“…experiences of beauty remain among the principal reasons for being alive, for wanting to remain alive, for sharing the joys of living with others…once we go beyond sheer survival…the quality of one’s life proves of the essence. And a life bereft of beauty–or, if you prefer, without the potential for beautiful experiences–is empty.”–Howard Gardner, Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed
Traditionally, the criteria for great art was beauty. While across cultures people still find natural scenery like lakes and mountains beautiful, beauty has pretty much lost its place as an important criteria of Great Art, says Gardner. But beauty isn’t necessarily a criteria for art any longer, Gardener explains. What matters more now is whether art is memorable, whether it stimulates our interest–if it makes us see anew. This may be true, but I think for many, standing in a cathedral like Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia, still is capable for carrying people into a place of wonder and awe at how much beauty light hold can as it shines down through the glory hole above the altar because of the angle and shape of the skylight there as the golden walls reach up to the heavens.
Gardner’s criteria of making something that will niggle at people’s minds, stimulating their interest in memorable ways is possible if you are Antonio Gaudi. Gaudi’s Sagrada does both of these things in addition to being truly beautiful. I, on the other hand, am still working on practicing the most basic of basics in art. Last weekend I spent the afternoon painting on a pottery bowl–dragonflies, lily pads and grassy reeds. I’m new to drawing and painting, so it takes be longer than it would a person who is trained as an artist, but I don’t mind because the process itself engages me. For me, painting on pottery is a grand experience of experimentation. How will the design fit dynamically within the space without looking too crowded or too empty? How will I draw a design that’s not too complicated for my skill level? How will the line transform with the application of a particular glaze’s viscosity on the brush? How will the glazes’ s color change after firing that will influence what colors I choose before firing? I am a beginner, and these are questions I ask while working. Benchmarks of beauty for the the beginner in a particular field or craft are different from those who have been doing their work for years. Though it won’t pass for a high standard of beauty in the world at large, for a beginner the work one does can still be interesting and memorable–the hours spent creating completely absorbing.
My current drawing is a realistic one, but to paint it, I have to break the forms in the composition into their structural parts–deconstructing and then reconstructing objects in order to be able to paint them. I’m barely beginning to understand how to do that at the simplest level. Painters like Picasso, and Cezanne, deconstructed forms–painting from the inside of structures, so to speak, or the idea of what the structures suggested. Their work delves much further into complex understandings of what a forms are. I play with forms in order to understand how they function. Art masters, on the other hand, have gone through that stage long ago and have come out the other side. They understand forms so well that they have gained a flexibility that allows them to return to play with them anew–experimenting with them and knowing them in more intimately as a result. John Berger, in his book, Ways of Seeing, says, “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” Maybe this is why artists are constantly making, and making again, trying to show what they see inside an object, the feeling suggested in the form that makes it come alive.
Poetry is sound and line, shape–the use of white space to create meaning. As with visual art, in poetry also there is a kind of meta meaning going on between physical form and feeling. Beneath a poem’s words is the sound of words and the poem’s design on the page that is an integral part of the poem’s meaning. The artist places a line on the page and it, too, takes shape and meaning. Jeanette Mullaney, who writes and edits e-mails for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, talks about visual art’s marriage to poetry. These two art forms can take you away from where you are or bring everything together, she says. In my view, they might also sometimes paradoxically function to do both at the same time.
The connection of sound to emotion is interesting, even if there are no words or the words are indistinct. If you listen to just the sounds in this short animated Pixar film, La Luna, or this Polish, British, Norwegian animated film, Peter and the Wolf, (see more about the film here) much can be understood without specific words. Just the music and general sounds give an idea of what is happening. Connecting art and poetry, allowing them to resonate off of each other. Last year, poet Kenneth Goldsmith performed poems at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City while standing in front of various art pieces. According to the MOMA site, nearly everyone at the readings felt they had an impact on their visit, some saying that the associative connection between the art and the words deepened their experience of each.
Beauty is all around us in the very structure of nature–the Fibonacci curves of roses, pinecones, and the nautilus shell, for example, a structure that is beautifully balanced. It takes time to learn how to see. I want to create something beautiful but doing that is no small task. Nature took millions of years to develop, so of course I should understand that it’s going to take me a while too. But the time element doesn’t matter, really. Just working with color and shape hour after hour is somehow very satisfying. Art and poetry connect in the journey toward finding a life of meaning. Creating art, whether the form is poetry, film, painting or dance, is a way to enter in to and connect with a state of being that engenders attentiveness to life. It’s calming, refreshing, and an antidote not just to the pace of modern life but to its process as well. As Gardner stated, without beauty, life feels empty.