Thursday, June 25, 2015

Nature as Muse and Craftsman

Thinking about aesthetics for the book I'm writing on Virginia Woolf's use of form forced me to formulate my own definition of what I considered art.  I realized that it spoke to my own taste, and in good Kantian fashion (in his Critique of Judgement, Kant insisted that we not impose our taste on others, though we hoped and sometimes believed others would share it), I did not want to impose it on anyone else.  Art was an object or an event that made use of a language (musical notes or visual images, as well as the language we use every day) that was used with a deep and respectful sense of craftsmanship to express an idea.  My definition, like any ill-fated attempt to define art, was meant to keep out things I felt didn't belong.  It excluded clever conceptual art more or less cobbled together that surprised one with its idea but showed no craftsmanship.  It also excluded the merely pretty or the simply beautiful.  Monet, of whom Cezanne said he was simply an eye--but what an eye!--just gets in, since besides creating breath-takingly beautiful canvases, he challenges our way of seeing.  Jim Dine occasionally makes it through my gate, though not with a 5-foot-high heart cut out of a hay bale I saw in the Guggenheim.  Banksy definitely gets in.

Bill and I have just come back from a wonderful trip to Seattle.  It's worth flying there to walk to the Olympic Sculpture Park to walk through Richard Serra's remarkable installation, "Wave," which you see above, and which completely changes your sense of the world by dwarfing you and by changing how air moves and how the world sounds.  You can follow that up by sitting near Calder's "Eagle" in a Calder-red garden chair to watch the sun set over the ocean.  But it was our time at aquarium and the Chihuly glass museum that I found challenged my sense of the distinctions between nature, art, and craft.

Bill loves aquariums, so we visit them early in our trips.  Seattle's does a spectacular job of bringing you close to the underwater world and then teaching you how our behaviour is changing these ecosystems.  They have shallow tidal pools filled with starfish, anemones, and sea urchins--all in remarkable colours like the lime green anemones, soft orange starfish and deep wine sea urchins.  You could use one childlike finger to touch them, and were then urged to wash your hands.  There is also a glass archway that encloses white jellyfish:  you can stand underneath and watch their almost transparent, amorphous bodies surge through the water.  It was like watching a ballet of air ringed round by lace.  Other tanks replicated coral reefs with their brightly-coloured coral and even more brightly-coloured fish.  Nature's gone wild with pure, unsaturated colour in these ecosystems, twisting it into every shape, trying out every pattern of stripes or dots or scales.  A coral reef, I would have had to say to myself, is an aesthetic whole--just as a forest, a mountain, or a prairie are aesthetic wholes.  Farther on, there are  quieter tanks in which nothing seemed to happen:  a few grasses, a rock or two, a beige plant wafting in the currents.  But if you stood there long enough (and most people didn't), you began to notice the fish and the snails going on with lives as interesting and busy as the lime green sea urchin or the bright blue fish with its orange cheeks.  This too was an aesthetic whole, in fact, illustrating nature's sense of craftsmanship.  Perhaps I should be a bit less romantic and refer to this as evolution's craftsmanship.

On Tuesday, reading about short fiction after I finished packing up my office, I read these words from Oscar Wilde in an essay by Joyce Carol Oates:  "That is the mission of true art--to make us pause and look at a thing a second time."  Now I'm not inclined to argue about aesthetics with Oscar Wilde; I am inclined to think about that phrase, "look at a thing a second time."  Reconsider?  Pay something the attention it deserves?  See something differently or even consider the idea that there are a variety of ways of seeing and judging?  All these seem to be important (see Monet above), but they don't sound very different from Elaine Scarry's observation in her remarkable book, On Beauty and Being Just that "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.  Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care:  if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us."  In the rest of her argument, that word "care" takes on many meanings, rising finally to perceiving with enough empathy and imagination to prompt us to justice.  Ironically, it was a justice that Oscar Wilde deserved, but did not get.

But Wilde wrote of art and Scarry of beauty; surely these words and ideas are not interchangeable?  As if to put pressure on this conflation and confusion, our second day in Seattle took us to Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum devoted to the glasswork of Dale Chihuly.  Having been at the aquarium the day before was helpful:  it allowed us to see the way many of Chihuly's forms reference the aquatic world around him.  It was also helpful that we know something of the indigenous West Coast culture, for some of his forms pay tribute to their baskets and their eye for colour, like the photograph below.  On the one hand, I was gobsmacked by a beauty I could not imagine being made.  How do you rim an undulating red form in bright green?  How do you create stripes?  How do you put together such structures of glass?  Craftsmanship was everywhere in evidence:  this is one culmination of the art of glass blowing.

But where was the idea I needed for this work to be art?  Okay, I'm going to stretch my brain here to see what I come up with.  I can see Chihuly's almost Platonic sense that there is a world of forms--of baskets, sea urchins, flowers, water drops--that the artist can reference to wake up our attention.  I can also see the paradox between the solidity these forms take in glass and their fragility, impermanence, mortality even:  some athletic idiot with a hammer could destroy this beauty very, very quickly.  But how is that different from, say, an ecosystem?
I might find an answer to this in the garden outside the museum, where nature's and Chihuly's craftsmanship collide in a friendly, echoing way.  There, Chihuly might have created more flower forms to echo those suggested by the garden, but instead he offers us surreal forms that emphasize their glass-ness.  Art as artifice?  Art as nature's counterpoint, and a way to emphasize the artness of nature?  Or I might find the answer in an essay by George Saunders about reading Vonnegut while he's working as an engineer in Sumatra and being surprised by Vonnegut's use of humour to reflect on or depict the firebombing of Dresden.  Saunders writes "I'd understood the function of art to be primarily descriptive:  a book was a scale model of life, intended to make the reader feel and hear and taste and think just what the writer had.  Now I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters.  He enters in one state of mind and exits in another.  The writer gets no points just because what's inside the box bears some linear resemblance to 'real life'--he can put whatever he wants in there.  What's important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit." 

Does it come down to this, the artist's intentions?  The natural world simply wants to go on being the natural world?  It doesn't purposefully lay claim to my attention, although its beauty has that effect.  Art, on the other hand, might want to draw my attention to nature as a way of engaging that perceptual care that Scarry writes about and that is perhaps the basis of many environmentalists' beliefs.  We preserve the beauty of art; why not also preserve the beauty of nature?  Both are equally life-giving.  Besides, nature, perhaps, is the first teacher, the first example of craftsmanship.  What a wonderful way to end a holiday:  with more questions than answers.


  1. My sweet spot for aesthetic beauty tends to be ornament and lapidary from the middle ages--particularly the "dark ages," which in spite of its name produced resplendent artwork, architecture, and craftsmanship. The Sutton Hoo belt buckle has always, for me, been emblematic of this drive to produce astonishing art for its own sake ( Historians speculate that the ornate patterns and gold setting were meant to convey status, but it's just as likely that the object was fashioned for beauty's sake. Both Anglo-Saxons and Vikings seem to have collected beautiful little objects--multi-colored beads, miniature shears and spindles, ornate key rings, and the like. I'm always struck by that culture's commitment to aesthetic value, and the Wildean impulse that this invokes to "look twice" at an object.

  2. I do love the Wilde quotation. For me, the artifacts that exemplify a culture's longing for beauty include quilts and pottery. American and Canadian women took scraps left over from their sewing for family members and made quilts as adventurous as the colours of the Amish or as rich and fanciful as the women of Baltimore, who did the most extraordinary appliqué. Strictly speaking, quilts were meant to keep the family warm: they didn't need to be beautiful. Similarly, the Persians had developed the chemistry to create the most amazing metal oxide glazes some where deep before the common era. Our table wear and cooking pots also don't need to be beautiful. Perhaps it's one of the wonderful things about humans: beauty matters to us; it is a gift we bring to those we care for.

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