Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The spaces between: geology and art

In the blog ‘accretionarywedge’. a geologist has written that his subject is a science riddled with aesthetic values. It “is a science driven in many cases solely by imagination and creativity, which then leads to an artistic representation or recreation of a time we’ll never visit, a place we’ll never see with our own eyes, or an organism that was only partially preserved". Not only does he believe that geology is riddled with aesthetic values, but many geologists also yearn to see geology within ‘traditional’ art, literature, music, etc. These are the yearnings for understanding that reside in conceptual spaces between a material object and its mental representation.

These spaces which link art and the Earth sciences—geology in particular—have not been widely recognized, yet both areas of human creativity have impinged on each other in the following ways.

-earth sciences phenomena as a source of artistic inspiration;
-geological illustrations as art;
-the use of geological materials in earth art;
-and geological investigations of the material basis for art objects.

All of these areas give us a glimpse of the great complexity inherent in the natural world, helping us appreciate the beauty and order of things. This, in turn, makes us aware of our place in the long-term material flux of a dynamic planet. Its then a short step to begin thinking about our own daily lives in a wider spiritual context. Beyond that, the study of geoscience in everyday life can give us an enormous amount of information of practical value while revealing much about the world in which we dwell. The earth sciences are, quite literally, all around us, and by learning about the structures and processes of our planet, we may be surprised to discover just how prominent a place geoscience occupies in the aesthetics of our daily lives and even our thought patterns.

Greg Wessell, co-curator of an exhibit called The Fusion of Geology and Art at the Two-Wall Gallery in Vashon Island, Wash., says the physical world is never that simple, it's never “just” anything, for behind the geological discoveries and findings and insights is a simple concept of beauty in the complexity of the system that creates folds, striations and cracks.

"Geologists by nature have to think in ways that engineers and others don't,” Wessell said. “They have to be able to picture complex processes in time and space using parameters (such as the concept of geologic time) that are largely outside human experience. So, it helps to be imaginative and creative ... putting all these disparate pieces of information together to construct a working model and then being able to tell others about it."

Wessell's picture of cross section with dropstones in soft sediment and accompanying soft-sediment disturbance was accompanied with the statement "Her life was like the sediment in a pond; criticism from her parents made a big splash on the surface and a permanent crater in the mud below."

His picture A lesson from stratigraphy was accompanied by the phrase: "Everything you say and do makes an impact, but the impact may not be measurable to you."
Carol Nelson was stimulated to produce a series of abstract paintings inspired by the colours and textures of the Grand Canyon. "The view is straight down from the south rim. The colours of the water constrast with the warm canyon walls"
Geologists have the ability to represent the geology they see in the field on drawing paper or canvas--an inherit ability and one that was used extensively in the classical (pre-computer) period in geology. Artists, on the other hand, tend to see a scene from the composition, light, and perspective, which includes the geology. This contrast prompted three geologists of the Kansas Geological Survey to explore how well Kansas geology is represented by artistic works of several indigenous Kansas artists. For example in Gove County, there are chalk remnants forming spectacular outliers. The Monument Rocks are perhaps the best known.
Monument Rocks in Gove County, by J.R. Hamil (watercolor)

What does not seem to have been explored artistically is a tract of landscape from the point of view that it expresses a unified biogeological system embedded in the local culture, with notional spaces linking biology, geology and culture. In this connection, art is fundamentally produced by acting upon two main principles-a principle of form, derived fom the organic world, which is the universal objective aspect of all works of art; and a principle of origination peculiar to the human mind. The latter impels us to create and appreciate the creation of symbols, phantasies, myths which take on a universally valid objective existence only in virtue of the principle of form. Form is a function of perception; origination is a function of imagination. These two mental activities exhaust, in their dialectical counterplay, all the psychic aspects of aesthetic experience.

But art has other aspects-biological and social. Indeed life itself, in its most secret and essential sources, is aesthetic in that it only is in virtue of the embodiment of energy in a form which is not merely material, but aesthetic. Such is the formative principle discernible in the evolution of the universe itself. It would seem that the more the scientist is able to reveal of the nature of the physical structure of the world, the more he relies on numerical harmonies which are aesthetically satisfying. Fundamentally, the geologist, no less than the artist, should be ready to accept a view of planet Earth that finds that the cleavage between the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic domain of experience, no less than that between the scientific and the extra-scientific explanations, is the cleavage between the metrical and the non-metrical, rather than that between the concrete and the transcendental.

European sedimentary basins (PaintShop Pro image)

In philosophy of mind the general claim is made that the mental supervenes on the physical. The term 'supervenience' is used to describe a kind of dependency relationship, typically held to obtain between sets of properties. The value of a physical object is sometimes held to be supervenient upon the physical properties of the object. Kendall Walton's analysis of various aesthetic properties takes this idea further and suggests that the 'supervenience bases' of artworks extend well beyond their physical boundaries to include the artists' intentions, the actual or apparent processes that led to the formation of the works, the character of other contemporary or historical works, and the various categories recognized by the artistic community as a whole.

In aesthetics, such "wide" supervenience of artworks is generally accepted to support people classified as contextualists who believe that the study a work of art's non-perceptual hidden properties, such as its historical and cultural background, is necessary in order to appreciate it. For example, the beauty of Sueurat's La Grande Jatte might supervene on the physical composition of the painting (the specific molecules that make up the appearance), the artistic technique of the painting (in this case, dots), the figures and forms of the painted image (the behaviour of Parisians at leisure), or the painted canvas as a whole (the concept of a work of art in France at that time). On the other hand, formalists believe that the aesthetic appreciation of an artwork generally is a private affair and involves an attentive awareness of its sensory or perceptual qualities only, and does not require knowledge about its nonperceptual properties.

What does this hidden knowledge add to our appreciation of the picture? To Marcus Aurelius it was important to 'know' the hidden things of life.

"Observe and contemplate on the hidden things of life: how a man's seed is but the beginning, it takes others to bring it to fruition. Think how food undergoes such changes to produce health and strength. See the power of these hidden things which, like the wind cannot been seen, but its effects can be".

We know by a process of immersion. We enter a state of intellectual absorption in an action or condition. Popper says immersion is characterised by "diminishing critical distance from what is shown and increasing emotional investment in what is happening". The idea that the meaning of a work derives more from an audience's interpretation of it rather than simply the author's intent is central to much twentieth-century criticism.

One important way in which the experience of art becomes more than a private affair is in the form of art criticism. Art criticism is an interpretive portal between artist and viewers. In theory, art criticism assesses the aesthetic excellence of works of art, just as in the popular imagination the critic is first and foremost someone who judges. But a survey of visual art critics at American newspapers in 2002 ranked judgement well behind education as the perceived task of the critic. This change from making an aesthetic judgement to telling the story behind a work of art has come with modernism and a shift away from beauty as being the main goal of artists.

Supervenience also applies to scientific presentations. In biology, the building blocks of the cell do not alone account for the cell's development and functioning, which are subservient on environmental factors and chemical changes at the level of the cell as a whole. They work as a process to promote the expression of genetic potentials in a sort of "top-down" causation. However, the question may be asked to what extent this supervenience is necessary to appreciate the following photo-micrograph of a six-cell human test tube embryo as a subject of contemplation. Does it matter if the observer is ignorant of the subject matter altogether?

Similarly, the subject of the following watercolour is a key geological element in our knowledge of primeval processes that occurred 220 million years ago. These physical processes were responsible for the present physical appearance of a swathe of Britain, from Scotland to the West Country. Would knowledge of these processes aid contemplation of the picture?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Space in time

For the purposes of this discussion, space is defined geographically and culturally and is coupled to the idea of people having 'a sense of place'. The term sense of place means different things to different people. To some, it is a distinctive visual characteristic that some geographic spaces have and some do not, while to others it is an emotional feeling or perception held about a space by individuals and groups. Both uses involve adopting a set of characteristics that make a space special or unique and promote authentic human attachment and belonging.

Spaces said to have a strong "sense of place" have an outstanding identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. But it is primarily a social phenomenon dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, when the focus is on landscape, but is more often derived from a mix of natural and cultural features, and generally includes the people who occupy the space. In these connotations, strong pastoralist and anti urbanist philosophies have produced modes of codification aimed at protecting, preserving and enhancing spaces with an obvious sense of place. This is evident in spaces with anti-industrialist and anti modernist values, such as the British "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" and the American "National Historic Landmark".

Two important visual concepts to communicate a sense of place are imaginary 'time in space' and imaginary 'space in time'. These two overlapping emotional perspectives became the driving force of 19th century British art. Imaginary 'time in space' is exemplified by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were particularly fascinated by medieval culture, believing it to possess a spiritual and creative integrity that had been lost in later eras (Fig 1). 'Space in time' was employed by the 19th century painter Walter Langley, and others like him, to dramatise fields and quays with peasants and fisherfolk so as to glorify the imagined joys and tragedies of simple village life (Fig 2). This was the period after 1880, when the rediscovery of national identity and native traditions prevailed throughout the western world. Pictures of space in time were painted for urbanites as nostalgic reassurances of the continuity of less comfortable traditional ways of living. For the most part this picture-making was an incessant production system where standards were consistently maintained year on year, but there were no high flyers. In all cases, a lexicon of historical continuities was amplified and the visual disjunctions were filled in with painterly imagination. The pictures also served to add additional character to out of the way spaces that were beginning to serve an embryo tourist industry.

Cultural features may create a sense of place in a space that has no outstanding visual quality. Then the feeling of attachment may be strongly enhanced by the space being written about by poets, novelists and historians, or portrayed in art or music. It may also be created by knowledge of the roots of one’s ancestry. Here it is the power of human imagination projected onto a space that makes it special. These notional values serve to add scenic power to even the most prosaic landscape elements that elsewhere would go unnoticed.

Such ordinary places make up the plateau landscape of glacial clays occupying most of the English county of Suffolk, which is devoted to mile after mile of featureless intensive cereal production. There is no landscape protection here! These remote unprotected uplands have never had a tradition of landscape painting. The dust cover introduction to Norman Scarfe's book 'The Suffolk Landscape' published as a contribution to W.G. Hoskins' series 'The Making of the English Landscape' in 1972, encapsulated the relative pictorial dullness of the county.

"Sandwiched between the emptier, more open Nofolk and the more metropolitan Essex, Suffolk is famous for its calm landscape of estuaries and gently undulating cornfields, its associations with Crabbe and Britten, Gainsborough and Constable'.

These famous 'calming features' projected nationally by local poets, musicians and painters are actually confined to its borders with Essex and the county’s coastal ports and heathlands. However, the next sentences reveal a basis for considering spaces in the rest of the county as having a special 'personality'.

'The ingredients of this landscape are plainly part of an ancient story of settlement. How and when it all came about is examined here and broadly established for the first time. The distinctive, rather hidden personality of these lands..... derives almost everything from its makers, the South folk or 'Suffolk', the English of southern East Anglia'.

The first East Anglians were not motivated by areas of outstanding natural beauty but by fertile spaces empty of people with natural resources for survival and raising families. Their distinctive settlement pattern on Suffolk’s northern border with Norfolk is responsible for the ‘hidden personality' of a small space consisting of nine closely knit communities. They have a sufficient sense of place today for local people to refer to them as 'The Saints'. The clues to discover why these villages form a distinctive cultural unit are a single man-made feature, unique in the whole of Britain, and a remarkable pattern of dividing up the land, which is now only evident in old maps. Beginning with these two obscure features it is possible to create a distinctive personality for The Saints, which is coupled with the beginnings of East Anglian Christianity. The Saints then becomes a schematic plan or mindmap embedding a sense of place, and picturing it adds important notional values to commonplace streams, ditches and hedgerows of a tiny part of the British Isles which, for a few centuries, played an important role in the making of Englishness. This idea is being taken further as a wiki.

This post is a development of http://www.blything.wikispaces.com/

Fig 1 William Holman Hunt: 'A converted British family sheltering a Christian missionary from persecution by the Druids' (1950)

Fig 2 Walter Langley 'Never morning wore to evening, but some heart did break'

Fig 3 The southern thousand year old boundary of ‘The Saints’

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What is real?

Michael Karwowski in an article for ‘Contemporary Review (2005)’ defined art as dealing with the nature of reality as it affects man, and science as being concerned with the nature of reality as it affects matter. The article highlights the fact that the long-standing debate on differences and similarities between creativity of scientists and artists continues relentlessly.

This difference in the two ways of understanding how we function as human beings was stated clearly in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel La Nausee (Nausea), published in 1938. The narrator discovered a new reality whilst sitting in the park:

“The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench. I no longer remembered that it was a root . . . Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

Faced with that big, rugged paw, neither ignorance nor knowledge had any importance; the world of explanations and reasons is not that of existence. A circle is not absurd, it is clearly explicable by the rotation of a segment of a straight line around one of its extremities. But a circle doesn't exist either. That root, on the other hand, existed in so far that I could not explain it. Knotty, inert, nameless, it fascinated me, filled my eyes, repeatedly brought me back to my own existence . . . I saw clearly that you could not pass from its function as a root, as a suction-pump, to that, to that hard, compact sea-lion skin, to that oily, horny, stubborn look."

Here is a dramatisation of the gap between scientific and artistic endeavour, which is particularly acute when considering both behaviours as the outcome of evolution to boost human social relationships. Perhaps an awareness of the dichotomy may be traced to Picasso’s inventions of methodologies for expressing nature non-representationally. It is significant that the non-representational scientist, Einstein, and the abstracting artist Picasso came of age at the exact moment in history when it was first becoming apparent that classical, intuitive ways of understanding space and time were not adequate. Each in his own way - Einstein with relativity and Picasso with cubism - was striving for a deeper, more satisfying way to represent space and time. In the most important cultural sense, they were both working on the same problem. Picasso enthusiastically embraced the media of photography and film to evolve as a cubist. In order to derive and present multiple presentations of a subject on a two-dimensional plan, he took thousands of photographs and literally sliced and pasted them together. This was part of his efforts to refine forms by abstraction and distortion from their context in order to convert them into luminous and mysterious entities. There seems little doubt that these artistic inventions were taken from the conventions of the realities perceived by African native artists, where faces are symbols, eyes, mouths, noses and genitals are placed for impact, not naturalistic representation, and human figures are flat planes and geometric shapes.

The origins of abstraction as a vital force in Western art may be dated to the spring of 1907 when Picasso was visiting Gertrude Stein at her Paris apartment. The story goes that Henri Matisse stopped by with an African sculpture he had just purchased. According to Matisse, the two artists were enthralled by its depiction of a human figure. Soon afterwards, Picasso went to the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology (now the Musée de l'Homme) with another artist friend, André Derain. That visit, Picasso later claimed, was pivotal to his art.

"A smell of mould and neglect caught me by the throat. I was so depressed that I would have chosen to leave immediately," Picasso said of the museum. "But I forced myself to stay, to examine these masks, all these objects that people had created with a sacred, magical purpose, to serve as intermediaries between them and the unknown, hostile forces surrounding them, attempting in that way to overcome their fears by giving them colour and form. And then I understood what painting really meant. It's not an aesthetic process; it's a form of magic that interposes itself between us and the hostile universe, a means of seizing power by imposing a form on our terrors as well as on our desires. The day I understood that, I had found my path."

Abstraction as a biological behaviour, and thereby open to scientific explanations, was visited by Kandinsky two decades later in his early intellectual struggles with spiritualism, ethnology and children’s art as a consistent aspect of human development. He regarded it as a route to produce new understandings of nature and was trying to reconcile art making with human biology. Whilst retaining his fundamental antimaterialistic convictions, he drew on the theories of science and engineering in order to support his contention that there was a fundamental similarity between art and evolution. In the 1920s he had reached the following position:

“ Abstract art, despite its emancipation, is subject….to ‘natural laws’, and is obliged to proceed in the same way that nature did previously, when it started in a modest way with protoplasms and cells, progressing very gradually to increasingly complex organisms. Today, abstract art also creates primary or less primary art-organisms, whose further development the artist can predict on in uncertain outline, and which entice, excite him, but also calm him when he stares into the prospect of the future that faces him. Let me observe here that those who doubt the future of abstract art, are, to choose an example, as if reckoning with the state of development reached by amphibians, which are far removed from fully developed vertebrates and represent not the final result of creation, but rather the ‘beginning’.

This is a roundabout way of stating that making works of art is an evolved aspect of behaviour we describe as tool making. Paintings are refinements of ideas through the placing of lines, shapes and colours on a flat surface until they ‘look right’. The finished painting then becomes a tool to reinforce social communication within groups where the members share the same values and perceptions of environment. Over tens of thousands of years, the principle of using coded messages has remained. But the codes have developed from those close to real objects, to more idiosyncratic collections of pictographs, invented by talented individuals to turn their mental ideas into framed shapes and colours for sharing with others. The social aims behind the tooling of art also remain those of reinforcing group identity. Indeed, the most powerful evidence for art having this role is the fact that works, such as those of Kandinsky’s Blue Rider group, which were reviled by contemporary critics, now grace the walls of museums and are objects of group consumption through the commercial industry of museology. It is common to decry the astronomical prices paid today for abstract art. However, this is missing the point that this is evidence of the cultural position of art as the outcome of a fundamental evolved behaviour and one of the mainsprings of capitalist society.

The social role of art is only limited by the ability of the artist to match the levels of the public’s capacity to read their codes, where the common response is ‘I only like what I know’. Innovation, whether in science or art, has to overcome this threshold of innate social conservatism about how an acceptable reality can be depicted. It is not always a problem of education. Conservatism, in all things, has a survival value in holding back society from destroying its past before it has a firm platform of values for the future. As deep-thinking primates we cannot escape the need to seek new social arrangements as past values and structures disintegrate, through forces connected for the most part with advances in tool making. In this sense art movements are just one facet of social evolution, arising at an individual level, but with the potential to move society into a new cultural paradigm. Where yesterday’s mysteries become commonplace realities.

In the final chapter of his book, ‘The Art of Modernism’ published in the last year of the 20th century, Sandro Bocola makes the point that, at all times, artistic creativity runs with other cultural changes, which are mainly political and technological variations on past themes. In particular, he takes a stance that we are moving rapidly towards a global culture of capitalism, and cultural evolution is going to be increasingly bound up with electronic data processing and satellite communication of ideas. For Bocola, new methods, outputs and aesthetic norms associated with artistic creativity will emerge from computer networking;

“…. whose potential for art has hardly been explored and is far from being exhausted. These media, too, open up a variety of new creative possibilities, which- like photography and film- will probably influence future artistic developments and may even lead to the formation of new and hitherto unknown types of art”

We can be certain that this type of future will emerge, and will probably come sooner than we think. In particular, we can also be sure that the technology of digital imaging, which offers an unlimited capacity for everyone to command the entire process of image-making, from capture to display, will play a powerful role in broadening the social base of artistic creativity. A computer screen is the most potent interface with virtual reality ever created. This is particularly true for self-education of the ‘what happens if I do this’ type. We can only speculate how computer graphics would have accelerated Kandinsky’s intellectual development, and spread his ideas as an educator who questioned what is ‘real’ reality around the world at the speed of light.

Fig 1 'The Conductor': three superimposed sequential digital images

Fig 2 Models and artists: montage from a digital image

Monday, June 1, 2009

Beauty and the system of making art

Art is the outcome of a system of emotional thought filtered from the environment, which illuminates the mind’s capacity for cognition and vision. It stimulates a person to think about correcting and perfecting an idea in order to express it intuitively in words or pictures. As a thought system it provides motivation to put technical skill at the disposal of experience to create an object or an idea for contemplation rather than action. The object or idea is an end in itself embodying supramundane values and meanings. Art is thus isolated within a symbolic frame. Inside the frame is the contemplatable world, where life must be lived for the sake of values, meanings and enjoyment put into the work of art by its maker and received from the work by its viewer. Although this relationship may involve the viewer paying for the art work, this is the inner spiritual world of the maker and viewer. Feedback from the maker contemplating his creation stimulates artistic development. Outside the frame is the liveable world, where life can only be lived for the sake of living materialistically, where our work is to be for possessions, and our being is for self-interest.

Beauty becomes attached to a work of art as it is viewed within its symbolic frame. It is not the object of making but an accident of making that happens to be strongly pleasurable to a particular viewer. In this sense beauty is a quality of the production system in the mind of the beholder. Also, like the art it is attached to, beauty as an aesthetic value, is an end in itself. Therefore, beauty becomes an idiosyncratic characteristic of objects or ideas and part of the system of thought which made them. Beauty thereby personalises the thought system to reinforce a perceptual experience of pleasure. This 'beauty/thought system' is a strong stimulus for contemplating an object or an idea. It is an amalgam of every possible type of human experience accumulated through learning, which can reinforce a mental response to objects and ideas. From this point of view there is no generally acceptable definition of beauty.

The beauty/thought contemplative system

In a world of mass production, it requires great effort to bring the two worlds of contemplation and work into one frame. Believing that this unity was the day-to-day life of medieval artists, many have tried to revive an historical religious attitude towards art and integrate craftsmanship with industry, art, religion and beauty. Eric Gill (1882-1940) was one such aspirant. A wood engraver, sculptor, typographer and draughtsman, he is regarded as one of the great English artist-craftsmen of the 20th century. His thought system as a maker of art involved a belief in social reform and the union of art and religion with flesh and spirit. He was the key personality in three Catholic art and craft communities and also a devoted family man. In this unified world he could truly say his work was to be, and to be was to work. At the same time he was a long-standing believer in sexual freedom and it is now clear that incest with his sisters and daughters was part of the thought pattern of Gill the artist and Gill the man. The following wood engraving of the Carpenter Father with the infant Son of God is a representative outcome of Gill’s thought system, which embraces the two worlds of work and contemplation. Gill’s tender, poignant engraving is based on a drawing made by his daughter Betty, and is a conceptual self portrait expressing Gill’s love for his daughter. All of this is the Gill contemplative thought system which produced the wood engraving, St Joseph.

At Joseph; wood engraving (1921)