Aesthetic “therapy”

I have been musing on Rebecca Solnit’s text in which she writes about the Romantics’ “new” appreciation of Nature. I was particularly struck by her research about how in Europe, and among the Eurocentric American colonizers, pre-Romantic era society considered mountains not only dangerous but also “ugly” (in Wanderlust: A History of Walking). Aesthetics began to change in the late 18th and the 19th centuries. Walking the natural world for something other than pure transportation from place to place altered our social ideas about what’s “beautiful.”

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“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”  —John Cage

 

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This train of thought reminded me of Jack Fisher’s water tower. Jack was a friend and extended-family member who who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania from the 1940s until his death in 1999. He was an architect, engineer, teacher, builder of many things, and an artist.

Often when we were visiting, Jack would show us a painting he was working on. On this occasion, he told us how annoyed he had felt at a new condo development; the big, aqua-colored water tower rising from the housing campus especially irked him. “It’s so ugly!” he said. “So ugly, and I was feeling so mad, I decided to do a landscape painting of the damned thing. And here’s what’s funny–I kind of like the composition here, and the colors. What do you think?” He was right. It may have been an ugly water tower, but it was a lovely painting.

Unfortunately, I do not have an image of that painting except in my memory; here, however, is a painting of Jack’s that depicts the fields in Bucks County, PA, which he considered beautiful.

jackpainting004

Suber’s Field with Clouds, Jack Fisher, oil, 1998

Imagine a water tower here, and a sea of peak-roofed condominiums. And a balanced composition, and a deft use of colors.

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Looking closely enough at something to find that you no longer see it as ugly requires an almost meditative change in perspective. It’s been an approach useful to me as a poetry prompt and as a means of more closely appreciating the world and everything in it. I don’t mean that I identify with the 19th-c Romantics, though I eagerly trod where Wordsworth trod when I visited the Lakes District a few years back; I don’t. My view of nature is really with a small ‘n’ and is pragmatic and scientific, among other things.

But: John Cage’s question to himself is a reminder to be compassionate, to observe with openness, information, education, perspective, and loving-kindness…while walking through the world.

 

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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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sunset1

The value of noise

Having posted several times on the value of silence, I feel I ought to balance things out by writing about the value of noise. These thoughts likewise stem from my recent reading: Kay Larson’s book about John Cage, creativity, and Buddhism.

This morning, there were a few hours of intermittent sunshine; the air, still nippy from a recent cold front and some high winds, had warmed up a few degrees. I felt inspired to prune some shrubs and start the rather significant task of removing fallen branches from the lawn. I did not realize how big a job this will be until I started the work because the grass is long and the leaves provide a bit of cover. Every few steps, though, I encountered clumps of twigs, broken branches, sticks of all sizes. We won’t want to run a lawnmower over this mass of debris, and it will get caught in our rakes when we try to remove the leaves. The best way to rid the lawn of storm-downed branches will be the old-fashioned way: human power, gathering one or two sticks at a time. The fresh air streamed into my lungs, the sun shone on my back. I pulled on my husband’s old sweater and my daughter’s old coat and my son’s gloves and my own boots and started to work.

What I noticed this morning was noise. John Cage, a man whose later compositions often engaged with silence, also loved noise. His percussion pieces were scored for tin cans, plates, pipes and modified pianos, and he was prescient about the incorporation of electronically-produced sounds into music. I love reading about his experiments with noise, and today I recognized the music in everyday sounds very clearly.

Today’s noises:

Leaf-crunch. The damp leaves produce difference tones from the dry ones. Leaves of different species vibrate in a range of tones depending upon their thickness, brittleness, serrated shapes, oiliness.

Vehicles. The roads are not terribly close to the house, but when the trees are bare we get a range of vehicle sounds from as far as the highway. Large trucks still growl, wheeze, squeal, rumble, and beep as neighbors get trees removed from their properties and department of transportation crews work at street clean up. Cars drive past.

Somewhere, a leaf-blower. Several chainsaws in the distance.

Mockingbird–not all of them have flown south just yet. The buzzy twittering of starlings and small flocks of sparrows. Woodpeckers drilling at trees.

My breathing.

The sound of the nippers and hedge clippers, the sound that pruned branches make as they whoosh and scratch and shimmy earthward and get tangled in the shrubs. The different noises of a cut made on dead wood and on live wood. The snap of twigs. The silken whisper of long grass underfoot.

Creak and groan of the walnut trees as a stiff breeze hits the woodlot. A dog, barking. The hens, chuck-chucking in their run.

The telephone from inside my house. An overhead jet.

And it isn’t cacophony; it’s a kind of music, certainly. The randomness and the patternedness work together. As do the silences.

 

Here’s one of Cage’s most melodic works, “In a Landscape,” very apropos … very lovely.

YouTube/John Cage “In a Landscape” Stephen Drury pianist

 

Silence (John Cage, Zen, head-noise)

Slow Muse blogger Deborah Barlow–artist, critic–recommended Kay Larson’s recent book on John Cage, Where the Heart Beats. Silence was so significant in Cage’s work and thinking that, given my recent reflections on noise or lack thereof, this seemed the right time to pick up that text. Lo and behold, synchronicity of several kinds. The author, Kay Larson, thanks John Daido Loori, a rōshi of the Mountains and Rivers order of zen Buddhists and long-time abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, NY. She studied with him beginning in 1994.

In 1992 and 1993, I attended two weekend retreats there; the brief days remain vivid in my memory. Perhaps more on that another time. Haiku is involved…and silence.

Recently, given some irregular bumps along the walk of life that have led to excessive “head-noise” (my term for stress I can’t quite let go of), I have been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of his essays–dovetail very neatly into this reflective book on Cage’s life, work, and influences. Larson’s “Zen” approach to writing about Cage is so gentle and refreshing that reading this book soothes me. I find within myself a kind of inner silence, my breathing returning to its slower, quieter pace, as I read the brief selections of prose Larson uses to explore the life of the mind of this peculiar and innovative artist/composer/writer.

Very like philosophical analogies, Confucian fables, parables of many cultures, koans, meditations, prayer and other forms of contemplative practice.

What reduces head-noise? For me, the best strategy is calmness, but I am not an adept at meditation. I have sat zazen badly, and learned much from the practice of sitting zen badly, but I have never managed to make meditation a genuine practice in my life. Deep breathing and slow movement, such as tai chi or qi gong, seem to work better for me. In addition, the Quiet Place. I settle down better when I can detach from computer, phone, electric lights, appliances. Art reduces head-noise: art requires attentiveness. Poetry, yes. Gardening, walking out of doors–good choices. Music, sometimes.

Philosophy, not so much. (Alas.)

Politics? Weather reports? Analysis? ….as the Buddhist monks might say: mu. Translation into teen-speak from five years ago: “not.”

And also, compassion. The practice of compassion keeps a person attentive and also relaxed. It is a form of active prayerfulness, of acceptance of self through the acceptance of others. After the bruises and bashings of a presidential election year in 21st-century United States, a little compassion would reduce the malaise and anxiety we have had to endure intellectually, emotionally, and–in the wake of bad storms on the east coast–physically.

I give you Quan Yin, or Guanyin, or Kannon Bodhisatttva, known as Avalokitesvara  in Sanskrit and termed the goddess of mercy, a counterpart to the Christian Jesus or Mary. This being represents the compassionate, merciful, kind, non-judgmental, accepting aspect of the cosmos, the universe, or god. I realize that it seems I may have wandered a bit far afield of Cage at this point. But read Larson’s book; I haven’t drifted as far from my topic as it seems.

And just because it does seems as though I am rambling considerably in this post, I think I can close with a poem from my collection Water-Rites, and somehow make it fit with these topics:

Intervention

I am thinking about the cowbirds who fought
in my driveway this morning
and how they struggled, one overbearing the other,
pecking at its head, keeping it pinned
to gravel. I wonder, now, why I chose to stop
and free the losing bird from its aggressor,
lift its bloodied damp body in my hands,
rescue it even though
it was also a cowbird, a pest
that usurps the nests of thrushes—
although I respect the dominion of beak & claw,
I want to preserve the generation
of songbirds; there was no reason for me
to intervene, no logic but somehow I felt
surely there is a place,
in the battle that is this world,
for the mandate of compassion.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael