Abstraction, evolution, & sky-beauty

I awakened this morning to a sunrise of surpassing beauty. As I drove to work, I remembered that the first poems I recall ever writing were about the wind and about dawn–perhaps I wrote other poems as a child, but these two are the only ones I remember: poems that celebrated something I found lovely in nature.

After the vivid morning sky, we had a day of rain; and on my commute home, a compelling sunset bookended the working day. I call these skies “beautiful” and would definitely regard my experience of looking at them as aesthetic.

And yet, it’s only the sky, some clouds, the sun, phenomena that science has explained. What makes it beautiful?

photo: Beejay Grob

photo: Beejay Grob (North Carolina coastal sky)

David Rothenberg’s 2011 book Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution has accompanied me for the past week; I have been reading it when I can find time to read and to cogitate. Rothenberg speaks directly to the question of what makes us experience beauty, whether beauty is a human-only construct, and from where the qualities of aesthetic experience arise. He explores among other things whether beauty (especially in the form of art) evolved along with us, what makes it timeless (if it is indeed timeless), and whether our grounding in nature as earthly beings formed the grounding for what we deem beautiful.

And he considers symmetry and biology and abstract art and math and music. There’s quite a good deal of synthesis and speculation going on in this book.

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Rothenberg writes that he is interested in whether humans’ developing education in abstractions–concepts and abstract arts–might produce an outcome that increases our appreciation of things in nature and the cosmos. He writes:

It might seem this century has freed us from interest in any kind of constricting form or function in art, but I want to test out a different theory: that abstraction in the arts has made us find more possible beauty in the natural world…as art exalts pure form and shape, the laws of symmetry and chaos found in mathematics and science seem ever more directly inspirational. Aesthetically, we become more prepared to see beauty where before we saw only the clues of beauty, its glimmers or possibilities…our minds are more attentive to an abstract kind of beauty that we can discover but not necessarily build or create.

It takes him several chapters to braid together the many strings of his interdisciplinary inquiries; but the upshot is that while I feel he does not answer the questions he begins with, he does deepen the reader’s thought process about art, beauty, and the evolution of ideas as well as of organisms. He says the interesting discussion lies not with what is or is not art, nor how to evaluate the individual merit of works, but rather “how artistic expression changes how we think in ways only art can accomplish.”

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In light of Rothenberg’s musings on how natural-feeling abstract art can be, here are some examples: Barlow, Ellis, (contemporary) and Klee (modern).

Rothenberg concludes with some ambiguity about aesthetics and evolution, which suits his book-length and life-long explorations on the interweavings of these ideas; but he adds with certainty that “[b]iology is not here to explain away all that we love in terms of the practical and rational. That is not how nature works. Nor should we shrink from our natural astonishment at the magnificence evolution has produced.”

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He mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage’s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be attentive. Viz Rothenberg’s words quoted above, maybe an integration of abstraction does open us to be more attentive to the beauty that exists in the world without any artist making it. We could not, in the past, have appreciated the fractal values of river deltas viewed from airplanes; and perhaps only natural (or trained) artists noticed how the twigs of a tree reiterate the shapes, angles, and curves of the branches, boughs, sometimes even bark. Now we know about Mandelbrot sets and fractal geometry, and those abstractions can generate beautiful patterns. Now we know the Fibonacci sequence of numbers–an abstraction–appears in snail shells and sunflower seed-heads.

We do not have to be mathematicians, chemists, art critics, environmental scientists, physicists, sculptors, violinists, composers, dancers, college professors or biologists to recognize patterns and symmetries, or to find that slight variations in the pattern enhance the experience through the kind of surprise and delight that I discover in great poems.

We just have to be attentive.

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Autumn, time transfixed

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When we were initially landscaping our property, I chose to plant a particular species of zelkova known for its lovely fall foliage color. I cannot recall the variety now, although I am sure I recorded it in my garden journal 16 years ago. The leaf color is challenging to capture in a photograph. If only I were a painter, then I might manage. Of course, the color varies depending upon time of day, cloudiness, and atmospheric changes.

It is a lovely tree that announces the equinox quite articulately.

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Equinox, autumnal: a slowing of crickets, the brief visits of migratory birds, quieter dawns, fewer bats at dusk, longer shadows. Time is far from transfixed.

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I visited the Museum of Modern Art, New York City, on a warm October day to see the René Magritte exhibit. Magritte’s work is so easy to parody, so graphically amusing, that my brother–who was not all that familiar with the artist–at first said, “This reminds me of mediocre high school art.” After viewing the entire gallery, however, he had changed his mind about Magritte.

Magritte did a great deal of commercial art and, like Warhol years later, felt comfortable with the kind of graphic representation to which wide audiences respond. And then he played with that audience’s expectations, sometimes more effectively than others. One painting which certainly upends expectations and which I was glad to see again is La Durée poignardée, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago; it was a favorite of my late friend David Dunn.

La Durée poignardée (1938)

time-transfixed-1938(1).jpg!BlogThis image of the painting appears at http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/rene-magritte#supersized-featured-211652

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Here’s some playfulness concerning the title. The French word poignarder means to stab, and the implication is to stab with something pointed, ie, a dagger, since the verb is transitive. It interests me that the accepted English translation for this painting is “Time Transfixed.” The meaning I associate with transfixed in terms of, say, holding in one place (pointedly?) is that of pinning insects to a board as in lepidoptery displays. In this painting, the “stabbing” seems to be reversed: the pointy end emerges rather menacingly from the static, domesticated mantelpiece. If this image depicts the verso side of the display, it could be time itself that has been killed, spread open, and pinned, invisible from this aspect. Or perhaps the translation should be “Time Stabbed through Its Continual Duration,” stabbed with a poniard in the shape of something almost as ongoing, the contemporary barreling locomotive engine.

As it is a genuine surrealist painting, no particular meaning can be assumed. The images are random; make of them what you will. Magritte came up with wonderful, mysterious titles for his work–his paintings and their titles have inspired quite a few poets over the years. David Dunn was among them.

No wonder, really; this artist was quoted as saying, “The function of painting is to make poetry visible.”

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Meanwhile, since I am not a painter, I will let the zelkova tree make poetry visible to me for a few days…and then get back to writing some myself.

Tension or rebellion?

In my few available moments during which I can write about being intellectually engaged and curious, I’ve been working on this post. It’s been a “draft” on my dashboard for some time as I work on it. For background, recall that I was reading Octavio Paz’s prose and Dave Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon.

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Both writers take up the concept of beauty in art. They approach the topic in different ways, of course, but both make note of the requirement for tension in the work of art. The tension can be of anticipation, expectation, surprise, or of opposition and rebellion. The need for anticipation and turns or surprise in poetry reminds me of Robert Bly’s idea of the “leap” in poetry–in fact, Paz is one of the poets Bly uses as an example of “leaping poetry” in Bly’s classic 1972 tract, Leaping Poetry. I infer that these emotion-forms are related to one another and that aesthetics involves at least some connection between experience (physical, emotional) and mind.

[For now, I will not take up the possibility of calm, contemplative, no-tension beauty.]

Instead, it is intriguing to consider the ways Paz and Hickey interconnect regarding the idea of rebellious art. Also, there’s an agreement between them–not literally, as they are not responding to one another at all–concerning art that is funded by governments. Both critics contend that way lies danger.

Hickey’s essays in The Invisible Dragon were sparked by the controversy of Robert Mapplethorpe’s U.S. NEA-funded photographs. These photographs are beautiful, Hickey says, though art critics of the 1990s dismissed the “beautiful” aspect of the work and concentrated on its “message,” while many other viewers considered the images pornographic and offensive. Hickey says, essentially, to hell with the message; look at the art: is it beautiful, or not?

Hickey writes:

My point here is that there are issues worth advancing in images that are worth admiring–that the truth is never plain nor appearances sincere. To try to make them so is to neutralize the primary, gorgeous eccentricity of imagery in Western culture since the Reformation: the fact that it cannot be trusted, that images are always presumed to be proposing something contestable and controversial. his is the sheer, ebullient, slithering, dangerous fun of it. No image is inviolable in our dance hall of visual politics. All images are potentially powerful. Bad graphics topple good governments and occlude good ideas. Good graphics sustain bad governments and worse governments. The fluid nuancing of pleasure, power, and beauty is serious business in this culture.

Hickey’s prose is such fun! And so provocative. He asserts that Senator Jesse Helms (who began the noisy movement to de-fund the NEA’s support of work such as Mapplethorpe’s) was the only public figure who really “got” what Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic pictures were saying: they really were a rebellion, a transgression–a purposeful confrontation with social norms. That’s what many artists and poets do: throw a wrench into the usual mundanities of life and make viewers or readers pause, react, reflect.

Mapplethorpe’s choice of images just happened to be considered sexually transgressive; and Hickey says that because the USA is a democracy, Helms’ right to protest was as valid as the photographer’s right to make the images in the first place. Hickey loved that there was potential for real discovery in that moment, and gives art critics and academics a hard time for retreating into ideas of First Amendment and artistic self-expression and meaning over beauty. He claims that when it comes to the US democratic culture of the arts, “whatever we get, we deserve–and what we get most prominently is ignored, disenfranchised, and instructed. Then we are told it is ‘good’ for us.” But what is good for us by the standards of a bureaucratic culture is not the original contract between the image and its viewer, even though that is the interaction that ignites the spark of awe we feel when we encounter great art.

“In fact, nothing redeems but beauty, its generous permission, its gorgeous celebration of all that has previously been uncelebrated.”

Hickey lambasts Americans for somewhat mindlessly appreciating what we are told is great art. “In our mild appreciation,” he writes, “we refuse to engage the argument of images that deal so intimately with trust, pain, love, and the giving up of the self.”

Paz’s chapter on the image in poetry dovetails with the argument of images and the intimacy thereof. That’s the contract the viewer or reader makes with the artwork or the poem: we agree to be, potentially, moved; to make ourselves possibly vulnerable to rhetoric, to pain, to love, to beauty, to sudden awareness of what has been overlooked, ignored, oppressed, made alien.

Through image. Through tension. Through a state of contrariness and forbidden looking: rebellion.

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In a week or so I do plan to spend more time on Paz, because I find his essays on poetry enlightening on an intellectual and on a more basic/fundamental level. Hickey’s work on beauty relates to writing but is more specific to the visual and plastic arts. I do recommend Hickey for his humorous but incredibly observant role as a socio-cultural commentator on contemporary USAmerican pop culture, academic culture, political culture, and democratic-capitalist thinking. He’s accurate and insightful even when I don’t completely agree with him. He believes whole-heartedly in discourse and discovery through democratic discussion of multiple viewpoints. Check him out. You will want to argue with him.

Critique: an anecdote

A group of friends gathers once a month to read and share and critique one another’s poems. They know one another well enough that they can be empathic, honest, and helpful; also, they are trusting enough to bring poems that really aren’t “working.” The critique’s the best way to get some understanding of why a poem is not working.

Recently, one member shared a poem that was somewhat philosophical in its overtones. The rhetoric of the poem was shifting, getting away from her, and she knew it. But she couldn’t figure out why, or how to correct the problem.

The talk moved away from critique and into values–for awhile. So the group was no longer exactly discussing the poem, or poetry, at all.

And yet, through the conversation, the writer recognized where at least part of the poem’s problem lay…which was in image and in structure (as illuminated, perhaps, by value and by rhetoric).

Reason can lead to beauty.

Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.

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While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?

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Control

middle island ~

Human beings crave control. We want to be the masters of our own fate or to believe that there is a master of our fates who can be entreated or persuaded, propitiated or cajoled into helping us to gain control of our lives or the lives of others. We want to change the weather so that the rain falls when the soil needs rain, wetting the seeds we’ve sown, and so that the warmth comes when our plants need warmth. We want the sea to be calm and the fog to lift when we are ready to set sail. We want fine, sunny days when we visit the beach to swim or head out for a picnic. We want just enough snow so that school’s canceled, but not so much that our power goes out. We pray. We dance. We chant. We invent little private rituals and participate in community rituals.

We want to control our health. It does not seem to be an unreasonable aim. We want to control our relationships–just enough to keep ourselves happy. We want control over our careers and  our income–not so much to ask. We want to be able to make our own decisions. We want choices so that we feel we have control over our lives.

My gardens are my analogy today. I’m still endeavoring to exert some control over my vegetable garden, but I kept my purposes modest this year; I planted fewer beans, fewer tomatoes, fewer peppers, fewer potatoes, no onions, no peas, no edamame, no radishes…the walk-through rows are wider so it is easier to weed. Beginning with the dry warm winter and some assemblies of challenges that do not pertain to the garden, the season looked “iffy.” Then came lashings of showers in May. A challenging season, but not insurmountable. I have been gardening a long time, and I have methods of adapting to things I cannot control. It comes with the territory.

The ornamental beds have presented the most difficult struggle with my need to control the space I (somewhat ridiculously) consider my own. When the beds get overgrown–as they are now–I know that I can accept their exuberant rioting with the successful weeds. I can say, “This is what nature intends. There is beauty here.”

overgrown

I do know that. But the controlling mind–the monkey mind–says, “Too much penstemon; it’s gotten aggressive. Deadhead the peonies. Pull up the plantian, the wild asters, fleabane, wild garlic, crabgrass, bermuda grass, creeping charlie, five-leaf vine. Get the seedlings out of there (mulberry, redbud, oak). Mulch. Keep the rabbits off the hostas. Move the marybells. Get the weeds out of the alchemilla…”

My head clouds with fog. The seas get rough and I despair, because I cannot control things. Not even a small garden.

Instead, I could be meditating on green. On the amazing variety of leaf-shapes, on dappledness (like G. M. Hopkins):

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change:

Práise hím.

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Here is one aspect of my ornamental garden. Overgrown, yes. Lush, diverse, lovely in its unrefined way. Until I have the wherewithal to tear through and divide and move and mulch, this is not a bad view, the definition of … lack of restraint, ornamentals gone wild. Freedom, I suppose.

A little too much of some good things.

As we grow, we learn to let go. So I am told. Garden, you have a chance to go wild!

And I guess I have the opportunity to learn to live with that.

Poetry Break.

I took a break from difficult reading to read Eluard’s “Last Love Poems” as translated by Marilyn Kallet. Alas that I am mono-lingual and cannot read poetry in any language other than English. I have to take the translator’s word for it (literally and figuratively) that the beauty in the lines can be nearly portrayed in English. The struggle translators must have to go through to transform such a studied thing of language as a poem is into a different tongue amazes me. Inevitably there is some loss of connotation, wordplay, music, rhythm, cultural freight; the careful reader understands that there may be lacunae of some kind, and a mono-lingual reader recognizes that she will not be able to track down where those subtle gaps occur. A good translation, however, manages to maintain the beauty.

“Beauty”—now, there’s a moving target. Quine devotes a few pages to the discussion of the concept in his “intermittently philosophical dictionary.” He writes: “The aesthetic pole is the focus of belle lettres, music, art for art’s sake. But it is a matter of emphasis, not boundaries. Scientists in pursuing truth also seek beauty of an austere kind in the elegance of a theory, and happily some of them seek literary grace in their expository writing.” Quine ends his brief entry on Beauty by suggesting that truth and beauty are not a binary system, that we need not see them as poles apart; yet he does not quite agree with Keats’ conflation of the two. We need ethics and rhetoric in addition to truth and beauty, says the philosopher.

Peter de Bolla, writing two decades or so later, inclines toward a less binary way of looking at beauty and truth when he writes that, since the art of music is  an “articulation of the temporal,” there is a “philosophical argument music makes about relationships between time and being.”  And that argument results in beauty, when it is a well-composed argument, I suppose.

Suddenly the welcome earth
Was a rose of luck
Visible with fair mirrors
Where everything sang to open rose

(“Seasons,” Paul Eluard, tr. Marilyn Kallet)

de Bolla asks: What does the poem know? This poem knows music, and beauty “in the gentle desert of the street” and “beneath life overpowering and good.”

Ah.

ann e. michael, waterfall, poetry