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ways of being in the world

Post #528 • May 2, 2005, 9:32 AM • 22 Comments

Rochelle Gurstein, for the New Republic (registration required) (ahem), via an alert reader: "On Beauty."

We sat ourselves down on a stone bench near a great, blooming magnolia tree in the informal, English-style south garden. There are many magnificent magnolias there, each one encircled by daffodils, tulips, grape hyacinths--shimmering yellows against all shades of purple, some silky, some matte, backed and interspersed by leaves of the blackest green. From where we were sitting, the creamy white underside of the magnolias appeared delicate and thin, like hand-made paper, not waxy but luminous, dappled at the edges with a deep, rosy maroon that, depending on the light, sometimes took on a lavender glow. Randomly spaced within these masses of color were small bunches of intense pinkish-purple buds, only a few still remaining, loose and full, just about to open into single, distinct, pleasing flowers. We had arrived at precisely the moment when the magnolias and the spring bulbs surrounding them were at their most beautiful.

"This is what eighteenth-century thinkers must have had in mind when they tried to define beauty," I said to my husband. For a long time now, I have been trying, with little success, to grasp what the first aestheticians meant when they spoke of "the pleasures of the imagination," the most delightful, for them, being beauty--an aesthetic feeling that has lost much of its resonance over the course of the last century. I have always found Kant's account of beauty the most compelling of the early writers, even if it is also dauntingly abstract. But I don't think I ever truly grasped, before that moment under the magnolias, what he meant when he wrote that beauty is what we experience when the imagination and the understanding come together in free play--pure, "distinterested" pleasure, joy for its own sake. My delight in the optical texture filling my senses was precisely of this sort: It called up no associations whatsoever. I wanted nothing more than to continue taking in this pleasing sight. And my perception was ratified when my husband spoke of the arresting sensation of the late-afternoon light touching and coloring the tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. Were other visitors to our refreshing spring garden also absorbed by this quiet, self-contained pleasure?


I began to wonder if the gentle, low-keyed pleasures of gardens might simply fall below the notice of most people living today. "Could whole ways of being in the world simply disappear?" I asked my husband. Which made him think of the reams of drawings and watercolors of weather-horizons, clouds, sunsets, dawns, trees, shrubs, flowers, vines, and grasses, that were once the living embodiment of the attentive eye and sensitive hand of practiced and amateur artists alike. Constable's aerial views of the lumimous atmosphere of clouds immediately came to mind as did Ruskin's painstaking, delicate renderings of herbs, mosses, and feathers. Sunday photographers were out in full force that glorious spring afternoon, but their mechanical and instantaneous interactions with nature made the slow and absorbing pleasures of attentive looking, which had long been the province of Sunday painters, obsolete. And what, we wondered, was happening to the senses and sensibility of that new breed of frenetic observers who go through the world snapping pictures with their cellphones while hooked up to an iPod soundtrack of their own making?

I once wrote about the cult of speed and surface on these pages. I would modify some of what I said in that post, but I continue to believe that frenzied living does art little good. I enjoy art as a contemplative experience, not a social one. At most, I like two or three other people there with me. Sometimes.

Yes, whole ways of being in the world can simply disappear. But societies form around the better ones and cultivate them, even as modern living would mandate against their practices and products. Perhaps we all ought to ask ourselves: how long can I stop for? How much attention can I give over to this thing that does not demand it?




May 2, 2005, 5:35 PM

"The taste is the only path to quality, to aesthetic pleasure in art, music, literature. As taste develops, so does one's pleasure, one's aesthetic pleasure. The pleasure doesn't make you more of anything. The goal of out it is to grab you and take out of yourself, out of time. It is unique experience. I wish out could just go to being a plain specialty and get away from all the mind bending, headache making academic twaddle. Intellectual corruption that filled contemporary museums and culture the sustain with hollow and boring impersonal chatter. Art has been lost in labyrinth of theory. Leonardo da Vinci once said: 'be aware of the teaching of these speculators, because their reasoning is not confirmed by experience' " - by Peter Schjadhalt



May 2, 2005, 5:49 PM

Art requires concentration, or lack of distraction, and there is indeed a contemplative or meditative aspect to interacting with art. That is why openings are frequently not a good way to see new work, however enjoyable they may be as social events. That's why "blockbuster" museum shows are highly compromised affairs which are much more for the museum's benefit than for the benefit of either the public or the art in question. That's why museums famous enough to be tourist attractions are often frustrating due to too many people, too much chattering, too much milling around. Sometimes, I wish art venues could have a way to keep out anybody who wasn't seriously interested. That's obviously not feasible, but it's a nice fantasy.



May 2, 2005, 7:20 PM

Iiros, where did that Peter Schjeldahl quote come from?

I find him an irritating, manneristic writer and I don't trust his eye at all, but I am impressed by what he says there.



May 2, 2005, 7:20 PM

my wife and i have planted an abundant array of flowering trees, flowers and shrubs around our home - they bloom constantly, complimentary secondary and tertiary arangements. i need this natural beauty around. yet the ladies pick at them, the kids speed by and toss beer cans and fast food trash into them, and the neighborhood cats attack and kill the birds that these flowers attract, and the city workers pass spray paint on them. nobody cares. this weekend i went to cape canaveral where people marvel in the beauty of machines and lockheed martin - beauty created by humans - beauty second removed from god - irony at it's best.



May 2, 2005, 7:37 PM

I just Googled "taste is the only path to quality" and turned up this.



May 2, 2005, 7:48 PM

"Hollow and boring impersonal chatter" led to this. Those aren't typos and grammar errors up there - the quote is a pastiche.



May 2, 2005, 8:33 PM

Maybe Wednesday's MIAMI Intelligence lecture will add to this subject.

May 4 @ 7:30 PM. Getting Scientific about Beauty and Art
What happens when we try to get "Scientific" about beauty? Can Cognitive Science tell us anything useful about what we find beautiful? What we find "aesthetically meritorious?" Can science tell us what we should find beautiful? Philosopher Kenton Harris provides a brief history of eautyand the Aesthetic and discusses the future research projects linking Art and Science. Cost: $10. Complimentary wine and cheese from 7:00 PM. MIAMIntelligence Center. Free Parking.



May 2, 2005, 8:53 PM

I'm covering this. I feel better just knowing that Carlos de Villasante, Sam Beam, and Miamintelligence all reside within 20 blocks of my house.



May 2, 2005, 8:56 PM

That is very weird, Franklin. I don't think misattributed pastisches are specifically against the rules (how much can one anticipate, after all), but it is kind of annoying.

And disappointing. I was about to think maybe Schjeldahl had something going.



May 2, 2005, 9:18 PM

I don't remember exact sorce, oldpro. I have found quote (#1) in my notes. Aesthetic in art is my favorite topic. Everybody knows it is there but it is imposible to define it. That's why postmodernist school of thinking could come up with such powerful argument against the beauty in art - aesthetics don't exist, so why bother. Those with opposite views have a difficulty to argue, except defining beauty as a some kind of mind/emotional pleasure they feel in the response to environment. The seperation, inside of our brains, of visual experience from quantifing it into words sometimes it is imposible to overcome. Even the thoughest intellectual minds will loose translation from visual to words I think, the beauty is a such case. It is undefinable by words. Some of us has to believe that it exists and shut up when postmodernists take the stance on the issue...
From my notebook I may add:
"All artwork is about beauty, all positive work represents it and celebrates it. All negative art protests the lack of beauty in our lives." by Anges Martin



May 2, 2005, 9:49 PM

I'll assume, against some evidence, that Iros is being sincere.

To the extent you can write clearly about your experience, you can write clearly about your experience in front of art. So clean up that grammar, keep your sources straight, and practice, practice, practice. When in doubt, put the subject in front of the verb and the verb in front of the object. Avoid forms of "to be" and "to do" where possible. Good luck.


fug brie

May 3, 2005, 1:54 AM

Yeah Jordan, its funny how people can destroy and disregard something as pure, sincere and beautiful as nature. The same thing happens when trying to make art while being smothered by life's stress and circumstances.

Being creative is a gift. Whether you believe God or Santa Claus delivered doesn't really matter. I think the point is you nurture this creativity...not disregard or neglect it. Doesnt matter if you call yourself and artist or not, or if anyone likes it or thinks its "good"...

Priorities/ balance



May 3, 2005, 3:54 AM

That would be the old naturalist fallacy, Jordan. If humans are creatures of God, then our F-18's are just as much part of nature as the creations of the ants and the bees. In the grand scheme of things, these things are not so different.

I hear someone protest, "but the ant colonies and beahives are creations of life; the F-18 a creation of death." But look here.


wong g

May 3, 2005, 5:57 AM

Both ant colonies & F-18's are creations of life which take lives to live...



May 3, 2005, 6:06 AM

C'mon, guys. An F-18 is a warplane and an ant is an ant. Let's not get so cosmic about it.



May 3, 2005, 6:28 AM

an ant is kinda more complex than what oldpro gives it credit ant is an ant then art is just art and who cares

lets tell knock knock jokes...



May 3, 2005, 12:11 PM

cows, dildos, gold nuggets, jesus, zebra muscles, helen frankenthaler, tomato paste, zug island, the sasquatch, light bulbs, comets, irredescent street sign particle glass, mother teresa, farts, embryonic stem cells, administrative officials, coffin varnish, hops, crop circles, hummers, calcium bicarbonate, vellum, cacao, elastopolymers, tot'n' go's, young turks, pop tarts, gavin perry, cosmonauts, glenoid fossas, cul - de- sacs, platinum, neal young, the minute men, bottoms up, tupperware, gesso, the kremlin, exacto knives, victorias secret, st. kitts, i-beams, sharpies, tits, emerald green, fan blades, ear-wigs, witches, elegua, red dots, anavar, sodium bicarbonate, imax, co2 cans, flex tubes, the luxor, hemp, microcrystaline wax, fractions, garafraxa road, dip-i-di-do hair gel, bait, rush and division street, puerto ricans, walmart, cedars hospital, hanover, aluminum tubes, polypropelene, gape, spiral jetty, penguins, carbon, cdrs, william blake, palette knives, ply-wood, karla's bakery, neon, cruise ships, monty python, grids, dog shit, tungsten, papi's, greek town, photo-realism, the ten commandments, glycoma, roswell, sabertooth tigers, rhomboids,... is\are all the same then- correct ?



May 3, 2005, 2:11 PM

Pleae note, Jordan :
When you plant a garden and nurture it -
Over time (years),
you will watch it change the energy in the air throughout your neighborhood.
The toiling of the soil is a grand action, like painting and cooking,
which nourishes the soul. It affects everyone and everything.
You will watch the energy of those flowers expand over years.
Keep toiling .



May 3, 2005, 2:41 PM

Holy crap, Jordan that is one motherofalist you've got there. No, all of those things are not the same. Young turks, cul-de-sacs, emerald green, fractions, grids, rhomboids, photo realism, and the ten commandments are purely semantic constructions. Everything else refers to real things in the real world, so yeah, they're all pretty much the same thing.

I would express a particular fondness for Helen Frankenthaler, vellum, sharpies, neon, and saber tooth tigers.



May 4, 2005, 5:58 PM

For those not accessing the entire article I might add to Franklin's excerpts the following paragraph.....

I knew that the inattentiveness to the beauty of gardens that we were witnessing that day was not the consequence only of modern technologies that overwhelm and numb our senses and others that alienate us from them. It had deeper roots. One of the things that struck me most when I first began reading eighteenth-century writers on beauty was how different their notion of the arts was from ours, even though they originated so many of our commonplace ideas about aesthetics. Hume thought it the most natural thing in the world to compare the pleasures of conversation with those of painting and poetry, since both were objects of delight and occasions for the cultivation and display of refinement. And Kant placed the appreciation of painting on the same level with the appreciation of gardens, but also with the decoration of rooms and "the art of tasteful dressing." Each, he thought, was a "beautiful play of sensations" with no purpose other than pleasure. To me, this seemed a strange and unwelcome trivialization of art, but that was because I, like anyone else schooled in the modern sensibility, have come to expect far more from art--to be moved, transported, awed, even deranged, sometimes to the point of tears, or, from the opposite angle, to be shocked, or, at the very least, defamiliarized.

It suggests to me the literal evolution of the mechanics of seeing/perceiving over the long timeline of mankind.... In the last fifty years, the default settings of the visual cortex, have been getting a new kind and exponential level of stimulation like no other time in history.

I think it also reflects Alesh's point.....the disagreement seems to be about what we are going to label this stuff that "is all pretty much the same thing." This group has thoroughly worked the "everything is art" issue, but that other stuff is still something that is created, of life, emotive, reflective, intellectual and many times even aesthetic.

It seems to me we are in the midst of a fairly profound transition. Being in the middle of anything transformative and boundaryless (a canvas, a desert, an era), it is usually difficult to see the edges. Will the transition take 30 years or 100? The art world is changing because the way we see is changing, the way we live is changing, the way we think is changing. The alledged cabal of rich collectors, curators, the schooling, and gallerists don't have the ability to direct this evolution except on the smallest of time frames. Art has got to be the big picture.



May 4, 2005, 8:53 PM

Art to me has the possibility to sets it's own rules. It can be private, public, social, political, what ever. The problem is that we lump this large consept of 'what is Art' and I should add 'what is it's purpuse'. Art is fluid and flux. Art like fashion and beauty alters it self every season.

Us as artists have the oppurtunity to comment on the nature of Art. By nature im refering to how it works and its purpuse. The irony to me is that a painting is a thing. A work of art sort of documents what era it was created. We allso have a record of the artist. The Creator comments on sociaty by what he or she consentrates on.

I know I have boxed my self in by thinking, "It has to be postmodern" as I put an art piece together. I have come to see that I can comment on art by creating it and not trying to make it look like something else.



May 4, 2005, 9:05 PM

I think it's best of all to make art because you want to make it. Some of what Bob describes is what I call "being your own art historian." You don't want to be your own art historian. Let someone else do that. You just go and make stuff.



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