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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Written by a human

Here’s a controversy for National Poetry Month–there are an amazing number of controversies surrounding poetry–which takes up the idea of whether a “machine” can write poetry. A good introduction is this CCR interview with Oscar Schwartz, who developed Botpoet as an experiment that is not so much about artificial intelligence as it is about what humans consider to be poetry. And perhaps about what language really is. If you follow the link to the site, you can participate in his research by playing “Bot or Not,” a game in which the player reads a series of poetic lines and then chooses between written by a human or not written by a human.

If you’ve read a great deal of classic and contemporary poetry, you may recognize some of the poems (I did); I suppose that is a way to cheat the system, since I have insider information. Nevertheless, I was wrong embarrassingly often. What, exactly, was I looking for in those words?

I think Schwartz is correct in his assessment of the more general population (though literary types may disagree with general assessments) when he says:

People generally seem to associate rhyming, “Romantic” poetry as being human. And they consider highly abstract, non-traditional poems to be of human provenance. Investigating as to why this might be the case is the project of my PhD.

He points out that written language is arbitrary and abstract, “an artificial medium” to begin with, and may have less to do with being human than we might like to think. Maybe the qualities that make a poem a poem are qualities that reside in the reader/interpreter rather than in the poet, another individual’s aesthetics or sense of what seems “creative.” That might be an unsettling thought for many writers, though it rather appeals to me.

Schwartz continues,

“So the results of Bot or Not, rather than telling us what human really is, is actually telling us that the category of the ‘human’ is an ideological, political space…The Bot or Not project works not because it tells us about computer software, but because it reveals things about what we assume to be human. It destabilizes the category of the human.”

As it turns out, the study of consciousness also tends that way–destabilizing our long-held category of what-a-human-is or what, if anything, differentiates us from other animals. Some interpreters of Zen philosophy suggest that Zen consists in finding balance within the inherent instability of the corporeal world. Or, perhaps, acceptance that humanness may be something we cannot categorize; the challenge then is to learn to flourish in a state of destabilization.

Let me sing the body electric…and the mind (possibly) electronic.

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Walt Whitman in mid-life

Sublime beauty

In his book Survival of the Beautiful, David Rothenberg says perhaps it was the evolution of an abstract aesthetics in art (abstract work as beautiful) that enabled human beings to begin to see natural things as beautiful in themselves–as opposed to the Romantic view that human yearning and elevated sensibility could best be encountered while experiencing Nature or Classicist ideas that found natural things corrupt and irregular, in need of perfection into better-proportioned objectification. In History of Beauty, Eco allows the Romantics their view of the sublime but says that in the late 17th c “the Sublime established itself in an entirely original way, because it concerns the way we feel about nature, and not art.” His text offers the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich as an excellent example, paintings that depict people as observers of the Sublime:

The people are portrayed from behind, in such a way that we must not look at them, but through them, putting ourselves in their place, seeing what they see and sharing their feeling of being negligible elements in the great spectacle of nature…more than portraying nature in a moment of sublimity, the painter has tried to portray (with our collaboration) what we feel on experiencing the Sublime.

I love the idea Eco parenthetically notes here: with the viewer’s collaboration. These paintings permit us to enter into the experience as the great preponderance of the artistic canon did not. Some critics suggest the environmental “movement” (in the USA, at least) owes its lineage to Leopold via Thoreau through Darwin, Wordsworth, and the German Romantics.

Friedrich’s work tends a bit over the top for my personal tastes, but I do think some of his best work (notably The Wanderer above the Mists, Woman on the Beach of Rugen, Moonrise by the Sea) does exemplify a sense I have experienced myself in natural surroundings when I feel myself a “negligible element” amid the remarkable scope of the cosmos and the world.

In the USA, at about the same time as the German Romantics, the paintings of the Hudson River school evoke some of the same sense of nature-as-sublime. (Frankly, I prefer Thomas Cole to Friedrich.)

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This, too:

“The sense of the Sublime is a mixed emotion. It is composed of a sense of sorrow whose extreme expression is manifested as a shudder, and a feeling of joy that can mount to rapturous enthusiasm…while it is not actually pleasure…”   Friedrich von Schiller, On the Sublime (tr. Alastair McEwen)

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“Poetry might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings.” I am pretty sure W.H. Auden said that. Which, by the way, gets us into the territory of the Sublime as described by Schiller.

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In Japan, in the 17th century, Matsuo Basho composed haiku, some of which demonstrate the sense of the Sublime (without being Romantic at all)–i.e. that sense of rapture tinged with the shudder of grief or the feeling of awareness of one’s negligibility:

A wild sea-
in the distance over Sado
the Milky Way.

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paintdaub
I stand on my back porch; I am small and negligible, the sky is large and Sublime.