When, in the mid-Sixties, I first read Kenneth Clark’s little book, Landscape into Art, I recognized that I knew more about the landscape, as natural phenomenon, than he did. But I also recognized that I knew nothing of the conventions of art.
It occurred to me that if I studied these conventions, I too could join the conversation about landscape art, and perhaps even contribute something as a naturalist. Art had been a neglected aspect of the patchwork of inquiry I had been calling my education. A decade later, in my retirement, I went back to school to try to become a watercolorist.
One soon learns that there are very few good teachers. It is one thing to learn to paint, and quite another to teach what makes a good painting. The most the average teacher does is to encourage us to keep working, until, somehow, we learn what works and what does not. Of the dozen or so teachers I got to know, only one could be specific as to what works or not, and why.
Why should we wish to engage in this self-expression we call art? We humans have been at it at least 30,000 years, long before we invented agriculture. The cave paintings of southern Europe prove this. And most of the isolated human tribes have contributed in some way. It is humbling to be told by the new cosmologists that only 4% of our universe is illuminated. Further, the human retina registers color only in the central thirty degrees of the visual field. As our perspective broadens, therefore, we may come to see that it was tragic, in the last 500 years, to have allowed commercialization to become an end in itself. We were urged to become consumers instead of exploring our aesthetic sense.
We seem to crave pattern. We see it everywhere in nature, and seek to replicate it admiringly. Art, as Paul Weiss suggested, is our attempt to realize some possible excellence. It is, we think and hope, our nature to seek to excel what is. This suggests that we are vaguely aware that we are participants in a creative process long before we actually learn to spell out what is involved. In art, we measure accomplishment by the beauty a work encompasses. This too is vague until we learn to justify our tastes.
Other animal species also almost certainly have an aesthetic sense.. They apparently sense and seek excellence. Birds sing, dance, and perform aerial acrobatics, not just for biological reasons like attracting mates, but for the sheer joy of it. Charles Hartshorne was convincing in calling our attention to this in his book on bird song.
In our day it may seem difficult to agree that the arts seek beauty. But it helps to understand that a social rebellion was involved in much modern art during the 20th Century. The arts were then often a taunting complaint against the mechanization and commercialization of life that resulted from the greedy application of the new sciences and the “free market” system. The rebellion was iconoclastic, and voiced by all the arts. We have yet to come to terms with ourselves because the economy dominates us.
In the last century, however, we have begun to clarify our understanding of what we are up to. We discovered, or at least articulated principles of art-making . Whereas Delacroix told us that a sense of color is innate, so cannot be taught, we now understand some of the psychological reactions that color induces. If we use color in a painting, for example, we arouse an expectation that all three primaries—red, yellow, and blue—will be brought into play. Our aesthetic sense wants, or expects, this satisfaction. We now know that every painting needs a dominant theme (in form, value, and color), and that this needs opposition, partly to create variety.
Beauty, rather than simply being “in the eye of the beholder”, results from the interplay of the background (the world at large) and particular objects we bring into focus. The greater the contrasts we can learn to unify (harmonize), the more impressive and satisfying the accomplishment. George Santayana said that beauty is a crystallization of our pleasure in the performance..
This helps us realize that almost everything in the world is an evolutionary accomplishment, hence has value. Our skills are only examples of the emergent processes that have built our corner of the universe. Our arts teach that a light touch is best, that we should not overdetermine (close) our constructs prematurely, since we can only suggest the beauty which awaits our amateurish articulation. Like a play, art invites participation.
That we are all impressionists, and remain so, is well illustrated by my friend William Drury’s experience in illustrating plants for Fernald’s revision of Gray’s Manual. Assigned to draw a Red Oak leaf, he spread ten herbarium specimens on his drafting table. Each was different, so he had to seek their “essense.” He then generalized and drew a single leaf that is, in a sense, more representative of a Red Oak than any of the actual leaves he studied! A lecturer in biology at Harvard at that time, Bill concluded that even science is inevitably impressionistic.
So we need to study these efforts at producing art. They introduce us to larger creative processes. We need to practice art , since from such practice we may learn gentler, more imaginative, and more rewarding ways of being human. We may perhaps even become artists rather than mere consumers. “In the image of God,” we used to say.