Sunday, June 1, 2014
In Search of Beauty
Art is inherently artificial. Ink, paint, markers, pencils are artificially bounded; their elements are artificially selected and arranged; their appearance is artificially maintained. The universe naturally moves toward disorder, and art collectors must expend energy in working against this. Depending on the conditions in which art is stored, the job of the art collector may be easier or more difficult. In hot, arid areas, such as Iran, for instance, preserving art in a cool, pleasant space is a challenging task. There is a stark contrast between the inside and the harsh reality of life on the Iranian plateau. Like with her gardens, "the walls are flowers, fruit, shade, water and life." (William L. Hanaway, Jr., "Paradise on Earth: The Terrestrial Garden in Persian Literature").
Because of the harsh Persian climate, collecting artworks there demands more energy than it might in a temperate, fertile land. Like art, the Persian garden is artificial in its design as well as in its collection of elements.
Though the constituents of a piece of art come from nature (pigments, egg tempura, sandstone, etc.), they are artificially arranged and maintained. In preserving artwork, the custodian imposes his or her will on disordered nature in a way that is pleasing both both critic and viewer, alike.
The purpose of every piece of artwork is to engender sensual pleasure. Artistic elements stimulate the senses. Each of the artwork's component parts, as well as the whole arrangement, are visually stunning. The best pieces of artwork, it is said, stimulate the sensation that one is in the presence of beauty. Sensual delectation, however, is not the only kind of pleasure artwork affords. The artificially crafted work of art also engenders aesthetic excitement. While all artworks are artifice, the best artworks are works of art.
Oscar Wilde writes:
The more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature's lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition.
... It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have had no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.
(Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist, Part II.")
By Nature, Wilde means "natural simple instinct as opposed to self-conscious culture," which is Art.
Art is a careful selection and arrangement of elements designed to produce a profound effect on the viewer or beholder. While admittedly some consider a random torrent of paint a painting, a chaotic splattering of dried pigment an artwork, the choice and arrangement of these elements contribute to the aesthetic enjoyment of the artwork.
Viewing art appeals to our 'sixth sense' which responds to what is aesthetically pleasing. This is what Wilde refers to when he writes, "There is in us a beauty-sense, separate from the other senses and above them..."
Artwork is emphatically described as a collection, which implies artificiality; there are no pretensions to spontaneous assembly of an artwork's elements. Paint does not just spring forth from the canvas; in early artworks paint was made with the yolk of eggs, which would harden and adhere to the surface to which it was applied. Pigment was made from plants, sand, and different soils. Later on, pigments and oil mixtures were ground into paste with a mortar and pestle. Today, most painters purchase their paint from tubes. Due to the shortage of linseed oil in the wake of WWII, artificial resins, or alkyds, were invented. The point here is that while paint today is inexpensive and easy to make, it does, however, as it always has, required that the artist obtain it.
Although museums and galleries house an extraordinary variety of artworks, no one gallery can include every artwork in existence. Instead, the curator carefully selects each piece for the collection with judgment and discriminating taste. The chosen collections are separated from the world of the artist and displayed with inscriptions. Artworks are arranged in an orderly design within the housing institution. For instance, most works are placed at a distance from one another to stimulate the visitor's sense of sight. With explosive color, visible order and elaborate planning, collections of artwork are artfully displayed, the design a work of art in itself.
Each work of art in an institution conveys that its careful assemblage of well-transformed elements were crafted by an artist with an unfailing sense of human beauty. These enchanted works of art are incarnations of the enchantment we experience when in the presence of beauty. Ingenious craftsmanship goes into their creation, and they are rendered with the same close attention to detail that characterizes the beautiful objects they represent.
Throughout history it was universally accepted that visual beauty led to love. Images predominate and underline the idea that love begins with sight. With respect to the female artifice in the above image: her features are sculpted: she has a straight, well-made nose... the neck of the head from which she gazes out at the viewer is of good proportion, thick enough and reasonably long... the forehead is high and svelte... her face is "white and colored", painted rather than naturally existing, implying that her beauty results from a carefully designed arrangement of beautiful component features. The space between her eyes is not small but proportional in measure. All these descriptions emphasize the superficial. She is staring at us from within a silhouette, an aspect of her charm. Based on this superficial appraisal of her beauty, we can conclude that she has a "gracious" or "innocent heart" and leads a "good life"; moreover, we follow her inside the head.
Not only is this beautiful woman and the silhouette scrupulously crafted, but the artificial order reveals its artifice. Inevitably, the beholder wonders who is responsible for creating the artifice that leads us to bestow sentiment upon her. Surely she does not exist, but did she once exist? Is this depiction one of an actual woman?
Like all art, explicit artifice characterizes the experience. Our reaction to art is a complex mechanism by which our ideals retain their purity. The images are always fresh and new, glowing with colors as red and pure as the best that Nature can produce. Placed on a canvas with great skill, one paint layer after another, the image comes to life before our very eyes.
Art delights the senses. While the women often depicted in artwork are visions of loveliness: artificially designed to delight the senses, they are meant to arouse pleasure.
Artworks are artificial even though they utilize materials found in nature. In modern vocabulary the word nature denotes that which exists spontaneously and organically without external human interference. When I state that artworks utilize materials found in nature, I am essentially undermining the modern opposition between nature and artifice. Nature is that mysterious artificer who creates the materials that incite our love for the artificial. Appropriately what Nature creates leads to procreation, creating circumstances to ensure that production brings something new into being. This is what makes art so luxuriously sensual, and artwork so irresistibly beautiful.
Beautiful things please the eye, engage the rest of the senses, and make reasonable people unable to resist falling in love with them. Visible beauty leads directly to love, which continues the species. To ensure that procreation will occur, Nature crafts beauty (and materials from which beauty can be crafted) that ravishes the heart.
Love begins with sight and proceeds to engage the rest of the senses, one by one. Love of art clearly begins with sight. Vision begins the progressive pleasurable engagement of the senses arising with the heart of the art aficionado a desire to possess art. This is why collectors ultimately pay millions of dollars for works of art. The drama for this experience was set out in Eden as the paradigmatic sin: man's desire, inflamed by a beautiful sight, which seduces his reason. This sounds suspiciously similar to a collector's flawed rationale for the foolish amounts of money spent on art that could be spent on saving lives. An art collector reenacts the fall when he falls in love with a piece of artwork, when the artwork becomes the apple of his eye.
While the descriptions of the Garden of Eden alert the Christian reader that artwork's beauty is not to be trusted, secular readers recognize the perils of iconography.
Despite our obsession with artworks, art performs a lovely service: it speaks to us in ways that fill our hearts with great joy when we see it.
Artworks are the temptress sirens of antiquity, but nevertheless we continue to enjoy and pay homage to their beauty. All the warning bells the word "siren" conveys fail to deter our search for beauty. We know iconography is dangerous, we simply choose to ignore it.
Our awareness of our own Narcissus-like behavior makes clear to us that should we gaze innocently into the fountain of the fair Narcissus, we may indeed suffer his misfortune. We, too, may become transfixed upon what we see.
The logic of Nature's beauty reflects the paradox of her relationship with Reason, but that is a story for another day.