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  • John Reid

Art as a Catalyst

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

I believe art, and in particular painting, acts as a catalyst for the development of the human mind, whether that be for the artist themselves or the viewer.

Having a background myself in biochemistry I view this, as I view much of my painting practice, from a chemical perspective.


The definition of a catalyst is something or someone that facilitates change and this comes from Greek origin meaning to dissolve. In chemical terms, a catalyst is a substance or surface, that modifies the ease of a reaction without being consumed itself. Catalysts aren’t destroyed after exerting their influence.


As a simplistic model on a chemical level, when substrates react they require a certain amount of energy to cause a reaction to occur. This energy is known as the ‘activation’ energy and varies depending on the reaction in play.


When this energy is sufficient and the substrates come together and react, they first form what’s called a transition state. This state is a configuration of atoms that exists at a maximum energy state (as demonstrated on the reaction-energy diagram below). The transition state is very short-lived, has only partial bonds holding the configuration together and is unable to be isolated.


As the reaction progresses this transition state is driven towards product formation and energy is released. The resulting products then find themselves at a lower and more stable energy level.




So for reactions to happen, generally we need to add more energy to overcome any resistance. It is worth noting that the products formed are unique and not merely the sum of the substrates or starting material.


Catalysts operate by lowering the amount of energy needed for the reaction to go ahead thereby making the reaction happen more easily. They form a surface that brings substrates together to react, reactions that otherwise might not happen. This can be due to lack of energy input or from kinetic barriers that act as repellant shields thereby preventing the reaction’s progress.

So we can see that catalysts remove barriers, or perceived barriers, that hinder change. They dissolve the notion of inertia.


If we now look at the conscious and subconscious parts of the mind we have the same sense of barriers within the subconscious that governs how we think and act. These barriers, which are often set in place as patterns at an early age, govern how we see the world and of our involvement in it.


In this metaphorical realm of the chemical reaction sequence I believe art acts as a catalyst for these subconscious barriers. It has the ability to dissolve, expand and alter the environment of the mind. It is worth noting that art may also provide the activation energy needed for certain reactions in the subconscious to take place.


It might not seem like much but in this new expanded sense of being and awareness we can see or perhaps glimpse life and our own life differently, if

only briefly.

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