Aesthetic values

Today, the weather was beautiful; the trees, early-greening, and the gold tassels of oaks shimmering in the sun, and the cherry and dogwood blossoms: beautiful.

I think about how we value beauty. And maybe do not know what it is–or recognize its many forms–as it is, by its nature, subjective.Liz MZ

A friend I knew was physically beautiful. Or was that mostly her generosity and cheerfulness, her sparkling eyes? She had specific aesthetic tastes she followed with delight; but she remained practical, full of humor. Today, there was a poetry reading in commemoration of her life.

A beautiful day, a beautiful event, a beautiful friend.

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The aged best-beloved who recently departed was also a person who had particular ideas about beauty. She cultivated flowers, liked certain artists, wanted her rooms decorated just so. She had an expectation that she could control her death, too–she wanted it, also, to be beautiful.

She was, I fear, thwarted in that desire.

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My brother the amateur science historian has taken it upon himself to defend the reputation of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a late-Enlightenment scientist best known in the 20th century for coining the term “Caucasian” (though there is some dispute about the neologism). An overview can be found here, but my brother’s argument hinges upon the way the word “beauty” was defined in 18th-century Germany and the ways Blumenbach employed it in Latin in his 1795 masterwork, De generis humani varietate nativa (3rd ed).

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What do we mean by beauty? Must the meaning hinge upon perspective and culture?

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There are tumors in the body of the beloved. The surgeon, with his amazing equipment that can take photographs deep inside the tubes and organs of a human being and his unimaginably small and precise surgical tools, shows me “before and after” images.

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His enthusiasm enlivens his description of the surgery: Look at these tumors–unusual, hardly see these and I’ve been at this thirty years–but afterwards, very clean. Look here–no sign. Went very well. Beautiful!

Beautiful?

Does he mean the tumors, or his surgical work? In either case–would I define this as beautiful?

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And a colleague who has had major surgery does a close reading of the (“rather horrifying”) fluoroscopes from the operation and in them finds something beautiful. Something she can create her own art from. Because what the surgeon accomplished was to her mind art; and art is beautiful, though often in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing as, say, a lilac in bloom is pleasing.

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Does it matter–should it–that something is ‘beautiful’ ?

I am asking but I do not expect to find an answer, myself.

 

 

Perspective & aesthetics

Officially autumn now–and my lawn litter consists mostly of oak leaves, though other leaves will shortly follow. The showy blossoms of late summer, such as zinnia and tithonia, have begun to fade. Even the tall, bright-yellow, wild goldenrod’s going to seed, turning the meadow into a mass of beige and fading green. Asters and chrysanthemums take their places, drawing the garden visitor’s eyes a bit closer to the ground.

We move toward yin, the earth…which is where I happened to notice that just above the sprawling petunias–still blossoming, though getting a bit peaked–an iris is in bloom, too. This particular iris would not be all that commendable a flower in late spring or early summer when most irises are efflorescing. Its stature is medium, its color a rather wan yellow, its petals unremarkable.

autumn iris

Nonetheless, it’s an iris. In autumn! Apparently, my perspective on flowers changes once the days get shorter. My aesthetic expectations evolve: any rose becomes a wonder, any iris an almost magical surprise amid the mums and ornamental kale. That’s an important observation I try to keep in mind for myself and to teach to my students: perspective alters everything.

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There are nice hybridization developments on late-blooming or, more accurately, re-blooming irises (this link from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden offers some useful information). I transplanted my rebloomer from an older garden that a long-ago homeowner planted; so I don’t know its heritage, though it somewhat resembles the cultivar “Baby Blessed.”

In the process of trying to track down the variety, I learned a new botanical word: remontant. Remontancy is that quality in a plant that makes it capable of blooming more than once in a season or year. There’s something generous and buoyant in that word, from the French “coming up again.” If hope does not spring eternal, may it at least be remontant. And may my perspective be flexible enough to appreciate seasonal transitions and small, un-flashy irises in autumn.

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Another sign of autumn: the gleaners in the fields.

What I see

When I trek to New York City these days, I generally go for non-tourist reasons; my sister lives in Manhattan. It’s a day trip, and I don’t always avail myself of visits to big-city attractions–instead, I “hang out” with my sister and her family, which tends to mean home-cooked dinners in her apartment and walks around her neighborhood, greeting neighbors in the coffee shop or on the sidewalk. Often, that’s interesting enough, as she lives near Ft. Tryon Park and The Cloisters. On my most recent visit, however, we decided to take the A train south to tour the new Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s located at the base of the Highline Park, with views southward to the new World Trade Center and westward over the Hudson (making our evening visit gloriously pink-hued during summer sunset).

We spent a little over two hours at the museum, and our initial assessment was that both of us prefer the building itself as an architectural experience over the old Whitney building designed by Marcel Breuer. It isn’t all that much “prettier” from the outside; but the interior gallery set-up is more pleasant, light-filled, and navigable by patrons.

The opening show’s titled “America Is Hard to See,” a line culled from a slightly ironic Robert Frost poem (see an excerpt below). And the top floor gallery included a famous painting by e. e. cummings, so my poetry hopes were raised. The 8th floor of the museum was stunningly curated; I had high expectations for the rest of the galleries though, in the end, my reaction was decidedly mixed.

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. see whitney.org

Thanks to Lederman copyright 2015. See whitney.org

Levels 7 through 5 follow a chronological order, roughly, in terms of historical and cultural developments from the early 20th century to the present. This is a bit arbitrary, as artists alter their styles, and even their genres, over time–and some artists’ work spans decades, gaining and losing cultural momentum as fashions and criticism also change. As a result, there are clusters of pieces that cover similar themes but do not necessarily speak aesthetically to one another on the gallery walls. This was most obvious in the Viet Nam era gallery, which struck me as garish. The purpose in terms of education and theme was fine, but the aesthetics of the room as a display of art just did not convey, to me, what it might have in another perhaps less chronological arrangement.

Nonetheless, as far as getting visitors acquainted with American contemporary art, the new Whitney may be overall more successful than its predecessor. The former building’s galleries were arranged by donor collections and often had too much of the same, or else too little cohesion, and relied on the visitor’s being already reasonably familiar with contemporary art and art criticism. The exterior platforms of “outdoor galleries” (sculptural pieces) are impressive, though you may want to avoid the exterior stairways if you have a fear of heights.

I am happy to note that Calder’s Circus remains on display, along with the old and, by contemporary standards, poorly-produced video of Calder playing with these creations. I loved this piece as a kid and my own children also loved it.

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Excerpt from “America Is Hard to See,” by Robert Frost

Had but Columbus known enough
He might have boldly made the bluff
That better than Da Gama’s gold
He had been given to behold
The race’s future trial place,
A fresh start for the human race.
He might have fooled them in Madrid.
I was deceived bywhat he did.
If I had had my way when young
I should have had Columbus sung
As a god who had given us
A more than Moses’ exodus.
But all he did was spread the room
Of our enacting out the doom
Of being in each other’s way,
And so put off the weary day
When we would have to put our mind
On how to crowd and still be kind.

The people on the streets and in the subways and in the neighborhoods were uniformly kind on this warm summer evening. Even when we got in one another’s way. That’s what I saw.

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Drought

I hate droughts. I’m a gardener who lives in a temperate region that, on average, receives about 1,150 mm of precipitation annually (45″). Here we are, in the middle of springtime, blooms on the dogwoods and azaleas, peonies beginning to bust out; and I haven’t heard the welcome noise of rain on the roof for over 5 weeks. Generally, May brings this region 2-4 inches of rain. I miss it, and so do the birds and the deer and the insects and the salamanders and toads…and the few remaining farmers.

I water my vegetable garden daily, but I cannot water the whole lawn, the perennial beds, the hedgerows where the larger trees grow. So the grass becomes crisp. And I worry that a strong wind, or a sudden downpour (please?!), might topple a weak-wooded tree that’s been gasping for nourishment.

Drought is also so metaphorical. It signifies lack. A lack of ideas, a creative drying-up, a kind of writer’s block where words harden into obstacles–those things are droughts of a kind that stop thinkers into stasis. If you don’t move, you end up mired.

Not too distant a stretch from the concrete phenomenon of drought to the existential phenomenon of an artistic or emotional “dry period.”

There are several ways to contend with droughts; some require large-scale changes in industry, agriculture, population centers. On the smaller scale, I practice a version of xeriscaping; after years of experimentation, I have learned which plants hold up best under extremes of dry periods or deer depredation. I am alert as to which seedlings are hardiest, which plants can contain themselves in a sort of dormancy until the rain comes. That means I have to let go of my desire to grow certain species and cultivars no matter how envious I am of the way they flourish in someone else’s garden.

And it’s the same with a droughty period in my creativity. Certain things I let go of; I work instead with what struggles along in the mud cracks, what creeps under the brickwork or waits for the next real rainfall. There’s often surprising beauty in those hardy emotions and ideas that stay around when the going gets tough, the things that manage to find shade or that–like cacti–prefer a drier clime.

Being adaptable is important if one wants to make art, to write poems, to compose. Because life isn’t always going to offer ideal circumstances for the creative or aesthetic effort.

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I hate droughts not only because they hurt my plantings but because they signal a potential disaster in terms of global climate change, and because thousands of people die for lack of that essential element–water. I recognize, though, that suffering sometimes motivates human beings to make changes, to create new approaches…even to make art.

Life is complicated. We evolve through change.

Meanwhile–let it rain!

9th as new

Last week, I tutored a student on a music appreciation paper in which she was asked to review a concert-going experience. Her family background is culturally rich–but not rich in terms of the Western cultural canon. She had heard the name Beethoven; but until this class, as a sophomore in college, she had never listened to his music. She attended a concert that featured a Liszt sonata, two brief Schubert pieces (Ständchen and one other), and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Because I cannot remember not knowing Beethoven’s music, I kind of envy this young woman’s revelations in the concert hall; what must it be like to hear Beethoven’s 9th symphony, for the first time, as a 19-year-old? I may not be familiar with all of the master’s works, but my parents had some of the symphonies on vinyl back in the 1960s. We listened to classical music on the radio and in church; even commercial television featured famous musical phrases. My sister and I liked dancing around the living room every weeknight to The Huntley-Brinkley Report’s closing theme (2nd movement Beethoven’s 9th).

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

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Initially, she and I went over the structure of a review and how it resembles an analysis paper. She had used musical terminology reasonably well, and we had grammar and mechanics to work on. What she liked best, she said, was the part with the singers. She found the third movement “a bit boring. I kept wondering if this was the end.” But the fourth movement excited her: “It was really like a celebration or something, and you could see the expressions on the faces of the singers and the musicians, that they were so into it. Like, you kind of wanted to stand up for it, you know?”

Yes, I know–that’s how I have felt when I have heard the piece in concert.

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Our discussion went on after our work on the paper’s mechanics had ended, though, because she asked me why courses like this one are required for college. Her major is early childhood education, and she says her parents asked her how a course on classical music has anything to do with teaching 4-year-olds.

It turns out I had more to say on that than I realized. Bless her heart, this student was eager to listen. [I have to admit that isn’t as common a response as one might wish.] Many of my friends, I said, are teachers or former teachers; they are among the smartest, most open-minded and curious people I know. They pay attention to contemporary culture and they read about history. They get allusions and references and make clever jokes and know all kinds of things and also, they admit what they do not know and are eager to learn about. They’d play Beethoven for kindergarteners and let them dance to the fast movements and ask them how it feels to hear the slower, sadder late quartets. They might have the children finger-paint to Beyoncé or twirl like leaves to Vivaldi’s “Autumn” or use round colored stickers to make their own “Starry Night” pictures or recite a poem that’s fun to say out loud. Culture is education.

And there’s more, I told her, that has to do with you as a person who understands the culture you are part of. You have to know about politics, especially local and state politics, because teachers need to understand how legislation and budgets can affect income and careers. You might feel uncomfortable in your job if you don’t get your colleagues’ allusions or feel you cannot participate equally in their conversations when the subject turns to culture, history, museums, music, art, policies and fiscal issues. It is fine to admit what you do not know or have not yet been exposed to–but it helps to know where you stand and to show you want to learn.

You’ll learn from your students, too. If you really want to be a good teacher, I said, you will never want to stop learning. Maybe you will reach a point where you don’t need to know a whole lot more about Beethoven, but you will want to explore other subjects. So when you take the required fine arts courses, the required literature courses, the courses in philosophy and math and all that other stuff, realize how all of it will get into your brain somehow, maybe touch a nerve here or there, and help you become a terrific teacher.

Besides, isn’t it beautiful? Even the boring parts…have you ever experienced anything like that before?

“No, honestly,” she said. “I wasn’t sure I was up for it, but it was worth it.”

Familiarity & awe

The region I live in is not known for dramatic landscapes–no big sky, no ragged peaks or ocean shoreline, no palms, grand flora, impressive architecture. Nonetheless, there are days such as this one when my familiar commute fairly glows with beauty. In the long slant of mid-autumn morning sun, the half-harvested soybean fields shimmer under frost: beige never looked so glorious. Even the big agricultural gleaner glimmers with ice crystals. The sky’s washed with upswept cirrus clouds, and backlit dogwood leaves cling like maroon pennants to silhouetted branches.

Perhaps my aesthetic appreciation of the view is due to a neural release of dopamine responding to images processed through my eyes’ rods and cones; that understanding, if true, in no way lessens my awe.

As I head toward the campus building, the clamorous urgency of wild geese momentarily catches me by surprise. Welcome.

The knot of contrariety

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Sometimes, human beings feel contrary: irritable, grumpy, stubborn. It does not matter that we may be well-versed in rational critical thinking, or aware that a Zen approach can offer balance, or that an understanding of the psyche, or studies of consciousness, or even immersion in some sort of spiritual practice might help us to clear whatever baggage happens at this moment to burden us.
We’re just cranky, and for the moment, we feel justified in our contrariety. Here’s Walt Whitman:
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting…

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What appeals to me in the passage above is not so much Whitman’s confession–any of us might admit to others our foibles and our sins–but the extravagant and beautiful mode of his expression: lists, near-synonyms, expansions on meanings, metaphors following the verbs, nouns, and adjectives, “none of these wanting.”

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Hog… [His name is not Walt]

What appeals to me, really, is the way these lines make the litany of our petty evils so beautiful to behold. Perhaps that indicates that the aesthetics of a poem move the purpose beyond mere description and into the realm of art. I will be reading more about this in the coming week as I make my way through the book Feeling Beauty: The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience by G. Gabrielle Starr.

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Meanwhile, I am threading my way through the thorny knottiness of everyday life, trying to shed my contrariety as I proceed.

Knotted vines

Knotted vines