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integral photography

An AQAL approach to photography based on Ken Wilber’s integral theory

Part 1 – outline 


Integral theory is an emerging interdisciplinary field of discourse developed by philosopher Ken Wilber and together with numerous scholars and experts have formed the Integral Institute applying this methodology in all major domains (Art, Ecology, Economics, Politics, Psychology, Education, Health, Business and others). Cinematographers Andy and Lana Wachowski, painter Alex Grey, Philip Rubinov Jacobson, musician Kenji Williams, Stuart Davis, Matthew Dallman, are some examples of integrally informed artists. (for more on this visit:


The AQAL (all quadrant all level) approach of Ken Wilber includes the following five elements:

1. The four fundamental sides of each event.

2. The two fundamental types of the manifestation of spirit.

3. The three states of consciousness of the subject matter. 

4. The stages (or levels) of the evolution of consciousness. 

5. Multiple intelligences. 


1. The four quadrants

A comprehensive understanding of humans and the world needs to include at least the exterior-objective and the interior-subjective aspects as they manifest individually and collectively. Four quadrants is the matrix resulting from the above basic distinction when in the x-axis we portray the internal-external reality and in the y-axis the individual-collective reality. Some of the key characteristics of each quadrant are:

UL: self, subjective truth, psychology, consciousness, feelings, intentions, the mind, phenomenology

UR: behavior, objective science, empiricism, brain & organism.

LL: culture, worldviews, artistic expression, morality & values, intersubjective, mutual understanding, collective symbols, hermeneutics 

LR: systems theory, the web of life, Gaia, socio-political structures, economics, interobjective, hierarchies, technology, information & knowledge, the material universe, logic, functional truth.

Each of these four dimensions cannot be reduced to the other, each expresses a real, unique and distinct place in the Kosmos. An integral approach acknowledges all four as a pluralistic methodology to cultivate completeness. 


2. Yin & Yang, wisdom & compasion

Through a re-examination of Plato’s and Plotinus’ influence on the western thought, Wilber analyzes these two types of manifestation. The ascent from the many to the one is the path of wisdom and the descent from the one to the many is the path of compasion. Wisdom recognizes that beyond the multiplicity of forms lies the absolute void that transcends all forms. Compasion recognizes that in the manifest world the one can only be expressed through many forms and thus all must be treated with love, care and respect. Other ways this dual phenomenon has been analyzed are: Eros & Love, Evolution & Involution, Translation & Transformation, Apollonian & Dionysian, Male & Female. We also need to keep in mind that each type has healthy and unhealthy versions.    


3. States of consciousness 

Many artists, athletes, scientists, mystics have described various unusual states of consciousness as catalytic experiences in their lives and work. An integral approach takes those into serious account but before that emphasizes the three fundamental states of consciousness all humans experience always: waking state, dream state and deep dreamless state. These states don’t correspond only to our daily cycles but to types of awareness as well. 

A: Rational mind, action, will, effort, epistemology. 

B: Creative process, artistic expression, vision, intuition, imagination, archetypes, expanded consciousness, philosophy. 

C: Deep meditation, no-mind or big-mind, emptiness, causal awareness, pure witness, trascendence, ego dissolution, spirituality.     


4. Stages (or levels) of consciouness 

We already have at our disposal many models describing the developmental-evolutionary course of consciousness. Some of them are:

A. Psychological, Robert Kegan: implusive, egocentric, conformist, autonomous, holistic

B. Consciousness, Hinduism: basic insticts and needs, vital energy, early intellect-will, mature intellect-sensitivity, higher intellect-wisdom, psychic phenomena / authentic spiritual experiences, non-dual awareness / enlightenment.

C. Value memes, Don Beck: survival, identity, power, security, advancement, humanity, interdependence. Or Worldviews, Jean Gebser: kinesthetic, archaic, magic, mythic, rational, existential, psychic, subtle, causal, non-dual.  

D. Perennial philosophy, western theology: matter, body, emotions, mind, soul, spirit. 

Each state of consciousness corresponds to an aspect of existence (waking - gross, dream - subtle, dreamless - causal). 

Each time we are in one of these states we see the world differently since consciousness and existence are inseparable. Through long term practice temporary states become permanent stages. The more access we have to these stages the greater the spectrum of consciousness of the creator and richer the product of his expression.         


5. Multiple intelligences

The concept of multiple intelligences describes the stages of consciousness in more specific activities. Various studies have shown distinct intelligences: cognitive, interpersonal, moral, emotional, spatial, artistic, kinesthetic, lingual, sexual, mathematical, spiritual, and others. Studies have also shown that a cross training can enhance a particular intelligence more than an in-depth specialized training. Hence the concept of an integral transformative practice has been developed proposing a parallel and systematic exercise in more than one fields for a better, more balanced and healthy individual. The idea is to exercise the material-body, emotional-sexual, mental-psychological, contemplative-meditative in the self, society and nature. There are numerous practices developed for each strain and people can choose the ones they personally prefer.     

All artistic movements in history have developed hand in hand with the pioneering theories of their time. An integral approach to our current needs and problems is one of the most inclusive and positive methodologies at our disposal.


“Think of the most beautiful person you have ever seen. Think of the exact moment you looked into his or her eyes, and for a fleeting second you were paralyzed: you couldn’t take your eyes off that vision. You stared, frozen in time, caught in that beauty. Now imagine that identical beauty radiating from every single thing in the entire universe: every rock, every plant, every animal, every cloud, every person, every object, every mountain, every stream – even the garbage dumps and broken dreams – every single one of them, radiating that beauty. You are quietly frozen by the gentle beauty of everything that arises around you. You are released from grasping, released from time, released from avoidance, released altogether into the eye of Spirit, where you contemplate the unending beauty of the Art that is the entire World. That all-pervading Beauty is not an exercise in creative imagination. It is the actual structure of the universe. That all-pervading Beauty is in truth the very nature of the Kosmos right now. It is not something you have to imagine, because it is the actual structure of perception in all domains. If you remain in the eye of Spirit, every object is an object of radiant Beauty. If the doors of perception are cleansed, the entire Kosmos is your lost and found Beloved, the Original Face of primordial Beauty, forever, and forever, and endlessly forever. And in the face of that stunning Beauty, you will completely swoon into your own death, never to be seen or heard from again, except on those tender nights when the wind genlty blows through the hills and the mountains, quietly calling your name.”   

- Ken Wilber, ‘The Eye of Spirit’, 1997, Shambhala Publications 

Excerpt from ‘Integral Art and Literary Theory’

Further reading and resources:

Part 2 – Art in the four quadrants 

“An integral theory of art and literary interpretation is thus the multidimensional analysis of the various contexts in which – and by which – art exists and speaks to us: in the artist, the artwork, the viewer, and the world at large. Privileging no single context, it invites us to be unendingly open to ever-new horizons, which broaden our own horizons in the process, liberating us from the narrow straits of our favorite idealogy and prison of our isolated selves” – Ken Wilber, ‘The Eye of Spirit’


In his book ‘The Eye of the Spirit’ Ken Wilber takes us through a brief history of art and its meaning. 

Art is in the representation: (pre-modern, LLQ/ULQ)

As Wilber points out the simplest and perhaps earliest view of the nature and meaning of art is that art is imitative or representational: it copies something in the real world. The painting of a landscape copies or represents the real landscape. Plato takes this view of art in the Republic, where he uses the example of a bed: the painting of a bed is a copy of a concrete bed (which is itself a copy of the ideal Form of a bed). Later theorists would “upgrade” this Platonic conception by maintaining that the true artist is actually copying the Ideal Forms directly, seen with the mind’s eye, and thus is performing a “perfectionist” artistry. Aristotle likewise takes the view of art as imitative or copying the real world, and in one form or another this notion of art as mimesis has had a long and profound influence: the meaning of art is that which it represents. 


Art is in the Maker: (pre-modern, ULQ)

Numerous artistic styles and movements postulate that the essence of art lies in its power to express something, and not simply to copy something. And indeed, in both the theory and practice of art, emphasis often began to turn from a faithful copying and representing and imitating, to an increasingly expressionistic stance, under the broad influence of the general currents of Romanticism. Their position was that art is, first and foremost, the expression of the feelings or intentions of the artist, and the expression of an internal reality. We therefore can best interpret art by trying to understand the original intention of the maker of the artwork itself. For Tolstoy, art is the “contagion of feeling”. The artist expresses feeling in the artwork which then evokes that feeling in us, the viewers, and the quality of the art is best interpreted by the quality of the feelings it expresses and “infects” us with. 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. This view of art gave rise to what is still perhaps the most widespread school of the interpretation of art: modern hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation). In its various manifestations, expressionism was not just a stylistic or idealizing alteration of external representation, but an almost complete and total break with the tradition of imitation. 


Art is in the hidden intent, ‘symptomatic’ theories: (modern, LRQ)

Psychoanalysis pointed out that many human intentions are in fact unconscious, and that these intentions, even though unconscious, nonetheless can make their way in disguised forms into everyday life. This inevitably meant that the original maker would leave traces of unconscious intentions in the artwork itself. It followed then that an important part of the correct interpretation of an artwork is the unearthing of these unconscious drives, intentions, desires, wishes. Why limit it to Freudian themes? There are larger currents the artist is often unaware of: sexual, economic, cultural, ideological. 


Art is in the Artwork: (modern, URQ)

Various more “formal” interpretations of art arose, in part as a reaction to these originally Romantic and expressivist versions of art. The Enlightenment rationalism and from there to the Impressionnists who sought to capture “immediate visual impressions”. Here the nature and value of art is to be found in the form of the artwork itself. Much of this formalism had its modern origin in Kant’s immensely influential Critique of Judgment. For formalism in general, the meaning of an artwork is found in the formal relationships between elements of the work itself. A valid interpretation of the work, therefore, involves the elucidation of these formal structures. In many cases, this was coupled with an aggressive denial of the importance or significance of the maker’s original intention. (Barthes’s famous “death of the author”). The death of the subject meant as well the death of the subject’s original intention as a source of valid interpretation. In the rather influential American New Criticism (Monroe Beardsley, William Wimsatt) in ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ state that: the maker’s intention is “neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work” of art. The nature and meaning of art was to be found in its “significant form” (Roger Fry, Clive Bell). And this a valid interpretation of art consists primarily in the elucidating of these forms or structural relationships of the elements manifested in the artwork itself. 


Art is in the Viewer: (post-modern, LLQ)

As formalist theories killed the artist and centered solely on the artwork, another extremely influential trend in art emerged, the postmodern. For these various theories of “reception and response”, the meaning of art is found in the viewer of the art. As Passmore summarizes it: “the proper point of reference in discussing works of art is an interpretation it sets going in an audience; that interpretation is the work of art, whatever the artist had in mind in creating it. Indeed, the interpreter, not the artist, creates the work.” These theories trace much of their lineage to the work of Martin Heidegger who broke the traditional conception of truth as an unchanging and objective set of facts, and replaced it with the notion of the historicity of truth. Human being do not have an unchanging nature so much as a changing history, and thus what we call “truth” is, in important ways, historically situated. Moreover, we come to understand this historicity of truth not so much through scientific empiricism but rather through interpretation. Heidegger’s hermeneutic philosophy has had an immense influence on art and literary theory through two major students of his work: Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida. For Gadamer, even a “purely” aesthetic event, such as looking at a painting, is not merely a simple sensory occasion. The moment we start to ask what the painting means, or how it affects us, or what it might be saying – the moment the mute stare gives way to meaning – then we are inexorably stepping out of the merely sensory and into language and history. What a painting means to us today will be different from what that painting means to people a thousand years from now. In other words, we cannot isolate meaning from the ongoing sweep of history. The work of art, accordingly, exists in this historical stream, which brings forth new receptions, responses, interpretations and meaning. According to this view, the artwork is not something that exists by itself, outside of history, isolated and self-regarding, but is the sum total of its historical stream.     


The integral view:

It is evident from the above analysis that all previous and current approaches (premodern, modern, postmodern) have a valid and important dimension to add to the overall framing and praxis of art. 

The framework of integral methodology as postulated by philosopher Ken Wilber and the Integral Institute, adapted for the context of architectural photography, takes into consideration the interior and exterior aspects of both the individual and collective perspectives of an investigated phenomenon, in order to provide a comprehensive study that respects all available dimensions in a non-reductionist manner.

The Q&A discussions of the features, we explore architectural photography aspects such as: the background biography and influences of the photographers, the overall vision and approach, the relationship between architects and photographers, specific key projects in assignments and personal work, film and digital, print and online means of production and distribution, business aspects of the industry, editing, commercial and artistic expressions, gear and technological advancements, awareness and transformative experiences, the interaction between people and their built environment, movements, styles and sub-genres, future plans and broader collaborations between photography and architecture, workshops, teaching, apprenticeship. 

In the integral lexicol it covers the photographer’s consciousness (UL), the photographic product (UR), photography culture (LL), and photography systems (LR).

Published in 'Morphogenesis' book / Artist Portfolio:

14 February 2015.

Submitted for the Fulbright Artist Scholarship Award 2015-2016.

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