co-evolve, and that holons exist within larger holons.

Integrating the Four Approaches

To meaningfully interpret a piece of art or a dream is to situate it in its various contexts. These include:

The original intent of consciousness as creator. This is not easy to do. For example, as regards dreaming, it is to take into account the various dimensions of AQAL: all lines, levels, quadrants, states, and styles in waking as well as out of awareness, prepersonal, personal, and transpersonal, physiological, cognitive, affective, and spiritual, developmental stages. These can be inferred by taking a careful history and evaluation of these factors, and mystical experiences can provide an overwhelming sense of certainty as to what is real, true, good, and unifying. However, such approaches rely on perspectives that are at foundation psychologically geocentric. That is, they view a singular identity, either self or Self as the center of interpretation.

However, consciousness is multi-perspectival, meaning that multiple sources of interpretation need to be considered, and these cannot be reduced to either a collective or cosmic self. Instead, they have to maintain their own autonomy and individuality apart from that of any definition of self, if interior individual reductionism is to be avoided.

This can best be done by not only taking into account the other three quadrants and the interpretations of others, but also by interviewing the characters in the dream themselves. After all, what loci of identity are in a better position to interpret a dream (or any experience) than those which are embedded in the experience itself? Such an approach embodies formalism, in that it centers on relationships intrinsic to the unique context of this or that dream, expressivism, in that it deals with the associations of each interviews character, intent, in that it elicits the motivations of different participants in the experience, and interpretation, in that it recognizes that in the final analysis, what a dream, piece of art, or life experience “means” is determined by the particular perspective doing the interpretation. This includes eliciting the interpretations of the perspective which created the dream itself, called “Dream Consciousness” in Dream Sociometry, and is analogous to accessing the intentions of the author of a piece of art. While we can never be sure that we have arrived at the original intent of the dream, a consensus of internal and external, personal and collective opinions regarding the intent is more reliable than the opinions and interpretations of the persona of the dreamer or of dream interpreters.

The work/dream itself, in both its form and content. This is essentially a consideration of external individual holonic factors in the creation of art and dreams: behavior; observable relationships and objectively agreed upon information.

The history of reception and response to the art by the viewer, or to the dream by the dreamer and by other viewers (interpreters) of the art/dream.These are internal collective holonic factors.

The wider contexts of the world at large, economic and technical, linguistic, cultural, and spiritual, without which specific meanings could not be generated in the first place. This is basically a consideration of external collective holonic factors in the creation of the work of art or dream.

So what is the meaning of art? Of a dream? Can we say that the evocation and elucidation of any particular meaning or context is more than a simple descent into post-modernism? How do we know if our interpretation is justified? That is an epistemological question, which enters the Hall of Mirrors of varieties of validation: correspondence, coherence, consensus, and pragmatic. Generally we settle on an interpretation that is clever, educational, eye opening or, most often, agrees with our assumptions, expectations and biases. However, a justifiable interpretation verifies that a particular context is indeed real and significant, which involves a careful look at the total web of evidence. To understand art or a dream means, at least in part, to enter it. To do so is basically a process of identification, in which I stretch my own boundaries and broaden myself by broadening my context.

While there is no one right interpretation of any piece of art or any dream, since there is no end to the contexts in which either may be placed, there remain plenty of incorrect ones. Dream interpretation, like art criticism, is falsifiable, and must be if it is to have any lasting validity. We test our interpretations in Integral Deep Listening (IDL) when we initially state what we think the dream means. This acts as a pre-test by which we can assess our self-awareness after we have listened to what interviewed dream characters have to say, and by which we can assess our ability as an interpreter after we have listened to the interviewed characters from the dreams and life issues of others. We also test the interpretations of interviewed others by eliciting recommendations, operationalizing them, and submitting the results to the court of public experience.

Meaning is about interpretation. Interpretation is secondary to the raw, vital apprehension of art and dreams themselves (a bow to formalism). This may be the original experience of the artwork or dream, which can frighten, amaze, sadden, or anger us. While we may reinter that experience upon its retelling, a surer way is to identify with the characters in the dream or the beagle or schnauzer in a piece of canine art, and experience it from those perspectives. It is the vital, direct experience of art and dreams which transforms us. It is the direct encounter with life, giving ourselves totally to it, allowing ourselves to be transfixed by it, which gives purpose to any search for meaning, to any interpretation, whether from art or dream, or in attempting to understand and use some worldview, such as Wilber’s Integral AQAL. Before mind is the raw encounter with direct experience, and before interpretation is identification, or becoming the work of art or dream character. Otherwise, in our blindness, we mistake a part of the elephant, a particular theory of art or dream interpretation, for the elephant itself. We mistake a doggie take on life as reducible to our interpretation of it. We will benefit if we spend more time directly experiencing the marvel of an elephant or canine epiphany than in arguing about what it means.


[1] Wilber, Ken. Transpersonal Art and Literary Theory, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1996, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 69. Much of the language and many of the ideas here presented are lifted directly out of this excellent article. We can see here a view of art that would likely encompass dreams themselves.

[2] Wilber, Ken. Transpersonal Art and Literary Theory, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1996, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 70.

[3] Passmore, 1991, p.34, quoted in Wilber, Ken. Transpersonal Art and Literary Theory, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1996, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 75.

[4] Wilber, Ken. Transpersonal Art and Literary Theory, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1996, Vol. 28, No. 1, p. 74.

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